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Culture First: My Onboarding Experience at EMPAUA


Sophie Rödl - August 9, 2018 - 0 comments

Onboarding Week

On my first day I was warmly welcomed by colleagues from all offices in the team chat, and my laptop and all other necessary office equipment was already waiting for me on my desk. But EMPAUA does not only cover these basics: It wants to provide a deep understanding of the company and its culture right from the beginning. Therefore, I was invited to the London office with fellow starters for the so-called onboarding week after only some days in the job. In a three-day workshop, 7 newbies were introduced to the core concepts EMPAUA stands for during the day and had the opportunity to get to know some of their colleagues at team dinners and underground minigolf in the evenings.

The time in London was certainly intense – there was so much input to digest – but I was happy to be provided with so much important information right at the start and to have a platform for many questions that come along with working in a new company structure.

Of course everything we discussed during the sessions also came up in my day-to-day work life in one way or the other, and I would like to share my reflections on EMPAUA´s approach and how I experienced it during my first weeks.

Purpose, Vision and Ecosystem

While every company knows what they do and which results they want to achieve, and some of them also know how to do it, there are only few companies who know why they are doing it. Simon Sinek explained why this is the wrong approach and why you should always start with the Why: People don´t buy what you´re doing, they buy why you´re doing it. Companies who are looking to fulfill their purpose and are not merely pursuing results are in general more successful than others. If you have a purpose that determines everything you do, you also attract people who believe what you believe. As a consequence, they will not only work for their money, but will be willing to give their blood and sweat and tears to contribute to the vision coming true – not because they have to, but because they want to.  

EMPAUA does have a purpose: Creating a world where every individual is empowered to constantly grow by disrupting the way organisations operate, while creating the leaders of tomorrow. And it´s not only a great sentence displayed on the website that sounds impressive; it is real, which is already expressed in the mere existence of the onboarding week: It´s not absolutely necessary to spend time and money in order to fly in new team members from different office locations to give them information about the company, make them understand the company spirit and provide them with useful tools for successful working – but it makes a big difference.

“Profit is like the air we breathe. We need air to live, but we don’t live to breathe.” 
― Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations

Employee development and happiness is more important to EMPAUA than accumulating a lot of money. The company is basically looking to cover the costs, but other than that puts people first and helps the employees grow personally and professionally so they can truly disrupt the way organisations operate. Also, employees are encouraged to embrace their entrepreneurial spirit, use what they´ve learned at EMPAUA and found new companies within the EMPAUA ecosystem. By now, four companies have been built out of EMPAUA, in which EMPAUA holds shares (WeFox, OrgOS, HeartSpaceDoctorly). So it´s really by creating the leaders of tomorrow that EMPAUA hopes to make money some day, not the day-to-day business.

Self-Management, Teal Organizations and Holacracy

EMPAUA is a teal organization, meaning that it is based on three main pillars: Self-Management (= no bosses), Evolutionary Purpose (= a vision that functions as an anchor and evolves together with the company, as described above) and Wholeness (= taking into account the whole person instead of only the roles the employee is filling). The self-management practice EMPAUA works under, Holacracy, distributes authority under all employees via agile roles that are continuously adjusted according to upcoming tensions or needs in order to improve the company structure. People are not hired for one role they have to stick to, but can fill various roles depending on their capabilities and interests.

After learning about all this during the recruiting process, I was intrigued. I couldn´t help but think that it simply sounded too good to be true. I wouldn´t have to decide on one thing I wanted to do in a job? I would be able to fill multiple roles that fit my talents and contribute to the company´s success with all my strengths? I couldn´t wait to find out more and to see it put into practice.

During the onboarding week, we found out about the historical background of teal organizations and their characteristics and dove deeper into Holacracy. Every employee is self-managed and there is no boss to decide on strategies or delegate tasks. How does this not necessarily end in chaos? Of course a very structured system is required, but order does not require rulers. With Holacracy, the implicit can be made explicit: Within the system, it is defined which roles have which accountabilities and responsibilities with absolute clarity. Still, the setup is very flexible, and each role-filler can decide for himself how to fulfill the respective role´s purpose – as long as they do not touch on another role´s domains.

“When we have the right set of rules, we don´t need bosses directing us.” 
― Brian Robertson, Holacracy: A Radical New Approach to Management

We practised the two Holacracy meeting structures, both very systematic to avoid endless discussions and to get to results in a very efficient and time-saving way. Since then, I also attended various „real“ meetings. While I am still fascinated by the very different approach, I must admit that it will probably take some time to feel confident following the format. Also, Holacracy is very much focused on the roles themselves, not the role-fillers. I do understand that the intention is to remove all ego-related influence from a meeting. Only that way it is possible to get to the result that is best for the company and not dependent upon personal sensitivities, but I guess I still have to internalize this separation between me as a person and the roles I am filling. As a consequence, sometimes the official meetings still feel a bit „cold“ to me. Luckily, quite the opposite is true for any interaction and communication outside of official meetings, so I´m sure it won´t be too difficult to get used to it!

