How We’re Doing People Things Differently At Mission Equality

I’ve written previously about a number of areas where we’ve got it so very wrong when it comes to the people experience in most organisations. Here, I want to share what and how we’re doing it differently at Mission Equality.

As ever, we are leaving no stone unturned in our quest to use ourselves as guinea pigs and reconfigure what it is to build a business based upon equity and equality for everyone. Here’s where we’ve got to so far when it comes to the ‘people experience’ in our company…

No More ‘Managing’ Performance…

We don’t manage peoples’ performance, we support and facilitate it. This hasn’t come without its unexpected challenges though…

When we had people join the team who didn’t come over from my former startup (where I’d already started significant work to do people experience differently), it was obvious that the impact of working in capitalist, colonialist work environments takes its toll and leaves a deeply entrenched and embedded mark.

While the ‘ask’ and challenge we set for our new folks sounded at first like music to their ears, when it came to it, they struggled…

We asked them to ‘think outside the box’, to ‘start from a blank canvas’, to engage in all the ‘blue sky thinking’ they’d ever dreamed of. What transpired was…they couldn’t. People are so steeped in the mindset of capitalist rules and the cage is so rigid that more flexible thinking requires more time to unlearn the rigidity.

On top of that, the desperate pressure to perform – to come out of the gate and impress, to start strong – didn’t drive or fuel creativity, it suppressed it.

Giving people time – what we call a ‘decolonising work’ period of between 1-3 months – gives folks the necessary time and space to begin to unlearn the nasty habits perpetuated by capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism.

We don’t need to manage people to perform at Mission Equality; when we give folks the freedom to do so and put in place scaffolding for them to leverage this freedom (because in the first instance it’s scary – like taking the training wheels off or removing the L plate – and the world becomes your oyster!), they ‘perform’ to their potential, no longer shackled by the constraints of rigid, controlled, spoon-fed environments.

No More ‘Managing’ People…

We don’t manage our people at all at Mission Equality.

They are – we are – all adults…they/we are perfectly capable of self managing; what that means and looks like is trusting them to know themselves, to know what works best for them, to know what helps them work and be at their best and to facilitate them to do this.

In practice, it looks like a totally flexible work schedule – work when you want, don’t when you don’t. It looks like understanding the overall goals of the company and being given the freedom to chart a path towards it. It looks like the trust and freedom to ‘manage’ yourself.

No Need To ‘Improve Productivity’…

We have deadlines at Mission Equality or, more accurately, we have targets and timeframes – and these usually remain loose, flexible and moveable.

We will never stick to a self-imposed, arbitrary deadline if it comes at the expense of the health and wellbeing of the people responsible for meeting that deadline. Even if we’ve promised something to someone (even a client), unless it is literally a matter of life or death, the deadline can and will be moved.

So we don’t need to ‘improve productivity’ as some exercise to get more out of our people than they can and are willing to give; they each know their goals, what the output is and what needs to be created and produced. And they do it, in spades.

No Benchmarking Of Salaries & Benefits…

Our goal – as we generate a sustainable income – is to pay everyone a liveable salary, no matter what role they’re doing and where they live.

The benchmark for ‘liveable’ that we use? What’s a generous salary for folks to live comfortably on, in even the most expensive cities in the world? And can we make this flexible to adjust to changing needs across the team?

The answers we came up with:

  • We think most folks should be able to live comfortably on around £8,000/month (c. $10,000) for a 20-hour work week.
  • Our long term goal is to have a pot with which we can help folks pay off any debts they have; debt repayments often prevent folks from ever getting ahead even when their take-home salary is solid.
  • We will give folks the ability to select their monthly salary – from an agreed scale, equal for everyone – according to need.

We also have a ‘Reparations & Equity Pay’ policy in place when it comes to paying our people; this means the Black, Brown & Global Majority team members all receive 30% more than their white counterparts. This covers both historical reparations and current reparations, with the acknowledgement of the additional emotional labour Global Majority folks have to do to account for the racial harm they experience daily, often – even if unknowingly – at the hands of their white colleagues.

When it comes to time off, our company policy is for people to take what they need, when they need it. Again, operating from trust means we trust our team to know what’s needed, to know what needs to be produced, created and delivered and to manage themselves and their work time/time off around this.

Leading From A Paradigm Of Trust & Freedom…

Our expectation – with a flat structure and ‘equal’ role titles – is that everybody is a leader (first and foremost of themselves) and that we each lead from a paradigm of trust and freedom – instead of power and control. In practice, this means we:

  • Rarely have to ‘check up’ on each other to see what folks are up to and what they’re working on; we have various mechanisms in place for us all to share our current work, goals and support requests.
  • Trust we’ll each seek the support we need from whomever we choose across the team (and outside of it) should we need it, for work purposes and other/personal aspects too.

This approach to the people experience is transformative; it yields everything leadership and management teams hope to see in a workforce – and instead of being extractive, it’s nurturing, nourishing and puts the human back into human resources.

If you’d like to learn how to lead – yourself and others – from this new paradigm, find out more about the Mx of Equality Business & Leadership programme here.

Why Everyone Is A Leader At Mission Equality

When I first started thinking about the people we needed at Mission Equality and sketching out an org design for how to structure the team, the plans quickly grew from the 4 of us from my previous startup to a team of around 50 people 😱

Two of the most important lessons I learned at said former startup were:

  1. Stay as streamlined as possible – fast growth across a team also exponentially increases the financial outgoings which either quickly drains any funding raised and/or requires significant ramp-up and sustainable maintenance of sales and income.
  2. Hire slowly – finding the best fit (on both sides) is not a quick process and parting ways isn’t always a smooth experience. Managing exits kindly, fairly and with as little disruption to others requires significant energy and effort.

