Recent events have compelled nonprofit organizations to change the way they get work done, how they deliver their services, and what they do to achieve a more just and equitable society. So, The Business of Giving has connected with those organizations that are doing this exceptionally well in a segment we call: The Paths Forward. Because there is more than just one way.
Denver: In this edition of The Paths Forward we’ll speak with team members at Simprints. The company builds biometric fingerprint technology for use by governments, NGOs, and nonprofits for people in the developing world who lack proof of legal identity.
We’ll start with their CEO, Toby Norman, and the importance he places on bringing great talent on board.
Toby Norman: I think at the end of the day, actually in my heart of hearts, I’m an HR nerd. To me, talent is the most important part of my role. I think it’s one of the most important factors in determining whether or not Simprints and the work and the mission we’re trying to achieve will be successful. There’s nothing that will make a bigger difference in our success than having great people on board. So, I spent a lot of my time and a lot of my headspace thinking about that, and I’m lucky to work with a phenomenal group of advisors, mentors and supporters to get through that.
Denver: As Jim Collins famously said a great culture starts by getting the right people on the bus. Simprints does that through an extraordinary hiring process and Eje and Chris illustrate.
Eje: And I want to talk about how I was recruited into Simprints because I just think I’ve never experienced that anywhere else. I’m a person of fairly advanced years and so I have recruited and been recruited a number of times, and this is the most unique experience. And what it was, it was a very long process, it’s very in-depth, it was hours. But what I really felt was I felt like it wasn’t just Simprints interviewing me, it was me interviewing Simprints. Now, lots of organizations almost have the attitude that you should be grateful. There are lots of people out there looking for work, so you should be grateful to be offered this opportunity. And I thought that it was a conversation. I actually sat there and after about the first hour or so, I just totally forgotten I was in an interview situation because it was just talking about myself and what motivates me and where I would see myself fitting in the organization, how I would develop.
And it was a wonderful experience. And it actually made me feel like I really want to go work there and I would have been. I think for the first time in a long time, I would have been really disappointed if I hadn’t been offered the role and even the job offer came with some virtual post-it notes, but saying from different people who I’ve spoken to through the interview process. And that’s the other thing as well, I didn’t just speak to an interview panel. I speak to people who would form my team and also people who are just members of the organization that I don’t necessarily work directly with.
Chris: So, I think, again, because we measure getting the job done and not necessarily how it’s done, people can work around their schedules, which actually has allowed a really good work-life balance so people can do the school runs if they need to, if people work better in the evenings, in the mornings or whatever, and actually, as we are remote now, our talent pool is no longer geographically constrained, which it would have been originally. So actually, now, we can look for people who are brilliant and what we need for the company rather than where we’re based.
Obviously, what comes with that also is the advantage of diversity in the people. So myself, my team, I think of the seven, I think they’re in five countries, which is great, because you get these different perspectives. You’re not culturally constrained in the thought process.
Denver: Psychological safety at Simprints starts with the vulnerability of Leadership and a sense that everyone is on the same team as Reeham and Luca explain.
Reham: So, in terms of psychological safety, in Simprints, we know the best way to give that safety to people is for the leadership team to be okay with being vulnerable, to be okay with showing their mistakes and to be vocal about their mistakes.
From my career in Simprints and before, that usually works like a magic trick to make people feel secured because if my boss can make these mistakes and everything is okay, that means it’s okay for me to make mistakes as well. It’s just as simple as that. In addition to that, in Simprints, the way we try and help people feel psychologically safe, especially when you’re remote, you’re sitting alone in the room, you’re thinking about something that you think you’ve done wrong, and what are other people now thinking about it or I will not be trusted ever again to do this by myself. And all of these invasive thoughts that come to you, there is no one there to help you through it or to stop them for you or so, so what we try to do is we try to talk about psychological safety a lot when we have a chance for it. It’s actually a part of our Simployee value propositions right there in the deck that we want people to feel psychologically safe. We want them to speak up. We keep saying that a sign of a healthy team is actually debate and speaking up
Luca: The other thing that I would like to say is about psychological safety. I think these also comes from the fact that this environment is not a competition between individuals, but it’s more like a baton race with a single team. Everyone tries to contribute to the finish line. But it’s not like if you run faster, you’re going to win more than the others.
It’s this feeling that it’s difficult to explain for me, it’s a single team. I think this provides a lot of psychological safety because you know that the others are not there to screw you when you don’t expect it, and now, this is a true intention to drive forward together.
