There is something about this company. This is the thought repeating in the head of Ilja Heitlager from Schuberg Philis now almost 11 years ago. The current CIO (the I stands for Innovation) tells about his first connection with the company. He shares with us why he wanted to work at this company so desperately, even if they didn’t have any job offer that would fit his profile. Together with his colleagues, Lotta van Uchelen (former Chief DNA officer and now Customer Director) and Bas den Uijl (Agile Coach), they tell us exactly why.
At the Responsive org meetup, also organized by prototyping.work, we had an extensive introduction to the self-managed IT company. For more than 15 years they are operating without any managers pursuing only one dream, one KPI: 100% customer satisfaction. And they are damn close achieving this. Just 7% keep them from the Holy Grail.
Culture tour around the office
A quick tour around the building already showed us we were invited by a very special company. The rooms where the employees were working, looked like any IT company. A lot of computers and even more screens. But on the first floor, the magic began. A good work/life balance is critical for a self-organized company. Burnouts and workaholism are a thread for every company where engagement is really high (M.E.L Zeijen). On the first wall pictures of children of the employees are posted. To remind them of what is really important. And it even gets better.
The employees decided that the time they all spend together was very important. Especially during lunch (and dinner) times. To facilitate even better times, they decided to hire two full-time cooks to arrange their food for them. They are on the payroll of the company and happy to finally had a 9-17 job. The lunchroom is gigantic. A room with one table for 90 persons with an open kitchen and of course a bar. With their favorite beers on tap. Just two steps further there is a lounge where people can relax, play some games and even a smoking room where some engineers are smoking cigars. This we can call building an open and relax culture.
To secure safety and stimulate experiments (and failure) they organize the fuckup cafe. A come together where employees tell their failures. A really nice way to create a safe and innovative environment!
No managers, but with managers
When we finished our food, and yes it was darn good, our hosts began to elaborate about their culture, structure, and way of working. The first remarks left us confused. Schuberg Philis exists of three cells divided into verticals (finance, asset management and “the rest”). These cells consist of 70 to 100 employees. All good, but here comes the funny part: each cell has 3 managing directors, 8 customer directors, and handfull customer operations managers. No managers? But they even call these people managers and directors. How does this work?
Let’s take one step back, Schuberg Philis (it almost sounds like a law firm) is a self-management company where people work in teams. These teams decide how they do their work and when they do it, when and how much vacation they have and if they like to onboard a new team member or customer. To spread knowledge over cells they are using circles across the cells for special purposes. Distributed teams from each cell. They also have their own coaching system. All employees have a buddy, a trusted person, and a coach, someone who will do their HR stuff. But some tasks are distributed. Sales, recruitment, account management, and strategy are decided by the managers and directors.
Schuberg Philis is really keen on their quality. Normally they only hire experts, specialists with a lot of experience in their discipline. They really understand that you have to be trained to understand what you have to do. Employees get trained in giving feedback, which is really important to achieve the collaboration they need. Coaches are trained in being a coach. People who do also recruitment interviews are also getting trained in how to do a good interview as they believe that only peer-reviewing leads to balanced teams. This shows that they have a 100% mindset. Everything you do have to be 100%!
And what happens when it goes wrong?
When something doesn’t go as planned, the teams are in control of finding the solution. As a team, they are responsible. They can ask all the help they want from colleagues, but they have to ask for help themselves. This can take a while, but you cannot intervene, because this will hurt their autonomy and trust.
Can they grow further in self-management?
Yes. One thing which isn’t self-managed and not transparent is salary. The appraisal process is for every colleague in the company. It starts with selecting the peers and/or customers to write a review. After which a smaller group ranks each colleague on three values: impact, craftsmanship, and attitude. This determines the relative position of each colleague. After a thorough discussion, the coach knows how to support the colleague. People are ranked against each other in a spreadsheet. A formula proposes what you will earn. Their peers and customers are part of the process, but in the end, the spreadsheet decides what you will earn.
But how do they change?
Experimenting is the way to a new way of working. Small experiments are done to see what works and what doesn’t work. Just what we like at prototyping.work. When a change is successful: make it bigger. When it fails: stop.
Practices used by Schuberg Philis
M.E.L. Zeijen, M.C.W. Peeters, J.J. Hakanen. Workaholism versus work engagement and job crafting: What is the role of self‐management strategies?