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I’m not an HR expert. (Check out Debra’s posts for the Reward Gateway blog if you want that perspective.)

I’ve not studied psychology, nor do I have any formal training on dealing with people.

I’ve never been to Harvard (despite living quite close now), and I don’t have an MBA (I dropped out).

But for whatever reason, business fascinated me from a very early age and it led me via life’s winding road to a deep passion for (and therefore need) to understand employee engagement and what means to us.

I’m a software engineer by training and an entrepreneur by passion.

From an early age I knew I wanted to run my own company but I had no idea what in. At high school I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful teacher: Ken Scaife.

Part-time Physics teacher, part-time form master he ran the school’s “business enterprise program” sponsored by a local bank in his spare time. He smoked hand-rolled cigarettes while leaning in the classroom doorway, had long shaggy hair which rarely looked brushed or washed and was rumored to have previously been a roadie for a death metal band.

He was the only teacher in the entire school to trust us to write our own names in the register rather than doing a roll call. He would say,

If you’re daft enough to bunk off school and go into life with no education, then that’s your lookout.

He gave us freedom and taught us responsibility and we loved and respected him for it.

 

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Work Hard? No, work harder.

During my time with Scaife, I ran (or was part of) the following:

  • A school magazine (banned after issue two)
  • A soft toy-production company (moderately successful but eventually shut down for producing Disney replica Poo-bear’s and piglets without a Disney license and  breaching toy fire safety regulations)
  • A business delivering snacks to local office staff rooms (terrible idea and my mother hated the pile of potato chip boxes at the top of her staircase)
  • The school snack shop (hugely successful – made me wealthier than I was again for years) 

I did all of these these while studying and working two jobs – flipping burgers at McDonald’s and working evenings and weekends at a now-defunct Woolworths general store. So you could say I juggled quite a bit.

One of my grandmother’s favorite sayings was “There’ll always be work for hard workers,” and I guess I took that to heart.

Developing a passion for people

So I’d always been interested in companies, from an early age I knew I wanted to be in business, but it was much later that I developed a deep interest in people and company culture. It came very simply from necessity – I’m an entrepreneur first but without people, without a team, an entrepreneur is at best a freelancer, at worst a fantasist. And once a team gets larger than a few people it starts to get a life of its own with opinions, feelings, moods and points of view.

If you’re an ambitious entrepreneur and you want to build something meaningful you have to start to understand people, engagement and culture – there is no other way to scale your impact.

My engineering career largely ended in my early 20s as moved into project and program management. I can’t code now, at least not in any practically useful environment, but I can problem solve quickly and 10 years of running testing projects means I can find a bug in the most polished of code in about 50 seconds. Having product vision and, when you need to, call bullshit on a engineer who’s trying to tell you something is impossible or it’ll take six months is a skill with lifelong benefits for a tech CEO.

But if my 20s were spent learning about business and projects, my 30s were spent learning about people.

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I was 34 when we founded the company that would become Reward Gateway and the lessons learned in scaling that culture to 350+ people over 10 years are some of the most valuable of my life.

Understanding company culture and employee engagement is without question the hardest thing I do.

It’s harder than engineering, harder than building product and harder than sales. It’s understanding all of those things and fundamentally understanding people in all of their ways of thinking.

When we founded Reward Gateway, we wanted to show that you could build an effective, profitable fast-growing company while treating people with kindness and respect.

What we ended up discovering is that when you treat people with kindness and respect, when you empower them and trust them in the business and when you include them in your inner circle, explaining what is going on and listening to their feedback, you end up creating a better, stronger, more profitable and more resilient organization than you could ever imagine.

Find more stories like this one in "The Rebel Playbook" 

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