Episode 1: Accelerating Strategy through Employee Experience

Cathal Divilly

In the first episode of The Red Cube podcast, Great Place to Work CEO Cathal Divilly is joined by Jarlath Dooley, People Success Director with Version 1. Together they discuss working during the pandemic, and more specifically, how to build gratifying organisational cultures through HR practices, and people strategies which support growing businesses. You will hear about how to attract talent in a competitive marketplace and will learn about Version 1’s core values and leadership styles. Jarlath also delivers some tips around navigating ego in the workplace.



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> In this podcast


Jarlath Dooley

People Success Director

Version 1


Cathal Divilly


Great Place to Work Ireland


> Transcript

Cathal Divilly: Hello and welcome to this episode of The Red Cube that looks to explore all topics around workplace culture and employee experience. We are delighted to be joined by a good friend of Great Place to Work for many years: the People Success Director from Version 1, Jarlath Dooley. Jarlath, you’re very welcome.

Jarlath Dooley: Thank you Cathal, and delighted to be here and delighted to be called a friend of the Great Place to Work.


Cathal Divilly: Jarlath, how are you? How are you getting on with lockdown?

Jarlath Dooley: You know, sometimes, when you're answering this question, you're conscious that a lot of people are really struggling with it. I think I've been very fortunate to work in an industry that's doing well through lockdown. And that's the IT industry. And I think, very fortunate to work in a company like Version 1 that, you know, has invested so much in the Great Place to Work over the years, which meant we were probably well able to cope with what it threw at us. And the fact we made the Best Workplace list again this year shows we did something right through COVID. So in terms of work, it's been generally a positive experience. And obviously outside of that, just trying to find ways to keep myself occupied. And in a world where there isn't much variety in terms of what you can do! As I said, I just think I'm very lucky with where I am.


Cathal Divilly: Yeah, it's interesting Jarlath context is everything right? So in a way we're so lucky to have work to be doing, and to be talking about and conscious of a lot of pressures that different industries are under. Jarlath, I think a great place to sort of start would be if you could give our listeners a sense as to your own career journey to date and, and as well, Version 1, an exciting organisation: be great for our listeners to learn more about who Version 1 are.

Jarlath Dooley: Yeah, I won't go on too long on it. But I will kind of go back to when I was in college. And that's a long time ago. But you know, what caught me was that the vast majority of people moaned about work and the companies they worked for. And at that time work seemed like a sentence rather than a choice. And it was very much external to living, you know? You lived outside of work, and you kind of numbed yourself through work. So that's why I chose HR as the field to specialise in and, you know, in a hope, and a bid to try and change this and create cultures where work was something people actually enjoyed and got much more from than just a paycheque.

And I think my early years in banking, and American multinational taught me that it's hard to change these ones, they're just too big and set in their way. So I opted for early stage high growth Irish IT companies, and Version 1 is my third one of these, and I joined it 13 years ago. The reason I joined us, and it was a no-brainer, was because the CEO, current CEO Tom O'Connor, and the founders at the time, believed that in order to get to the next level of growth, they needed to put people centre of their strategy. And they were very strong on operations and customers and profitability. They brought me in to, to kind of balance that out on the people side. And we were about 120 people back then. And today we are over 1400. So I like to think that it was a good decision by them at the time and that that people strategy has been central to that growth.

You know, one thing I've always looked to do in my career is to move outside of HR. So HR has always been the central role and my passion. But I've also been responsible for Marketing, IT, Business Systems, Premises… and in Version 1 Acquisitions is a part of our growth. So, I lead the Integration side as well. And I think that's really important because HR should understand the business in its entirety. I think too many HRDs I meet don't step outside their comfort zone, and take on other aspects of the business. And I think this limits their impact and influence on the business. So, while my passion is HR, and within that, building great cultures, I've always made sure I've kept my hand in other parts of the business so I fully understand it.


Cathal Divilly: So a broad, broad range of experience across all functions of the business Jarlath which allows a better command of the people role, I'm sure as well. One thing that always fascinated me, Jarlath from our early conversations was the strategic approach that Version 1 and you have always taken to your people and your culture. How do you go about building that HR strategy or that People strategy?

Jarlath Dooley: I think I sort of alluded to it in the last question that the first strategic HR decision was to put People on an equal footing to other aspects of the business strategy. And that was the decision to bring me in at the time. And what came out of that was our strategic triangle, which is an equilateral triangle of Customers, People and Organisational strength. And those who are familiar with our logo will now understand why it is a triangle! Because our brand, that triangle represents how we operate the business.

