How would it be like to work for a company that doesn’t have a definite hierarchy?

Byborre and The Protein Brewery are two scale-ups with a flat organization and ambidextrous leadership. Discover how they approach holacracy (aka an agile method of organizational structure) in these highlights from the second episode of The Art of Scaling – Real Conversations. Let’s take a look at the speakers:

After studying at Wageningen University, Wim de Laat spent most of his life working on fermentation processes for different companies. Then, he founded The Protein Brewery. Their mission? Provide more sustainable, healthy and affordable high-grade proteins by using only a fraction of available land and water.. Wim says that “growing a company is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and an amazing journey.” 

Arnoud Haverlag has been in the tech scene since he was a teenager, when he started coding. Six years ago he became co-founder and CEO of Byborre, a textile innovation studio working on digitizing the textile sourcing process. Their mission is to revolutionize an industry that “is polluted and broken” by producing sustainable textiles. Arnoud says that “it’s been a humbling journey to be part of a start-up or scale-up”.

During the webinar, Wim de Laat and Arnoud Haverlag answered questions about the advantages and obstacles of getting rid of a classical hierarchy and adopting decentralized leadership in their companies.

Something specific about holacracy is the autonomy of people. What are its key challenges?

Wim: In the companies I worked for, managers took home a large part of the profit. I disliked that all my life, so I decided to become CEO of my own company and organize it in a different way. We considered holacracy, a system with no boss, where you only focus on your purpose. There are very specific roles, but the most difficult part is defining the right role for each person. 

Arnoud: If you have the ambition to scale exponentially, you should have distributed leadership. At Byborre different specialists are welcome to nurture their freedom and expertise. We want to eliminate the definition of “leader” and translate it into a “leadership attitude”. This is a sympathetic model, but there are challenges. Sometimes it’s good to know who your boss is. 

Are your people independently competent or do they rely on other people’s knowledge and expertise?

Wim: With holacracy you assign very specific roles inside a “circle” and each person can offer help in other circles. The process is very flexible, fast and agile. If people have time available they will help other teams.

Arnoud: We also work with “task forces”. Within them, we encourage people to play with situational leadership. We spend lots of time celebrating efficiency within these task forces. And culture plays a key role. As we know, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

How did you manage a holacratic organization from the beginning?

Wim: It was always a part of our culture to assist and care about each other. In order to transform the organization’s structure, we made an implementation team, which worked well. Leadership is everywhere in our company. As with sports teams where there is no definite leader. With holacracy you need to follow a clear purpose, and that’s it.

Arnoud: Every time we onboard new people, we transition. It’s quite difficult to manage, as my role is changing every day. The only way to show that I am learning too is to be transparent and not be afraid of failure. I believe that everyone has some leadership skills, it could be within your discipline, DNA or character type. Leadership is an attitude, not a title. 

How has your Human Resources playbook changed as you scaled up?

Wim: At The Protein Brewery there was a lot to be done in HR, from getting processes in place, to working on the onboarding plan. We dedicated a lot of time to align with the holacratic structure. We implemented a role-based model, which wasn’t based on function, but on problem solving skills. You need to be agile, but you also need to define the process. 

Arnoud: Byborre’s culture changes every day, it’s an evolving thing. We have a clear HR platform which includes interactive dashboards and feedback tools. When the company was small our culture was a WhatApp group. At some point you can’t hustle culture. Today we are evangelists of a clear HR playbook and a solid onboarding process.

Concerning the possibility of employee growth; how can you grow without hierarchy?

Wim: Pien (responsible for People and Organization) built a salary incentive system and career mentorship program for continuous improvement. We want everybody to be in learning mode. Today you can have a certain role in the team, but in two years it could be something completely different. 

Arnoud: The beauty of this system is you can change roles, and there’s always someone with more expertise. Holacracy is very beautiful in theory, but sometimes you need a “leader”. If there’s holacracy, you shouldn’t need a CEO, CTO and so on, but we all know we still do. To completely democratize an organization you need a bit of structure.

What is your personal leadership style? What are you good at?

Wim: I am good at creating an environment where people like to work. Hopefully, I am succeeding in it. As soon as someone doesn’t enjoy working at The Protein Brewery, I think about what I am doing wrong. Every day should be fun and holacracy brings a lot of fun.

Arnoud:  Scaling requires a lot of effort. And if it doesn’t work, it’s not because people are stupid. You have certain elements that you can lift up. There’s the power of dreaming, the power of a compelling vision, and to be naive – that is very important to add to realism and pragmatism. It’s always good to think: what am I good at? What brings me joy?

Scaling a company is like a logarithmic curve. In the first part of their life, children learn so fast, but unfortunately that curve flattens with time. Whereas technology has the opportunity to grow exponentially. So in a scale-up we are trying to build an organism that scales rapidly with creatures that can only learn logarithmically. So in that way is a non-human process and it makes it an unforgettable journey, if you succeed or not.

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