In a small startup, managing people can quickly become a founder’s full time job (along with the other 10 full time jobs they do!).

At Mission Equality, we encourage and facilitate a different approach. We expect everyone to be a leader…first and foremost of themselves.

What Does Leading Oneself Mean?

Welcome to…you! Leading oneself is a personal exploration of your needs, wants and quirks.

Much like not being able to truly love someone else until you can truly love yourself, leading yourself works the same way. Because it means…

  • Understanding what it looks like to be at your ‘best’.
  • Understanding what you need to be at your ‘best’.
  • Understanding what it looks like when you’re not at your ‘best’.
  • Understanding what you need when you’re not at your ‘best’.
  • Being able to give yourself what you need to be at your ‘best’ and when you’re not.

When you can do this – well – for yourself, you can do it well for others because as the saying goes: You can’t pour from an empty cup.

Leading oneself means being able to self manage:

  • Your energy levels
  • Your schedule
  • Your creativity
  • Your output and production
  • Your rest and rejuvenation
  • Your emotions and feelings
  • Your responses and reactions
  • Your language and communication…and a whole lot more.

When everyone takes full responsibility for leading and managing themselves, they don’t need leading or managing by anyone else.

What Does This Look Like In A Business?

At Mission Equality, the expectation that everyone is a leader means that we are all…equal.

There is no hierarchy of leadership or management – we still each have our own roles, goals, tasks and responsibilities (though these can be as fluid and flexible as needed) – but nobody is above or below anyone else, we are all on the same, equal level.

When folks need support – as we all do at times – this becomes more about connection, collaboration and trust…not management or leadership. It’s a meeting of individuals – all equal and all different.

If you’d like to learn how to lead – yourself and others – from this new paradigm, find out more about the Mx of Equality Business & Leadership programme here.

Doing People Things Differently

When I took over the people role at my former startup (after our 3rd co-founder and ‘Chief of People’ left), I joined an excellent Slack group full of “Head of People/Talent/HR” folks so that I could learn what I needed and ensure I wasn’t missing anything on the people experience front.

The list of HR/people topics include things like:

  • Culture and values
  • Engagement and retention
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion
  • Learning and development
  • Performance and progression
  • Policies and handbooks
  • Scaling and hiring
  • Wellbeing

Lately, however, as we work to decolonise the entirety of the work experience across our team at Mission Equality, I find myself looking at the conversations happening amongst some of the people people for top UK companies and thinking: “We’ve got this so very wrong”.

Where’s the humanity? Where are the people in this people experience?

In a recent conversation with Anne-Marie Archer, self-branded as the Anti-HR Lady, she made some excellent points which articulate the ‘wrong’ I’ve been feeling…

  • HR was never designed for the people, it was designed for the company and to protect the company.
  • Given the above remit, the fact DEI usually sits within the remit of HR/People is…wrong. You can’t have a business function whose purpose is to protect the company and ensure it complies with laws & regulations also in charge of pushing practices which are fundamentally about advocating for the people. It’s essentially a conflict of interests…no wonder DEI fails in so many companies!

And going further, if you look across the remit of this function, it further underlines the conflicts and tensions, created by the capitalist drive to make money, at all costs. Specifically…

If we need to ‘manage performance’, we’re doing it wrong…

Why do we people need to ‘perform’ in the first place? And to whose standards and levels are we measuring this performance against?

Is this really how we want to be spending our time, ‘managing’ the level/quality that others around us achieve – set by some arbitrary measures that are 100% extractive in nature – instead of managing ourselves to achieve our best?

If we need to ‘manage’ others at all, we’re doing it wrong…

If individuals are educated, empowered and facilitated to manage themselves – in all the ways – we shouldn’t need to be managing anyone else at all and can instead focus on managing our selves…managing our energy, managing our output and production, managing our emotions, managing our creativity…that’s more than enough for us to focus on to achieve our own potential.

If we were taught – by the education system – to self direct, to be independent learners, thinkers and do-ers we wouldn’t need managing at all; instead we’re spoon-fed, told what to learn, when to learn and even how to learn…and then we spend a lifetime needing to be managed.

If we need to ‘improve productivity’, we’re doing it wrong…

Productive by whose standards and measures? Is productivity THE priority at any/all costs? If we facilitate and empower people to achieve their own ‘productive’ potential, isn’t that enough? It should be. And what does that look like? Because surely it’ll change with what else might be going on at various times in a person’s life and the expectation of ‘productivity’ should also then change alongside that, no?

That’s fair, right? That’s humanity in action…Not driving people so hard – against extractive measures driven solely by money – that they become sick, unwell and depressed.

If we need to ‘benchmark salaries & benefits’, we’re doing it wrong…

Why use what is really a pretty low bar as your standard? What about asking your people what they need to live comfortably and optimally (aka achieve their own potential)? You may be paying ‘industry standards’ but if that still leaves many folks in your company struggling to survive, is that good enough? Frankly, no.

When people are worried about being able to pay their bills, it doesn’t drive performance, it doesn’t drive creativity, it doesn’t drive productivity…it yields the exact opposite.

If we need to ‘benchmark time off’ and ensure we’re providing the legal minimum requirement, we’re doing it wrong…

Focusing on a more flexible, truly people-first approach to work removes the need to limit time off, to restrict people to the mandatory legally-mandated periods and instead trusts people to take what they need.