So once you put your People strategy on that level, it just follows on all things People become strategic. And a key decision was to build a culture that would attract the best talent as we grew. And a framework and a measure of this, we decided, would be the Great Place to Work framework, we decided that 13 years ago. It took us three years to make it to the list for the first time, here we are 10 years in row later. And key to that was understanding what made us successful, what made us different, the result of that was documenting what we call the V1 Difference, essentially, the DNA of Version 1.

And in that our core values emerge very strongly, our balanced approach to Customers, People, and creating a strong Organisation: that strategic triangle I spoke about. Our mission of making a difference to our customers businesses. So this understanding, really underpinned all our HR strategy over the years. In my view it was essential element in building a sustainable growth business like we've done. So I think it's that foundation made it easy to layer on specific HR strategies as we went along over the years.


Cathal Divilly: Brilliant, so that strong strategic intent from the from the beginning. And Jarlath, you touched upon there, you know, just over 100 employees to 1400 employees and acquisitions being part of the strategic growth of the business. How do you sort of, do you have any checks in place in terms of ensuring that you're protecting and building the culture as you grow and scale so fast?

Jarlath Dooley: People talk a lot about culture. But my own experience, I don’t into see that much in terms of designing the ways of working around their culture. And very often, the stated culture and the ways of working are very different. We built all of our HR strategy around underpinning and nurturing our culture.

So for example, when you're growing fast, hiring is critically important. So we ensured that we put in place the measures to both attract and hire the right people to fit our culture. We introduced the Core Values into the hiring process right back at the employer brand. And then right through the selection process, our performance management reflects our culture of Drive. And we were very early adopters of quarterly conversations or quarterly reviews as, as others call them, and quarterly objectives. Our No Ego Core Value is reflected in not only in office design, but in our org structure and our leadership style. Our Excellence Core Value is evident in our Rewards and Recognition programmes we run internally. Our Honesty and Integrity Core Value underpins the design of our open communications approach.

And then that that balanced approach I talked about, of Customers and People and strong Organisation is reflected in our org design where we've taken a 1400 person organisation and divided roughly into 35 mini self-directed triangles: 35 teams who are completely responsible for managing and improving the Customer, People and strong Organisation sides of their own areas, you know, we’ll probably touch on things like Trust and Empowerment later, but they were the key foundation blocks to be able to have those self-directed teams. So it's by building your culture into what you do every day and every quarter and measuring results against that. That's the check for me.


Cathal Divilly: I have to ask: the No Ego value. Talk to me a bit more about that value.

Jarlath Dooley: Yeah. And I think… there is a book by Ryan Holiday called ‘Ego is the Enemy’. And we've seen it in many organisations and many establishments, where ego has actually destroyed them. And often it's just put down to ego at the top, but it's actually ego in the culture. So No Ego is basically about keeping yourself grounded. You know, inverting the I, Team, and Company: where it becomes actually Customer, Company, Team and then I. So you're always looking to what your customer needs. You're looking to what's right for the company, you're looking for what's best for your team, and then what's best for you. And I think that No Ego value is what has really engendered the family feel, and we're all in this together, and no one is better above anybody else.

And that's when I say it was reflected in terms of office design, org structure, leadership style. So there would have been no difference in benefits for the execs, managers, people. We all sat at the same type of desks. If you booked a meeting room and the CEO is in the room two minutes over his schedule you can go in and say ‘time to get out, I’ve this booked’. So it's right in everything we do.

It's probably one where external senior hires have probably struggled the most, where people haven't stayed with Version 1 at that level, very often it may be down to coming from organisations where that element of ego was there. I think all of the core values are equally important, but I actually have always placed a great emphasis on the No Ego value. Because I think it's what is the foundation of something we’ll touch on later of psychological safety of work. And it's I think it's been a key difference for us.


Cathal Divilly: And Jarlath on a webinar last year, you joined us on a webinar last year. And you said one thing that really interested me, you said that the positioning almost of the culture in Version 1 is about building a Great Place to Work, not an easy place to work. What do you what do you mean by that?

Jarlath Dooley: Again, this is linked to our core values, and three of them, yeah three of them that come out in this way is Excellence, Drive, and Personal Commitment. If you think about them, they are not easy to live every day. Excellence is something you strive for, and seldom achieve, but you just have to, whether it's in sports, or business or personal life, it's something you strive to do, but it's hard to hit every day.

