040: Leading a Co-Creative Agency with Phil Burgess


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It pays to encourage consumer agency. Consumers can be creative and can articulate their pains in a way that allows both them and the company to combine their perspectives and form an idea that probably would not exist if creative direction was left only to the “experts”.

Listening to consumer pains does not necessarily mean that they are going to tell you what they want. Rather, a co-creative agency listens for possibilities. Involving clients intellectually in the challenge at hand will yield the pain point or passion that a team can then use as a starting point in the creative process. If you work closely with your customers and deliberately build your relationship with them, you can close the empathy gap between what they want and need and what you think they want and need.

Phil Burgess and Steve Chaparro discuss how frustration with the status quo has driven Phil throughout his career, his experience running a “co-creative” agency, how embracing the “messiness” of business can lead to the all-around growth of the company, and how one person’s initiative can start a ripple effect that may one day lead to massive change.


Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn: 

  • Co-creating with clients
  • Maintaining alignment between clients and the creative team
  • Intentional leadership and culture creation
  • Humanizing business
  • Developing a learning culture
  • The power of a culture of one

Resources Mentioned in this episode:

About the Guest:

Phil Burgess is the Chief People and Operations Officer at C Space, an agency that focuses on “Customer Inspired Growth” through a “Customer as a Service” approach to research, consulting, and communications.

In 2018, C Space was named “Best Agency” at the MRS awards for the second year in a row, as well as “Best Place to Work”. In 2020, they won “Learning Team of the Year” at the global Learning Awards. Phil himself was recognized in 2019 as one of Management Today’s “Top 30 Agents of Change for championing inclusion and equality in business”.

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Welcome to the Culture Design Show where we feature conversations with leaders and thinkers who are passionate about culture and design. Now, let’s get started with the show.

Steve Chaparro 

This podcast is brought to you by Culture Design Studio. This is where I help creative organizations transform their cultures, from being controlling to being collaborative. Now, here are some of the things that I’ve learned. Your creative talent demands a cocreative culture in order to produce their best work. But there’s a problem. Now let’s see if we can recognize some of these signs.

There’s no framework to move your culture forward. You have high turnover and low morale. There’s increasing toxicity across all levels. There’s team engagement and satisfaction that are on the decline. There’s a misalignment between the employer brand and the employee experience. And there’s poor communication about expectations and values. So if you want to learn more about how I provide facilitation and coaching for your creative team, reach out to me at CultureDesignStudio.com.

Our guest today is Phil Burgess, Chief People and Operations Officer at C Space, a global customer agency, which helps companies focus on what really matters to customers and what most effectively drives business growth. Phil’s leadership has been recognized as one of management, Today’s Top 30 agents of Change for Championing Inclusion and Equality in Business. Phil, welcome to the culture Design Show.

Phil Burgess 

Yeah, thanks for having me.

Steve Chaparro 

Well, I appreciate you coming on. We met the other day on zoom as we are today, just to kind of get to know each other a bit. And I was fascinated about the story, your journey, and also about sort of the evolution of C Space. But I want to first start if you can share with us, your professional journey. How has that evolved over the years to bring you to where you are today?

Phil Burgess 

Sure. Yeah, I am. So you can probably tell I’m from South London, in the UK. So I grew up in the Middle East, in Doha, Qatar for my early years, and then grew up in South London. My first taste of professional life was actually at university I was studying German and Business and I took on an internship in my summer as a door to door salesperson. So they told me it was one of the hardest things that you could do during your summer and it would make me really marketable.

So I relocated to California to a town called Modesto near Sacramento. And I spent a summer selling encyclopedias door to door to American families. So I worked 80 hours a week, eight in the morning till 930 in the evening, 100% commission. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And I at the time, I was like, I’m never gonna do this, again. Dealing with the rejection, but it taught me so much I actually ended up doing it all four summers through university.

I then was offered a job with Procter and Gamble, as partly as a result of that internship. And then much to my dad and mums, horror turned it down and carried on selling books for another three years after university. So my dad was horrified that he had helped me get to university and I was staying in door to door sales. But really what I learned from it was so valuable from a, I guess, a self-management point of view, and also leading a management team. So I recruited a 50 person organization. I used to recruit Oxford, Cambridge, and London universities and Warwick and we used to recruit students during the year and then train them up and work with them out on the Brookfield we were there.