The HR/people function in most companies exists to get more from people while staying on the right side of the law.

While many folks in HR/people do not operate from this paradigm, they’re operating in a system which demands this and is set up to achieve this.

If you’re in any doubt, look across the entirety of the practices and processes your company has and see if you can identify more than a handful that aren’t designed for the fundamental goal of being extractive and profit-driven…for the business to effectively get more for their money from each and every person in the business. I’ll wait…

This is why performance needs to be managed, it’s why the people need to be managed, it’s why productivity needs to be improved, it’s why benchmarks need to be monitored…

It’s about operating from a paradigm of power and control, driven by the capitalist focus on financial profit.

When this energy prevails, it requires an entire function – it creates a cost centre – to make sure people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s a little bit wild that this is needed, don’t you think?

What if we could simply trust people to do what they were supposed to do? What if people were given more freedom and the support to manage and direct themselves?

When this energy prevails – operating from a paradigm of trust and freedom – in a company, the leadership will experience everything they’ve ever wanted from their people….productivity, performance, creativity and more. Who wouldn’t want that?

Racism At The Top: The Performance Of White Senior Executives

At my former startup, my female white CEO said and did all the ‘right’ (performative) things to appear to be anti-racist. This included:

  • Paying out of her own pocket to attend the Anti-Racism facilitated sessions we ran (and was vocal about investing her own money).
  • Confirming repeatedly how happy she was to be nudged by and educated by us, for free, whenever she messed up (which was often).
  • ‘Publicly’ owning her mistakes though ‘public’ was only ever to the team, never externally to her wider (and very large) network…and it appeared a source of great pride to her that she ‘owned’ this.

And she also failed to see the other acts of racism she enacted almost daily on me, and the harm it caused. What did this look like?

Wholly Unequal Division Of Labour…

While she held the role of CEO, I was officially the COO and unofficially the CFO, CTO and CPO (people). When I asked to be paid more (than her) on account of the numerous hats I wore, she grudgingly agreed to adding 50% of my existing salary on top, so essentially being paid half the salary of one of the additional roles I performed.

How did this persist? She was the master of verbal platitudes…”I’m all in; I know you are too. I’d work for free until this thing takes off”. It was masterful verbal and emotional manipulation at its finest.

This division of labour is not uncommon in partnerships between white people and those of the Global Majority.

It’s also a consequence – and an ongoing driver – of the tension between white fragility (or, as we sometimes refer to it, white incompetence and/or white mediocrity or even a form of learned helplessness) and Black/Brown excellence…when they both increase together, as they do when this division of labour persists, so does the divide between them and instead of convergence towards equality for each side, the gap ever widens.

Laziness And/Or Incompetence…

Almost 100% of the CEO’s outputs required numerous edits and amends by me to ensure they did no harm to team members or customers (frequent incorrect pronouns, inaccurate descriptions of our own product, incorrect use of the language we’d agreed to use). Her drafts were 50-60% of the way there on a good day, with the expectation I’d finish it up and polish it to completeness. My outputs? Rarely required her to do anything.

How did this persist? Given my work overload, she would offer to ‘help’ to take work off my plate, only for the help to require more (re)work in the long run…and distracted by my busy-ness, some help felt better than none. Sigh.

Lack Of Performance…

A CEO has a wide variety of responsibilities and, ultimately, the buck stops with them. Specifically, however there are 2 main tasks that fell to my former CEO:

  • To build good relationships with the Board and our investors – to keep them up to date, leverage their expertise and ask for support when the company needed it.
  • To expand and grow the business through sales; she was the primary salesperson, showing up to the meetings, making cold and warm intros, and – ideally – sealing the deal.

The CEO did none of the above….

The company’s corporate governance structure – which was firmly in her remit – was weak. The primary board member was her best friend, the other board member was our former co-founder who also left for poor performance reasons and had asked to step back from the board when she left (though this was never actioned). It left us with an ill-experienced, poorly qualified board to fall back on when needed which, ultimately, cost everybody involved the entire company.

The updates to and relationships with our investors was an after-thought and never a priority; nowhere was this more evident than in her handling of the demise of the company in asking the shareholders to effectively say goodbye to their own investments by voting to dissolve the company; a good CEO would have been working with the investors to figure out a way forwards – and decent investors may have suggested the way forwards was without the incompetent CEO whose only solution was the dissolution of the company!

And on the growth of the company…

After 12 months and around $20k worth of high impact ‘professional connector/networking’ support from a company in NYC who hosted monthly meetings to introduce us (via our CEO who attended)…how many contracts had she brought to the table for us to sign? None.

During this time, she’d also failed to bring in ANY new actual customers/students to our core service. A 12-month funding runway doesn’t go very far when there are ZERO sales coming in.

Related to the point above, lack of performance is rarely about lack of ability or competence…if they believed they could, they would. It is, as far as I’ve seen, driven by a chronic fear of not being good enough so instead of doing the work to get good enough, all the energy is put into doing ‘just enough’ and then covering up the gap instead of filling the gap.

Protection of Her (White) Power…

The CEO’s primary goal was to protect her own power; the updates that she shared with the board and investors were designed to obfuscate and paint a rosy if muddy picture and while her ego may have been being protected, it wasn’t what the company needed.

We needed help and support from those invested financially in the company and it was her job to seek that…not to protect her ego, position and power by clouding the truth of the situation.

