In this interview, we talk personal experiences with employee retention, team happiness and morale, and how to tell when things need to change.
For this edition of A Talent Point of View, we spoke to Tristan Rogers, CEO of Concrete. Concrete is a retail SaaS platform that allows brands to remain consistent across multiple franchises and stores, and to streamline their retail operations, ensuring a unified and seamless brand experience.
Thank you for meeting with us today. So, to kick things off, why don't you tell us a bit more about how Concrete came to be.
Well I guess I should start by saying that I've always been self-employed. I started Concrete Media Limited back in 1996, but it's only really been 'Concrete' as it is today for the past ten years. That's because it wasn't a straightforward case of just setting up a brand-new venture – not at all. This current idea was kind of spun out of something else, which in turn came from something else…. and so on, and so on. So, I guess you could say Concrete reflects my personal journey, moving from one idea to another – though this is the longest I've ever settled on one thing, so that must be a good sign!
So that's the journey you've taken, but where have you arrived? What does Concrete – as it is now – aim to do?
We envision a world where store workers operate as independent agents, becoming specialists in their field. Because, if you think about it, all other lines of work have a career path, but store workers? They just turn up for work. And even if they're particularly good at some specific element of the job, that's not recorded anywhere. So, they're in this rather transient role, and there's no real log of the skills they've developed or become experts in, which means it won't follow them into their next role. And the stores themselves, they lose out too, because they lose the talented individuals that know how to do the job, in favour of other untrained, green hires.
But if these retail workers were able to record the things they learn on the job and begin to specialise in, for instance, visual merchandising, product knowledge, customer engagement, things like that… well, they'd be able to become specialists in their primary fields, and they could then get hired by other companies as visual merchandising assets, and so on. So they could be working as a consultant of sorts for five different brands, helping them to double their earnings. They can make a career out of it.
I guess you could say we're reengineering how retail work operates.
That's really interesting! So, what has your experience been, with retention? Have you ever had any problems with it?
Well, I haven't had a problem with retention per se. I've had a problem with finding decent people. No, but really, jokes aside… I think that, in principle, retention starts when you recruit the person in the first place. If you recruit the wrong person, for whatever reason, they're going to leave, either because they choose to, or because you have to let them go. So, for me, the trick to retention is about recruiting the right people in the first place… and that comes from first-hand experience.
So it sounds like you've had a fairly bumpy journey with Concrete, does that sound fair?
Yeah, we've had a lot of issues in the past. Honestly, to loop back around, I think we just had a long run of hiring the wrong people. And the sticky bit is that, even if you've got five right people, one wrong person can lead to all six going.
For example, we had a completely failed software platform delivery. The project concluded 18 months after its inception, and we had literally nothing to show for it. What do you do in that situation? I'm sure we had some great engineers on that team, but based on what was delivered you couldn't tell which ones were good and which ones were problematic. It was a tough decision, but ultimately, the whole team had to go; I fired everybody. That was a learning experience, for sure! Thankfully, we seem to have a pretty good bunch of people now – probably because we now have you guys (Talent Point) on board to help with that. I guess you should you'll have to ask me again in a year to see if I've got a problem keeping them or not!
You say that one bad egg can lead to retention issues… Can you elaborate on that?
Well that's been my experience. There was that earlier failed software platform that I mentioned, but even recently, we had some issues. The current platform we're running on is great… but it took far too long to get to market. And there was simply no apparent reason for the bottleneck. So, I went looking for answers. And what I found, after some digging, was a toxic culture among the engineers. And it turned out that a couple of the "Heads of" had been bullying the others, obfuscating things so nobody knew what was going on, ensuring that the engineers had to ask them for answers for even small, simple stuff… things like that. I'm not going to allow bullying in Concrete, so I fired the both of them.
Certainly not an easy situation to uncover. But how did you go about finding out that the "Heads of" were the source of the trouble? Was it reported to you, or did you have to take a closer look at the teams?
I'd say it was a bit of both. But in the reverse order.
I've been doing this for a long time, so I know roughly how long things should take. And when I saw things were taking too long again, that was my first red flag. After the first failed delivery, I knew I had to get involved and start looking around for answers. And that took me on a trail, where I would be sent to different people in search of answers, and at some point I just ended up going in circles. So, I pressed them to be completely honest. And that's when I saw the patterns emerging… and they all kept coming back to those same two lead engineers.