And my job was to motivate them and stop them quitting when they didn’t sell anything their first few weeks. And that taught me a lot about leadership. And I guess I found a passion for building teams and building organizations. But after seven years of doing that, I wanted something a little more intellectually stimulating as well. So I kind of fell into the market research industry, in London in a cool little agency.

And my job was to phone up companies in the private sector and break down doors and try and get research briefs and creative briefs. So I would cold-call people and pitch at them and try and get a meeting. And then that sort of took me into consulting and actually doing the work and in a sort of a sell and do model and I sort of broke into consumer clients like Jaguar, Land Rover, and Starbucks, and various CPG companies. And then after I mean, that takes me to about 2010 and I guess I was getting a bit frustrated with the impact we were having.

So we were doing great research, but sometimes, the reports weren’t great, but they weren’t driving change in organizations and, and I met a guy at a conference, Darren, who was the Managing Director of a small co-creation company called Promise in Soho. And they were founded on the this notion of co-creation, if you work with customers, they can be creative. And the company’s getting ahead of the companies that actually co-create with their customers, instead of like just coming up with ideas and testing them on customers.

So I worked with them and we set up a digital division of online communities for brands, helping them understand their customers and then a couple of years later, that company where we were a small, scrappy startup, and we were bought by Omnicom the holding company, and a clash together with community space, a big market research company in Boston. And I guess that sort of takes me to where I am today.

So we went, we went through a really interesting phase of merging two companies together, we had been, we’ve been arch enemies really, like we would pitch against each other, pointing out each other’s flaws. So it was an interesting challenge as a leader to bring two companies together when we had yeah, we’d spent a long time pointing out why the other company wasn’t great. Then we rebranded a C Space. And that’s the business I work for today. So I’ve been with a company for 10 years, but I feel like I’ve had 4 different roles. Yeah, on the client practitioner side, and then actually running a London office. And now this Chief People role in Boston?

Steve Chaparro 

Well, I mean, I think there’s so much to even dissect, even from what you just shared about your journey. And I and I love, it seems to me, it may be totally off. But it seems to me as I look at your journey, and as you’ve had, you’ve had different experiences at different companies or different roles. The question I want to ask is, how much has frustration with the status quo driven you?

Phil Burgess 

I think quite a lot like I’m definitely someone who, who is motivated by change like I get, I’m Myers Briggs, I’m an ENFP. I get my energy from people and I like to drive change and have an impact on people. So I don’t think I could work for an organization that wasn’t in the throes of change. And I know that said, it’s a double-edged sword because it can be stressful. But I think, yeah, frustration with not understanding not being able to drive change in those businesses, from a research point of view, frustration from the way brands and companies work with consumers, and the fact that it seems outdated, just to not include them in the process.

And I guess, right, the way through to the kind of work we’re doing right now, how do we build a more diverse, inclusive, equitable business and all of the racial injustice that we’re seeing around the world? Like, how do we drive change for organizations? How do we drive change outside that does drive me and it frustrates me because I can’t drive as much change as I want as fast as I want. But it’s been a red thread, definitely through my career.

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah. And I kind of sense that because that resonates with me, in my own work in terms of wanting to drive change. And I think that the sort of the dark side of that sort of lens is frustration. And it does bring in some angst and things like that. But I’ve always believed, and when I even examine that, in myself, is that frustration only exists in the hearts and minds of those who are optimistic. In terms of, you know, if you weren’t optimistic, you wouldn’t be frustrated, you’re optimistic because you see a future that can be better.

And you, you’re driven to help drive, whatever community whatever team, whatever organization to help get them there. And I think so that was one thing I just wanted to ask because I sensed a little bit of that in your story of wanting to impact change and wanting to be, you know, to make some significant contribution.

Phil Burgess 

Yeah, I think so. And I think I mean, a lot of it does take, it does take you back to my very early experiences, selling books door to door. I mean, my dad at the time, I did really well academically at school. So the challenge of this being the hardest thing you could do, and my dad’s telling me that he thought I would be back two weeks after I got on the plane sort of drove me to prove him wrong. And then, I think, yeah, it’s definitely been something that’s just sort of pushed me through.

