Always with people in mind, former CEO Glenn Elliott started a journey of changing the work place for the better. Over the last decade, he founded and build Reward Gateway Offering tailored employee engagement tools, he and his team are serving countless companies and customers across the globe, making their work place more functioning and attractive. His personal experience as CEO, navigating through though times and building his company, helped him to learn first hand and dig deep to make it work – on a professional as well as personal level. Read our interview with Glenn where he speaks about his way of building his company, his passion for empowering people, and the importance of honest feedback and true conversations. It comes down to to the fundamentals, to the people.
Someone who doesn’t know you?
For the last 12 years I was CEO of Reward Gateway, an HR Technology business that I founded back in 2006. Reward Gateway helps other companies to engage better with their people by giving them technology that helps internal communications, employee recognition, employee feedback and even staff perks and benefits. I live in Soho in London, UK with my partner Kristian and a dachshund called Wesley.
Over the 12 years, I’ve learned a lot about employee engagement and how to create an environment where people can and want to do their best work. I’ve learned a lot of that from our 1,800 clients worldwide but also from our own struggle to create a great place to work for our 400 staff.
I stepped down as CEO last summer but I still work for the company full time, in a role called “Founder”. I don’t have any executive responsibility any more, I’m not the new CEO’s boss but I help the company by promoting our mission, “Let’s make the world a better place to work”, by speaking at conferences, helping anyone we stumble upon that needs help and promoting our new book “Build it : The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement”. The book is basically everything I’ve learned about people in 12 years – all in an easy to read 260 page package. Like “Glenn in a box” really.
I’m still working full time at Reward Gateway but in a role supporting the team and our new CEO rather than being in charge. I’m loving it and also loving having a bit more free time on my hands which I’m spending working hard in the gym, watching movies (I’m a bit of a sci-fi nerd) and also learning about anatomy & physiology which I might even do a course in.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your professional and personal life? Do you find that the challenges tend to be similar in nature? How did you overcome?
I loved the last 12 years building the company and I’m hugely proud of what we’ve built and the people we’ve helped and developed internally, too. But being a CEO, building a successful business, it’s tough. The stresses are pretty constant and I always found it nearly impossible to relax, even when on vacation. There was always something to think about, worry about or get excited about and when you’re in a competitive environment with a lot of customers to keep happy then you’re always on edge.
I found that wherever I was in the world, even in an airport or trying to relax in a park, something would catch my eye that had some connection to work, or people or our industry and I’d end up thinking about how it affected us or how to make use of it.
On the good side I had a really great team at RG that were amazing to work with and to see develop too. You kind of learn a lot of basic coping strategies as well – you have to to survive and some of those are really simple. Sometimes if I was lying in bed to worried, stressed or jet lagged to sleep (or combination of all three) I would just start making a mental list of everything that was good in my life that I was thankful for and it’s amazing how quickly that can lighten your mood. In my latter years just taking some time to breath, stay calm and do some light meditation that also got me through some of the hairier moments.
Overall, that obsessive nature that many entrepreneurs have – it’s what drives you forward, but it’s tough as well and it takes a toll on your personal relationships with your friends and partner and even your health. Everything else in your life gets what’s left after the business has had the best and, ultimately, last year I just decided that I’d done enough and it was time to let someone else run the company and let me focus on some other things as number one. So I’m lucky that my husband, Kristian, was still there waiting for me and we’ve been hanging out more, having a lot more fun and getting a lot more results in the gym, too.
What kind of service does Reward Gateway provide? How does the company look today vs. when you first founded it, what’s different (and the same, if anything)?
Reward Gateway helps companies – large and small – with technology that helps them to connect better with their employees. Our software helps companies say thank you to employees for a job well done, allows co-workers to call out good behavior with thank you’s and awards, helps companies communicate changes and strategy to staff and even makes their lives a little better with perks and benefits.
In some ways, the company is unrecognizable today from when I founded it 12 years ago. We thought our idea would work, as do all entrepreneurs, but we never dreamed it would work so well or become so big. We were literally a handful of people with almost no money in a run down office in West London and we were up against really big, well funded competitors. We never dreamed we’d end up with 400 staff of our own, in nine offices and with over 1,800 clients.
But in other ways, it’s the same – we started out wanting to do a really fantastic job for the customer, in on our case that’s normally the HR Manager or Director, and we’ve never wavered from that focus and obsession on the HR person as our client. We had ambition and wanted to win, certainly, but that was tempered with kindness, patience and wanting to do “what is right”, rather than what made a quick profit. So culturally and from a point of view of values, what the business is now, feels very connected to what it was originally.
As someone who specializes in understanding good people and good work, what do you think companies face as the biggest challenge in hiring good people to do good work? Why do companies struggle to achieve this?
I think the whole recruitment process generally used is pretty flawed to be honest. Companies aren’t honest about what jobs and conditions are really like and candidates are putting a gloss over everything too and trying to tell interviewers what they want to hear. With both sides trying so hard to make themselves look good at the expense of honesty it’s no wonder so much recruitment ends in disappointment for one side or even both.
I hate the sort of interviewing that tries to catch candidates out, too – you know, putting people under fake pressure, being mean to them and asking them questions designed to provoke an emotional response. It’s such a bad way to start a relationship with someone who might be a new employee and I think those sorts of interviews are a really poor predictor of people who will be good in their jobs, too.
Ultimately though, I think the biggest thing standing in the way of people really excelling at work is how we treat them. Too many companies create distrust by keeping staff in the dark, have arrogant or invisible leadership and poor management practices and it all ends up with people becoming disillusioned and resentful at work. To fix that we have to fundamentally change how we treat people at work and that’s what our new book, Build it, is about really. We won’t fix work by painting the kitchen, installing a new coffee machine or a table tennis table – we need to get down and dirty with how we treat people.