So, you were forced to fire two leads… did that have a negative impact on the business?
Well everyone was obviously quite shocked when it happened – the engineering team in particular. That was in the morning. But by afternoon, there was a strange sort of carnival feeling. Everyone just went to the pub – and mind you, this was a Monday or Tuesday. It was like Notting Hill. And that friendly, team feeling went on to become part of our culture. What we've been left with now is, I think, a bunch of people who are genuinely talented and decent to work with, who now have clear direction and a positive team hierarchy.
What was interesting was that, ultimately, everyone knew there had been a problem. And they knew it couldn't keep going on like that. But if you had asked them, without all these things happening, they would've said everything was fine. So essentially there was this underlying menace permeating the business – and you could feel it but couldn't pinpoint it. Then you remove it and suddenly everything's better. The storm's gone. And it's been brilliant ever since.
That was six months ago.
Have those roles been filled yet, then?
Not yet. We've had people from inside the company step up – and I think that's great, because they're showing me through action that they can do certain other roles, or bits of another role. But the lead roles remain empty for now. The team is currently running their respective front-ends and back-ends and are just working directly for me; it's a fairly flat hierarchy. After last time, I've made a big push for transparency; I told them, just be honest, do your best. And if there's anything going wrong, tell me immediately. If you think it's getting out of hand, it's your obligation to tell me, so I can help to fix it. And they have been doing that, which is great.
We now have a good format of working together where I don't get involved in what they do, we just agree on objectives. They do their best to hit those objectives, we meet once a week, discuss how it's going… and that's it. I think it's best to stay out their way – after all, they're the experts. I give them the freedom to do their job. I don't care where they are, or how they work – at the end of the day, they just need to get it done. These are educated, smart people who are more than capable of being self-regulating. They should know how hard to work and manage their time well.
Leading on from that, you mentioned that responsibilities are being taken on from people "stepping up". Do you have any formal processes in place to help people get promoted from within? How do staff get involved with that kind of opportunity?
We have annual reviews, which allows us to take a look over a person's role and their salary. To do that I look at the market rates – and the market reports that Talent Point makes for me. I also think peer review is a very useful tool for benchmarking people and deciding whether they are in the right place. When someone wants to move in a different direction internally – whether upwards or laterally – I usually talk to their teammates as well to get their opinion on whether or not they would be good for that job. I also encourage them to talk to each other about their career moves. That way, everyone keeps everyone else honest, and the right people always make their way to where they deserve to be.
That being said, it's not like everyone is locked in. They're going to get pay rises, they're going to get opportunities, they'll have a chance to take on more responsibility. But that's not usually just because they ask for it – it happens when it's the right thing to do. I'm not suggesting that people shouldn't ask, but they should be realistic about their expectations. And if they feel I'm artificially suppressing them, then either I'm the wrong guy for them, or this is the wrong company for them, and they should leave.
Basically, I make sure that there will be money and reward for those that don't just worry about money and reward, but who worry about doing their job. When the company generates more money, it comes back to the employees, and then they have the opportunity to do more things for the company. It's a nice virtuous circle. So you try and breed that into the team, so they realise that it's a _quid pro quo_situation. That's how it's going to work. I guess that comes back to them being the "right person"; everyone here, now, gets that process, it's why they work so well together.
You touched on staff leaving, but do you ever try to stop that from happening? For example, do you ever counter-offer when someone says they want to resign or move on?
I think leaving should never be seen as a bad thing. If they leave, they're leaving for the right reason. Or at least that's how it should be. And as regretful as it may seem at the time, it's probably the right decision, because they shouldn't be here if they want to go.
As for counter offering… in the past, yes, I have counter-offered. And it resulted in temporary appeasement, and then they left anyway, so it didn't really work. I'll reserve judgment for if it happens in this new environment, but I would certainly discuss their decision with them first. There's a difference between discussion and counter-offering. If I felt that their reasons for leaving were fair, then fine. The way I look at it is, their job is to look after themselves, my job is to look after the company. If I can see that there's no longer an alignment there, then, as much as I might want them to stay, they should go, and I'll wish them the best and get out of the way.
But situations change. Perhaps what seems best right now doesn't turn out to be that great; the grass is always greener, after all. Would you ever take someone back after they left?
