Natalie Maher | Good
I got Natalie’s contact through a friend who is studying social innovation. He knew about my project and told me he had met the managing director at Good, which is a design consultancy. On my quest for answers about purpose in design I thought this to be a great opportunity, so I put my networking skills on and asked him if he could introduce us, and so he did!
Natalie was, as many of the other people I seek (review) out to interview, very solicitous and promptly gave me a few dates to choose from for a meeting. I can’t emphasize enough how good it makes me feel to realise that these people, regardless of their hierarchical status or rank are still very humble and approachable. It never ceases to amaze me their willingness to help others (like me) to be better and to thrive.
A few weeks later I showed up at Good, on a grey and dull day, at 10 in the morning. Little did I know my day would be brighter after meeting such person.
These past few months have been slightly slow for me, and I have way too much time to think about all the things I shouldn’t be thinking about, and it seems like some days the negative thinking takes over and I am just one more drop in the ocean of people who cohabitate this planet, and I’ll never make a significant change. Well, you know (or maybe you don’t if you are very sure of yourself!)... The same old type of existential crisis. So, that day, Natalie was the ray of sunshine I needed. She is funny and humorous, very easy going, and didn’t make me feel at all like an outsider. Quite the opposite, I felt welcome in that space where I’ve just arrived from the first minute she walked in with a smile on her face.
She has a strong loud voice (to not mistake with hysterical) that clearly keeps the attention of her listeners sharp, and her laughter is contagious and equally loud and warming. So when it comes to first impressions I must say she is an inspirational example, a warm hearted and strong woman.
After a few minutes of an introductory talk, the conversation started flowing and we engaged on what I was there to do, our interview.
THE INTERVIEW . JANUARY 2017
Can you describe, in a simple phrase, your role at work?
Natalie Maher is a managing director at Good. At their website you can find her own description (found out later she is paraphrasing from Tina Fey) of her job which is to direct brilliant people and getting the hell out of their way. She was so honest she told me she googled what a managing director actually does while applying for the job. She had been working for several managing directors in her career but she never fully knew what their job was.
The best summary was from someone from the design industry and he said:
“I primarily exist for the purpose of serving my team.”
And I thought I could completely get on board with that, which is why my build on that is I direct brilliant people and get the hell out of their way, because it is not about what I produce, it’s about what the team produces. I provide leadership, within that collective of individuals but it is about bringing out the best in them, and the best in our clients, and the best from our projects. So, in truth, I am a servant… even though I am a servant that is ultimately responsible for what happens.
How would you describe your organisation’s culture? (its strategy, the values, purpose, employee engagement and relationships, business goals)
Our agency was started thirteen years ago by our two founding partners who still lead the business today. They started out as classically as most agencies start, there’s a creative and a client facing individual. At some point they realised that just working on projects was no longer entirely fulfilling as it was in their 20’s or 30’s so they seeked something that would bring them a sense of a higher purpose, hence they decided to start up on their own.
They called it Good, because they wanted to do good work for good people. We have a standard saying “it’s a benchmark of our integrity and a minimum standard of our work”. Which is a really accurate description of our culture.
Curiously enough, we did a brand refresh last year, as we do with our clients, and defined our three core values, which led us to complement that position of being good and doing good. Our three core values are honesty, simplicity and love, and it was a really interesting exercise to go through. Because we are a thirteen-year-old business, there are people who have been here since day one and the founders are still the same. When we got to define our values everyone recognized them. People who have lived and breathe Good, looked at these values and said ‘yeah, I totally get it’.
So we make sure our own brand identity reflects that, but it is also a brilliant filter for how and whom we recruit. When you only have thirty people working in your business, employee engagement is something you should be able to do or foster pretty well because you can have individual conversations with people. At the same time you want to make sure the people you add to that team don’t disrupt the culture you’ve got because it is very special and it is very important to the success of the business. We want to employ people who embody our values in their general life, by using that as a filter we have better chances of hiring people who understand and live by them. We look for good people, who are passionate, honest and value simplicity. When looking for people who express these, you know they have their own dynamic to bring to our culture but ultimately you share the same common values.
And that has been really interesting, because we recruited and behaved inherently in those ways, but when you define it you have something tangible to go back to, that gives enormous power.