You know, we as you said, we've grown from just over 100 to 1400 people that takes a lot of Drive. And what Personal Commitment means you will do what you say you'll do, to the quality you said you’d do it, in the time you said you do it. And again, you know, you're held to account on that. So those are our high values to live up to: on top of this financial performance is not enough, because we have that equilateral triangle, so we look for equal performance on the Customer and the People side, as seen in our 10 years as a Best Workplace record. And then on top of this is that growth ambition.

When you put all that together, none of these come easy. And they provide a constant challenge and require huge amount of passion and energy and drive to achieve. So for people who want to be challenged, and to be their best and to develop their potential, it's a Great Place to Work. But it isn't going to be easy, you know, but then that type of person doesn't want it easy. And I felt it was very important we put that into our employer brand, because if you're going to be hiring 2, 3, 400 people a year, you want to be getting your message to the people that you want to attract. So it's not about volume of applications, it's about attracting the right people in and we know the type of person that's successful in Version 1. And it's the people with whom that resonates. So I think it's been a very powerful aid to our employer brand in terms of attracting the right people.


Cathal Divilly: Yeah, and there's an authenticity to the employer brand around that where people aren't, there's no shocks for people, they understand what's coming their way. They know Version 1 is a place that absolutely will build the right environment for them to be at their best. But there's also a performance element there as well Jarlath.

Jarlath I know you have a lot of people managers, and as we know, often somebody’s experience with work is dependent on the people manager that they report into. And like every organisation, right, we all have a mix of people managers in terms of ability and capability. Any specific approaches you have around supporting your people managers to be at their best for their teams?

Jarlath Dooley: You know, I think one of the things that's common in organisations is promoting the high performing ‘hero’ types into leadership roles. And we did that ourselves in for many years. And as we started to scale, once we understood that DNA of Version 1, we built a leadership problem around it called Strength in Balance. And that is teaching our leaders about what the levers are, how we operate on each one, how the core values are the foundation of everything.

Where we've been moving to, is from excellent business managers who focus on task, plans, organisation, results, to a more balanced leader that still does that, But is more empathetic, is encouraging creativity and ideation; that is empowering their people to take risks, and to push the boat out; and that has, as well as the head is also leading with the heart.

So that is our Strength in Balance programme that, you know has helped us promote almost exclusively from within. So we now have leaders who are embedded in our culture, who thoroughly understand it and then have been given the tools and the coaching around balanced leadership. And it's something this year we will be investing quite a lot in because the growth trajectory looks that it's going to continue and we need a lot more leaders. So it's a core part of I think the success of having those self-directed teams is having that Strength in Balance programme and promoting from within.


Cathal Divilly: And Jarlath I'm fascinated by things that don't work as well right, so as we know right, we introduce practices and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't work. Any example of a practice that has been introduced in Version 1 on the People side that perhaps didn't work as well as you had hoped?

Jarlath Dooley: Yeah we all like to forget our failures, good question. Anything that is ad hoc or unplanned or sporadic is probably not going to work. The ones that have worked are the ones that we put the most considered thought into and that were more linked to the strategy. We had very good flexibility in our policies, but while we had flex policies, we were still of an office-based mindset, and fixed ways of working. And COVID taught us that things we had done, again maybe ad hoc or sporadic in relation to flexibility, laid the foundation for being to adapt quickly to COVID, but certainly wasn't as good as we thought it was. I think anything we did which was superficial and wasn't authentic to our culture, and authentic to our strategy, didn't work and anything that was core to it was hugely successful.


Cathal Divilly: Great and it's back to that piece at the start Jarlath which is, you know the importance of taking a strategic approach to the to the initiatives that we look at: and speaking about practices that that do work, we were fascinated in Great Place to Work by the practice ‘The Shadow Board’. Loved reading all about it. For our listeners, Jarlath, you might let them in on what the Shadow Board practice was.

Jarlath Dooley: Yeah… and when first mooted, it was one of those mad ideas that you said ‘you know what, there’s something in this’, but the Shadow Board is basically… and I don't want to just link to diversity although there is a strong link there… but it was saying, ‘okay, we have a number of senior leaders who are of a certain age profile and tenure in the business’. The risk of groupthink and the risk of fixed mindset is obvious and real when you have that tenure together and you're all of that common age group and even one primary gender. So what we said was, we put together a group of younger people, not long in the business, under the age of 30, that was balanced and mixed from across the business, and gender balanced, and always balanced, and that will be a ‘Shadow Board’ that would work with our Corporate Board.