Nor was it my job to manage her performance as CEO, it was the board’s…

In the end, they accused me of not alerting them to the lack of performance when – if they’d been doing their job properly and she’d been doing hers by updating them regularly – the lack of performance and growth of sales/company was obvious and should have been queried by them far sooner. This was all protection of their white power – not just hers – and a covering up of not doing their jobs properly. A classic case of DARVO if ever there was one.

Again, related to the above…put in the work, put in the energy and direct it to learning how to do the job excellently (as we folks of the Global Majority have to) instead of using it to cover up the mediocrity and divert the blame and focus elsewhere. If – when – that happens, everyone wins.

Self Centering And Holding (Hogging) The Mic…

Given our roles, hers was innately front and centre with mine behind the scenes. She shared the platform only when it became obvious that not doing so might be harming the company, its image and our assertions of being an anti-racist company.

She had just enough self awareness that the optics of the white woman front and centre and the Brown woman behind-the-scenes was not exactly ‘fair’ or ‘equal’.

And so began a loud (on her part) push to have me up front and centre with her. But still, the inequalities persisted…

  • All people of perceived power were instantly in her sights, while I still remained behind the scenes building the company and the product too busy to connect, leaving her a free run.
  • She quickly inserted herself as the ‘best mate’ of the biggest potential corporate client we were chasing (who’d come from my professional network).
  • She’d centre herself and her own actions in any successes, while also taking credit for mine. “Ah yes…[insert influential/powerful contact] contacted ME”. Never ‘us’, always her. Unless of course it came to taking responsibility for something we’d got wrong – then it was almost always ‘we’.

[Side note: I recently learned about the concept of “communal narcissism” and a communal narcissist (check out that inventory!). Without wanting to detract from the racism issues, the description fits so well.]

Performative anti-racism can be sniffed out – usually in one whiff – by folks from the Global Majority; we can be gaslit into thinking it didn’t happen, it isn’t racist, it “isn’t as bad as you think”. The truth? Racism is racism, no matter when and where it happens.

Racism at the top – at the very top – is as rife as racism is everywhere else.

P.S. My experience is not an isolated incident.

Decolonising Work: What, Why & How (Part 2)

I wrote previously about a new process we’d introduced at Mission Equality – Decolonising Work. We currently have half of our team – 4 of 8 – folks going through this process with a couple coming to the ‘end’ of the official period we’d originally designated for it.

It has, however, become crystal clear…

  • How absolutely vital this process is for the mental and emotional health of everyone.
  • How fundamentally broken our systems are – starting from the education system and continuing across our economic and commercial ecosystems – and how much damage they are doing to us.
  • How much longer it’ll take to decolonise work for folks than the 2-3 months we’ve assigned; it will, in fact, be a several months (if not years) long process for many.

The Impact Of Work Colonisation

You might be wondering, “But what exactly is this and why is it a problem anyway?”.

Our work ecosystems and environments – like almost everything in most non-Global Majority (often also referred to as ‘western’) societies – has been impacted and heavily influenced by colonialist, patriarchal and capitalist perspectives, which typically manifest with the following traits…

  • A dominant focus on power and control.
  • A rigid and hierarchical structure of power, with almost all power concentrated at the top in the hands of the few.
  • An unfair and unjust distribution of resources of all kinds.
  • Structures – systems, laws and processes – designed to uphold the status quo.
  • A focus on standardisation, homogenisation and the suppression of individuality.

What has been created is:

  • An education system designed for the masses to churn out young adults who can and will do what they’re told, won’t think for themselves and will step straight onto the treadmill of a life already designed for them, without question. It’s not actually broken, it’s doing precisely what it was designed to do for the industrial era. Except we’ve moved on from that…
  • Economic systems, financial systems and a world of work caught in the middle of significant change – stuck in between the old paradigms from the industrial era while seeing the shiny promise of a new paradigm in web3 and other technologies that could make much of the ‘old’ obsolete, if only those holding the power would let it.
  • The destruction of our own ecosystem, the planet.

And it leaves us with a workforce who are sick, tired, unhappy and disillusioned and massively underperforming and underachieving – if measured by their own individual, human potential.

As part of the decolonisation process we have implemented, it has become abundantly clear how much trauma people have lived through from numerous workplaces in which they’ve been harmed; for people from the Global Majority and other deliberately disadvantaged communities this is often even more significant when they start to truly see the racism and any other kind of ‘othering’ they’ve experienced and how much they’ve had to ignore for their own survival.

Specifically, this can manifest as:

  • Significant health and wellbeing issues as a result of the ongoing trauma experienced, often repeated over decades.
  • An inability to think really outside of the boxes most people have been ‘educated’ to think and live within.
  • Difficulty managing time and tasks without direction and the need for micromanagement (while also resenting it!).
  • Learned helplessness and lack of agency when it comes to doing something different or needing to learn something new and an inability to ‘search first’ to find it out (the spoon feeding and control in education leads directly to this!).
  • An in-built sense of needing to perform and prove yourself, at all times, to the detriment of your self.
  • An inability to regulate or manage one’s emotions, especially through conflict, and as a result, toxic behavioural patterns in the workplace such as bullying.
  • Thinking and sticking rigidly to the structures one has worked within – such as working time/patterns, job titles and hierarchical work structures.
  • Looking outside one’s self for constant validation and evidence of performance, achievement and ‘success’.

How To Decolonise Work

At Mission Equality, we have committed to actively decolonising our own workplace and organisation. Given the above and how deeply entrenched this is in peoples’ mindsets, beliefs, values, behaviours and actions, it is clear it is not going to be a ‘one stop and done’ thing! This is how we’ll be addressing it at Mission Equality…

Acknowledging It’s A Process

Most folks – especially those who haven’t worked for themselves – have spent years ‘in the system’. It will likely take years to expel this from their system with some deep unlearning and relearning required.

