In our new episode, Ruben Timmerman, founder and Learning Evangelist of Springest joins us on the show. Springest is the largest learning marketplace in Europe and a popular learning platform for organisations.
You can listen to the conversation on iTunes, Acast and other podcasting apps. What follows here are excerpts from our conversation with Ruben, edited for length and clarity.
Agnes Uhereczky: What is it that gets you out of bed in the morning? What are you passionate about?
Ruben Timmerman: I have known for a while that what really drives me - which I have written it down for myself - is to put my full potential out there. I want to use my full potential and pull out there something positive. This is something that my dad once told me and I often open many of my presentations with it. What gets me out of bed is the knowledge that today, I do something that will help others and from that, I derive my energy. For example, this morning at 9, I did a small talk at a company and that's a great start for me. Something that highly motivates me is my almost 9-year-old daughter whom I care for. And, of course, the other child that I have is my company. I pour my heart into both of them to fulfil my life purpose: that's what gets me out of bed.
Agnes Uhereczky: Could you tell us more about springest? What is the company about? What does it do? How did you get in creating it back in 2008?
Ruben Timmerman: Our purpose is to help people reach their full potential through learning.
We put this into practice by offering a learning platform where you can find anything you can learn from. This all starts with classical courses, e-learning, trainers, coaches, full educations (like MBAs and part-time Masters), even ebooks, normal books etc. We offer these services to companies and mostly larger corporates like ING or Siemens. They use our platform internally to organise learning through trainers or people teaching each other. At the same time, it is also used to organise procurement related training services. We do anything to take away things that are in the way of people learning.
At Springest we are 55 people, out of which 37 located in Amsterdam, which can be considered as our hometown. The rest of the staff is based in our Berlin, Germany office.
At the time when I started Springest, I ran an online marketing company which was mostly specialised in search marketing and visibility research, and I just saw that there was a gap in the market for education and professional learning. This matched perfectly with my purpose. I haven't written it down yet but I knew that I was passionate about learning, about always optimizing and improving and it was one and one together. So, I quit the company and I started blogging more about my passion for online marketing and from the money that my blogging and speaking generated, I started Springest. In the beginning, I thought this was a nice extra income scheme but after a few months it already was a full company which took off and it is what I have been doing ever since with a lot of passion.
Agnes Uhereczky: Do you think that everybody is interested in learning and extending their knowledge?
Ruben Timmerman: I think that everyone is intrinsically motivated to progress. If you look at the Maslow's pyramid and self-actualisation, it might not be the most scientific thing but if you dig deep enough or give people enough space, they all tend to want to do something with their lives.
In many companies and structures that we know and have in our society, the ambition and the freedom to express, and to do the things that you are passionate about are being ignored, discouraged, or beaten up. We see this with our corporate customers as well when they say “It's awesome that we have this learning platform. We are very happy we have it but not everybody will use it because not everybody will learn”. Our approach is to give these people space and opportunity and to let them tell us what's wrong with what you are offering in learning.
Very often, the problem is that companies want to predict what people want to learn and then it doesn't work. If you give them very limited options, they just burn out, but if you give them more freedom while keeping some control in the inside, everybody will eventually want to progress and learn.
Agnes Uhereczky: Who inspired you in terms of holacracy and Getting Things Done (GTD)? How did you decide to launch your company with these unusual ways of working?
Ruben Timmerman: Even at the company where I worked before I tried to optimize my time and happiness. This was something that was conscious of me since my studies. I have been using GTD since 2002. It was a sort of a life hacking movement that I was also interested in. GTD was something we applied from the beginning in my company and I tried to make everybody do GTD. I felt that it made me a calmer and happier person, from which I felt more relaxed about the things I did even though there was a lot of pressure.
Springest is a bit older than my daughter and sometimes people would tell me: “It's great that you do this company being so free without any burden like mortgage and kids”. In response, I tell them that actually, I have a daughter just as old as Springest including a mortgage and all kind of troubles that these things bring.
You can be lucky with your managers and if you are not, you're screwed and then things can easily fall apart.
After a few years, when we were about 12 or 13 people at Springest, I felt and saw that managing my company “at the lunch table” as I call it was not enough anymore. I could not talk to everybody regularly, therefore they would not be necessarily pointed to the right direction all the time. Some would tell me that “It was time to hire managers and there must be a middle layer between me and my people”, which felt wrong. You can be lucky with your managers and if you are not, you're screwed and then things can easily fall apart. Finally, I chose not to go down that route.
So, I asked a specific Getting Things Done trainer that I wanted to implement GTD at Springest to have a structure that allows and pushes us to be more conscious of the choices we make. GTD aligns and structures your work and activities all the way from purpose to your day to day tasks. I asked him to do this in my company and make sure it is embedded in our structure. What he advised me is to take a look at holacracy models, which is nearby GTD. It was, at that time, a totally new concept which was not used in Holland at all. As I wasn’t a very risk-averse entrepreneur I decided to dive in and to implement it: that's how it took off.
Agnes Uhereczyk: How was holacracy implemented at Springest? Do you have any internal rules or policies that explain holacracy?