And, again, idealism and realism, I think, I’ve seen examples of even personally recognizing flaws and shortcomings or things that we have not learned yet. Both individually and as a company, but there’s no blaming. There’s always ” So what can we do to make it work?
Denver: The Organization demonstrates real care for team members and one way of doing that is treating everyone as an individual as Sarah and Chris tell us.
Sarah: Very stressful times, incredibly difficult for everyone in the company, going from really an office-based culture to going completely remote in a very uncertain way, no one knew what was going on. And the fact that Simprints had care for employees at the center meant that actually it could respond really well to someone saying, actually, I’m struggling at the minute or actually I need a bit of help” or ” Hey, I’m getting a bit of leeway because of what’s going on in the world.” And Simprints was actually quite ready to respond to that because it had already been built in this way that it was built around flexibility based on people’s needs.
Chris: So for me, it was the accommodation of people’s different working styles. That’s a really good one. I think what’s really good is how we do favor efficiency in terms of meeting such a lot of niches to share for the meeting ahead of time. And that’s really good and I really liked that because on the benefits it’s those who like me, maybe a slightly slow reader, it gives me time to digest and prepare for the meeting rather than the time of having this information thrown at me and at the end got any questions and I’m almost like, my head is still catching up what
I’ve seen in 45 minutes.
So, actually, by accommodating that some people operate different paces and things like that and it’s taken me some getting used to as well, because I tend to be more of a verbal communicator for meetings, but actually by collating thoughts, it’s made the most use of the time of actually working remotely, see, send things up front, people can digest.
Denver: Trust is the indispensable element that allows everything work so well at Simprints. Eje and Sarah share their observations on this.
EJE: And why this is the best leadership team I’ve ever worked in? There is trust. There is mutual respect. We all work remotely as we’ve all said. And what we try and do is have a quarterly meetup as a leadership team to discuss things in person and, check in with each other as far.
And we have weekly check-in, online meetings. And I think my observation of the first offsite I went on the management team was just how everybody respects each other, how people gave each other the opportunity to speak. Nobody was shut down, there are no egos, going right from Toby, who is the CEO to the rest of us in the leadership team.
I feel 110% comfortable disagreeing with Toby and disagreeing with Toby openly without worrying that should I have said that or that sort of behavior. And I think that’s just absolutely fantastic and really healthy. We have conflicts, which is good. I think that’s good that we do have conflicts, we disagree. But when we arrive at a decision, we are shoulder to shoulder, we all have to stand together because if we’re communicating to the organization of what our decision is as a leadership team, we all have to be on board with that, even if it’s not 100% where I’m coming from personally. But we put the needs of the group and the needs of the organization ahead of our own personal egos. So, I think that for me is one of the things that makes for a very good organization, is when you have a leadership team that gets on with each other, they respect each other. We speak in a united voice to the organization.
Sarah: We have unlimited responsible time off and it’s quite unusual, but actually for me now, having had this for over three years, why on earth wouldn’t you do this? Because from the company’s perspective, they don’t know what holiday you need. You might have responsibilities outside of work.
Different people need different amounts of downtime. Why not would a company prescribe that, you should say? And from the employee perspective, why on earth would you take advantage of that? You care about your colleagues, you care about the work. You’re not going to misuse this responsibility.
You’re going to use it responsibly to make sure that you’re giving back. And this is a nice little sort of example for me where that trust works really well. You’re trusted to be responsible, use the time off for your wellbeing. And similarly, you can trust your colleagues, not to just say I’m going to have five weeks off, whatever, bye. It doesn’t work like that. Everyone is using it really well and using it responsibly.
Denver: A challenge every organization faced was suddenly becoming a fully remote Organization. Reeham and Chris talk about some of the ways Simprints adapted.
Reham: So it became about how do we reinvent our systems or how do we redesign our processes in a way that allows for the remote work with the minimal disruption. and we learned from our mistakes as we go along. So, few things that we did that actually contribute to having a better remote working environment where we started reducing noise by using written first communication. So, we work asynchronously on a lot of our operations. We try to emphasize our community feel with every little chance we have, so we have weekly events where two Simployees meet together, we call that Simbonds, and they chat so it could be really good for people to know each other, even though they’re in separate locations.
