Thinkers50 Radar 2022: Tom van der Lubbe

Tom van der Lubbe is the co-founder of a mortgage advice company, Viisi NV, that was voted #1 Great Place to Work in Europe in 2021, and #1 Great Place to Work in the Netherlands for 2019, 2020, and 2021. Viisi specializes in mortgage advice, but their true purpose is to change the world of finance. At Viisi the employees come first, the clients second, and the shareholders last. Tom maintains, ‘We can’t expect employees to treat clients well if they are not treated well themselves. However, we can expect that well-treated employees will treat clients well.’

Tom is also a columnist for Corporate Rebels, a blog dedicated to visiting the world’s most inspiring workplaces, and Corporate Rebels Academy, a school of courses taught by leaders of the world’s most progressive organizations. Tom is an advocate for simplification in organizations. Viisi’s flat organizational structure and rotating leadership encourage autonomy and radical transparency.

On Tuesday, 12 April 2022, Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove will have Tom van der Lubbe on as their guest in a new session of the Thinkers50 Radar 2022 LinkedIn Live series in partnership with Deloitte.

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In this talk from the Enlightened Enterprise Academy conference, ‘Beyond the False Dichotomy: Shifting The Narrative’, Tom van der Lubbe shares one of his favourite thinking tools. Tom explains how individual organizations can shift narratives by considering ‘Could the opposite be true?’


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Transcript

Des Dearlove:

Hello, welcome to the Thinkers50 Radar 2022 series brought to you in partnership with Deloitte. I’m Des Dearlove.

Stuart Crainer:

And I’m Stuart Crainer. We’re the founders of Thinkers50, the world’s most reliable resource for identifying, ranking and sharing leading management ideas of our age. Ideas that can make a real difference in the world.

Des Dearlove:

In this weekly series of 45 minute webinars, we want to showcase some of those ideas to bring you the most exciting new voices in management thinking.

Stuart Crainer:

So please let us know where you are joining from today and send over your questions at any time during the session.

Des Dearlove:

And it’s always especially exciting to have a guest, who’s someone who’s really putting ideas into practice, and that’s what we’ve got today, and here’s Tom van der Lubbe.

Stuart Crainer:

Tom is the co-founder of Viisi, a financial services company that offers customized mortgage solutions. Prior to founding Viisi in 2010, Tom worked for MLP where he was responsible for the Dutch and Swiss subsidiaries, before that he started his professional career at McKinsey.

Des Dearlove:

Viisi is a remarkable company. Its purpose is to change the world of finance to make the industry better, more sustainable, and more focused on the long term. Tom, one of your core beliefs is that we should leave the world in a better shape than it was when we were born. How does the creation of Viisi fit into that mission?

Tom van der Lubbe:

Oh, that’s a very good question, but first, thanks for having me. I think, let’s say, the general opinion about financial sector is not so positive and I think that’s a correct opinion, but it’s a sector which is enormously important for the whole economy. We think that the financial sector should be about serving industry, but also the normal population. And that’s something different if you compare this with, let’s say, day trading or these kind of aspects we know from the financial sector. And with the whole discussion about climate change, I think everybody understands that we should leave the world in a better shape than we found it and at the moment it’s exactly the opposite.

Stuart Crainer:

So, Viisi started life in 2010. What was the genesis of the company, Tom?

Tom van der Lubbe:

Yeah, actually it was because of the fact that we used to work for a big corporate financial advisor, which is stock listed in Germany. And then, there was a change of leadership in the company, CFO became CEO. And what do CFOs often do when they take over? They just take the balance sheet or the Excel sheet and they just cut everything which has to do with future growth. And then all the subsidiaries were closed and then we were just sitting there and said, “Okay, what we’re going to do? Shall we just apply somewhere else or what shall we do?” We’re just very lucky in hindsight that 10 years ago, we didn’t have…

Des Dearlove:

That’s probably the best way to become entrepreneurs, I think, but this company is very different. I mean, the way it’s set up, the way it’s structured, the way it’s organized. It’s not something you’re going to be able to explain in a couple of sentences, I know, but can you give us just a feel for how it’s different?

