Employees First, Customers Second, Shareholders Last
The success story of Dutch finance company Viisi.
Viisi specialize in mortgage advice. They were founded in December 2010. Their purpose? To change the world of finance, to make their industry better, more sustainable and more focused on the long term. Amen to that.
Tom van der Lubbe, co-founder of Viisi, attended our first Rebel Event in 2017. Since then, we have had many conversations. As a trained historian, Tom likes to argue his points using timeless concepts like the Golden Rule, Enlightenment and Primus Inter Pares.
The Viisi story embraces many of the trends we have talked about over the last few years. They truly walk the talk on things like purpose, network of teams, supportive leadership and radical transparency.
People First model
Viisi's organization is based on a 'people first' principle. This means that they operate with a clear hierarchy of the firm's stakeholders;
- At the top are the Viisi employees—called Viisionairs. They come first as their 'people first' principle prescribes. They believe that if employees are fully motivated and engaged, the rest follows automatically.
- Second are the clients—because fully empowered employees will do their utmost to make customers happy.
- And last come the shareholders—because financial health is needed to build their long-term impact.
Tom: "We really believe that employees should come first, and clients second. We can't expect employees to treat clients well if they are not treated well themselves. However, we can expect that well-treated employees will treat clients well."
As part of their people-first model, Viisionairs are expected to live by the Golden Rule. Tom: "You can find the Golden Rule in many religions. It says you should treat others like you want to be treated yourself. The rest is common sense—there are no other rules."
Fractal organizational structure
Some time ago, Viisi adopted Holacracy as their 'operating model'. Over the years, they moved beyond Holacracy as some of its rules proved to be too dogmatic an approach for running the company. These problems manifested themselves during the organic growth the company experienced and they were dealt with along the way.
But they always held on their decentralization ideals. They still operate with a fractal structure based on circles, an approach very much inspired by Holacracy and Sociocracy. Both are reminders of Matryoshka's, the Russian wooden dolls that decrease in size so they can be placed one inside the other.
Similarly, at Viisi there is an outer circle that decides on the purpose of the company. Within this are smaller self-organizing circles. And within those are self-organizing sub-circles that focus on different goals. However, each sub-circle's goal must align with the circle they are part of. All Viisi employees are in one or more of these circles.
Tom: "In most traditional firms I still mainly see enlightened despotism; everything for the people, nothing by the people. I see powerful leaders who want the best for its employees. The Enlightenment is yet to come, most leaders still have to replace power with reason and democracy. I believe that everything that is large, complex and rapidly changing can only function with decentralized self-organization.
Our organization structure resembles more how democracies are organized. If we compare Viisi with a federal state like Switzerland, then in the largest (outer) circle you have the parliament of the country. Within this are smaller circles for the cantons. Then, in even smaller sub-circles, are municipalities within these cantons."
Most traditional firms show enlightened despotism; everything for the people, nothing by the people.
Primus Inter Pares leadership
Leadership within the circles is based on the principle of Primus Inter Pares, a Latin phrase meaning 'first among equals', dating from its use in the Roman Senate. It has historically been used as an honorary title for someone who is formally equal to others in their group, but is granted unofficial respect. The same happens at Viisi.
Just as in democracies, all circles at Viisi are self-governing, and each has elected delegates who are regularly rotated. In fact, each circle must fulfill two fundamental delegation roles responsible for coordination matters: the role of the so-called Lead Link, and the role of the Rep Link. People in the Lead Link role are responsible for work within their circle. People in the Rep Link role represent their circle to other circles.
Tom: "As a result we created a decentralized organization model in which distributed decision-making happens where knowledge is most vested. In this model, the distribution of decisions is more important than the leaders. Let me illustrate this with a simple question. Can you name me the political leaders of Switzerland, Denmark, Norway or Sweden? Chances are you can't."
At Viisi they aim for the same. If Tom (or any of the other co-founders) leave the company, they expect it to continue with business as usual. They just assume others will take over their leadership roles.
Another progressive practice is a radical focus on transparency. This is manifest in the fact that everything at Viisi is public, unless it could be harmful to the company or employees. Viisi is not only transparent internally, but aims to be transparent to the external world as far as possible.
Two examples: first, the fractal organization structure described above can be viewed via a link on their website (see image below). Anyone can see what circles and roles there are. You can even see who is fulfilling them.
Second, salaries at Viisi have been transparent since 2016. This gave an opportunity for the company to let employees decide their salaries. How else can you set salaries when everyone is 'first among equals'?
They started this process by making salaries transparent internally—for everyone. Then followed rounds of discussion in which employees were allowed to explain what they though would be a fair salary for themselves, and for others. They answered questions like 'What do you think you should earn?', and 'What salary would you assign your colleagues?'
Tom: "This process created some initial fuss, but most tensions disappeared after honest and open discussions."
During the process, a kind of group intelligence emerged. They felt the discussions shifting from self-centered statements like 'I deserve a higher salary', toward questions like 'How do our salaries relate to each other?', and 'How can we best distribute salaries fairly to everyone?'
The result of these discussions was a salary model based on multiple scales. In this model employees decide which scale they think they belong to, often benchmarked against the outside market. An internal rule is salaries of all employees at Viisi should be among the top 25%. Tom: "This might initially seem expensive, but ultimately it is actually the opposite. Because nothing is as expensive as good employees leaving your company."
Viisi also banned bonuses for individual performance—something unique in the financial sector.
Tom: "We banned individual bonuses because we want people to pick up the roles that fit them best, rather than roles that give them the highest bonus or status. Plus, you also want people to give each other peer-feedback that is truly honest, not restricted by fear of financial consequences in the future."
Everything that is large, complex and rapidly changing can only function with decentralized self-management.
The unique and progressive culture at Viisi works well for them. Over the last ten years the now 40 employees of Viisi have issued >7,000 mortgages with a market value of over €2,5 billion.
But perhaps more impressive are the numbers beyond the financials. Their clients give them an average rating of 9.8 out of 10!
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The idea of self-management tends to be received with both interest and cynicism. Amongst the varied reactions, there is one recurring doubt that I hear time and time again. That doubt is deep. That doubt, is trust.