We do things like teams teaming up to work on a fun project, we do that quarterly, we call it Lego Days. We also do that down to the merch, so as you can see my Simprints t-shirt. We do every little thing that we can to make the people feel that this is a community here and you’re a part of it, even though we are remotely and in different locations. We also did great or trying to do great on fostering an inclusive environment. We have a DEI task force that we’re very proud of and these are just few ways that have worked for us right now after the crisis and how would we be moving forward.
Chris: But I think, as a few people have mentioned, the idea of the Simbond is to actually always try to create those situations you would have in a physical environment, people are bumping into each other in corridors, they’d talk around water coolers, all those sorts of things go when you move online.
And it’s very easy for every meeting just to turn into it. Right? A meeting start, let’s talk about the thing then the meeting ends and everyone goes, and actually, when you used to be in a physical meeting room, we’d always have that five minutes or so at the beginning and the end of the meeting, and that was actually where a lot of the bonding happens. So, actually, the fact that Simprints has recognized that’s gone and actually makes a conscious effort to bring it back in is really important.
Denver: A final word from our participants on a variety of topics: Reham on Conflict, Sarah on DEI, Chris on their Network of Support, Eje on Opportunity and Trust, And Luca on Communications.
Reham: And sometimes we say in meetings, “Let’s have a conflict over this topic or we’re going to have a conflict over it and it’s really a sign of trust between the team. I don’t know if that’s contributed to the work we were doing or because the people we have are just too awesome or both but these are a few of the things we did.
We also think about how do we approach a situation where there is a conflict. And instead of having a judgmental approach by saying ” Oh, you’ve done that or you didn’t do that”, we try and ask questions, understand the mentality behind that action, because sometimes even if it seemed wrong to us, especially, I don’t know who mentioned, we have a lot of nationalities, a lot of different communication styles.
Something might seem wrong to one person, but actually could be just viable for the other. So, reminding us that a curious approach is way better always than a judgmental one. We also build that in our values. So, in our values, we talk about how we find a way and we get back up every time if we fell down. That also contributes fully to the psychological safety in the workplace.
Sarah: So, one example would be Simprints values. The values that you see on website at the minute, there’s five of them. When I joined, we actually had a different set of values, some the same, some very similar, but there was a kind of feeling around 2020 that maybe those values weren’t quite capturing who we were and maybe weren’t fully inclusive of all of the diversity of the employees that we now had, a few years on from when those initial values were created. And so we did a kind of bottom-up exploration of what it was that people felt. Simprints was about really workshop with different groups and created this new set of five values, which was really intended to be more inclusive of the diverse
organization that we’ve built up.
Chris: But in reality, everybody gets stuck in. If somebody’s overworked or needs any support, everybody jumps in. There’s none of this “That’s not my job. That’s not my department. That’s not my domain.” None of those boundaries just don’t exist at all and it’s really apparent even myself.
Recently, I think I was giving an update on, I think, Reham commented on my goals and they have some of my goals were wrecked because actually I re-direct my effort to focus on something which is more important to the company rather than my particular department. But I think a couple of the [unintelligible] “Am I okay? Am I worried? And I guess that degree of care rather than why is it wrecked? What are you going to do to get it on track? It was more of how are you doing? Are you’re okay? You managing? Can we do anything to help?” So that was a real high level of social security, and safety in this space.
Eje: You get support from other people obviously to do it. And lots of people in the organization have been supportive in doing that. Chris Royce and I are going to speak in a conference in next month, but both fairly new to Simprints. I don’t have a technical mind at all. So this is another thing I like. Okay. It takes time but I just think that the fact that we are trusted to do that and given that space to develop and with having been in the organization in such a short time is something that is very telling and just really shows how the organization values its team and just gives people the opportunity to grow.
Luca: This is really something unique about this company. They don’t try to coop you or absorb you, actually, they include you, which is not the same thing and it’s so much better. And so throughout these three months, I’ve seen in myself. even someone like me, I can’t stay serious for more than five minutes in a row and I always put myself in trouble because of that because I always think that the situation is hopeless but not serious.
And I found a way to interact with everyone. There’s been a constant communication about communication, making sure that messages were getting across the right way, that all the things that needed to be said and discussed were actually discussed. It’s really an uncommon place from how much they put these in practice, not just say it.
Denver: I want to thank the Simprints team members who participated in this piece: Reham Razouk, Eje Esangbedo, Luca Belmondo, Sarah Grieves, and Chris Royce. And to learn more about Simprints go visit their website at Simprints.com or visit denver-frederick.com and catch my earlier interview with Toby Norman, the CEO of Simprints.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
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