Tom van der Lubbe:

Yeah, I have to say that I have a totally different background in comparison to a lot of other people who build financial sector companies, I’m a historian and I’m educated in, let’s say, understanding how states evolved and this kind of stuff. And I always was amazed when I moved into the business that you talk about Frederick Taylor and how you organize stuff and about management, et cetera. And I always compare this with this stuff I studied in the university and I thought this is very strange. If I just see the development of armies or how states evolve, you have always decentralized decision making. So you can dive into armies, but you can also dive in states.

And if you, for instance, see the development of states, it’s [popularity 00:04:22] principle that, let’s say, you decide something in the city, and then you are in a province, or a canton and then on a national level, but you don’t mix this up all the time.

And you have a lot of structure if you talk about Trias Politica or how parliament is organized, et cetera. And then I just watched how businesses or organizations are built. And I thought that’s very strange. I find this the way states are organized much more advanced because you still understand that the complexity makes it necessary to have decentralized decision making, so that was more or less a starting point. And the other thing was that we said, “If you have experience, because you have worked in a company, most people don’t like to be micromanaged.2 So we said, “Okay, when the company will be successful,” because we were, let’s say, only four people in the beginning, “what shall we do? Do we also start to micromanage our people, or can we still remember that the starting point was, we will try to build a company because we don’t want to be micromanaged.” So these were the two, let’s say, initial starting points.

Des Dearlove:

And how big is the- [crosstalk 00:05:37] sorry. How big is the organization now? How many, you’ve got sort of 40 people?

Tom van der Lubbe:

We’re 63 now.

Des Dearlove:

63, okay.

Tom van der Lubbe:

But we are growing gradually because one of the principles also is that we don’t have extra external investors, so we have to grow from our own profits. And especially in the beginning, that takes much longer than if you would have, let’s say, enormous amount of money from outside, which at the moment seems to be in a lot of cases, the normal way of building companies.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah. I think we should say as well, that not all nation states are decentralized. I mean, you live in Switzerland, Tom, which is kind of an exemplar of what you were talking about with its cantons and its different ways of working. We’re based in the UK, which is actually very centralized as a nation.

Tom van der Lubbe:

Yeah. I would even would say yes and no. So if you take Great Britain, it also has a lot of aspects of decentralized decision making. So you still decide something in the City of London and not discussing this in the House of Parliaments. But let’s say in organizations, it can be that the CEO decides through all those layers and just comes and says, “This is my opinion, we’re going to do it like this.”

Des Dearlove:

Yeah, and that’s the reason that Stuart’s involved with local government and is running for office.

Stuart Crainer:

Yeah, to decentralize decision making away from me. Tom, you had experience working with McKinsey, which is a very, very different structure and approach to organizational life. How did that inform your kind of creation of Viisi?

Tom van der Lubbe:

I would say, let’s say, the lessons I took from my, let’s say, working career, let’s say, working for others that was mainly taken from the company we used to work before as a financial advisor. So, that was not about McKinsey, let’s say, I just started at McKinsey, but I didn’t like it. So I didn’t like to go somewhere and tell other people what to do, which is probably also fits to what I said before. I mean, you can be very, very smart and it also can be very interesting to analyze something, but in the end I find it much more fulfilling to really do it myself because there is enormous amount of difference between analyzing something and doing it in practice. A lot of people were able to analyze stuff, but if it would be so easy, then a lot of smart McKinsey consultants would be extremely good entrepreneurs, which is not the case. So, it must be probably more difficult to build something than to analyze something.

Des Dearlove:

Yeah. And the model that you apply at Viisi, I mean, it has been described as holacracy. Is that a term that you recognize and think about or do you see it more as a unique culture?

Tom van der Lubbe:

I would say both things are correct. On the one hand, holacracy has a lot of principles taken from sociocracy, which by the way, is a Dutch invention. But let’s say Brian, who developed with the IT background, holacracy made a very practical model out of the sociocratic principles. If somebody wants to start with decentralized decision making, holacracy is a good starting point. But from the beginning, we said, “We’re not building a holacracy company.” Because one of the main aspects, for instance, in our company, wouldn’t be, let’s say, taken very seriously by Brian Robinson. Because in our model, the one who leads a team or the company is chosen by the team members, which in holacracy is not the case and the other thing is also that we have a rotation principle.

So, that’s the link for instance also to the Swiss government. But it’s a old Republican principle that if you have a team let’s say of four or six people, then every half a year, somebody else is in the lead of the team, that’s why it’s called the president. So you’re the one who is, let’s say, primus inter pares, who is in the lead, but it’s still based on a equal basis with the team members, which is something which is not the case in holacracy.