Steve Chaparro 

What I love to hear as well, maybe you can share with us a little bit more about what it looks like when you say a co-creation agency, and co-creating with clients co-create with their customers. Share with us a little bit more about what that looks like because I know that I’m sensing that more and more agencies are having that realization that clients want to co-create with them and they’re no longer satisfied with these agencies doing the work for them, but rather want them to do the work with them. So give us some, little bit more or ideas about what that co-creation looks like?

Phil Burgess 

Yeah and I think it’s an interesting question because I think we’ve been on a bit of an evolution over the last decade. So I mean, if I start 10 years ago, back in sort of 2011, when I was working with Promise, we were explicitly about co-creation. So I think we looked to the worlds of advertising and branding and innovation. And we saw organizations doing it through the sort of expert model, where you get super bright people in a room, they typically will do look the same, but coming up with ideas, and then you go test them on some consumers and consumers say or change that. I like that. But they haven’t been involved in increasing the product or the service, or the idea or the insight that underpin pins, the communications campaign.

And I guess our premise, and it was, it was set up by the founders of the company, Charles and Claire, and Roy, their belief was like, consumers can be creative, and they can articulate their pains, they won’t tell you what they want. I think some people always say, Well, if you ask consumers what they want, they’re not going to know, right? And like, if Steve Jobs had done that we wouldn’t have Apple.

Steve Chaparro 

That’s like the prime example. When you talk about asking customers for feedback. Everybody thinks of that Steve Jobs quote, as like, they don’t know what they want. I’m gonna tell them what they want.

Phil Burgess 

Yeah, and I think that’s the other example around like Ford, if you’d ask people what they want, they would have said, like, a faster horse, and we would never have had the car. But if you listen hard enough for the possibility, we talked about listening for possibility, people were not saying they wanted a horse, they wanted something faster. So the insight is speed.

And that was what one of the things that led to the car, we would say the same if you work with consumers, and treat them as equals, as people with lives and passions and frustrations, and you involve them intellectually in the challenge, then they won’t tell you necessarily the answer, you still need the creative process, you need the agency, you need the client team. But they will tell you their pain point. Or they will tell you their passion.  

And that’s what you can then tap into when you’re developing the product or service with them. And sometimes they might give you the nugget that actually leads to the new idea. But more often than not, it’s about enhanced consumer understanding. And, and I think as we’ve evolved as an agency, we’ve moved away from the idea of pure co-creation to this notion of customer agency.

And really, we’re saying like, if you work with your customers, and it’s you can close the empathy gap between what customers want and need and what you think they want and need. And the more you can close that gap by building relationships with them by involving them in the process, whether it’s through workshops, or whether it’s through market research or consulting with them, the more likely you are going to be successful with the product or service you develop.

And if the consumers have been involved in the sessions with your executive team, who are going to be signing off on budget, and who need to understand whether or not they’re going to move forward with a new program, the buy into that is going to be speeded up, so you can get to alignment quicker. Which is really important the world we’re living in today where the pace of change, like I mean, look at what’s happening right now, people need to be updating their strategy every other week. So you have that ongoing dialogue with customers to make sure that you’re constantly staying in touch with what they really want.

Steve Chaparro 

Now you use the word there that I really appreciate. In fact, it drives a lot of my work as well and that is alignment. Why is alignment, you know, when I think of all the parties that could be possibly in alignment or in misalignment is you’ve got the individual contributors, the individual employees, you’ve got teams, you have departments, you have, you know, the organization itself, you have a customer. And then in some cases, like in the CPG, you have customers, but then you have the consumers.

Why is that alignment, so important to make sure that we are actually on the same page, wanting the same thing versus having some dissonance or misalignment?

Phil Burgess 

I mean, I guess the lack of alignment is what leads to them, the messiness. And I mean, we’re all human. So when we’re trying to make decisions around how to move forward on anything, whether it’s a new product or service, we all bring ourselves into that we bring our own agendas, our own biases, our own career motivations. And if there’s not, if you, I guess we talked about aligning around the customer, because it can actually bring that alignment together.

