Co. Culture is King (Part 1)

James Wright

James Wright is an Employee Engagement Specialist with RedBalloon, Australia’s largest experiential gift giving business. Today, the company’s turn over is well over $30 million. It’s quite possible it has everything to do with their employee engagement score of 97 per cent and their impressive rank of ninth in Hewitt Associates Best Places to Work survey, two years running. “To be competitive in this economic climate you need to have a focused team of engaged employees who love their work and what their organisation stands for,” he says.


Before I got to Red Balloon I was working I’m in the most toxic environment I could ever imagine. For a boss that knew nothing about me outside of work. And one night, must have been February, about February 2007, I was in tears on my mate’s couch. This is a 25-year-old in tears about going back to work on Monday morning and because he didn’t want to be there. And it wasn’t because he was in the wrong industry. I absolutely love the advertising world. The idea of creating powerful communications that inspire people that get people to change their behavior. The cultures sucked in this business. They were paying me well. I was doing the planning job that I’d always wanted to do and we were kicking some serious goals. Like we just floated the business on the Alternative Investment Market over in the UK and in 11 months that I’ve been with the business we’ve taken it from 40 to 180 people. From a little shop in Manchester to 180 people across Europe. It was a really great learning experience. But, in tears on my mates couch I realize that this wasn’t the place for me because the culture sucked. So I quit with no job to go to and booked a holiday to Australia.

I was reading an article this inflight magazine and there was this crazy woman called Naomi Simpson who was the CEO and founder of the business called Red Balloon. And I read this article within, there was this pretty girl, about 40-ish and she was talking all about this business that she built in her front room on the basis that she didn’t want to go back to a career in corporate and she just wanted to have fun at work. And that she created this business and it was turning over a few million bucks and there was about 20 people that work there. And she was on this mission. So her vision, to change gifting in Australia forever. And over the next two years she was going to double revenue with the same headcount. She didn’t say it would be the same people but the same head count. And I thought, I want to work for this chick. So I got back to London and told my mom and dad that I wasn’t gonna take the job with the property business and that I was gonna go and work in Sydney for Red Balloon.

Same night, I can’t remember the science bit but you articulate to yourself where you want to end up. It’s great! And so I told my mom that I got this job at Red Balloon or had applied and it was all going to go well and everything else and then emailed Naomi and said I’d like to come work for you and and at the time there was a role going, a three day a week marketing role. I thought that sounds good. Change of pace. I can live in the sunshine. Meet a hot surfer, settle down. This is all good! And like any small business the game changes, very quickly sometimes. So I applied for the three day week marketing role and by the time they were considering my application it turned into a full-time general manager with an IT bent to it. Now, I know how to turn on my laptop, I might work for an online business but I have no idea how to code a website or write a technical brief or anything or manager a developer or anything like that. But I committed to my family, to myself and to red balloon at that stage that I was going to work for them. And so after a couple of conversations Naomi offered me a job and or offered me the possibility a job working on their corporate sales team. Which is where I have been for the last 4 and a half years.

So I started and just fell into this beautiful place and that immediately I felt absolutely connected to and that my contribution was really gonna count and that we really gonna make a difference. I suppose what I want to talk about tonight is how that fate have being in a culture like that feels for an employee. And I very briefly had a team, in about my first six months at Red Balloon and when I’m not a very good people manager and I’ll get onto how that panned out in a moment or two. Listening to Naomi talk am a lot of the time, she comes at it from a leader’s perspective, the CEO and you know, the major shareholder in the business. She talks alot about vision, values and alignment and I get it, you know? I consult to businesses about their vision, values and alignment and how they say thank you to their staff. But as an employee if somebody talks to me in that language, do I get it? So yeah Red Balloon’s got this vision, changing gifting in Australia forever which is pretty powerful stuff. And it’s one of the things that really does help me understand, you know, why I get so much out of the job that I do. My mates don’t understand, particularly the ones in London, still. With their swanky apartments, doing jobs with big salaries and with fancy pants job titles. And they’re like, you live in Australia, on the ass end of the world and you sell gift vouchers for a living. What are you doing? And they don’t get it. They don’t get it. And four and a half years on I still get little hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I say I come to work every day to change gifting in Australia forever. Cannot honestly believe that’s why I come to work everyday. And yeah I don’t question it.