Ruben Timmerman: Back then, holacracy was still pretty new and in a way, it still is. There were not many examples in Europe but there were some in the US. For instance, Zappos has been a pioneer in this field. Actually, we started using holacracy a little bit earlier than them. Especially as a startup, we didn't have the money to fly to the US to visit some companies and get inspired. We were at the point where we said: “let's try something out”. We did have a coach who had been to the US and had good contact with Brian Robertson, the guy who wrote the first version of the Holacracy rulebook. The book didn't exist at the time so there were not much available in terms of examples and preparation. We just started figuring out together with the coach Diderick Janse from Energized.org.
Both GTD and holacracy are extensively documented and very rigid in rules. As I always explain and for the benefit of the listeners to keep it short, holacracy is based on a very strict set of rules with a clear box of boundaries. These rules aim to align everyone within the “boundary box” within which everyone has a near absolute freedom. The holacracy constitution is the rulebook that compiles all the rules upon which you build your organisational applications which are called your governance records: the way your company is organised. There are many written rules that everybody can influence or change.
Agnes Uhereczky: Can you provide listeners with a concrete holacracy example? Could you share a typical process that is characteristic to holacracy but very different from a standard company with high hierarchy?
Ruben Timmerman: At Springest, and in any holacracy model, you are accountable for a role in everything you do. You don't have job descriptions, you have several roles and roles have accountability which is very explicit. For instance, I have a role which is called external speaker, in a circle called Evangelism. This circle serves the purpose to inform the world of the way Springest works to make us known as the largest company. Everything is written down in very clear terms and is visible online. For instance, everybody at Springest could access and read my 40 roles.
This would be one of the biggest differences that I would highlight in between companies that are managed through the holacracy model and those that are not: in holacracy, everything is written down in great detail and is evolving constantly in very small steps. Literally, every week, there might be small changes in some roles or some circles and it enables us to adapt to the outside world. Everything is explicit and visible to everyone.
Agnes Uhereczky: How is this for employees in terms of their work-life balance and personal experience?
Ruben Timmerman: Employees enjoy the freedom of being able to choose what they want to have an influence on. They also appreciate the energy of the company and love its transparency. They also notice that it is hard for them in terms of learning especially if you have a longer career before joining Springest, as you have to unlearn some behaviours especially concerning politics (keeping information to yourself, transparency is default here etc...). But if you read our Glassdoor reviews and talk to our people here, you'll learn that they appreciate the freedom that is possible within transparency. This also creates pressure because people can see what you do and whether if it's working or not and there are metrics for that which can be seen by everybody. But once you get used to it, there are huge benefits of extreme clarity and freedom in how you do your work.
Agnes Uhereczky: At the WorkLife HUB we believe that people have to be the owner of their own career. Is this the reason why you are offering fluidity to your clients and also within your company?
Ruben Timmerman: Yes, we have fluidity in the roles in our company and I want my business to succeed. I also want to achieve the purpose of my business, and make sure that it does help everybody in the world to learn. This is the way to extract most performance out of people and the fluidity helps to keep them happy and put people in their exact right place, put in the most energy and make the best results. When people are happy, they make fewer mistakes, they are more engaged, and more willing to fix things that are broken. That's why I do this because this is the way to win business wise and these so-called “nice things” come with it.
Agnes Uhereczky: It is indeed a win-win situation: good for your company, for your employees, but also for society as a whole. What do you think of it?
Ruben Timmerman: For me, the main question is: will companies change or will they disappear if they are don’t start doing these kinds of things? I think that it is going to happen. In 20 or 30 years, most companies will run on a system comparable to what we do if I am right about what people need and want for them to perform. Slowly, companies will either adopt working methods like this or slowly start to disappear which happens every couple of decades. Companies disappear and you see companies like ING, for instance, making big steps towards self-management because they know they have to in order to catch up to smaller competitors and they know it is worth it. The world will slowly change but it won't be in a way where every company suddenly says “oh, now we have to do this”. Some companies will disappear and other will win.
Agnes Uhereczky: How much discipline does it take to succeed?
Ruben Timmerman: What we do is close to human nature and therefore it is easier. If you have a career behind you, you have most likely learned some “toxic behaviour” and you have to unlearn them because what worked before like asking a favour or giving a favour to a colleague is something that is frowned upon here. At Springest, it is not allowed to display heroic behaviour. Things like falling in for a colleague, jumping in or extinguishing a fire can happen every now and then but it's more important that you report it and make changes to the governance structure of the company so that it doesn't happen again. If you heroically fall in for a colleague every now and then, you are actually hiding an improvement opportunity from the company and it is harming the long-term perspective of the company. Things like these, that seem positive in a stuck environment are not a good idea in a company like Springest because there are specific rules: if you put out a fire, you fix some issues, you have to then process that “tension” in the governance so that it doesn't happen again.
Agnes Uhereczky: What is your key advice to a CEO or a leader for them to lead their organisation on holacracy?
Ruben Timmerman: My key advice would be to any leader is to listen to the new people joining to their company; listen to the talent you wish to recruit, and had difficulties in attracting and recruiting to your business, and ask them how they would like to work. Act strongly and make strict rules upon the founding principles instead of saying “Let's try it” or “Let's see what happens”. Do not experiment with self-management. Figure it out. Invest some real money into it or otherwise, invest nothing. Go all in or just leave it.