So you can, you can kind of get away with the maybe you’ve got the ego of the creative agency. And then you’ve got the ego of the digital agency, and they both want to be the hero and create the impact. And then you have the project owner who wants to be successful and might be looking to please their boss who will be worried about pleasing their boss, if you can actually align around the customer viewpoint and say, Well, this is what customers need.

That starts to sort of say, okay, we’re all aligning around this insight. So I mean, if when it works, it feels like you should save money. You should make quicker decisions, and you should grow and be more successful. Because customers will actually want what you’re creating. Does that answer your question?

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. You mentioned as we were talking before, that as you kind of you took over I forget what part of it whether it was the US division or the London division of the company. And you were when you were leading that office, you weren’t leading that by yourself, you actually had a kind of a co-leader? And what are some things that you learned about that experience of co-leading an organization division with another person?

Phil Burgess 

Yeah, I mean, it was, it was one of the most fun times of my career, the three years that I was co-leading London, I was Joint Managing Director with a great guy called Felix, and we’re both still with the business in different roles now. But I mean, the context was, the previous Managing Director had resigned and to be honest, I think our boss looked at different options and we both had complementary personalities and I think we were a bit of an experiment.

So if you know Myers Briggs, I’ve said, I’m an ENFP. So I get my energy from being around people and talking and Felix is an INTJ. He gets his energy from like going off by himself and thinking he’s super conceptual, I was putting together decks, I’m happy jumping around. And the idea of creating a deck kind of fills me with horror. So we have very complementary skills. But I remember when they made the announcement because it’ll happen pretty fast. I remember there was a lot of nervousness in the business and between us around, Okay, is it? Is this going to be like a double-headed monster? Like, are we going to get played off against each other? Are people going to have a how are we going to align around what is important to the business?

And I remember we met Felix is from Germany, and we met at the airport, as he flew back before we had our first meeting with the company as these two sorts of relatively young guys who’d never run a business before. And we were like, what are we going to do to make this work? And we talked about relationships been the source of results. That’s one of our key principles in our business. So we sort of sat down and we said, like, what are the reasons this is going to fail? Like, what could we do that would mess this up? So I’ve written an article about it on LinkedIn if anyone’s interested, but we sort of developed what we now talk about as are pact.

And it was things like we will disagree in private, but we will present a united front in public. If we ever get to the point where one of us wants to opt-out, the other person will be the first to know. We, so we sort of, I guess we co-created this little pact, which dictated how we showed up in the business. And then we really worked on that relationship.

Like there were times in the early days where I remember a time and we can laugh about it now. But at the time, it was painful, like I missed something out of a slide deck. And it was one of the early presentations that we did, and Felix sent me this note that evening. Sort of pointing out how he felt let down by the fact I’ve messed something up.

And I remember I felt really cut up by this feedback and I had a conversation with him and I was like, look, feel free to always give me feedback if it’s constructive. But please don’t send it to me at night, because I’m going to lie there all night thinking about the feedback. But if I do something like that just grabbed me in the moment and tell me and I think having those moments where we just coached each other on how to work together really helped us show up the right way in the business.

Steve Chaparro 

And I think that that’s probably even some definitely some lessons learned about not only how things can be handled between two co-leaders, but how just anybody on a given team, that just to have that openness, that transparency, and being able to, you know, share some hard truths.

In both ways, I think that’s such a model in itself, of you know, even been able to do that pact ahead of time to have the forethought. And maybe it wasn’t even so much forethought as like, Oh my gosh, how are we going to make this work? We have to be disciplined and intentional about this and which was great. And I think many you know, many, either new leaders are leaders in new roles, or startups and things like that can really, you learn about that just intentionality of doing things? I think that’s something that’s awesome.

Phil Burgess 

And that’s a great way. I mean, I learned a huge amount from Felix and I still do today. But he was a great believer in intentionality. So everything we do, the way we present ourselves in meetings, the way that we craft a message out to the business, who speaks like how we play the part, how do we, we talked about not playing to type. So if I like it would have been easy for me to deliver the softer messages and feelings to deliver the tough news. So we sort of swapped roles in meetings.

So I think being intentional about leadership and being intentional about it. The culture you want to create in an organization has been a sort of a driving force and something I’ve learned over the years. If you’re not being intentional, you’re probably unintentionally creating something. And Felix would always say, what are the unintended consequences of what we’re about to do? And that helps you think so. Okay. Yeah. Like this. We’re going to go ahead now.

