4 Powerful Lessons To Successfully Run A Self-Managed Company
A few months ago we received a message from one of the co-founders of a Dutch consultancy firm explaining us their unique way of working. Their name? Rebel Group, what a coincidence! With such a beautiful name it seemed just a matter of time for us to visit them and learn more about their unique approach of organizing the firm.
So, a few months later we find ourselves travelling to the Dutch city of Rotterdam where Rebel has its headquarters. Together with co-founder Jeroen in 't Veld and the recently joined Rachida Abdellaoui we explored their unique way of working. During the visit we discussed at length how the leadership of the firm passes on the culture and vision to the company's new generation of rebels. But what is it that we can learn from this rebellious consultancy firm?
1. Deliberately pass on the culture
Explaining the roots and the unique DNA of Rebel to the new recruits seems of utmost importance to the organization. It is therefore that co-founder Jeroen plays a crucial role during the on-boarding process. This is a powerful practice we witnessed before during our visit to Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Jeroen: “During the onboarding process I facilitate a module where I share and teach the complete history of the company and the mistakes we learned along the way. I tell the newcomers why we started Rebel in the first place and why we were so frustrated by the way our previous consultancy firm was run. I tell them about the fact that we were committed to start an organization which felt fair and inspiring to work for.
But I don’t only share the positive stories I also have a strong focus on some of the biggest mistakes we made. Because constantly developing yourself will only work when you are able to learn from your mistakes. By explaining my mistakes, and more importantly, by sharing what we learned from them, I show the newcomers that failing is allowed and something to learn from. I try to stimulate the new rebels to try new things and I dare them to fail.”
2. Restrain natural reflexes
When Rebel was founded, the co-founders knew that they wanted to structure their firm completely different than the traditional organizations they were used too. It was their frustration with strict hierarchies that sparked their radical decision. During their first few years they decided to develop an organization without any form of structural hierarchy.
Jeroen: "It is our belief that the way of working within Rebel should be informal and non-hierarchical. Our organizational structure should help, not hinder. This belief was seriously tested when we grew over 45 people. The call for middle management started to increase severely in some pockets of the organization. This was a crucial moment for us as co-founders to actively share our vision with the entire organization to inspire them to challenge the status-quo and to start thinking outside the box.”
They found their solution after being inspired by the cell structure developed by the Dutch pioneer Eckart Wintzen. Collectively they decided to abolish the idea of structural hierarchy and started to break down the organization in cells of around 10 people. In the meantime, Rebel grew over 120 people without establishing any formal form of structural hierarchy.
A natural reflex to introduce management layers
The internal call for the need of control and the introduction of middle management (mostly when organizations reach the size of about 40 employees) is what we encounter more often. It seems to be a common reaction of organizations to add a layer (or layers) of management when they grow. Companies like Rebel, previous post we explained extensively an alternative approach called "networks of teams".
3. Boost entrepreneurship by sharing ownership
Nowadays, at Rebel, whenever someone has an inspiring idea within the boundaries of the mission of the organization, the holding will invest in the birth and development of this new independent cell. The cell structure enables them to promote such internal initiatives, which in turn leads to a rapid and constant organizational evolution.
But there are more ways that Rebel promotes initiative and entrepreneurship. Jeroen: “We decided to further stimulate entrepreneurship. We are strongly convinced that people who create value should be able to share in the profits and we therefore decided to give everyone the possibility to become a shareholder. This implies that we, as co-founders, own less shares every single year. But we feel that it leads to something much more powerful: shared ownership and therefore more entrepreneurship.”
4. Focus on maintaining the culture
Rachida: “To work in this structure of cells without any formal hierarchy isn’t easy. We work in different teams on multiple projects. Without a functional structure we are dependent on the interaction between people and personal contact simply takes time. People have to make their own decisions as there are no leaders making decision for them."
"And most of the time when you see friction within the teams, it is because they don’t see each other enough", Jeroen adds. "That’s why there are two important roles in all teams, not obligated, but most of the time this starts organically.”
Jeroen: “First of all we see someone in the team taking care of the culture. This is often someone who has been part of the Rebel culture for multiple years, someone who can explain the ‘why’ of working without hierarchy, and someone who strongly embodies our values and vision. It is most often one of the co-founders or someone who has been with us from the beginning.
Then there is often someone that takes care of the team spirit. We are talking about a rebel with excellent skills in stimulating the team. Someone who makes sure that people within the team talk and interact with each other. This person naturally takes care of the group dynamics. To give you an example: this person takes the initiative for a shared lunch once he or she feels it’s time to do so.”
When Jeroen and Rachida explain the dynamics of their self-managed cells, words of various other Bucket List companies echo in our minds. When there is no artificial hierarchy, there is room for a natural hierarchy to arise. People take the lead on subjects they feel comfortable taking the lead; in this case on cultural or interpersonal aspects. Instead of a structure that appoints one person to take the lead on everything, self-managed allows opportunity for multiple leaders to step up. Each in their own area of expertise.
Continuing the rebellion
While we end our interviews at Rebel, we talk about their upcoming 15 year anniversary. And while growing further, another important moment in time for the organization most likely arises. Their growth to over 150 rebels (a critical number we come across frequently) will most certainly lead to new obstacles and new challenges with their extraordinary (and successful) structure. But, as Ari Weinzweig wisely said to us, "success means you get better problems".
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How are work outcomes affected by the treatment of those who do it? I have been exploring this question for ~50 years. In that time, one comment stuck with me more than any other. It was made in 1998 when I interviewed a group of men in Indianapolis who had redesigned most of the US city’s waste collection and disposal operations. “We are no longer expected to park our brains at the door when we come to work.”
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