Des Dearlove:

So you have, as it were, a team leader, which was you say rotates, and then each team or each unit to each part. Who manages or who leads the integration, the sort of the horizontal, if you like, across teams, is that the same individual or is that somebody else?

Tom van der Lubbe:

Now, you still have this, let’s say, this lead link and rep link. So there’s double linking.

Des Dearlove:

Yeah.

Tom van der Lubbe:

The two people of every team, they go to the next level, so there is still a hierarchy in the organization, but those people are chosen by the team itself is, and in holacracy only the rep link, the representative is chosen and the lead link is the top-down decision.

And that in our company, that’s not the case. Both roles are chosen by their peers and the old principle and there’s this historic tradition, it’s the old Republican tradition, which you also see in Venice or Amsterdam, et cetera, these trading cities. The cities in a Republican tradition are governed by the families and they also rotate. So if you take, let’s say, ancient painting in the Netherlands or in Italy, and Venice is a very good example, then you see if you visit Venice, you see those people governing the city and they are from all those families.

And they were able to do this for a thousand years, between 700 and 1700. But we have forgotten a little bit about this, the only aspect where you can still see this is on the one hand, in a very pure form in Switzerland where the government rotates or the president is somewhere is rotating a job so to say. So every year somebody else of the government is in charge of this role and where you can also see that the principle of avoiding too much power, or for too long periods, you can see this in the American elections or the American presidency where you’re only allowed to have this job for two times.

So, if you would dive into this, you can still find a lot of those examples, but we have forgotten about it and this whole principle, which is perhaps the core is that power corrupts [inaudible 00:12:39] and absolute power corrupts, even in a more, even severe way. And if we just watch our own politicians, we have a lot of situations where we think, “Okay, it would be better to rotate more often to avoid this.”

Stuart Crainer:

It’d be better to eliminate rather than rotate in the political sense, I think. Yeah, I’m interested, Tom, how this evolved. I mean, you hadn’t been entrepreneurial before, but you and your co-founders started the company as entrepreneurs, and you went in with some fundamental ideas. But for instance, not micromanaging, but something like not micromanaging is a really nice idea. We all get it, but when it comes down to it, you are in a small company. It’s your company. You’ve got skin in the game, you’re under pressure and you end up, usually people end up micromanaging. So how do you stay true to your initial principles and how have they evolved?

Tom van der Lubbe:

We started with the model from the beginning, which are hierarchy of stakeholders. It’s the purpose and is where you started our session with changing the financial sector and it can be very practical, giving better advice, be more transparent, et cetera. So it is very practical. And then you have a hierarchy of stakeholders. It’s the people first, so it’s not the clients first. It’s the people first in the company. It’s a little bit like Richard Branson also always explains, if your own people are happy, then your clients are happy and in the end your shareholders are happy.

That’s not a model we invented. Most small, medium-sized enterprises do it in exactly the same way. And then you start to evolve around those core principles. And then you take, as an example, you decide that if you hire people, people who do the work, they decide together and say in a small company, then you decide together, who are you going to hire? And then you’re starting to discuss what other, let’s say, topics do you have? And then the system evolves. But if the starting point is, for instance, putting people first, then the logical next step is to listen to them. What do you need to be able to do the work in the most excellent way?

Des Dearlove:

Yeah, no, that makes sense.

Stuart Crainer:

We’ve got some good questions coming in, but I just want to stay with a bit more of the detail of your organization because another thing that’s unusual is that it is total transparency over salaries and people discuss and set their own salaries in effect. I think that’s correct? Can you say a little bit about that?

Tom van der Lubbe:

Yeah. Okay, I’ll start with radical transparency because let’s say if you are in a UK environment, where does it come from? It doesn’t come from IT people nowadays, but it’s originally comes from England. In the parliament, they started to write down what was discussed in the parliament in the pub at the other side of the streets. And so if you Google Wikipedia, ‘radical transparency’, there it comes from. And that you can enter for instance to parliament and listen to the debates or in a lot of countries where you have laws which define that everything which is discussed in parliament has to be publicly accessible to the audience or to the public. There, that’s where it comes from. And then you have certain countries, for instance, Scandinavian countries where it’s very normal, but also in the past, that’s very normal that people know what you earn.

