May 19, 2022

Chapter 10 — Celebrate Your People

I know I’ve mentioned people as variables that can go either way when it comes to adding value. This chapter isn’t a continuation where I just list people out, and name and shame them — honest! There are positives and negatives to every aspect of running a business, and with a strapline like ours — Digital is about People not just Technology — it’s pretty clear that people will be at the very core of everything.

I think the love affair with people flows from my personal approach to work. It has always been about the journey, not the destination, and the characters that joined us for the ride have been central to my joy in building the business. I couldn’t have done it without them. That cast list has been huge. They’ve come and gone, some have returned, some have stayed around for years, there’s been a few cameo appearances, plenty of heroes, a few villains… with an ever-evolving storyline. It may sound like I’m describing a soap opera now — and at times it’s felt like being in one! For me, that’s the beauty of it. You start bringing more than one person in on your journey and, almost without realising it, you’re also creating one for them. Conversations start, groups form, a community evolves and then — boom — there’s an atmosphere, a culture, and a spirit. I’ll guarantee most people would use the word ‘family’ in their description and I love that.

It was essential from the outset that the people who worked at Difrent were known quantities to me. I wanted those who’d previously worked for me, so I understood their strengths and weaknesses — technically, culturally, and emotionally. Importantly here, I already knew who would bring what to the table, which was a big positive in those early days. This links back to my risk aversion as well as my own personality. I mean, building your own business has pros and cons and it’s great to have some friendly faces around for the right reasons. It wasn’t just a platform for a bunch of mates to have a laugh, because we’d have gotten nowhere fast. But it’s always a lot better to get there in a relaxed atmosphere, isn’t it? Those friendly faces all had a purpose and were certainly never there just to make up the numbers.

Over the first two years of running the business, every permanent member of Difrent was interviewed by either me or Steve. Again, this was about finding the right people with the right cultural fit. I think once you have that vision, you know it’s yours and it’s difficult to imagine anyone, other than yourself, sharing the same view. Unfortunately, when the business hit a certain size, I had to step back from the interviewing because it just wasn’t feasible for me to do it. I continued doing CEO Open Door sessions for the lifetime of the business and made a point of personally meeting all new starters within a month of them joining. From start-up to sale 250 people have been through our virtual doors — interim and perm!

Back to ‘family’. Difrent has often been described as a dysfunctional family and I’m proud of that fact. I don’t see it as a negative description at all, I actually think there’s a great positive bond that forms with all our people. Saying that, the ‘dysfunctional’ label fits perfectly: a rag-tag bunch of renegades who may bounce around from time to time. I know more about the people at Difrent than I do about those I’ve worked with anywhere else in the world. It’s not just about me in my one-to-one relationship with people, it’s how the business operates. Everyone brings more than just their work persona with them, and that really creates relationships that go beyond the workplace. The Difrent crew want one another to succeed and are incredibly supportive of each other. I still see it with people who’ve since left the business and have continued those relationships. I still have strong relationships with many of the people who’ve worked at Difrent, and I continue to support them in their working careers. It’s a great feeling when you see people you’ve brought together becoming mates, even on the socials. Whether it’s someone liking a post or sharing a job lead on LinkedIn, it makes me smile and it makes me proud to have steered a friendship and professional bond in some way. I’ll never forget that everyone did their bit to help steer Difrent in the right direction.

What I want to do in this chapter is to talk a little more about some of the real ‘stars of the show’. These people brought something extra to the table and really drove the story of Difrent, regardless of being permanent members of the team or interims. That’s worth celebrating, eh?

Let’s talk about Brand and Social Media first — Jo:

Again, another long-term connection, I have known Jo since she was about 13 (I used to date her sister, but that’s another blog for a different audience!). Jo coming in off the back of that WhatsApp message says a lot about us both. As you’ll have noticed, I’ve mentioned Jo many times because she’s been a key player in all of this. She came in right at the start and, by her own admission, was learning as she went — albeit she was already a successful entrepreneur in her own right (but I’m not sure even she fully understood that!). Jo built out the brand and values of Difrent around my personal views on the world, but she really brought them to life. Over the years, she’s helped build numerous roads for this journey… iterations of the website, producing weekly roundups, Town Hall sessions, quizzes, events — they all lead back to Jo. Most importantly, she’s been responsible for the external voice of Difrent across social media, gathering followers across all platforms.

