Why 11th place is more valuable than 4th

Earlier this month ISL were recognised as the 11th Best Small Workplace in the UK, which of course I’m pleased about. I’m sure I’ll touch on some of the reasons that this makes me proud, but I’m not writing to show off and celebrate (at least not entirely 😄).

What I’m hoping to help you understand is:

– how we made mistakes when we were on a high

– how this unsurprisingly led to what could be seen as a fall from grace

– And, then, how that failure helped us learn and emerge stronger

And, if you can learn from my mistakes, then hopefully you can make less of your own.

So, first some background. ISL is a technology recruitment business, helping startups and scaleups grow by finding them the best talent so they can achieve more with greater capabilities.

Our team at ISL

We are based in Bristol, UK, with 25 staff. I joined the business 12 years ago, one year after it was founded by my business partner, Henry Keeys.

In 2017, we decided to put people at the heart of our own growth strategy and engaged with Great Place To Work (GPTW). We hoped to be good enough to be awarded as a UK Best Workplace, as internal recruitment was our initial objective and the badge would really help us stand out.

A major bonus aspect of GPTW was the detailed feedback we would receive, no matter our scores, as this would help us benchmark and improve. There’s plenty of information on their site about their methodology if you’re interested, but a key area for us was the focus on the anonymous staff survey, allowing us to understand and be rewarded based on what our staff felt about our business, not how well we schmoozed the judges.

Success — and much celebration! — came. We were delighted to make it on the list as one of 27 companies. It raised our profile in the employment market and Henry and I enthusiastically poured through the feedback to work out where to build and improve.

Another entry in 2018. This time 4th place — a jump of 20 place. More celebration (better champagne this time!), more good PR and a real sense of achievement.

Celebrating our 4th place!

On to 2019, much enthusiasm about where we might come. And then we received the scores from the staff survey. Not horrific, but a fair way off what we’d seen in previous years.

GPTW gives you benchmark scores against your peers as well as your historical numbers, and it was clear that we weren’t where we wanted to be.

We had no chance of a hat-trick of success and not much to celebrate.

You might have seen this quote from Nelson Mandela…

I really like the quote and have long followed this approach. But I realised that, among the delight of 4th place, we’d overlooked the reflection part that had helped us to begin with.

In short, we had won — but did not learn.

We hadn’t thought about what made us a great place to work or built on that success while closing the gaps in some of our lower scores.

Thankfully, the shock of the feedback kicked us into action.

As an example, we received lower scores in the line management category. From our own retention report we knew this was key to retaining and engaging out employees, so we set out to improve this critical relationship.

So, we made sure that some of our actions, planned and incidental, tied into achieving this aim.

We talked a lot about adult to adult relationships, meaning that line managers trusted their team a lot more rather than parented them, but asked for more accountability in return.

We used 360 feedback to create a better picture of team leaders’ strengths and weakness, and gave them access to an external consultant to help their development plan.

Another thing we did was run a series of leadership lunches. These were informal sessions to help everyone in the business understand some of the traits of good leaders and the challenges they face.

As a result, we went from these scores in 2019…

to these scores in 2020…

So back to the present day. Henry and I and all the team are delighted about being back on the list and getting into the top half.

But what makes me more confident now than when we hit 4th, is that this has been a valuable lesson to me in not resting on our laurels.

It will help us improve from highs not just lows, by building in a reflection and learning process that comes naturally, not just in times of crisis.

Maybe if we could ask Mandela again, he’d say you can only really learn, which is definitely how I’ll be reading his quote in the future.

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