You know, cultures all about appealing to the head and heart. So there’s no doubt that something like changing gifting in Australia forever appeals to the heart. It’s a lovely thing to do as well. I was talking to a couple of people before, getting a highly engaged workforce happening. An awesome culture happening. Yeah we kinda of got a head start in a lot of other businesses in that we sell fun. You know? There’s an attitude that you come to work, this is gonna be a cool place. But we’re a highly numbers driven organization and we are databases and systems and service and there’s a lot of boring stuff that has to happen to make the pretty glossy bit, the fabulous experiences happen for our customers. And, so we got this vision changing gifting in Australia forever and we’ve also got a metric around it because we need to know how well we’re doing. And we need to know what we doing is contributing to delivering on that that vision and is making a difference. So when you walk in to our offices we got this huge scoreboard and that sits and Eloise has been to the office. This huge school board that sits up there and in real time, one of the benefits to being an online businesses is that we can count our sales in real time and communicate it to ourselves and our wider world immediately. And we’ve got a counter that every time somebody goes on the Red Balloon experience it notches up one more and our mission is by 2015 to have sold 2 million Red Balloon experiences. We figured if we send 10% on Australia on a Red Balloon experience we will have changed gifting in Australia forever. Goodness knows what happens when we hit the 2 million mark. We’re on 1 million 130… I’m guessing about 36,000. And at the moment if I had my iPhone turned on I have an app and I can go to it and it tells me exactly how we doing and if I spend a few days out of the office, I will go to the app and see how we’re doing. And at the weekend my other half gets terribly upset. He’s like, what are you doing? And I’m telling him, I’m checking to see how much of Australia’s been changed today.

And then, yes we’ve got this vision thing going on but for me as an employee the vision stuff that you need to put into strategy, documents and all of that, it’s all about purpose. Yeah? That’s an employees word for vision and how it translates is purpose. I don’t sell gift vouchers. I have a purpose about coming to work and I ask so many businesses, now sitting rooms with HR all the time and those rooms are named after their businesses’ values, right? Hands up who works in an organization where they’ve got meeting rooms named after the values. Yay! There’s always one. Are you in HR for the business? No? Ok.

What do you mean example?



It’s funny. So you sit in these meeting rooms called integrity or accountability and you ask the HR team, what are your values? They don’t know. So there’s no connection. So for the record our values at Red Balloon are integrity, leadership, generosity, sense of humor and fun. And my favorite, little dog with a big dog attitude, which I love. Because you know, we’re changing gifting in Australia and we’re 50 people. We got a big job and you need that attitude and it’s interesting, the similarities between the language that we use and I think, I’ll jump about a bit but language when you’re creating culture in the workplace is so important. The fact that our HR team isn’t called HR at Red Balloon. It’s called the employee experience team. It goes to reinforce what they are there for. They’re not there to manage us as resources. They are there to make sure that our experience of Red Balloon is awesome. And they’re there to make sure that the experience of Red Balloon before you get there as a candidate or is somebody that is sniffing around and might be interested in working for us in a few years time is awesome as well.With 50 people in the building, 2 of them are dedicated to employee experience. Now I’ve got clients who have got five or six hundred people in their business with HR teams of the same size. So the commitment that we have to creating and maintaining and developing an awesome culture is resourced but it’s also there in our language. In it you feel really loved knowing that there’s an employee experienced team backing it all up for you.

So one of the the other things that we do around language at Red Balloon is we have promises. I don’t have any KP, I’m in sales, right? Extensively. I don’t have KPIs. I make promises to the business. It’s pretty cool. Yeah we do. Every four months we sit down with the manager and we get to write three promises.

So what are yours?