This is going to be a longer process than the 2-3 months “Decolonising Period” we invite everyone to go through as part of their onboarding process with us.

It will, likely, be an ongoing journey for quite some months that, at its foundation, is based upon folks learning to trust that they are, finally, in a work space in which their wellbeing is never going to be compromised for the company’s gain, they are empowered to show up fully as themselves and the only benchmarks that will be used for performance and ‘success’ will be against their own potential.

A Well-Crafted Policy

We are in the process of drafting a “Decolonising Policy” for the company to outline our understanding of the need for it, what we plan to do about it and how we will create the necessary frameworks, structures and processes to bring this to life for our people across the company. It will be publicly available on our website when we’ve published it.

Decolonisation Operationalised

With our policy in place, operationalising this across the business includes:

  • A flat organisational structure.
  • The same pay for everyone.
  • Replacing conventional job titles with something else.
  • Flexible work practices with no days or times being designated as ‘work’ or ‘non working’ days.
  • Individuals free to choose which of their own cultural celebrations and holidays they take off.
  • A commitment to create the opposite of hustle culture – an achievable pace and a flexible approach to deadlines wherever possible. No-one’s health should suffer because of a (usually self-imposed) deadline.
  • A range of policies – used as guidelines and safety ropes – which makes ‘management’ largely unnecessary and requires everyone to lead themselves (with support wherever and whenever they need).
  • People will likely only ever leave the company for one of two reasons – either they’ve contravened our anti-racism or discrimination policy and caused significant harm or they choose to leave because they can no longer see any paths of growth for themselves. 

Decolonising Work: What, Why & How (Part 1)

Decolonising work is something we’ve introduced recently at Mission Equality because we noticed that folks who joined us – who’d been steeped in the conventional world of work – were struggling to think outside the confines imposed from decades of working within the ‘system’.

This limits creativity, this limits progress, this limits growth. And so we now invite all new joiners to participate in a period of time that we call ‘decolonising work’.

This is a page taken from our internal team website about this policy and process and how we’re operationalising it…

A Broken System…

The current paradigm of work is based upon colonialist, patriarchal and capitalist structures that prioritise:

  • Profit at the expense of people
  • Performance of the company at the expense of progress of the individual.
  • Power at the expense of trust and freedom.

As well as pushing and upholding unhealthy work practices, habits and cultures such as:

  • Presenteeism.
  • Hustle culture.
  • Bullying.
  • Discrimination – whether unintentional and unconscious.
  • Constantly needing to prove oneself, over and over.

At Mission Equality, we operate a practice of ‘decolonising work’ because we believe the above is unsustainable, unhealthy and damaging.

What Decolonising Work Is & Why It’s Necessary…

Much like children who leave the education system for an alternative education require a period of deschooling, we believe adults need a period of de-colonising their work experience. With kids, we typically expect 1 week of deschooling for every year in school. We believe a similar approach is needed for adults who have worked in the ‘system’ for most of their careers.

This enables you to acclimatise to the freedom to work how you want, when you want, where you want and become fully self-directed in your work efforts, without needing oversight, ‘management’ or externally imposed boundaries.

Typically, after a career existing and working in the old paradigm, adjusting to a new paradigm and the work culture we have at Mission Equality is challenging. This often manifests itself as:

  • An urgent need to prove yourself resulting in unnecessary rushing, stress and pressure.
  • Anxiety and fear that you won’t be trusted to be capable and confident; that you and your potential and abilities won’t be truly seen.

It’s time to breathe…

What Decolonising Work Means At Mission Equality…

In practical terms, this is the first part of your onboarding process at Mission Equality. Instead of it being the time to perform and impress, it’s the time to decompress, learn and explore.

During this period – which we will typically suggest being 1-3 months from the time you officially ‘start’ – we would encourage you to:

  • Immerse yourself in the company, how we work and who we are…
    • Take a good look at all the documents in the shared drive.
    • Scour our websites – internal and external.
    • Scroll back through our social media profiles and posts to see what we share.
    • Chat to team members, at leisure, to start forging your own relationships and connections.
  • Pick an area you’d like to learn more about and get curious, then begin your deep dive:
    • Set up calls with team leads (being mindful of their needs and time too) to get curious and hear their thoughts, experiences and goals for this area.
    • Find the thought leaders and influencers on social media and connect with them; join the conversation and even start leading them 😉
    • Talk to the Mission Equality leadership about a self-initiated task/goal you’d like to achieve which will help with the company’s mission. This should not add pressure to you and be experienced more as a growth exercise than anything output-focused or a way to ‘perform’.
  • Draft a plan for your decolonising period:
    • This doesn’t have to be set in stone, should be flexible, adaptable and change as needed during this period.
    • It will not be used to measure your performance or your progress; it’s more a way for you to check in with yourself and your own intentions as you prepare yourself to step fully into your role at Mission Equality.

As for the question of timing and when you are ‘ready’ to dive in to your agreed role or agree a plan on something else you’d like to explore instead at Mission Equality, this will be an ongoing conversation between us.

Why Any Company Truly Committed to DEI & Equality Should Never Have A White CEO (Part 2)

I read a post recently on LinkedIn that went viral, from that of a white, male CEO acknowledging his white privilege in being able to get to where he’s got to.