I would if it was genuine. If they had the inner confidence to say, "Yeah, that was a mistake, but I didn't know. I tried it and then I realised why I want to be back here again." In that case, yes. It'd be a case of: welcome back. Get back on it. (laughs)
So, you said earlier that you need to hire the right people from the beginning. That seems to be improving for Concrete after some hard lessons learnt. What would you say are the key tips you'd give anyone looking to hire the right people?
Honestly? I take peoples' personalities into account when hiring. I sort of look at the role, create a person in my head which would be the ideal 'type', then make my judgements based off of that. So, for example, a Scrum Master would need to be very orderly, very neat, very regimented. Product and UX/UI people, they won't be as buttoned up. I'd say different roles definitely favour different personality types. So, you know, I think when hiring you're also looking for the right characters.
And yet, despite the fact that you've got lots of different personality types, you need to make sure that they work well together as a team. There has to be a common link. Plus, not being an asshole – that really helps! – as well as just generally having enough of the human side so they're not, you know, characters that can't gel with anyone. Even if, say, you had the best coder in the world… if they make work a miserable environment, you're going to have problems. One person isn't ever going to be worth a team.
And do you consider retention to be particularly important when you hire someone?
Yeah – 'cos it's so expensive! I mean, yes you pay a percentage to the recruiter, but then you also sink effort and time into training them and getting them onboarded. All of that is wasted if they leave. And then there's also an inevitable loss of productivity if you have to do this all over again. So yeah, if you add it up, the financial cost of poor retention is massive. You don't want to be losing staff within three years, really.
It's a bit off topic, but I can see your company values on the wall behind you, and they seem pretty interesting! Can you tell us a bit more about them?
Oh yeah. They're quite new, actually. Having a sense of humour is one of them; because at the end of the day, what we're doing is just a job – it's not life or death. Which leads on to the second value pretty well: if you don't like it, leave! I know it sounds harsh, but what that really means is… well, life's too short, you know? So, don't waste your time if you're not enjoying it here. And don't waste our time. It's about transparency – another of our values. We're a small company, there's only about 50 of us, so everyone knows everyone. We can still operate on a very personal level, and we know the types of personalities that we're looking for and the kind of people we want to have here.
When we have 200 people, sure, we may need to implement different values to manage the company in different ways. But that's not the case now. So those values, I would say, are very relevant for today. Maybe they'll need to be augmented in some way as we get bigger. But for now, we're trying to hold onto our current culture as much as possible.
On the subject of company culture, do you think it has much of an impact on employee retention?
I would have thought so, yeah. I mean, of course money's always important. But I don't think it's the most important thing for a lot of people – because if money was your only motivator you'd be freelancing; you'd be a mercenary, a 'gun for hire' type, and you wouldn't care where you were – so you probably wouldn't be here! But most people do care about culture. And, I mean, it makes sense, doesn't it? You spend more time – more money – with your colleagues then you tend to with family. Plus, if you're oblivious to the environment you're in you're probably not a very good person to work with!
I think the culture here is clear. This is a very casual environment. There's no dress code, hours are flexible, you can work from home, you get a laptop to move around with. Basically: "Here's the expectation, here're the tools you need, don't fuck it up."
Would you say culture is the most important factor leading to retention? And if not, what would that be?
It's an interesting question. I don't think any one thing is 'most important', because there are many factors. There's a subtlety to that. Because people may enjoy the culture, but it won't be the only thing keeping them here.
For example, I think the mission that we have at Concrete is pretty important. Because even if it doesn't require the most cutting-edge coding, what we're doing is still pretty worthy. Your work does have a chance of disrupting the retail and hospitality industries and making people's lives more fulfilling or easier.
Hypothetically, what would you do to improve retention? Given no restrictions.
Hypothetically without restrictions? Compromising pictures. (laughs)
No, but in all seriousness, retention is the by-product of doing the right things. Or rather, doing the right things right. You can't focus on retention. It's just a happy by-product. The same way as success is the by-product of hard work and application. That's it. So, I hope we are doing things well. And there's always room to do things better. But, you know, our retention rate will be one of the measures of that, I suppose. And we'll see.
We would like to thank Tristan once again for taking the time to meet us and provide such insightful answers to our interview questions; it's always interesting to see behind the curtain at what other companies are doing!
If you feel like you've got some interesting insight into a business topic or work for a company that are doing things differently, we'd love to hear from you and include you in this series.
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