Looking Back: My First Three Months at GrantTree

Rob Kellner, Head of Content at GrantTree

Exactly three months ago today, I started my career at GrantTree. ‘How time flies!’, as my mum would say. It seems like only last week I was prepping for one of my interviews and scouring Google for tidbits and anecdotes I could reference to prove I’d done my research and was serious about the job. But here we are, a full 90 days later.

The 90 day threshold carries a lot of significance in the business world. For most companies, it’s the point new joiners complete their probationary period. And according to some business theorists, it’s around the three month mark that employees reach their full productive potential, having fully acclimatised to their new company’s way of working. I suppose it’s no coincidence that the two happen at the same time.

While GrantTree doesn’t have probationary periods, this does seem like a good opportunity to reflect on my time so far with the company, and explore some of the things I’ve discovered along the way.

A Unique Culture

A number of our previous posts have talked about how unique GrantTree’s culture is. For one thing, as I wrote a while back, all GrantTree’s employees, or ‘partners’, set our own pay. This was a big change for me, as I’m sure it was for many of my colleagues. Before GrantTree I spent the better part of five years at a large, corporate PR firm. One with several thousand employees, and offices scattered around all corners of the earth.

It was a fairly progressive place. But it was still deeply hierarchical. Employees were organised into eight different ranks. And that’s before you got into the company’s local, regional, national and international leadership. Decisions about promotions and pay rises were made behind closed doors, and were generally driven by a complex, inscrutable and often politicised system of assessment, valuation and incentivisation. It was quite the culture shock moving from that set up to GrantTree’s.

I should add, I haven’t given myself a pay rise yet. I’ve only just started, after all. But even if I felt, on inspection, I deserved one, GrantTree’s self-set pay ‘policy’ would require me to have a certain amount of performance feedback from my colleagues before I could raise my salary. As a new joiner, I haven’t got there yet.

You might think that having this much freedom when it comes to pay would create a free-for-all of random, unjustified salary hikes and perilous company financials. But that’s not what happens. GrantTree goes through great lengths to hire people with the emotional maturity to manage themselves effectively. But it’s wrong to suggest the only reason people don’t bankrupt their employers is because they can’t. I suggest that, with a dozen or so Brexit-shaped caveats, people tend towards proportionality, rationality and maturity when given the chance to do so.

You, Me and Holacracy

Let’s talk about ‘policies’. GrantTree practices Holacracy, an organisational philosophy in which each employee manages themselves. In Holacracy, policies, which any employee can write and implement, govern spending, responsibilities and controls. A lot has been written about Holacracy, not least by GrantTree’s founder Daniel Tenner. So I won’t go into too much detail about what it is and how it works. Suffice it to say that it’s a model which distributes the power of decision-making to everyone at the company.

I will say its power to drive a kaizen-style environment of continuous change is incredible. Just take a look at this excellent piece written by my colleague Lena. In just seven days, Lena authored and implemented an important amendment to our maternity leave policy. This would have taken months at most companies. 

Embracing Holacracy is one of the ways GrantTree promotes self-management. I am my own manager. It’s up to me to set my work, measure my performance and change things accordingly. True self-management is rare. Arguably, it’s a departure from human beings’ hardwired wont to seek authorisation and instruction from a higher power, be it our parents, our boss, or our tribe’s chieftain.

Like many people, I’ve been conditioned to seek and expect heavy-handed direction, which you simply don’t get in a self-managed company. That took some getting used to. As did the absence of a regular drip feed of managerial approval and positive reinforcement. Since working at GrantTree, I’ve realised how much I instinctively crave reassurance. I’m a ‘confidence player’, a sports pundit might say. My performance is linked to my sense of self-worth.

This isn’t to say that compliments and ‘pats on the back’ aren’t given at GrantTree. They are. We even have a (slightly mercurial) Slack plugin which encourages and catalogues the ‘props’ team members give to one another. It’s not as dystopian as it sounds… Still, the neat-and-tidy process of top-down encouragement doesn’t exist. 

Moreover, there is no formal, hierarchical system for giving feedback on completed work. This means our culture is one where everyone feels comfortable, and embraces the responsibility of giving and receiving constructive input and criticism from everyone else. When you complete a project, anyone can offer suggestions for how it could be made better. So, more often than not, the response to my work hasn’t been idle, ego-stroking praise. It’s been ‘well what about this?’ or ‘how about that?’.

Should I be worried? Maybe. But as someone who’s been conditioned to accept a certain balance between congratulations and corrections, it took a while to recalibrate my expectations, and to see our lower praise-to- feedback ratio not as a criticism of my work, but as proof of my colleagues’ desires to offer their support, and of their aspirations to make GrantTree better.

Briefly, it’s interesting to think about praise, or the need for praise, as a coercive force. To seek affirmation from a select, powerful few is to seed them leverage over you and your choices. But to generate an intrinsic sense of self-worth, to reinvent your relationship to criticism without just developing a thick skin, and to cultivate a way of clearly and dispassionately judging the quality of your own work, is to regain that control.

Whenever, Wherever

The freedom to work remotely was also new. Again, it’s not really been an option in my previous jobs outside of certain extraordinary circumstances like heavy snow or a home plumbing disaster. It’s something I take regular advantage of. I’m working from home right now. But I’ve also posted up at cafes, libraries, and even a park bench. It all depends on where I’ve felt I could be most productive and clear-minded given the task at hand.

More exciting than that is the possibility of working from abroad. One of my colleagues recently got back from months away in Asia. Another spent last Friday working from her Airbnb in Switzerland before kicking off a weekend break. This didn’t affect their productivity, or GrantTree’s ability to service our clients. In fact, most of the time I really can’t tell who is and isn’t in the office.

Like choosing my own working hours (more or less), and setting my own pay, these rare professional privileges ladder up to a feeling of empowerment. I am trusted to pick and perform my duties. And seeking to reward that trust with good and valuable work is perhaps the most seductive motivational force I have ever followed.

Just Right

My sister is a financial services lawyer. As you’d imagine, she works in a traditional corporate environment. Her and I enjoy the occasional sparring session over the various merits and idiosyncrasies of our respective workplace cultures. She wears suits to work, I wear a hoodie and trainers. She has her own desk in a two-person office, I hot desk around, usually following the wanderings of our office’s regular canine visitor, Hach. 

There are plenty of differences to draw on. A lot of ammunition for debate. But our conversations usually peter out once we reach the same, recurring realisation: there is no optimal blueprint for company culture. Different people thrive in different circumstances, and relish different intensities of oversight and direction.

Still, personally speaking, the idea of being told what to do and how to do it, of not having autonomy over my own work, of being given instruction instead of advice, all seems rather strange to me now. I’m not knocking it as a way of working. But I’m happy to report that I’ve found an environment that works for me. Though it took some adjustment, I’m happy report that I’m…well…happy!


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Robert Kellner
Robert Kellner

Rob is a Sci-Fi aficionado, trivia buff, and above all, a great big tech geek. When he's not writing dystopian fiction, he can be found at his full-time job - head of content at leading R&D Tax Credits consultancy, GrantTree.