Jo has evolved professionally alongside the brand. She started managing third parties about a year ago, initially with our PR agency, which has helped develop her creative mind into becoming a little more organised. It’s been a joy to watch!

Jo sitting at a recording studio desk
Jo putting the finishing touches on that difficult second album

Over to Jo:

“My go-to is to joke and minimise the situation, but honestly? I had been quite curious for a number of years on what it was like to work for Rach. She represented females in leadership that I hadn’t gotten to experience in my working years so far.

She talked the talk, but did she walk the walk?

The ‘Oi, Oi do you fancy a real job?’ WhatsApp message was taken lightly. She laid out the ask and that really was it. I was invested and have been in ever since because she’s exactly who she says she is. We’ll save the rest for a podcast.”

The next person I want to talk about is Rita:

Rita has also been involved right from the outset and was instrumental in helping me create the strategy for Difrent. Rita is a seasoned pro, she’s been around the business block and has a boat load of FTSE 100 experience. She was fabulous at getting me to structure the work on the strategy, and at helping me through the process.

Rita speaking into a microphone
Rita rocking the mic

In addition to the strategy work, we roped Rita into joining our Advisory Board in the first year to help challenge the work the management team were doing and put us through our paces. More recently, she joined us to do some consultancy work shaping up a governance model and RACI for Difrent.

A few consistent themes with Rita over the journey have been that she always calls it out if she doesn’t agree with it. She isn’t interested in hierarchy, and can absolutely challenge the best of us! She is a proper adult and a great laugh who brings fun, energy and glamour. I’m proud to call her a good mate and a close confidante. Rita’s always been great to have around and it’s been a real privilege to sit alongside her.

Rita, on working with Difrent:

“I believed in what this new organisation was building. It was creating a culture that truly embraced and would thrive on difference, playing to the strengths of its people. This would strip out unnecessary bureaucracy and enable swift decision making and impactful delivery at pace. I was energised by working with Difrent to build a dynamic team, delivering products that would make a real difference to society.”

On working with me:

“Fundamentally our values are aligned and our ‘lived’ work experience across sectors, allowed for frank and real discussions which is how I prefer to work. Rach is passionate, driven, emotionally astute, and her grit and determination makes her a powerhouse to be around. She is infectious, demanding, rebellious, smart, self-aware and true to her word, which is refreshing at a senior level. She was always willing to learn she has respect for others’ expertise and is open to challenge. She is gifted in spotting opportunities to do more of what she loves and is good at, and I for one hope that she continues to ‘knock for me’ as she navigates her next chapter — as long as it’s not to abseil down the side of a high rise building again. That’s something for another blog, I’m sure!”

My mate Frankie:

Frankie (Francis McGowan) joined us as a Business Analyst (BA) a couple of years back, but had been in my life since he was 17. I first met him after he appeared on a BBC documentary, Growing Up Poor and I mentored him for a couple of years. I just love Frankie. He has one of the strongest work ethics I’ve ever come across and there’s absolutely nothing about his upbringing that’s going to hold him back. He is determined, ambitious, charming, and completely authentic.

Frankie talking into a microphone
Frankie, our very own busy rascal

Frankie, our very own busy rascal

After I convinced him to come and join Difrent, Frankie drew on his life experience and did some BA work for us on a project for Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS). This was around building services for prisoners 13 weeks before they were released. There was more than a hint of irony here — at that time, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) wouldn’t hire ex-offenders and Frankie’s particular subject matter expertise meant he was perfect for that role.

Over to Frankie:

“I joined because of you, Rach. You had a good track record and I thought you were an incredible person. So, for me to join it was a no-brainer.”

Frankie then went on to run some Business Analysis work on a project and was relocated to Newcastle for a year. He also led the charge on the socialising side of the project, and there are many that can vouch for his hospitality sector skills. He really made sure that gig was as successful as it was social, and that was key to how we built such a close relationship with the client.