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah, but not every bit of not every challenge that every problem not every bit of dysfunction is the result of intentional actions. And I think it’s that neglect to consider certain things, that intentionality to think about those unintended consequences is a powerful thing.

And I and I think that’s, if there’s probably challenges in the world, and he in business, it’s because we just didn’t think it through. Yeah, I get it that you mentioned, at least on the website, you went to look through the C Space website, there’s a portion in there on the homepage that says we’re working to humanize business. What does that look like?

Phil Burgess 

Yeah, so it’s definitely an aspirational mission that we have. I say it in two ways. Like one is working with our clients to build empathy with their customers to make sure that they are developing campaigns and products and services that resonate and make their customers worlds better. The other I think about internally, so how can we build a more human business and given my role as Chief People Officer, and as MD previously, a lot of this is like, when we’re thinking about our culture, when we’re thinking about how we treat our people, how do we treat them in a more human fashion?

I think it’s hard because like, trying to codify what it means to be human is challenging. And it’s a thought exercise that I’ve I’ve never really done formally, but I think about a lot like, it’s easy. And it’s a trigger for me when some people might say, well, you’re being too human. Sure. I think what they’re saying is like you’re being too soft, or it’s all about compassion, and caring for people and making them happy. And there’s some truth in that.

But I think being human is also about being kind doesn’t mean being soft, being kind might mean, being kind enough to give someone some negative feedback that’s going to help them with their performance, being kind enough, might be letting someone go from a role that isn’t right for them or the people they’re working with. being human is sort of embracing the messiness and ambiguity of business. And as humans, we’re all fallible, we all mess stuff up.

But being human is kind of admitting that and owning it and saying like, as leaders, we messed this up, we made the wrong decision. Like we’re not perfect. And something I strive to do, and I don’t always get it, right, because we all have egos, but is to sort of model that and talk about like, we’re all works in progress like our business is a work in progress, like our strategy changes, the world is changing. I would love to know all the answers, but I don’t have them. And I think on my best day, I own it. And on my worst day, I’m trying to give everyone the answers and people are like, you don’t have them, and they lose confidence. Does that make sense?

Steve Chaparro 

It makes total sense. In fact, I’m glad that the second half of your answer included, you know, the messiness, embracing the messiness of just business of life. Where there is ever any sort of human being involved in any situation, it is going to be messy. And I think, too many times we try to present a pristine picture of how things are, whether it’s our marketing to our customers, whether it’s marketing to potential talent coming on board, whether it’s, you know, internal communications, and all of these different things.

But the reality is, especially now, the era that we’re living in right now we’re talking in the middle of August, beginning of August 2020. It’s messy, we don’t have all the answers. And I think being able to be able to say, you know, yes, we have a direction, we’re going to go forward in this direction. But we don’t know if you know, this is based on what we know right now.

Or I like to sometimes talk about, like, if I respond in, you know, in not the best way to a certain situation, to own it, and talk to my team or talk to my partners, whatever to say, Hey, I didn’t do this, right. I’m sorry, I’m trying to figure this out. I was wrong. Can we, you know, can we move forward? So I think that the bracing, the messiness of business is part of being human for sure.

Phil Burgess 

Yeah, I mean, it’s certainly something we’re thinking about a lot as we deal with the impact of COVID whether we’re working in offices or at home, uncertainty about whether schools are returning, having to sort of pivot our business strategy as to adapt to some of the economic sorts of turmoil. We’ve got elections coming up in the states we’ve got Brexit over in Europe in London.

And I think we’re all trained to want the next step and to get to closure and have the action plan and have the answer. And I mean, a lot of the work we’re doing in our business right now is how do we help people deal with change and ambiguity and see it as that is part of the status quo now, like the companies and the people that will be successful, are those who are able to adapt to deal with change.

The flip side is not letting yourself off the hook. And I’m guilty of this at times like and that doesn’t mean you can be fuzzy, but it might mean that you have to pivot more quickly. And it’s definitely a challenge and a tension because people want to know, well, what is the answer? And what is the plan? What are you going to do next week about racial injustice? And you can’t promise change tomorrow.