You can still see, for instance, if you apply for a job in the university, that in a lot of countries, it says C4 or whatsoever, and then everybody, or you apply in a job in the States and then you know what the person will earn or what, let’s say, the salary benchmark would be. So I always say we didn’t invent stuff, we’re just putting the puzzle pieces together. And if you have the purpose to change the financial sector, where there’s a lot of in transparent stuff going on, then it’s normal that at a certain point, you say, “Okay, why don’t we just share this?” or “Why aren’t we just very clear about our fees, if it’s including VAT or not?” or something. So sometimes can be very practical.

And in the beginning, for instance, it was not the case. And we said, “Okay, we are very clear about what the advice will cost.” We were lucky that the regulator changed this, so we don’t get any kickbacks from banks for the mortgages we are serving to our customers. But you dive into this and you ask the question when I would approach this company as an outsider, what would I like to know?

But for instance, also this organizational model, when we implemented holacracy, we also put this online and then a lot of self-organizing companies approached us and said, “Your organizational model, [GlassFrog 00:17:57] from holacracy, is open to the public. Are you sure?” I said, “Yes, that’s sure,” but it’s very efficient.

From a scientific point of view, radical transparency is an enormous efficiency driver because it has different aspects. On the one hand, everybody thinks much more severely and profoundly, what am I doing? Because it will be publicly accessible for everybody. On the other hand, you have to live your principles because everybody is watching you and saying, “Hey, I found this on your website.” And it can be a small mistake, but it also could be that people approaching you and saying, “I don’t understand this. You are saying this and I read that.”

And then you also, but you know this in advance. Secrecy has exactly the opposite effect or leads to a lot of misunderstandings, and then you evolve on this. And then we started to publish our salary model. And then we started to add the salaries when people apply for jobs at our company, which is very efficient. But that’s exactly the same. If you would apply at a company and you have to ask yourself all the time, when I am allowed to ask what the salary would be, et cetera, it’s also very inefficient. So we just said, “Okay, just put this in the beginning.” And we say, “If you apply for this job and you have this amount of years of experience, you will earn this,” and then the person can decide, do you want to apply for this job or not? But it’s just the full process.

Des Dearlove:

Yeah. I mean, you talk about radical transparency and there’s an echo of, I mean, we spent some time with Reed Hastings from Netflix and they talk about radical candor. And they, in recent years, Reed’s been trying to introduce the transparency to the salary structure so that everybody knows what everybody else is earning. Obviously they’re a much bigger organization than you, but I know they suffered some, let’s call it, turbulence. As you make that journey, it was fraught with some difficulty, not everybody was comfortable with it. And I think they’re still on that journey. Did you find that or did people take to it immediately or did you find people have to warm up to idea?

Tom van der Lubbe:

Yeah, I’ve read a book of Reed Hastings’. And by the way, we talked about [inaudible 00:20:23] podcast. I also did a talk on that. The problem is that sometimes people want to copy something and they take one puzzle piece of the whole puzzle and it doesn’t work. So let’s say, if you talk about radical transparency about salaries, then I have to explain in two or three sentences what the model is. So we have fixed salaries and we don’t have only fixed salaries for somebody who is starting, but we also have fixed salaries for the next 40 years. So if somebody starts as a consultant at our company and does mortgage advice, then somebody will get a salary increase 40 years, every year, 200 Euros. And that creates, let’s say, security at this moment, but also for the future. Then there is a totally, we have split salary from performance reviews for instance, and we don’t have any bonuses. I mean, Reed Hastings in Netflix, he tries to mix a lot of stuff, but if you still, for instance, have bonuses, and you want to, let’s say-

Des Dearlove:

I think he’s tried to get rid of the bonuses. I don’t know how that’s going. I mean, last time I saw him, he was saying no bonuses, but-

Tom van der Lubbe:

Okay, perhaps he polished it, but that’s something which for instance is the same with Google. So if you talk a lot about psychological safety and you write a lot about Amy Edmondson and on the other hand you have a bonus system, then why should people work together because they know that the remuneration will be based on their individual performance? If you really want to build this kind of model, you have to be very clear and understand that it’s all interlinked to each other.

Des Dearlove:

Yeah, that makes sense.