Going through it ourselves gives us more power to be champions of this change for our clients. We know from experience, by going through the whole process, the difference it makes. When you write it down and put it on the wall, it makes you commit to that. And so, from every proposal we write, every pitch we do, every piece of work, every conversation, we question ourselves and see if we are being honest and simple and approaching it with love and passion for our craft, love of our clients, love for the industry. That is our culture in a nutshell and it is lovely to be able to easily define it.
Personally, I find it more valuable if a company sells from experience, and in a lot of cases it is not how it happens. Once you have gone through the same struggles and problems and you have a achieved a desired outcome you can better understand your clients and probably pinpoint issues more accurately.
If you were to undertake a change in culture, where would you start within (inside) your organisation?
Culture is fascinating because it is part of the aspiration within every brand project we do with clients and it is either about preserving a culture that works or changing a culture they feel doesn’t. When undertaking a change in culture it is my experience that you can create all the core values and brand promises you want and bring employees on the journey, but unless the individuals in the leadership of that business want to change it will be pointless.
There is a big question about who gets it and who doesn’t on the corporate business side. In my opinion, unless the CEO gets it, and says ‘this will be our culture, we’ll recruit on this premise, we train on this premise, we behave on this premise’, and keeps that consistent, is very difficult to change, and the bigger the organisation the harder it is.
You can have a 20,000 people organisation and if that leader wants it to change it will change, the same way you can have 6 people organisation and if the leader doesn’t want change it won’t. The volume presents different challenges but I don’t think that is the major obstacle. It starts with the leaders.
What are the key employee motivators in your organisation?
Well, I support the theory of the three things that truly motivate people, this is my leadership style, and it was inspired by Daniel Pink’s book ‘Drive’. These three things are autonomy, mastery and a sense of a higher purpose.
Fortunately good has a great environment for manifesting those three things. The higher purpose is certainly being good and doing good. We have a programme called ‘good for nothing’ where we give £50,000 worth of pro bono work each year, we run ‘Kerning the Gap’ to support gender diversity in design, and we do these things because they are important to us.
We work more like a co-op, where we are very open about the business, its profitability, where we spend our money, and our ambitions. It is a shared and collective experience that if successful allows everyone to benefit from it.
Moreover we are incredibly committed to developing our people. The autonomy and mastery is key to help me perform my job and ‘get the hell out of their way’, I do my best to always offer opportunities for these three factors to be enabled, for our people to remain motivated.
Do you think there’s a duality between what the board wants as the culture of their company and what is really in place?
It depends how attached and involved the leadership is. There are places where the leadership team has no idea what is actually happening in their companies. There’s a whole tv series made about that ‘back to the floor’ premise, where the CEO or someone from senior leadership goes back and does the job and realises they had no idea how it really is.
When they are detached I think there can be (definitely) a duality between what the leadership thinks and what the actual culture is within the business. But I also think it is a real challenge because you want to foster a culture that is around core values but also allows individuals and their personalities to create something new and unique. You want a culture that is consistent with your values but enables, at the same time, this lovely creative growth for people to be who they are and create their own dynamics within that culture. However, you need to create a positive environment to enable people to do that.
Do you think the world is in need of new approaches to problem solving to address the twenty first century problems?
Oh god, yes! I think if I wasn’t an advocate for the power of design thinking I’d probably pack up and go home. But we are starting to see governments and large scale organisations adopting new ways to problem solving, so I do think it’s happening, which is incredibly encouraging.
I don’t see many organisations today not using design thinking in some shape or form despite the terminology they use; that a plan, strategy, or system. To solve big societal issues, design thinking has a huge role to play. Our world at the moment, the world of 2017, is a weird place. There is a great opportunity for design to show its power, but people have to be willing to listen and to commit to it.
What is design for you?
At Good we have quite a flat structure, where we have designers that are also excellent strategists, strategists that have excellent creative eyes, and account handlers that are brilliant strategists, so all of this is design for me. The process of solving a problem is design. Whatever means you use to then communicate that solution is also design, being a bottle that contains whiskey or a statement that inspires change in a culture. Where there is a problem that needs solving, and there is thinking applied to its solution, that for me is design.
Do you believe in a common language between design and other fields out of the creative picture?
I think we have a language issue within our industry where actually we are all talking about the same thing but we call it different things. Some people call it planning, strategy, others design, and that inconsistency is fracturing our impact. In my opinion, the only reason we have introduced the term design thinking was to try and educate people outside of design that it isn’t just images on a piece of paper. For designers it is common knowledge that you don’t get those images without doing the thinking that’s behind it. It became a necessary addition to the lexicon which I think has now ended up confusing everything more than actually creating clarity.