In the comment section, he is rightly challenged on the fact that acknowledgement is one thing but where’s the action and how has he used his privilege to help others from deliberately disadvantage communities. He has referenced his company scorecard and the fact his company is explicitly anti-racist.

My hat is off to him because he does seem to have the best of intentions…from his privileged position of power 😉 And we do indeed need more people – white cishet men and women in particular – to even see the privilege, power imbalance and inequalities that remain and which they have and continue to benefit from.

But I remain wary…

So how can you tell whether a leader is genuine in their claims of anti-racism and equality, or is being performative (even if unconsciously)?

Allow me to introduce you to the Omnis CEO Test…

At my former startup, Omnis Education, we had a super progressive anti-racism policy. You can see what our own progressive anti-racism policy looks like at Mission Equality here – the Omnis policy was similar.

I’d like to draw your attention to a specific clause in it:

If significant harm is done (this measure will always come from the person who experienced the impact of the racist behaviour/action) by any leader, associate or affiliate of Mission Equality the perpetrator will be asked to cease working for Mission Equality with immediate effect.

In practice, what this means is that any person within the company could be asked to leave if they cause such significant harm that the harmed person feels unsafe with them continuing to work there and identifies the level of harm caused as such.

Any person could be asked to leave. Think about that for a minute…

When the former CEO of Omnis (I say former because the company is no longer in existence; you can see why here) caused significant racist harm – first to my now co-founder, Sharon, and then to me (though her racist harm had been at least weekly to me for months), she should, according to our policy, have left.

In fact she was given the option to but declined. But of course she did. Instead, I was the one who resigned because it clearly wasn’t a safe space for me to remain as COO (despite owning the majority of shares, being on the board and a co-founder…white privilege and power counts for far more).

Not only did the CEO continue to blatantly ignore and flout this company policy, she doubled down on her actions and ultimately ended taking the entire company down, and in the process blamed me for it.

So here’s the real test for any white CEO claiming to be committed to anti-racism and equality and building their company on the foundations of it…

  1. Are you confident and trusting enough to have an anti-racism policy like this?
  2. If you do, would you follow it and implement it, no matter what or who it needed to be applied to?

Because yes, that means I – as the original ‘CEO’ and co-founder of Mission Equality – could be asked to leave my own company. And would I? If I’d caused that much harm…Absolutely.

[Note: In order for that to be a possibility, it requires a number of things to be in place for the company to continue to thrive, which I’ll be writing about another time].

Why Any Company Truly Committed to DEI & Equality Should Never Have A White CEO (Part 1)

I’ve skirted around the margins and edges of this and said it out loud to a few people and now it’s time to set it in stone writing…

A company truly and deeply committed to DEI, anti-racism and equality of all kinds cannot be this or do this under the stewardship of a white person at the very top.

I say this from recent lived experience of co-founding a company with a white woman, which had significant potential…but which, two years later, is no longer in existence (here’s why).

[This is NOT an isolated experience, it happens all the time to Black and Brown people]

Omnis Education, my former startup, had huge potential…

  • This was an EdTech company that we raised half a million dollars of pre-seed funding for in record time (about 8 weeks).
  • This was a company that had scaled from 2 to 30 people within the space of 3 months (then settled back down to a more manageable 15).
  • This was a company that had a number of large ($10m+) potential clients/projects in the pipeline who wanted to use the EdTech platform we were building for exciting, game-changing use cases (from educational entertainment to climate change).
  • This was a company that we took to a satellite event at the World Economic Forum and received yet more positive responses.
  • This was a company that we’d figured out a compelling, and engaging answer to the question:

If you could start from scratch with a blank canvas and design a curriculum and model of education that better prepares kids for the world today, what would you do?

This was a company that was going places. But now? It no longer exists after the CEO called a shareholder meeting requesting the dissolution of the company a month ago.

How on earth did it get to this stage? If you’ve read the reason I resigned from this startup back in June, this carries on the saga because it clearly didn’t end there…

The Key Players

Below are the key players – who they were and where existing connections/ties exist (pay attention, that’s an important bit!)…

The Board – which consisted of:

  • C, one of the CEO’s best friends.
  • Our former CPO, L, who left after we questioned her performance, suggested a 3-month performance process but she chose to step out. Most of the company, including me, were under the impression that L was no longer on the board until the CEO wheeled her out after I resigned as never having left it, despite her request to leave months ago.
  • Me, though I was excluded from a number of meetings & discussions throughout this process which was denied.
  • J, the CEO, whose performance was in question by me and the rest of the leadership team, who had the most insight and experience of working with her daily for over 2 years, at least in my case.

The External Reviewer – the board hired an external company to review what had happened right before my resignation and to essentially assign blame for who had caused the most damage to the company…me with my resignation (not chosen, but for my own safety after an intense act of racist DARVO from the CEO and her board member best friend) or J, having started a relationship with a subordinate contractor (the only man in the company), not reported it immediately and then her subsequent actions once I’d resigned.

The founder of this company is a Black woman, D. She’s also one of the CEO’s best friends AND the first person J revealed the relationship to, via a call on our company platform which is how I found out about the relationship in the first place from a transcript in our files!

This is who they hired to investigate my ‘claim’ of racism and whether the CEO’s actions were inappropriate or not. Conflict of interests, much?!

The Shareholders – many of the shareholders were friends and family, as they often are in a pre-seed round. These friends and family included the CEO’s parents, her board member best friend and a number of other folks close to her.

The Omnis Leadership team – this consisted of our former Head of Education, Mae, our QA Team Lead, Becky and our DEB Team Lead, Sharon.