Stuart Crainer:

Well, let’s go to some questions from the audience. First one from John Coleman. I think it’d be good just to clarify, because people might not be clear on what these terms are. He says, “What’s your view on how sociocracy differs from holacracy?” Can you explain the two as you understand them because they might not be-

Tom van der Lubbe:

I mean, let’s say if you’re not a specialist in these fields, then you’re going to dive really deep. So let’s say first, if people want to are interested in this topic, I did a long conversation of an hour and a half with one of leading figures in sociocracy, but I would say the main difference is that Brian Robinson took sociocracy as a model, but from an American perspective, he took the strong leadership and the top-down aspect.

So to put it very simple, I would say sociocracy is much more bottom-up and holacracy is much more top-down. If you talk for instance about the central role of the lead link. But that’s really a topic which you can discuss one hour and it also depends if you really into these aspects. I would say for this talk, it’s much more interesting to focus on what they have in common and what they have in common is that you have roles, which are parts of functions, and you have decentralized decision making and you have this kind of double linking, which means that the team leader and a representative, they go together to the next level. I hope I explained this in a practical way.

Des Dearlove:

Yeah. Okay, looking for some more questions. Frank asks, he says, “I like that leaders are chosen by peers. To what extent did the direct democracy in Switzerland inspire you to do this?”

Tom van der Lubbe:

I live in Switzerland, although the company is in the Netherlands, but actually I had the idea since I studied ancient history. What I find very interesting is that these whole problems with power and absolute power and corrupting power, power corrupts, that’s something which you see since thousands of years. And I found that as a student extremely interesting to study, let’s say, Greek politicians or philosophers. And I thought, “Okay, they were dealing with exactly the same stuff and they have this primus inter pares principle of rotation. That’s where it actually comes from and then when I moved to Switzerland 20 years ago, although I studied also this kind of stuff in the university, I never knew that much about the Swiss model that I learned in the university. And then since I live here, I just thought, “Okay, it still exists in practice.” So it’s a little bit of both, so to say.

Des Dearlove:

I mean, what’s really interesting is as you say, I mean, there are thousands of years of political philosophy in terms of trying to understand and manage societies and organizations and trying to create ideal states. And yet business and management seems to just have binned all that and gone to its own command and control sort of model, initially, a very mechanistic… We blame Frederick Taylor for lots of things, but it does seem that there was all this other knowledge and other places to learn from, but we took the organizational blueprint from somewhere else completely.

Tom van der Lubbe:

What I find interesting as a historian is what I always said is that enlightenment has not reached management yet. So, we still have this kind of, let’s say, absolute power. We talk about strong leadership and how it devolves to empathetic leadership, but I would say, okay, it’s like Frederick the Great, who is a nice guy and wants to do the best for the people, but it’s not parliamentary democracy. And then enlightenment comes and then you have the whole involvement or the whole development of the classical Republican tradition, where you have this development of the Dutch Republic, but also other republics and the city states, et cetera, where you have people who govern their own cities. And those are the families of this city, but it’s not a classical monarchy. So if you visit Amsterdam, you have a lot of those houses of the merchants, but you don’t find Versailles and a huge castle, because although we have king in the Netherlands at the moment, it doesn’t have this classical tradition, which you can find in France as an example.

Stuart Crainer:

There’s a question from Anna Nielsen, who’s in Minneapolis on, “How does shared power impact employee satisfaction?” So you’ve said, the employees first.

Tom van der Lubbe:

Oh, that’s a very nice question because yeah, there is enormous influence. So I mean, if you dive into literature, it’s always about autonomy and the mastery in a sense of purpose, Daniel Fink, Drive, the book is called. It’s probably also on your list, I’m not a hundred percent sure, but probably he is. And the funny thing is that we were this number one, great place to work, let’s say, the last three years in the Netherlands and also number one in Europe. But the main thing was that people said, we trust each other for a hundred percent and it also has to do with the psychological safety and sharing power with other people. So it is not about, let’s say, those people who have founded the company, et cetera, it’s doing together something with your peers and that’s in the end what people like.

Des Dearlove:

Okay, Christine asks… I mean, you’ve been very clear that this isn’t a model that you can sort of just pick up piecemeal. You’ve really got to think it through, but she asks, “What would you recommend people to do to start with, if they want to copy your model or move in this direction?” I mean, you got to start somewhere.

