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:
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:
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:
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?