How It Went Down…

Let me outline a high level summary of how it – the company – went down…

On August 24th, the CEO hosted a shareholder meeting to present the findings of the commissioned report and request the dissolution of the company.

I had prepared a response to the report which was sent to the CEO a good 24 hours before the meeting.

The meeting document she’d prepared was already skewed and biased to present the narrative that achieved her objectives (we’ll come to those shortly) and the meeting was, as one shareholder who happened to be my friend, stated: “…like choreographed theatre”.

J, the CEO, did not share my response to the report in advance of the meeting with the external reviewer (in my response I questioned the integrity of the report due to key documents not being provided/reviewed). She included it as a link in the meeting document, likely in the hope that no-one would see it. Fortunately, Mae requested additional reading time to read the response, therefore pointing out its existence and requiring everyone to read it during the meeting itself.

D, the external reviewer, was left scrambling to defend her process with no advance warning this would even be necessary. (If a so-called friend did that to you would they still be a friend?)

During the meeting, J gave many and varied reasons for the need to dissolve the company which included:

  • The financial runway coming to an end with no sustainable income to survive; this was true. She’d been working for over a year to bring in sustainable income – her one CEO job as the primary sales person for the company hadn’t yet yielded anything (this was, of course, also put at my door and my assertion that the board had oversight of her performance, not me, was conveniently ignored).
  • The product wasn’t in alignment with what ‘stakeholders’ wanted – no mention of who these stakeholders were and in that one assertion, she threw another friend of hers under the bus who was also in attendance of the meeting and also didn’t appear to notice! The direction of the Omnis product was at this person’s instigation and was her lifelong goal to create a curriculum like the one we were creating; while she worked at Omnis the previous year she’d been instrumental in setting the direction so to have J claim it wasn’t what folks wanted…
  • My resignation which had left a void too big to fill!
  • The lack of a team to continue to build the product because they had, so she claimed, wilfully refused to work for her and not me.

As expected, the CEO called for a vote for me to be removed from the board. And then called for a vote to dissolve the company. Both were approved.

…and two years of blood, sweat and tears and many, many sacrifices on the promise of something bigger, were gone with one shareholder complaining: “I can’t believe I lost my money to wokeness” 😱

If you’ve got questions, good! Here are the things you should be asking:

  • Why did my resignation mean the entire company needed to be dissolved?
  • Why did the CEO not step up and lead the company through this after I left?
  • Why was the CEO not fired by the board and/or shareholders?
  • Why was it necessary to investigate whether my assertions of racism were indeed ‘true’ or not?
  • Especially since it used up the precious financial resources the company had left…
  • Why wasn’t our progressive anti-racism policy followed for this incident of racism, as it had been for every other incident to date?
  • Was it appropriate that a Black woman was asked to investigate the racism claims made by a fellow member of the Global Majority against a white woman (albeit her best friend)?
  • Why was the review of the report conducted at the same meeting as the vote to dissolve the company?
  • Why wasn’t there any processing time in between the report findings being presented to the shareholders, for them to consider other ways forward than an immediate dissolution of the company? As has been suggested by many neutral parties, surely their response could have been: “Thanks for bringing the report to us; it’s clear you’re telling us you can’t lead the company through this, we’ll take it from here. Thanks for your service as the CEO…and goodbye now!”?)
  • Why was there no team left to build? Why did the team refuse to work for her? (They didn’t – they simply asked her for more guidance and leadership than she was giving and if they had refused, why would no-one question multiple people’s experiences and take the words of one over others?).
  • Why was the corporate governance structure so weak?
  • Why wasn’t the CEO’s lack of performance/sales picked up sooner by the board?
  • What on earth could be so important that an entire company – and several peoples’ livelihoods destroyed – needed to be taken down?

…that last question? What a great one…And finally, we get to the crux of it all.

What could be so important that an entire company is dissolved for the protection of it?

Can you guess?

The CEO’s image.

…Her performance had been questioned by her own leadership team and COO.

…Her performance, or lack thereof, was evident for all to see in the lack of sales and real company growth for the past year; an area solely in her remit.

…Her performance as the most senior leader after I resigned was there for all to see in the lack of a plan, the lack of any action and the lack of communication to a team; or more, accurately, not the lack of action but the actions of letting go of the leadership team (the only ones capable of continuing the product build who were all paid for 6+ weeks but instructed not to do any work), the ending of all the contractors’ contracts with 1 day’s notice, the lack of any kind of communications except some behind-the-scenes “Now I can speak honestly and freely” private messages to select folks only AFTER the company was dissolved….

…her ongoing acts of racism compounded by the final one that was clearly the proverbial straw.

Her image was everything. And we all paid the price to keep it intact.

This is not uncommon for white leaders, of any gender. There’s apparently a high correlation between CEOs and those labelled as narcissists. This is unsurprising.

The need to keep the image they want to portray overrides ANY- and EVERYTHING else. Any company truly committed to DEI and equality (or any other mission-based goal) should reconsider the choice to have a white CEO…

Document Culture: The What, The Why And The How

I mentioned the importance of ‘document culture’ in a previous post – and how it was a safeguard for me as evidence of what actually happened regarding my resignation from Omnis Education – so I wanted to share more about it.

It was one of the BEST things I implemented at Omnis as COO. I first read about it in this article, then did some digging to read more about other peoples’ thoughts/experiences of it.

It didn’t take me much convincing to decide to implement it at Omnis Education, with the thought that “if it is good enough for Amazon, it is good enough for us”.

What Is Document Culture?