Tom van der Lubbe:

Yeah, what I think it depends a little bit, let’s say, on the situation. Let’s say if you have a huge corporation, I would just start somewhere in a small team where you, let’s say, can just experiment with the stuff and then create a safe environment and because, let’s say, research shows that if you talk about agility or [inaudible 00:29:14], take the award we got from you, the Haier Zero Distance Awards. In the end, if you have a huge company, you have a much more severe interest to experiment with decentralized decision making. If you are a company like we are with 63 people, we can still let’s say sit together in one room.

But if you have a, let’s say, multinational with, I don’t know, 100,000 people, then you should start to experiment, I would say, pretty fast and perhaps look what Haier does. Or also here, Bosch power tools, 40,000 people, Bosch, I think 300,000 or 400,000 people. And they have also started somewhere. And then now you have Bosch power tools and then you compare in your huge multinational what works well. And probably all the indicators show that people are much more happy to work for Bosch power tools than for other parts of the Bosch multinational.

Stuart Crainer:

I suppose that begs the question, can your approach be scaled, Tom, or is there an optimum level? I was thinking of, was it Dunbar’s number of 150 people being the optimal size of a group? You don’t want to grow any bigger than that? Have you got any numbers in mind or do you see that you could grow your organization to 20,000 people and maintain this level, this approach?

Tom van der Lubbe:

Yeah, the last one, but that’s also because let’s say for us, we watch more the really big organizational stuff. So we’ll take, let’s say the Roman Empire and the Roman Army where you have, let’s say six or seven people and they choose their own people, their own leader and sleeping together in one tent. Or you would, for instance take the examples I took from the state, if you take the European Union, you can discuss a lot about that stuff could be much better, but you still have, let’s say 300 million people, and you still have decentralized decision making in small villages about it doesn’t matter what it is. So, I think you can scale endlessly, but the bigger you want to become as a company, the more you really have to be to focus on the structure. But it’s the same for the state, so if you want to survive as a state, you have to come up with Trias Politica because otherwise, I mean, you have to create checks and balances, so to say.

Des Dearlove:

You just mentioned structure and the word structure just caught my eye. Sean is asking, “In any governance structure, does democracy with its Achilles heel that the majority isn’t necessarily right, always trump a benevolent dictator,” which I think we were alluding to earlier, “with good advisors, for instance? The East, for example, seems to prefer the latter.”

Tom van der Lubbe:

Yeah. I mean, there’s always a discussion you have, let’s say, if you can dive into decision making in principle of consent. So it’s not the dictatorship of the majority, which is also interesting because if you study Greek philosophy or Greek ancient history, you have exactly the same debate, Aristotle against Plato. So it’s about the consent principle, which probably I perhaps I shouldn’t even have mentioned this, if it’s about sociocracy and holacracy.

The consent principle for those, it’s not consensus. So the consent principle is that everybody is taken into this decision making process. And it’s also called governance in holacracy. And it follows again, the way legislation is voted on the parliament. So you have this evolving process of amendments and then in the end in a parliament, let’s say, they vote and then as a majority decision. But in holacracy or sociocracy, it’s about consent. You’re trying to integrate, let’s say, the feedback until everybody says, “Yeah, this is the best way of taking this decision.” And this consent principle is incredibly powerful.

Des Dearlove:

Interesting.

Stuart Crainer:

An interesting point from Rick Spann, who’s also in the Netherlands. He says, “I would be curious what the word ‘architecture’ evokes for you, from your background as a historian (maybe you know the work of Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building.) And how might this relate to design and business architecture around your model?”

Tom van der Lubbe:

Yeah. Architecture is I would, let’s say, I mean, I’m often asked about leadership, et cetera, and always say, I much more feel like an architect or the gardener, et cetera, but I like the idea of the architect much better because it’s building about structures. But the funny thing is we were invited to speak on a conference about urban development about self-organizing structures. So there are a lot of parallels about this, because if you watch, for instance, city development. And it is also an example, which is often mentioned also by Laloux in Reinventing Organizations, or you see it, Tony [Shea 00:34:47] [inaudible 00:34:47] et cetera.

The funny thing is that when cities grow, they become more productive. But this evolve somewhere automatically and with companies exactly the opposite. So the bigger companies get, the less productive they get. It goes down again. With cities or ecosystems, it’s not. But why do we use the word ecosystem? Because in nature, this also works, but there is this kind of architecture and it can be rainforest or cities development or states, et cetera. So I think, yeah, architecture is a pretty good word for this.