How important do you think women’s voices are in the workplace? How can companies work to amplify the voices of women and other underrepresented groups in the workplace?
I’ve been really lucky to spend the last 12 years in a workplace that doesn’t have a gender imbalance. Women’s voices are loud, clear and normal at RG – maybe that’s a factor of us being a young company, maybe there’s something to do with me being a gay CEO, too, maybe we just didn’t start out with some of the normal biases that you get.
I do find myself often in situations where women are in a minority – sometimes at a finance conference or at a CEO’s event or a charity event, and I find the atmosphere deeply uncomfortable. It looks ridiculous and oppressive to me – there’s nothing I like less when standing on the conference stage than looking out at a sea of middle aged white men in grey suits. I can’t imagine how it must feel for the few women who are there.
So is it important? Yes, critical. What should we do? Fix the under-representation. I’ve been feeling more militant about it the older I get and I just haven’t got much time any more for the excuses of “no women applied” or “There just aren’t enough women in XYZ job”. Companies need to get rid of the barriers – inflexible working and oppressive leadership styles that keep women out of senior jobs, get more women into senior roles and get the recruitment team out and focussed. I get asked occasionally to help look at candidates for new roles at Reward Gateway and recently I refused to get involved in one role because there was an all-male shortlist rather than a gender-balanced one. I just thought we hadn’t worked hard enough at the search so I voted with my feet.
I think people like me who are fortunate to have been successful in business, we need to take a bigger stand, we need to be better allies to our friends and colleagues who’ve been discriminated against for decades. The focus that change has had this year with the #MeToo movement has been incredible. It’s fantastic to see the change happening but also shameful to see how far we still have to go.
What are some differences you’ve noticed between workplaces with strong female leadership vs male leadership?
Firstly I think we need to widen the verbs we use to think about good leaders so that “strong” is one of a set. We don’t want weak leaders clearly, but we need more than just strong and we need an end to thinking that macho male leaders are desirable or even effective.
One of the best leaders I know, maybe the best, is a woman called Shelley Packer and “strong” is only part of her story. Yes, she is strong-willed, focussed, stands on her own two feet, makes hard choices, says the things no-one else will say but she is also humble, honest, focussed, funny, kind and cares deeply about her people. She’s incredibly commercial and ambitious for the business but she is smart and knows that the only way the business can succeed is if the individuals in her team succeed. She sees the team as a whole, but she sees the people as individuals, too – each with their own strengths, weaknesses and contribution. She’s not afraid to take people out of the team if she decides they won’t succeed, but she spends most of her time coaching and helping people to be their best. Unsurprisingly, her team are devoted to her and her results are amazing.
The problem we have in many leadership teams is a terrible lack of diversity. There is no doubt in my mind that teams that are diverse in gender, race, background, thought and personality are more successful. Very simply, they see things together that other teams miss.
As someone who has had over 1,800 clients across 23 countries, what’s your advice to people entering workplaces in different/new countries?
Business culture varies widely in different countries and there can be centuries of custom, history and culture behind that. But the one thing that is common is we are all human and at a basic level we are incredibly similar. Whatever culture you are from, people value honesty and dislike being lied to. As human beings, we need connection, visibility, trust and kindness. Sticking to the basics of treating people as you would like to be treated yourself goes a long way, whatever country you are in.
What’s the strangest question you’ve been asked? What was your response?
If I’m honest, one of the strangest questions I get asked is one that I get asked quite a lot. It’s where I meet someone who is skeptical about employee engagement and they ask me about evidence. There is a vast amount of data and evidence from global research organizations like Gallup and Great Place to Work who correlate employee engagement scores with financial results and stock market performance. But to me, asking the question at all is so strange. I mean, do we really need formal data to show that creating a workplace where people can do and want to do their best work will create better results? Isn’t it totally obvious?
Let me describe two teams to you –
Team A : Excited by the direction the organization is going in, excited by their role in making the organization successful and genuinely wanting to bring their whole self, all of their talents to work and make the organization succeed.
Team B is worn down by years of internal politics, doesn’t trust leadership, doesn’t like their jobs and couldn’t really care if the organization succeeds or not, they just want to keep their head down, get paid and if they can, get something good to put on their CV for their next job.
Which team would you want to lead? And would you need 30 years of data from Gallup to help make up your mind?
What was it like to work with Debra Corey while writing Build it: The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement? What was the process you followed in working together?
If it wasn’t for Debra, I don’t think we’d have the book published at all. Debra wrote half of it – the 60 case studies (or “plays” as we call them in the book) and she also pushed me forward on my half. Debra is a real do-er and she never seems to get writers block. Sometimes I would get really “lost in the woods” in a chapter and would spend days writing and writing but struggling to make my point clearly. Then Debra would come in with some bold and off-the-wall ideas and I’d be unstuck again.
We’re very different people, different personalities and very different work and career experience. But that’s what makes it work – we challenge each other, occasionally annoy each other, but drive each other forward and make each other better than we would be alone. And that’s what a good, diverse team does. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from the book, it’s by Mother Theresa :
“I can do things you cannot,
you can things that I cannot,
together we can do great things”
What were some of the goals you wanted to achieve by writing Build it: The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement? Who can benefit most from reading this book?
We were very conscious of how time poor everyone is so it had to be no longer than necessary and easy to read. We wanted people to put it down and feel inspired but also equipped to go and make change in their own company, department or team. And we’ve had some amazing feedback since the book launched – every day we get emails and notes from people in all different levels of businesses – some CEO’s and executives, but also team leaders and many junior staff, too.
So if you want to make work better for yourself and the people who work for you or alongside you, then Build it can help. “Build it: The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement” is published by Wiley and available from Amazon or your favorite bookstore.
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