What are mine? At the moment, I’ve got a promise around at developing a consulting practice and there’s some numbers around that. But they’re numbers that I created. I’ve got a promise around thought leadership and I’m developing a project around that. And we’ll have a promise around grow, which is our kinda phraseology for learning and development. And there’s things that I’m committed to delivering around that. They put the money where their mouth is though. If you don’t complete your promises I don’t get my bonus and it’s happened once. I nailed it from a sales point of view and Gem our general manager is now the CEO, had to sit me down and say it doesn’t matter that you’ve achieved a hundred and whatever percent of your sales target. Can’t pay your bonus because you’ve not done one of your promises. And I know a lot of other businesses, that if their sales gun is nailing the numbers, the values go out the window. It doesn’t matter that they’re not connected to the business. It doesn’t matter that they’re not playing a team game because they’re delivering the revenue and yep that’s all we want mate! And it hurt, right? But some people have said to me, does that mean that you play really small with your promises next time around to make sure that they’re easily deliverable? Absolutely not! It just means that you wake up, it was about nine months into my career at Red Ballon. It was like wow, that’s taken my connection to this business and my appreciation that they stick to what they say to a whole new level and keep their word.

So did they make promises to you?

They do make promises to to every employee about what is going to be like to work there.

They take you on a lot of holidays.

They do take us on a lot of holidays. This is, we were up on Fraser Island recently and we took the whole team away for three days because we hit our stretch target for FY 11. And it was a big stretch target. Right? It was 20% growth year-on-year on top of I’m our team targets. Big stuff! Big stuff. Like, we grew 54% for a ten-year-old online business. We grow 54% year-on-year in FY 11. It’s unheard of. This year’s target’s 40% growth. We are on the way to doing it and we don’t do it by investing in a whole heap of expensive new technology and throwing loads of marketing spend around by making ads and shoving them on TV like you’ll hear of some radio key gifting times and those sorts of things. We pump all of our resource into making sure our employees are totally engaged, totally happy in their roles and I just play in all out to deliver the growth. And we don’t work crazy hours to do it which is really focused. My people deliver promises they miss KPIs. Think about where else in your life you make promises. When you’re standing at the altar, if you’re that way inclined or you make promises to your best mate.

You bribe your kids.

Yeah, you bribe your kids. But, like, having that language in place means that have people commit to achieving their promises.

I’m gonna talk you ‘round and we’ve got grown up recently because we keep winning these or some awards like best employer or top 10 places to work in Australia and all of these sorts of things. And you hope we do because we spend an awful lot of time telling other businesses how to create awesome cultures, so, and it kind of, we need to practice what we preach in that sense. Megan who’s our employee experience manager, we kind of sat her down and said we need you to structure what the employee experience at red balloon is all about. It has six pillars to it and and they are welcome, flow, tools, grow, appreciate and well-being. And we can, if you’re interested and you’re managing teams and you want to understand how they work we can make all of that available. I thought I’d just take you through each of the six from my perspective about either how you made to feel welcome or what our recruitment process looks and feels like and and how those other pillars work and how they played out and this will be quite personal about how they played out for me. And I think the biggest learning about how you get people engaged is it is it has to be regardless of whether you are with 50 people, right, regardless of whether it a three-person business a fifty-person business or 30,000 person business. You gotta be brave enough to take on your employees as individuals and as opposed to lines on a spreadsheet or the blank faces with revenue numbers above their head if you’re managing a sales team. I remember one of my first jobs at a uni. In terms of understanding people that really, now I work in the engagement space it really got me clear.

I recall the moment, I taken a graduate job when I didn’t get that DDP one. I’d taken a graduate job with which is that food. I am a big foodie. you hear more about that in a minute. I’ve taken a graduate job with a big supermarket in the UK with a view to becoming a buyer and for that matter. How how cool would it be to just spend your life traveling around the world tasting some product in deciding whether it does or doesn’t get on the shelf space. This sounds cool. And so for the first part at the graduate program, you spend some time in store. I quit after two weeks when I wasn’t allowed, we were opening a new store in Manchester City Centre and all the, it was just a few weeks before the store opened. So there were builders going in and out and everything like this. And the door was always open but there products on the shelves, but customers thought that we were already open for business. I took the initiative as a trainee manager to handwrite a sign because we didn’t have any IT on site to print anything out. We will be open on whenever it was and blue tack it on the window. The customers didn’t get pissed off that they were two-thirds of the way into the store and then being ushered out.