When putting this together, I had another look at the BBC docco Frankie was featured in. To say he’s come a long way is such an understatement — he’s unrecognisable! I mean that in the nicest sense. From the way he talks to the way he carries himself, you can see there was something within that just needed to find a way out. In turn, he’s found his own way out. I’m super proud of him and I know he’ll go far.

Who else — it’s Charan:

I couldn’t get through this chapter without bigging up the man himself, Charan. He’s the most unlikely-looking BA I have ever come across — Mr Snapback! Beneath the cap, he is just fabulous — many of our clients thought he was a permanent member of staff, owing to his external sharing of the work during his time at Difrent.

Charan smiling in front of a microphone
Charan’s opportunity for a photo shoot in front of a mic, and no snapback?

Over to Charan:

“I was held accountable, I liked that. Back against the wall and having to justify and prove why we were doing things. But Difrent embedded teams and clients so well. I’d never seen it before. And everyone was really laid back and friendly. I felt like I could get a lot from having a chat. It was real and there was never any divide.”

Charan is a proper grafter with a huge talent, not just in the Business Analysis and Product space but also with people. He’s a bubbly, lovable lad with an incredible energy. He goes the extra mile, he’s ambitious, determined and such a cheeky chappie…

Last, but by no means least, Rich Haydon needs a big shout out:

Rich was another contractor who became a firm part of the family! If I ever needed a persona for a case study employee, it would be him — part of the fabric of Difrent… part of the ‘Rich tapestry’ in fact! He ran award-winning work for us. An exceptional Delivery Manager (DM), and Agile Coach, he’s charming, funny, authentic and just great craic!

During Lockdown 1, we put on weekly Zoom personal training sessions to help with fitness and morale. My girlfriend, Yvonne ran them — two sessions, two days a week. Just like his staunch work ethic, Rich was there most mornings slogging it out before doing a day’s work. He’s the sort of DM you’d want to work for if you had the choice! Some of my fondest memories of Rich were hooning around on the dodgems at the Christmas party up in Newcastle! Not only did he deliver a cracking piece for us at NHSBSA, but he also ran our relationship with Dynamo North East and was responsible for really cementing our contribution to the work they were doing. We were nominated for awards with Dynamo, and I was a judge on their panel for the 2021 awards. That’s a credit to Rich’s work. He went above and beyond what a contractor would do.

Rich Haydon, in the library, armed with killer banter!
Rich Haydon, in the library, armed with killer banter!

My takeaways

The takeaways continue the celebration: they’re a big shout out to all the people of Difrent. Not just the handful mentioned, but every single person who pitched up, put in a shift, and gave some of themselves — even if it was for a short period — and helped make this the ride of my life! You know who you are and you know the part you played. It’s unreal to think of all the people I’ve worked with along the way: the knowledge, personalities, and the sublime madness of every member of our dysfunctional family will always stay with me and keep me going.

One of my reflections during writing this chapter is how we never treated contractors any different to perm staff. It always was, and always will be one for all, and all for one with the Difrent family.

Digital delivery is a small world. I feel sure I’ll cross paths with many of the Difrent crew again at some point, whether by putting in a shift together, seeing them at an event, or reacting to posts on LinkedIn. When people make such a positive impact on your life like this family have, you never forget them. Not only did they have that impact on me, but on every piece of work we won and on every project we delivered.

My takeaways

  1. This journey has meant so much to me because of the people I worked with.
  2. I’ve built lifelong relationships from this experience.
  3. The hardest part of selling the business was leaving the team behind.
  4. I could absolutely NEVER be an HR Director.
  5. It’s the journey not the destination I love!

What helped me celebrate my people

  1. Exploring the wider market and gaining confidence in the recruitment process, rather than just relying on known quantities. I stepped outside my comfort zone, created job descriptions and interviewed a wider selection of candidates.
  2. Finding a way to keep those shit hot interims in the business for longer.
  3. Retaining permanent members of staff.
  4. Using the RACI/ARCI tool.
  5. Actively sharing content about the people of Difrent, during and post my time in the business.

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