Stuart Crainer:

I know Zhang Ruimin, the CEO of Haier, he was asked did he see himself as the captain of the ship? And he said, no, he doesn’t see himself as the captain of the ship. He sees himself as the architect of the ship.

Tom van der Lubbe:

Yeah. When I spoke at a Haier conference, what really blew my mind was that he talked about von Moltke, which is a German general who lost against France, [inaudible 00:36:03] and the German Army, which was superior. I mean, we don’t want to talk about this a lot, but this decentralized decision making, which was also adapted by, let’s say, the American Army after the Second World War was more or less wrote down by von Moltke.

And the CEO of Haier was using this. And I thought, incredible, this guy’s sitting in China and he’s mentioning von Moltke because in the German language, you have words for this, and they are not translated in American Army literature. It’s about [foreign language 00:36:43] tactic and [foreign language 00:36:45] tactic and [foreign language 00:36:46] tactic means you have your mission, it’s a mission. And people on the ground, they have to decide for themselves. And if you read, for instance, the book, Why Leaders Eat Last and have these special elite groups, they exactly function in the same way. They have a mission, but together on the ground, because situation changes all the time, they decide for themselves what is the next step to be taken?

Des Dearlove:

No, interesting. No, I think one of the things about Zhang Ruimin is his great interest in literature of all sorts and history. And I mean, he’s a very unusual, I would say, unusual CEO in the sense that he’s incredibly well read.

Tom van der Lubbe:

Yeah.

Des Dearlove:

Remarkable. You touched on leadership and leader as architect, but Frank asked, “From whom do you get open and honest feedback, so that you can lead even better? And how does the feedback process work?”

Tom van der Lubbe:

Yeah, that’s very funny because let’s say the question is in the frame where we are not in, so we are not leading so to say. So I have certain roles and if people are interested what I’m doing at Viisi then you can just Google, and one of the roles is talking to the public, but I don’t have anything to do with advisors. I don’t have anything to do with the credit department. So people solve this themselves.

Des Dearlove:

So let’s reframe that question then slightly. How do you get feedback on whether you are fulfilling your roles optimally?

Tom van der Lubbe:

Yeah. I’m just a member as everybody else in certain teams. So for instance, I’m in the media team and when I write something and my colleague doesn’t like it or says, “I’d write it differently,” then I get feedback. It’s a little bit like de Bono’s model of the hats. So you are just wearing different hats, but for instance, I’m also not a CEO, so I’m just one of the [visionaries 00:38:53] and we also don’t have business cards, so everybody is called a visionaries and that’s it. And then you have those roles and then depending on the time you Google my roles, you find different roles.

Des Dearlove:

Oh, that’s interesting, so it’s more fluid.

Tom van der Lubbe:

That’s it.

Des Dearlove:

Interesting.

Stuart Crainer:

Do you think the Dutch culture is more open to this sort of organizational model?

Tom van der Lubbe:

Yes, it is. The funny thing is that in the book of Amy Edmondson about psychological safety and also decentralized decision making, on the last page of the book, she reflects on this. And then if you, for instance, have this power distance, which is in Scandinavian countries and also in the Netherlands is much lower and it’s easier to implement it. So you could say if you have a Republican tradition and a very small power distance is much easier because people are much more used to this.

But on the other one, having said this, if you see von Moltke and the German Army, which is, let’s say, we have, let’s say, learned about this in movies after the Second World War, I always had the impression the German Army, they’re only shouting what other people have to do. And then only recently, two years ago, I found out that exactly the opposite is the case, that people in the battlefield had much more power, decentralized power, than in the American Army, was exactly the opposite.

Even on the one hand, you have this power distance topic, which says Scandinavia and the Netherlands. But on the other hand, you have this idea of the Germans, which are very vertical oriented and people are not allowed to take their own decisions, which is not the case. So I think it’s much more complicated. But the Chinese, you would exactly say the same. So if you don’t know Haier, everybody would say that’s communism and those people that don’t have their own opinion, and then you find out about Haier and then a lot of people with a very fixed idea of what China is would say, “Oh, it doesn’t fit in my picture of what I think China is about.”

