Simon Biltcliffe: Leading a Marxist/Capitalist Business

Simon Biltcliffe - Photo by Angus Thomas

Simon Biltcliffe - Photo by Angus Thomas

Simon Biltcliffe will again be a part of the content programme for LiT (Leaders in Technology) which takes place on 28th June in Cambridge - this time he will be having a fireside chat with Frazer Chesterman. Simon describes his philosophy as being that of a Marxist/Capitalist. You may think this a contradiction in terms, but the results speak for themselves, and having an approach where people are first, and get to share in the success of the business speaks volumes. We listened to Simon….

With Webmart you have a hugely successful business and you have done this in an unconventional way. How do you lead the company?

Leadership is a universal issue. I love history and you can see through the ages the patterns repeat and the issues remain exactly the same. Some leaders focus on shorter term and some longer term and some use fear and coercion to get people to do what you want them to do. Today, I think it is much more about engaging and enthusing people to do something. Coercion is only a short term tool. In a democracy you can’t coerce, you have to finesse it and find a way of delivering something to inspire people to want to work. Everybody wants a purpose, to look after their family, and to feel fulfilled. Leaders must understand that these day’s people will work outside work hours so we must give them something back for their time investment.

So work will also need to be much less prescriptive. You have to give people added value in their lives. When you take out the issue of money as a motivator, you don’t want to add any negative stress on people. You have to be aware of how happy your people are and whether they are fulfilled and doing the right job by contributing to something larger than themselves.

If you can do that, then the leading of the company looks after itself.

So you mentioned whether people are in the right jobs, how do you go about getting the right people then ensuring they are optimising their effectiveness for the business and for their lives?

Webmart people are a certain type of people, so we really know what to look for. This doesn’t necessarily mean that their experience, their references and an impressive CV is the most important thing. It is mainly about the right attitude and aptitude. Let’s take millennials. With millennials, they are looking for a purpose and they’re incredibly impatient. They tend to have this malcontent because they have immediacy in their lives. Therefore if you could let them evolve quickly they know things that we don’t know and you gather insight and ideas you simply would not get from people from other generations. As a leader you have to adapt how you work with different people and different generations. There is not really a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Millennials are ‘wired’ entirely different to my generation. And as leaders we have a responsibility to help millennials by understanding their young brains. A friend of mine, Tim Drake, talks about the young brain v the old brain. It is how you accept change and challenge etc. and I think the fact the millennials are so different helps me to continually reassess my own thinking and to not fall into old thinking.

Tell us more about ‘old thinking’ v ‘young thinking’

People tend to atrophy when we get older. We get more aligned with status and being recognised as successful. In so doing, we tend to lose our flexibility. At Webmart, we do fast intuitive cycles of trying things out and sometimes we fail. By doing this you get to challenge the perceived norm. And millennials will challenge – if you allow them to try it – then if it works well you have won. If you don’t then they learn to experience and deal with failure. A key building block of success of any sort.

So being constantly open minded and trying something out then you get somewhere.

So it seems you allow people room to express themselves, to challenge conventional thinking?

Yes I try to. Of course you have to be productive, this virtually goes without saying. But, for example if you go into a meeting without an agenda or a clear objective, then you have opened your mind. Rather than having a pre-set agenda, you merely go into a meeting with a pre-set agenda and you conform around this agenda. This is really only reinforcing what you already know. If you can do the no agenda approach then you get some really interesting results. This is important as the pace of the life and business is fast and things can change quickly. By moving outside the normal course of events, you get to do things differently and you get solutions and new ideas that really help propel the business forward whatever the changing trading conditions might be.

So you allow people time to create?

Yes I don’t think that being an expert style leader is helpful, because you get more risk averse and less and less engaged with the workforce. You also tend to do so when you get older.

There are some key things that millennials have in their advantage. They don’t have the same assets of a huge mortgage so they are therefore willing to try things out. They’re much less risk averse as they have less to lose. They are starting out later in life so this creates a whole different set of expectations. If things don’t go well in their career, they go travelling, so we therefore need to empower in a different way by them an opportunity to show their creativity is important and we must not be too prescriptive. People are the best resource you have got, we need to explore more and try things out.

Let’s take a new team member we have just employed. Her initial role was telemarketing. Then we discovered that she has developed a community of people through her own passion called the ‘London Rave Network’. Through her passion and ability she has become a proactive social media campaigner and able to harvest opportunities through the internet. So we created a role for her here utilising her skills and talent.

This represents a change. Getting someone to create their own role and outreach to new people through social media. It is probably not a conventional role for someone working in essence in a print related business, but it adds value.

What do you do to motivate people for the good of your business?

I think that there are three different levels: Intellectual, emotional and financial.

Intellectually, how can our people add value? How can we best get people to do what they are good at, what they enjoy. This is when they will add most value. This is the essence of performance. If they are fulfilled then emotionally they are inspired and happy, and then they grow. If you get the entire business doing this, then you get people wanting to work with you. Companies get an aggregate of people who are all focusing on the things they like, the things they are good at, and then people are working at a much higher level. The financials really come as a natural result of that.

So these three pillars must be incorporated in a business?

Yes but we must recognise that business is a fluid and flexible thing. It is always changing. As long as it is within the risk profile and our ethics, then we should try it. Sometimes outside of our immediate domain, our comfort zone you are stretched and you grow. We must ignite our customer’s imagination and the best way to do this is to have inspired people working for you because the same motivators that inspire our people will inspire our customers.

As a leader you need to harness this energy to drive your core value forward and enabling people to perform and grow. This in itself is not linear, it is creative and as a leader you have got to be flexible and open minded.

So is leadership about steering and controlling?

Yes steering to some extent, but controlling no. We need to move away from micro managing. I think the best way to build trust is to have transparency within the business. By openly sharing strategy and direction there is no room for confusion. If people can see what you are doing, where you are going, it really helps to avoid mistakes.

At Webmart we all sit together. There is no obvious hierarchy. We have our targets and our performance measurable in clear view for everyone to see. And this creates an environment that is self-regulating. So as a leader you don’t have to impose loads of rules. If everyone can see what everyone else is doing it is helpful, inspiring and you remove paranoia from the equation. If we are all in this together working towards a common goal, we all benefit, we all share the highs and lows, then people feel safe, you build trust, and we all thrive.

So is creating this kind of environment easier with a start up?

To some extent perhaps it is yes. I think that organisations are like dogs. Every calendar year you get 7 years as a person. When you get 10 years old you have got to 70 and then some companies tend to sit back and retrench from that. Leaders get atrophy, you run out of ideas and lose your appetite for risk. With regards to risk, my view is always, don’t bet the farm. But you can bet a field or two!