Tuesday morning, 9th of February. We’re heading towards Harderwijk in the morning rain, a small city in the center of Holland. Joost looks like a professional racing driver with his leather gloves. He isn’t though. He’s in the passenger seat and we’re driving a car with a broken heating. It’s freezing inside the car and the emerging carnival-cold doesn’t help much either. We are on our way to meet Carin Wormsbecher, owner of a company called Drukkerij Wedding, and hero on our bucket list.
Google Maps helps us to navigate our way to the industrial area of Harderwijk. The industrial area makes us a bit uncertain of what to expect. Typically, these areas are not the most inspiring locations to visit. And remember: we are here to visit a company we believe is one of the most inspiring workplaces of Holland! Once we arrive at Drukkerij Wedding and park the car our doubts remain. The building doesn’t look very different from the rest of the grayish, square-shaped, industrial properties. We walk towards the entrance, a bit skeptical.
A warm welcome
We open the door and enter the building. The contrast with the surrounding industrial area couldn’t be any bigger. Our hypothermic bodies enjoy the comfortable warmth, while the friendly ambiance of the interior provides us with another warm blanket. In this place there is no designated secretary welcoming us. Instead, the first person who happens to spot us gets up, greets us and makes us feel welcome. We tell him about our meeting with Carin and he guides us directly to a nearby room. The room feels and looks like a living room; a couch, book shelf’s, a big rug, and a large table (see picture at the top). Carin is working with her laptop on the couch and looks rather surprised when she observes us. “I didn’t expect such young guys! I didn’t know young people are also interested in this kind of stuff. That’s good news!” By the first impression of the warm welcome and the glowing enthusiasm of Carin, we sense that this is going to be an inspiring meeting.
It’s the little things that matter
Before we continue, let’s make a quick side step and compare this warm welcome with a welcome we encountered recently at another company. The same circumstances: industrial area, cold and rainy morning, freezing car ride (yes, the heating is already broken for a while). Before we could enter the parking lot, we needed to ring a bell. The gate turned out to be broken, so we were supposed to find a parking spot somewhere else. Once we finally managed to find a parking spot, we needed to ring another bell to enter the building. With no clear sign of where to go, we decided to just walk up the stairs. We stumbled upon another closed door with a note that read: “phone the person you have a meeting with to open the door for you”. So, we phoned our contact person. Once she opened the door, we mentioned that getting into this building might be harder than getting into a high security prison. She agreed and mentioned that because of cost savings the secretaries were fired. This ought to explain the closed doors, empty secretary desks, and unwelcoming feeling.
This small example shows how two different companies approach the same situation. In the example lies an important difference that can heavily influence the atmosphere in an organization. With this in mind, try to think of such small things that might be making or breaking the atmosphere and therefore the happiness in your organization.
The unusual story of Carin Wormsbecher
Back to Carin. Her enthusiastic welcome sets the scene for an inspiring meeting. She makes us coffee (which actually tastes good, a rare experience for ‘office coffee’) and fires away lots of questions about our project and how we ended up at her company. While we tell our personal stories, we notice her sincere interest in what we do and why we do it. Once the conversation evolves, it’s time for Carin to start with her unusual story.
Drukkerij Wedding is a printing-house that was founded a long time back in 1844. Carin’s husband used to lead the company and acted as the typical director. He knew and needed to know about everything that was going on and had a strong influence on every decision that needed to be taken. While her husband led the company, Carin worked actively along his side. However, she never expected to be able to run the company (consisting of 30 employees at the time) due to a lack of knowledge and self-confidence. Sadly her husband passed away suddenly in 2001. Prompt, Carin became the single owner of the company. The way she handled her given role is remarkable and different from what you’d expect. Shortly after her husbands passing, she decided to sit down with the entire staff to discuss the future of the printing-house. She openly manifested her vulnerability by stating that she was not capable of running the company the way her husband used to. Instead of one person calling the shots, she wanted to involve all the employees in making the important decisions. Besides that, she wanted to stress the fact that the survival of Wedding was highly dependent on the employees themselves. She strongly believed that if they would just focus on their own job and expect Carin to do the rest, failure would be unavoidable.
A purpose worth fighting for
Looking back, a radical change was set in motion after this defining moment. By giving her employees the responsibility for the survival of the company, Carin instantly created a common purpose that was worth fighting for. Instead of following orders and relying on Carin’s husband, they themselves could finally use their skills and creativity to ensure the continuity of the company (and therefore their jobs). As we’ve seen in many books, the creation of a strong common purpose is one of the defining factors of successful employee engagement. (More on the benefits of having a strong common purpose can be found in one of our earlier blogs.)
Carin passionately describes the importance of this first step that she took. Her passion and enthusiasm are contagious. We are watching a woman who has developed herself through a big personal loss. She states; “if my younger self would look at me right now, she would not belief what she saw”. We smile and try to imagine how different Carin used to be. Frankly, we simply can’t.
At the same time, we realize how the environment of a person influences the way they grow. Imagine all the untapped potential of people who are working in an environment as Carin used to work in; strict hierarchy, fixed roles, few responsibilities. The personal journey and human development of Carin is a great example of why companies that liberate their employees are so successful. The provided freedom, purpose, and responsibility are the perfect breeding ground for personal growth and human development.
As you notice, again there’s lots we want to share with you. In the second part of this blog post we share more of our experiences and learnings in Harderwijk. We describe you some of the surprising practices of Drukkerij Wedding’s production floor. And we discuss the areas in which Carin states that they still have to develop and grow. Read part 2 of this blog post here.