Steve Chaparro 

Yeah, so what are some of the top challenges that you’re you’re addressing, or at least you know, that are, are things that need to be dealt as, in this snapshot of time, knowing that three, six months down the road, it may be something different, but what are you seeing as the top say, three areas of focus that you guys are looking to address?

Phil Burgess 

I mean, there’s a few things that are really front of mind for us at the moment. I mean, one is front of mind, partly because we, we paused our business yesterday for a day to educate and inspire our team around the themes, diversity, equity, and inclusion. So like a lot of businesses, I think the events of the last sort of six weeks in the states have been a wake up call and a realization that things need to change.

We’ve always taken pride in calling ourselves a progressive business. And then when you actually look at the makeup of our senior leadership teams and our business, we’re not as diverse as we need to be, we don’t look enough, like the customers that our clients are serving all the cities that we are part of. So a big part of my role and a big push for us now. And really, for the next three years, because this is not going to happen overnight, is how do we build a truly diverse business and how we truly, truly inclusive of all the different people within the business.

So that’s about psychological safety. That’s about how we tap into people’s talents. That’s how we build understanding. So that’s one, one big focus. Another is how we sometimes talk about returning to work. As if we haven’t been working for the last 20 weeks during this pandemic, what really we’re thinking about. It’s not about returning to work or returning to the office, it’s more about a reimagining of what work looks like as we emerge from this if we emerged from this.

And I think we started with like, well, when we go back, or a return to the new normal, or the return to office strategy, but really, it’s like, what does the new world of work look like? What’s the value proposition for our employees? Like, what are they signing up to when they come to work for C Space? And we’re, we’re thinking a lot as a team about how do we include our employees and working that out? And how do we make sure we don’t go back to old paradigms? Like, if we go back to the office, maybe we do two days a week, and then three days a week out? And now we’re pushing ourselves to think if we consider ourselves a remote organization? What would that mean, we would do differently from a technology point of view and from an HR policy stance, and how would we tap into different talent pools. So that’s very much on my mind, and how we make that big enough, but small enough to actually be a manageable challenge to solve.

Steve Chaparro 

I would imagine that this second, you know, what is return back to work back to the office again, however, we want to call it, in fact, I’ve been having conversations with, you know, folks in your position at different agencies that are that’s very much the top of mind of what does that look like, you know, a lot of us thought that we were going to go back into the office, you know, July, August, September. Now, it looks like some point in 2021, in some cases, and, you know, there’s so they’re starting to look and I love the way you described as let’s reimagine the value proposition of even the office or how we work it.

You know, it’s almost like going back to what you described earlier, let’s strip away all of the things that we thought it used to be before. It’s almost like let’s start-up from a whiteboard. And, you know, zero-sum budget, as they kind of call it, you know, just where we like to build what we believe is the value proposition for the office. You know, is it in fact what we actually do individual work? Yes, it can be but maybe different now. Can we maybe go there to have collaboration sessions? Can we go that to have all-hands meetings, you know, rethinking it?

Because a lot of times I’ve heard folks that are, you know, in the perimeter offices with the windows. They’re there in their office maybe once or twice a week, because they’re on the road so much, at least historically? Do they really need a dedicated space and all of these different things? And, you know, do we need the same amount of square foot per person? You know, let’s reevaluate that there are some things that we can consider there. So, definitely have seen a lot of conversation around that. And that’s pretty exciting to think about, but it’s also stressful, I’m sure for folks in your situation, that may not have had to reevaluate it from the ground up. And then there’s things like leases and things like that we have to think about.

So I want to ask a little bit about I know, we talked about, one of the things that I saw in just describing C Space was that you folks, were a Gold Award winner for Learning Team of the Year 2020. And I’d love to hear what are your guys’ focus in terms of having a learning culture? We describe some of those things already. I think in terms of how you approach, you know, learning from the good and bad, the ugly, but what are some thoughts you have about just developing a learning culture?

Phil Burgess 

It’s a big, it’s a big question. I mean, I guess one of the drivers for it was I think we realized that we are a business, we think we thought we when we rebranded I think we thought we were going through a three-year transformation. And then we probably declared victory a little too soon that we had transformed. And the world outside is continuing to move at pace. And we realized that actually, we’re in a constant state of transformation as we adapt. And I think as we’re all experiencing this year.