What role do you think design can have in helping organisations dealing with change / adapting to change?
I think it is a roadmap for change. It gives them the tools, the language, the motivation, the encouragement, the clarity. It’s a manual for how to drive change. However you are still depending on the quality of the individuals that are driving it, it can’t be a substitute for that or done by itself. In my opinion that is where design suffers. The expectations are so high, that if the investment is made and the change is not seen the blame immediately goes on to the design work; and sometimes that’s right, we miss the mark, the thinking wasn’t sound, it’s not robust, it’s nothing to do with who’s driving it. But the reality is that equally as often, I would crudely guess, it is because the people who are managing it have no idea what they are really dealing with.
In your experience has it ever happened that a company comes to a design agency asking for a project, assuming that they are all on board, but the people in management are financiers or money people don’t really get the point of design and as the project moves forward they end up understanding what you do and how crucial it can be?
In my experience, in the successful rebranding projects or refreshes there has always been an excellent leader at the front end of them, and honestly you don’t get that work commissioned without somebody who is gonna drive it through. I’ve seen it happen when that individual has moved on, they wither in the absence of the person that drove it . But the best are the ones where the leadership is all completely on board with it, if they are not it doesn’t really go anywhere. We tend to question that, at the beginning of a project, to understand who is going to support it, where is it being sponsored and how high it goes. If they say the CEO is behind the project then we know it is more likely to be a success.
How about the link between the purpose of an organisation and its people, do you think design has a role to play there?
We introduced unlimited holidays a year ago at Good, which was inspired by other organisations that are doing this such as Virgin. And that decision was design thinking driven; we have people who sometimes have to work really long hours because that is the nature of our business, at the end of our financial year everyone is rushing to get their holiday, and we struggle to get our work completed, that’s a complete nightmare because those two things are clashing at the same time. It made our people behave in a very formulated way and we realised that is not our ethos. We want to empower people and give them autonomy.
With unlimited holidays, you don’t have to ask permission of the senior management, you negotiate directly with your team to foster and encourage the idea that you work for the person sat next to you and you can’t let them down. You also work for the client, and you can’t let them down either. If you manage to navigate around that, you can take as much time off as you need. One of the biggest challenges we knew we would face was making sure people actually take enough time off! Then, my job as a leader becomes this lovely place where I am not policing people, I am saying ‘I really think you should take a break. Look, Friday is going to be quiet, take Friday off have a long weekend’. You have that role where you are encouraging people to be more invested in themselves. And you know people are motivated when they are trusted and empowered.
Afterwards we had a conversation about people being happy with their jobs and knowing their limits, their own strengths and being able to admit that they can’t perform well eight hours straight. If they don’t find themselves in an environment where they can be honest they will probably deceive their management and procrastinate more, while pretending to work. Which brought us back to the core value of honesty, considering that with honesty comes trust. And that is, really, a major part of the essence of the culture at Good and also the roots for design driven solutions.
We also talked briefly about the good in people, and the fact that even the ones who don’t seem to be good, change when you give them a chance to work in an environment that fosters good principles. It’s honestly about giving the people the opportunity to be their better selves, and they will surprise you. It is our belief that people often will be if you give them the chance.
What is the thing you think will change the world?
The equality of gender. I am continually dismayed that we don’t even have pay equality in 2017, and at this rate of change, people who are now actively fighting for it might not see that change in their lifetime (2078). To solve this problem it takes every individual, every institution, every organisation and every government to fully support and get behind it. The quality of life for a great percentage of our population will change dramatically when this happens.
I think that every tiny way of changing attitudes and behaviours around gender equality and is the bit I will champion until I have gone breathless. We need to look at our problems differently. And to do so, I look at every possible way that I can fight and support gender equality. Everything from the language that I use in general conversations or the way I behave as a leader in our business. We support flexible working hours both for men and women when it comes to their children and spending necessary time with them. In doing so supporting their families and their partners.
Lastly, I think we should stop repeating the same mistakes over and over again and look for other answers. We have had the pay equality act in 1970, it is now 2017 and we are still 18% behind. It’s not gonna naturally happen on its own, legislation is clearly not enough. You can create all the tick boxes you want but unless you change attitudes and mentalities then it’s not gonna work. You’ve simply got to call it out.
I want to deeply thank Natalie for being open to my questions and for agreeing to meet me. It means a lot that even after my official research is finished there’s still people willing to spend some time sharing their beautiful thoughts.