How cultivating autonomy and trust helps us succeed

Our two key approaches for a high-trust, high-autonomy environment that allows us to flourish

At SOUTHWORKS, we like to talk about autonomy a lot. It’s entrenched in our culture, and encouraging it helps our SOUTHIES develop the confidence to make their own decisions and gives our project teams a platform to independently manage their own processes. We have two key approaches to doing this in practice:

Individuals managing their own growth

Giving our people autonomy is crucial to their growth, it’s not for us to set the bar for them, or tell them where, when, or how to grow. Where our SOUTHIES direct their energy in order to generate professional growth is their own personal decision, and only they know whether or not they’re ready for a new challenge. When we start talking about this, there are two common questions that people tend to come back with:

What about HR, then? The answer to this one is that we see HR as a function, not a department or team, so we distribute HR decisions across each team (more on how we do this in a moment). It’s not that we don’t do HR, we just don’t necessarily do it in the way people might expect.

“What is the role of leadership if you’re not sitting in an “ivory tower” dictating who does what, when, and how?” Our leadership team plays two roles:

  • The first of these is stating what needs to be done; a fundamental change we’ve made in recent years is moving our focus from the “how” to the “what”. We’re fortunate enough to have 200+ smart people working for our company, and we want them to use this intelligence, while bringing their own backgrounds, stories, and lessons to the mix, to decide how they approach the tasks that need doing – within our values, principles, and standards of course!
  • The other major role of our leadership team is to support our project teams, ensuring they have all the tools, policies, and resources they need to get the job done. We’ve found that taking this approach leads to better solutions than we could have ever anticipated – or indeed, created through a top-down approach.

Teams managing their own HR

As a company we want to have a framework of values and principles that create success, but we recognize that our real power comes from the individuals working on projects for our customers. Part of how we empower our SOUTHIES to be autonomous is by creating a culture where our people can vote with their feet – so if they want to switch projects, whether that’s because they fancy working with a different customer, or they want to collaborate with a different team within SOUTHWORKS, or indeed any other reason, they can. It’s about having the right to choose which opportunities they want to take.

Our SOUTHIES all have their own unique personalities and backgrounds, so we can’t be too prescriptive in how they work. That’s why we let our project teams (we call them Fireteams) figure that out for themselves – not just in terms of the methods, technology, and tools they use, but taking things a step further empowering teams to make their own decisions related to building the team, effectively delegating some day-to-day HR functions to each individual team.

We do this in a couple of ways:

  1. We let our teams do their own hiring and firing rather than having a set process in place – so when someone leaves and the team needs a new member, they decide who the right person is for them. They spend a lot of time working together every day and understand their project requirements so it’s the team, and not leadership, who knows best who they’ll learn the most from, and succeed alongside. Our teams also make collective decisions on things like their working schedules, meeting times, and time off.
  2. Talking of time off: although we have a policy for holidays, we don’t track it. We’re all human and we have our individual needs so, say someone wants to work on a national holiday and then take a religious holiday off, or stay late at night so they can have the next weekend as a long one, they can – just as long as they’ve cleared it with their teammates.

Implementing these measures wasn’t easy

This way of working is powerful for sure, but we’re not going to sugar coat it, doing things differently to create this high-trust, high-autonomy environment that we believed would be better for our people and our business has been challenging at times. When we initially made the move to increase our people’s autonomy we went through a rocky period, because the team found themselves working in new ways, and it can take time to find your footing. At that point, leadership’s role was to drive and facilitate transformation while supporting individuals to adapt to their new roles.

But since then, we haven’t looked back: we’ve significantly increased our numbers in terms of customers, projects, and teams, and our company is now twice as big and half as structured as it was, with a virtually flat organizational structure.

By hiring the right people – intelligent people who challenge the way we do things – the “what” remained up to our leadership, but there is always a better “how”, and our people on the ground are best placed to find that because living in this ever-changing environment on a day-to-day basis is more useful than long-term experience in that regard. Leadership’s responsibility is to be transparent, making sure everyone at the company can see what we’re doing, and how, in real time. When it comes to cultivating trust, showing how well something works is much more powerful than just saying it. We do that by creating dashboards where anyone in the company can view data on things like our recruitment, revenue, growth, and ongoing work and see the actual impact of their efforts.

By showing them things like where we’re making progress, when we’re growing, and how many people we’re hiring, we’re treating all our team members as investors – and that’s what they are, as they’re investing their time and energy in exchange for the opportunity for a successful career. It’s also a great way for us to give them a sense of achievement and applaud their hard work.

Trust is a crucial element of our way of working – and it goes both ways. By showing trust, we empower our project teams to do their best work by figuring out the “how” to leadership’s “what”. Meanwhile, we want to be trusted to make the decisions that will guide the company in the right direction for the benefit of everyone here. For this to work, we all have to both show trust and earn it from each other. This mutual accountability helps us maintain our high performance levels, and it automatically breeds autonomy in the way people work, what they work on, and who with. It’s beautiful to see, both from a business perspective and a human one.

It’s an exciting time to be at SOUTHWORKS – by promoting autonomy we can clearly see our growth and vision, and we’ve cultivated impressive levels of transparency and trust along the way. What have been your most autonomous working experiences, how was it achieved, and what did you learn from the experience?