Teal organizations are compared to organisms comprising organs and cells, opposed to being like factories consisting of bricks. They are a living thing, constantly evolving, and every cell contributes to well-being and development. I love that analogy: Relationships between colleagues are based on mutual empowerment. Every single employee is important and provided with anything they need to be in the best state they can possibly be in. That way, they are engaged and motivated, and all employees work together towards the same goal – fulfilling the company purpose.

Being self-managed means to plan our own work, to set tasks and prioritize them autonomously, to coordinate actions with co-workers, to inform anyone influenced by our decisions and to keep ourselves informed about anything that relates to our tasks – all of this while challenging everything against our purpose, continuously trying to grow both on a personal and a professional level and to improve the company as a whole. At EMPAUA, we are encouraged to think about how we want to develop and what we want to achieve, to set goals to live up to and to surpass ourselves again and again. If this is supposed to be successful, constant self-reflection is necessary.

Feedback

A healthy feedback culture is important in any company. In a setup that is not built on traditional hierarchy – meaning there are no bosses and there will be no judgement or evaluation from above – it is essential that we proactively ask for feedback. It removes our blindspots and gives us the opportunity to learn and become better.

As the EMPAUA company purpose is all about empowering others to constantly grow, we should also give feedback. In order for this to have a positive impact, this needs to be done in a constructive way, though: We have to give feedback in a timely manner so the other person can still remember the situation in question and – even more importantly – we have to be as precise as possible and back it with examples, so they can relate to our point of view.

In general, feedback should be considered as a present, not an evil: Be thankful if someone gives you the chance to grow and give feedback with the goal to motivate others, not to stress their shortcomings.

By the way, let´s not forget that sometimes feedback does not even involve improvement potential, but is just about appreciation. In my experience, much too often feedback is only given after having faced some kind of problem. Isn´t that sad? Who does not enjoy to hear they performed really well at a task? At EMPAUA, we have an appreciation channel in our team chat and people are thanking each other for successful holiday replacements, projects that have been delivered in exceptional teamwork, or sometimes for just being there when they needed advice, be it on a professional or personal level. I can´t help but smile everytime I read a new post in this channel, it is a great way to focus on the bright side and to practice positive communication.

For me, feedback has always been crucial, so being part of a company culture that actively promotes its importance feels great!

Nonviolent Communication

Nonviolent communication (NVC) can be a useful tool to give feedback in the most beneficial way. It is an approach developed by Marshall B. Rosenberg in the 1960s and is based on the understanding that people only resort to violence (social, psychological or physical) when they haven´t been taught more effective strategies for obtaining their needs. According to the practice, problems should be addressed focusing on four components. The first one is observation – describing the situation in question as it really is or was, without any judgement, to lay a common ground both parties can relate to without sparking discussion already. The next step is to express the feelings that came up in this situation, not making any assumptions in the process. After that, the underlying needs which have not been fulfilled and therefore triggered the feelings should be stated. The last component is a request, which is basically the strategy through which we can get our needs met, for example asking the other person if they would be willing to do something or finding a compromise that will meet both our own and our counterpart´s needs.

The objective of nonviolent communication is not to change people and their behavior in order to get our way: it is to establish relationships based on honesty and empathy, which will eventually fulfill everyone´s needs.” 
― Marshall Rosenberg

During the onboarding week, we were provided with some materials on the topic and started to practice. Being myself very emotional and having a hard time taking a step back before reacting when encountering difficult situations, I feel NVC is a very relevant technique to deescalate them. At the beginning, this is probably easier when there is no reaction needed right away – that way the emotions can calm down and it´s possible to reflect on the feelings and needs involved, possibly already trying to see the situation from the other person´s point of view. But even then I find it very challenging – I guess learned behaviour is not so easy to shake off, particularly when emotions are involved!

At EMPAUA, it is used in the monthly Partner Relations Meetings, where – apart from reflecting on the achievements of the last weeks and an appreciation round – interpersonal tensions can be processed. I haven´t attended one yet (so far we are only three employees in the Munich office), but I´m glad I´ve been introduced to the concept and will try to start implementing it in both private and work life.

Closing reflections

In only 5 weeks, I have been given so much to think about and to reflect upon that it almost feels overwhelming. There are so many questions that are coming up: What is my own personal purpose (and why on earth have I never asked myself that before)? How can I serve both EMPAUA´s and mine? What can I give to EMPAUA and what can the company give me? What exactly are my goals and how can I reach them? How can I serve the purpose of my roles best?… Now counting in all the new tasks and content I am familiarizing myself with on the side my head is swirling, but I can already tell that I will learn a lot while working at EMPAUA. It will make me stretch or overcome boundaries that will maybe turn out to be merely self-imposed. It will push me to experiment, to question myself and my choices constantly and to readjust when something is not going in the right direction. Working like this, I think it is almost impossible not to learn about myself and – as a necessary consequence – grow as a person. I know it will be difficult sometimes, perhaps even uncomfortable, but it is a challenge I am very much looking forward to facing.

Source: Photo by Samuel Zeller on unsplash.com

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