For us, it meant producing a meeting document for almost every single meeting we had; sometimes it was a high-level 1-page summary, sometimes it was a 6-10-page document with all the details needed for a decision or more lengthy update.

The document is shared with all meeting participants at the beginning of every meeting (not sent in advance – see the links above as to why this doesn’t actually work well), attendees had reading time (anything from 10 to 30 minutes for a 60-minute meeting), and then we would skim through each section asking if anyone needed clarification or had questions.

It was a highly effective and efficient way of holding meetings in a startup.

What Did We Find?

It was one of the best things I implemented for a fully remote company. Why?

Producing a meeting document for almost every meeting means…

  • You are forced to carefully and consciously think about the purpose of the meeting, what you want to achieve, what information is needed to achieve it and how to keep it succinct so you don’t end up with a 30-page document that requires an hour+ of meeting time to read it.
  • Giving everyone time to read the document at the beginning of the meeting means it’s fresh in everyone’s minds and everyone starts from the same place/page.
  • It takes the pressure off the introverted/shy/less confident hosts/presenters/leaders because very little (no) presenting or speaking is involved unless questions are asked.
  • It can be a less confrontational way of discussing challenging topics or making difficult decisions because the information is (should be) laid out in a clear and well-structured manner and everyone has time to read, absorb and – hopefully – gather themselves a little before diving in.
  • It can take the heat and emotion out of communicating difficult things to people, especially for those who struggle to communicate ‘neutrally’. 
  • There’s a record of every meeting which is great for referencing, record-keeping and evidence!

If you run or work in a remote startup, I highly recommend considering implementing a document culture…when you do it well, it yields nothing but massive benefits. We now use it at Mission Equality and it keeps out meetings effective and impactful.

The Origin Story Of Mission Equality: And The Racism That Tore Down My Former Startup

Many purpose-driven businesses have an origin story, one that goes beyond “Because I had a great idea and I wanted to make some money”.

Mission Equality is no different. The reason for starting this journey – to achieve equality for all – is personal in more ways than one.

I sit at the intersection of a number of deliberately disadvantaged communities – I’m Brown. I’m gay. I’m autistic. I identify – at different times – as a woman or gender fluid or gender free. That’s a fair bit of intersectionality in one small 5ft 2in package. I am regularly discriminated against – almost daily – in multiple ways.

But the reason I resigned from my former EdTech startup, Omnis Education? Racism.

Even as a co-founder and the COO, my position and the balance of power that existed even at the top, still felt so tenuous and unequal that I was not safe. After the most intense act of DARVO I’ve experienced professionally, I resigned.

Why I Resigned…

Just under a week before I resigned, I discovered – inadvertently – that my co-founder and CEO had started a relationship with a subordinate contractor. She’d had a conversation with an external party (using the company platform which produced a transcript which is how I found out) in which she disclosed her new relationship and even boasted about the age difference.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the relationship existing but it needed careful handling across the company and team (especially as we worked with children), and it definitely needed to be disclosed sooner than it was.

A CEO has a certain position of power over everybody else in the company – even with an acknowledgment from the other party that they’re a willing participant in the relationship, an inherent power imbalance exists and some people believe that even with an signed acknowledgment, the company remains at risk.

Given this kind of thing isn’t typical in a company, we had no set process to follow…

Lesson Learned: Ensure you have well-defined clauses to cover relationships in your company; between those on the same level and for those in leadership positions (with each other and with subordinates).

So I defined a process and set of steps to follow to minimise the risks to the company and plot a path through this. This firstly included holding a meeting with the CEO to talk through the relationship, possible risks and how to handle them.

The conversation didn’t go especially well – she minimised the risks and didn’t appear to see the issues that needed handling but agreed with my approach to manage things with the team.

The next step of which was to hold a meeting with the rest of our leadership team to make them aware of the relationship and the path forwards.

Lesson Learned: We had a document culture at Omnis; this is one of the best things we implemented for productivity, efficiency and accessibility. This culture of documentation has been vital in this entire process because everything is recorded and documented – every meeting I had was documented, I have transcripts from some of the calls…it means very little can be called into question and there’s a paper trail for everything.

It quickly became apparent – after I continued to follow the process and had a meeting with the board (which consisted of one woman, the CEO’s best friend) – that the CEO and board member were going to point the finger of blame at me for what they claimed was a misstep in handling the situation (that I went to the leadership team first)…

  • Nothing about the late/non-disclosure of the relationship by the CEO.
  • Nothing about the CEO’s performance and judgment issues it raised – both around the relationship and some ongoing issues, of which this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
  • Nothing about the huge potential risks to the business if the relationship wasn’t managed correctly.

…apparently I had put the company at the most risk by holding an emergency meeting with our leadership team (of 3) to raise my concerns at the CEO’s initial apparent lack of concern about the risks and issues that needed to be addressed…And my actions needed to be included in the board’s investigations. 

This is a classic case of DARVO: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim & Offender.

And here’s the most concerning thing: If this can happen to me, a co-founder and C-suite executive with seemingly an equal amount of power as my co-founder and the CEO, imagine how the imbalance of power plays out with folks not in positions of leadership or perceived power…

Why Mission Equality?

This can NOT keep happening. It is exactly why Mission Equality exists because if businesses are largely led by leaders who do not understand the interplay of privilege and power – especially white leaders – this WILL keep happening.

And so the mission, vision and purpose of Mission Equality was born – and it’s a big one. If white leaders – even of explicitly anti-racist companies – can still be this harmfully racist, where does that leave us?

A new breed of leaders is needed to lead the path to equality. Are you one of them?