Des Dearlove:

I mean, it sounds as though obviously certain cultures would take to this sort of model perhaps more naturally, although despite the fact you’re sort of pointing out some paradoxes here as well with the way this stuff works. But do you think we are moving in the direction towards your model, do you see more businesses doing this, or do you think that you are going to remain, and some of these other organizations we’ve touched on, are going to be outliers and people are going to continue to do business in the old sort of hierarchical way? Or is it a kind of inevitable sort of progression of history, that history’s moving in your direction?

Tom van der Lubbe:

Oh, that’s very difficult question because, let’s say, you always have to zoom out to see developments in the long term. If you talk about democracy at the moment, we live in a time where everybody says now, we’re moving in the wrong direction, watch all these dictatorships, et cetera. But I think in the end, we’re, let’s say if I want to be positive and I think I am, then let’s say from an organizational point of view, the more complexity you have, you can only solve this by decentralized decision making and then you are back to Taylor.

So if you make one model in a Ford factory and you put people in the line, that’s a different time you live in if you compare this with the services oriented industries or companies we have now, where I think everybody’s moving towards. And if you want to keep your people, then yes, you should give them freedom and trust them to take the right decisions because they are clever enough to do so. So yes, in the end, I think everybody will move in this direction. But on this journey, there will be probably a kind of disruptions in between.

Stuart Crainer:

How do you keep it simple, Tom? Because I mean, we all know that management and leadership, those kind of basic, very, very straightforward principles in where you got to practice and what you’ve mapped out is some ideas which are kind of straightforward intellectually for you to grasp but actually delivering on them and keeping it simple has proved beyond a lot of organizations. The [ad 00:43:40] layers of hierarchy, they make it more complicated. How do you keep it simple?

Tom van der Lubbe:

Yeah. That’s a very good question because it’s very simple to make things very complicated and very complicated to make things very simple but to answer you with a very practical answer, we have this golden rule. I treat other people like you want to be treated yourself and that applies to everything. One has to, if you have this kind of rule and I think it applies everywhere and in any situation, you have to repeat it all the time. And if something happens where you think, “Okay, that was not the case,” also, let’s say, with onboarding and when a company grows, you have to repeat this all the time when you onboard people. So they feel safe and you are back about this environment of psychological safety that people don’t fear to speak up and say, “I don’t think this is in line with our golden rule.”

And that happens if you don’t have to be afraid that you lose your job, that you lose your bonus. So there’s also psychological safety and salary model makes it much more easy for people on the one hand to show vulnerability and to say, “We have more options. What do you think? Shall we move in this direction or in that direction?” But also the other way around, you don’t have to fear giving feedback to your colleagues because it doesn’t have a negative, let’s say, repercussion.

That’s also the case where let’s say a lot of stuff is always discussed about the 360 Degree Feedback. And I always say, how shall this work? You give feedback to somebody who decides on your bonus, or what’s your logic behind this? But in the end you need people and you have to put an enormous amount of effort in on the one hand, hiring, cultural fit, and then repeating and repeating all the time. But it’s for the constitution, it is the same. We have to repeat our basic values in the constitution about our liberties to not forget about them.

Des Dearlove:

This is an absolutely fascinating conversation, but we are running out of time. Where can people go to find out more about what you are doing? And I know we mentioned earlier, you do podcasts. I mean, you do book reviews and all sorts of things. Where should people go to see, to learn more about what you are doing and some of the other interesting books that you are looking at and ideas that you’re discussing?

Tom van der Lubbe:

Yeah, we are very fortunate because of COVID. We did an enormous amount of different topics in the last two years, so if people are just interested in certain aspects, so you can just Google ‘Viisi’ or my name, and then in combination with ‘radical transparency’, ‘salaries’, ‘trust’, ‘golden rule’, et cetera. And then you will probably find a lot of stuff also in English language. And otherwise people can also connect, if they have something very specific and they can’t find it, they can just also connect on LinkedIn and I will answer their questions.

Stuart Crainer:

Tom, thank you very much. Refreshing and inspirational. I thank Tom van der Lubbe of Viisi. Thank you very much for joining us, Tom, and thank you everyone for joining us as well and asking such brilliant questions. Next week, we’ll be joined by Tamsen Webster. We can hope you can join us there. Thank you.

Tom van der Lubbe:

Thank you for inviting me.

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