So we didn't at the time anticipate COVID when we put it in place! And it was a brilliant sounding board in terms of seeking their opinion on everything from remote working and how we could make that better, to right up to saying to them ‘okay we want to protect everybody in the business and we want to protect the strong organisation side, so we're not going to pay a profit share… we're thinking about paying profit share this quarter, just keeping that fund in reserve in case times get tough, what do you think of that?’ and getting their feedback on and they would come back say ‘anything you can do to protect jobs is the right thing to do, and here's other costs you can cut.’

It's not… it wasn't just a lip service group we created that we communicated ‘this is what the business is doing’ to, it was an equal sounding board where we told them what we were thinking, what we were going, and got their feedback. And then that fed into how we communicate with people, it changed some of the decisions we made, and helped us greatly with that transition to digital because most of these guys and girls are of that digital era. And, you know, were able to help some of those dinosaurs see how easy it could be. And so it's been fantastic.

I’ve seen the growth and these people, it's almost back to my earlier point of me as a HRD, getting experienced in Marketing and IT and running integrations. All of these people, they've all got an exposure to the business that mightn’t get for another five years, and an exposure to the full C-suite and Board and they've just grown so much. So, you know, we've had a number of our customers actually come and ask us about it, and we're helping them set them up because they see the benefit in it as well. And we certainly have seen great success, and we're delighted to win that Inspiring award for it, so thanks for that!


Cathal Divilly: No, very, very well deserved. What a great demonstration of listening, and what a great developmental opportunity for people who were part of the Shadow Board. Any example Jarlath of where you posed the topic to the Shadow Board, and you changed tack or went with something different?

Jarlath Dooley: So we work in quarters, so Q2 last year was… you know, we all went in March on remote working and Quarter Two was the most uncertain quarter, you know, to share with a group of mainly junior staff, the thinkings around, pay freezes, and not paying profit share, cutting costs, you know, took a lot of trust on behalf of the senior team because that could have resulted in a massive rumour machine in the organisation, you know ‘oh god, they're going to cut everything’.

And then their feedback about, you know, how we how we handled things like, you know, because at the time, for example, nobody was booking holidays, so how we could encourage people to still book their holiday. So we didn't end up with 50,000 days holidays at the end of the year. They reassured us that not paying the profit share was the right thing to do. But to hold that fund, and if things improve later in the year to pay it and that's what happened. So we paid it actually in November. So it was a good time for people to get it coming up to Christmas. But you know, it was it was their feedback on those very sensitive issues at a time that shaped our thinking.


Cathal Divilly: Super demonstration of trust and, and putting a meaty topic to the Shadow Board is so good to see. Jarlath we're almost coming to our time together: you might indulge me for a few minutes, just we like to have a bit of fun at Great Place to Work as you know. And this is the ‘getting to know Jarlath a little bit better’ round so I might just throw some questions at you Jarlath, whatever comes to your head you might my shout back at me. So first is… for Jarlath Dooley: Netflix or TV?

Jarlath Dooley: Oh, Netflix. I haven’t watched TV and in… two years, I think. Most of the documentaries on Netflix are brilliantly done. I don't do the box sets of series. And so the documentaries are it for me.


I think I'm on watching Narcos for the fifth time again.

Jarlath Dooley: All right! Actually there’s one of the moment on entry to colleges in the US, brilliant documentary, true story: it's hard to believe it when you watch it, but there's a lot in there about ego that people can learn just how dangerous it is, so I'd encourage that one.


Cathal Divilly: Very good, we must check that out. Resources that you would use Jarlath, in terms of if you're looking for some stimulus around culture or people. Any particular resources you like to use?

Jarlath Dooley: Anything I can read but but there is one particular part podcast / show, which is Impact Theory with Tom Bilyeu. And he has some amazing amazing guests on it that can teach us all a lot about culture, success, getting through hard times, motivation. It's a brilliant show, I find it super informative.


Cathal Divilly: Great suggestion Jarlath. Thank you for that, and you spoke at the very start Jarlath about a career history starting off I think in banks, and then moving to sort of a high-growth start-up type businesses. Any advice that you would have for a Jarlath Dooley starting out on his career?

Jarlath Dooley: Never turn down an opportunity for extra experience would be my first advice, and linked to that is don't get caught in trying to master your comfort zone. And a lot of people do try and master the current job. Doing that is important, but I would say always have one foot outside the comfort zone. That's where the growth comes.


Cathal Divilly: Great advice, Jarlath. Jarlath, we really appreciate your partnership over the years and into the future from Great Place to Work’s point of view. And thank you very much for joining us today.

Jarlath Dooley: Thank you Cathal and the team. It's been, as you said, a partnership over the 13 years and it’s certainly made a difference to our business and to my job as well. So thank you, guys.