There we go. The counter when we hit a million recently.

And I was to I was told off for taking the initiative. But the the manager, the area manager, he didn’t know my name. This with 10 days after I started in the business and had sat in three induction sessions with him and two other trainees. Well he’d been going through the manual of how to induct somebody into the culture and he still hadn’t taken the time to know my name. So that lunchtime he found me walking, we bumped into each other in the street and he said shouldn’t you be back in the store. And I said, no I just left. And he said, what you mean you just left? I said I don’t work for this, it’s awful. And he said, oh um. And I said, you don’t know my name. And he didn’t know my name when we bumped into each other street. Never spoke to him again. They paid me for that 10 days that I’ve been there which I guess was good of them. At least one of their systems worked. Their personality certainly didn’t.

Where was I going with this? So yeah, the employee experience it’s about, number one it’s about making people feel welcome. When we recruit people, so I slipped in under the wire side. I have only experienced this as a team member, but when we recruit at Red Balloon it’s a team effort. So about nine months in where I had inadvertently been put into this position where I was managing the corporate team, the general manager said to me, she said, what’s wrong? You’re not happy? And I said, yeah I’m not a people manager. She said, right. Or I don’t have time because I wanna be with clients and it was a team of six people that needed looking after. And she said, well what you wanna do? I said I want a boss. Okay we’ll get you a boss. And Red Balloon, it’s just such a different way of having people come and work for the business. So we did group interviews. So if you apply for a job at any level, you come in…

This is Dexter. Head of security. He’s Naomi’s dog and comes into the office most days with her. And if you’re lucky you get to take him for a walk occasionally.

…So we do these group interviews and from the group interviews and it really is the discussion. So it’s like, what are you reading, what did you watch on TV last night and we have 10 people around the table with a couple of Red Ballooners. And then we choose two or three of them to come back for further interview. And it’s basically under the guise that if they don’t create a conversation and there’s no real rules to that meeting and they’re told that you’re coming in to meet nine other people that have also applied for the job. And we just wanna see how it goes. And some people say that they’re not coming in for that meeting. Well they’re not a Red Ballooner if they don’t want to take on that kind of connection with each  other. So then they come through and you go for a meeting with the recruiting, with the hiring manager and generally he or she will pick two or three candidates who then get to meet the whole team that they’ll be working on. So cut the story short, I got to choose my boss at the two people. And it was a team decision and we talk it all through. But in terms of hiring the right type of people, if you get to meet the team and interact with the team before it all happens, it’s great!

We also have them coming to the business before they actually start. So we had a tenth birthday party last week and there were three newbies. Some of which started on Monday and they’d been to a company meeting. So, first Tuesday of every month we have a full on company meeting. All 50 people. And we’ll have lunch together and then we do kind of a download what’s going on in different parts of the business. So you get to come to at least one company meeting before you actually start in the organization. So you had lunch with 5 or 6 people, out of 50, before your first day. So there’s some familiarity going on. It’s just all about making sure that people feel welcome when they come into the business. So it’s been instilled in you before you get to Red Balloon how important our changing gifting in Australia vision is and how important that the big number that goes around on this big screen is. But on your first day we take over the screen and put welcome to however. So it’s like wow! You removed the big number for the day just for little old me? That’s important. Like you are absolutely important! But also it helps the other 49 people remember the newbie’s name for the whole day. Coz how awkward is it when you’re in the kitchen and you’re like, then you. This would never really happen at Red Balloon but then you, I don’t know the name, they sit like 7 desks away from me so I’m never gonna talk to them anyway. And so you don’t connect like just it’s all about making it is easy as possible for people to connect with each other.


LeeCo. Culture is King (Part 1)

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