And I think what we started to realize we’ve always been, we’ve always valued learning and personal development. And I think we realized that having a growth mindset and having a culture where people are, are constantly thinking about what can I do differently is important to innovation. And it’s important to retention of staff. And it’s important to our clients because if we’re not learning and bringing new ideas to the table, they’ll find someone else who is.

And I mean, we really, we started our journey two years ago, again, we closed the office in July 2018 for a day, and we held an all-staff day for we flew everyone in from our New York office, and all of our remote staff and our San Francisco team. They all came to Boston for the day. And we spent eight hours together building relationships and focusing on what it means to be a learning organization and having a growth mindset. And then that was sort of a scene setter. And partly it was we then did a lot of work, sort of saying like, what are the barriers and drivers to learning. So we had were held workshops where we were saying like what gets in the way of learning at C Space.

And what we saw was it was a mixture of culture and mindset things. So a mixture of operational and process things. So I spend all my time doing timesheets are I don’t know where to access the technology, or I don’t know what tool does that. So it was a mixture of operational and culture things. And that helped us sort of say, okay, we’re going to try and build this culture, again, in a really intentional way, through different incremental means. So it was simple stuff, like what I heard was like, we don’t value learning, because we don’t have a timesheet code that allows me to track learning and development. So that was a quick win, we just added a timesheet code, and then we could quantify it.

But they were like, if you don’t measure it, clearly leadership don’t value in. And then we were like, what learning is all about being in the classroom, and then it’s like, and but actually learning happens on the job. So that helped us think about like our training for reporting managers and help people think about what learning is not just when you’re in the room with an external trainer learning is every day and it was a series of little incremental things that we did to try to help people just understand that this is another intentional part of our culture, where we’re building.

Steve Chaparro 

As we’re nearing the end of our conversation, love to hear what are some things that we haven’t talked about, that you’re particularly passionate about and love, you know, chatting about in discovering with other people?

Phil Burgess 

I know I do. I do spend a lot of my time, like, just thinking about how you build culture, how you build culture and organizations like the role of values. How do you strike that right balance between sort of having a set of corporate values that people feel ownership over without imposing them on people? That’s, that’s something we’ve done a lot of workarounds, we co-created our values at C Space. And yeah, that’s definitely a passion area of mine.

I mean, one of the areas, which is a personal passion, outside of work, but I’m interested in the idea of the power of the individual and the ability of an injured individual to trigger a ripple effect. So whether that’s within an organization, the actions of one person, and how if you can role model a certain behavior or get others doing it, you can trigger that ripple effects, but also outside work.

So I think on my mind right now is, is the impact we can have on our societies and on the environment and the personal responsibility that we have to drive change. So, like my wife and I were walking on the beach on New Year’s Day, in our local town, and we found there was a load of litter blowing around. And we have two small children. And we picked up a bag, a plastic bag, and we filled it with litter. And when we got home that day, we weren’t we were kind of like debating on New Year’s resolutions. And we weren’t really sure what to do.  

And we were like, what if we could trigger some kind of ripple effect whereby collecting a bag of trash, we could inspire other people to do it. So that day, we got home and we set up this goal, and we thought it’d be a cool project to do with our kids. And we came up with this hashtag, #justonebag2020. So what if everyone just picked up a bag of litter when they were out exploring, so we got on Instagram, and we stuck up a photo. And every day through January, whether it was like minus 20, it was pretty cold out here in Massachusetts and we went out and collected a bag of trash, and no one joined in and all of our neighbors thought we were crazy. And then a neighbor joined in, and then someone at work joined in because I kept talking about it. And by the end of the month, we had like 100 bags.

We’d set ourselves a goal of 2020 bags by the end of the year, but we hit that in April. And we’re now seven months in and we’ve had 9700 bags of litter collected around the world as part of this campaign by more than 500 people across 35 countries 37 US states. So I guess sometimes that one of the reasons I started it was because I think I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by there’s so much going on in the world that I can’t help or impact. And, and this has kind of given me a bit of hope that actually like one person can, it sounds super cheesy, but like one person can make a difference.

And I kind of feel like if we could apply that to the businesses where a part of, we kind of apply that to some of the things around racial inequality and what’s not working at work, I don’t know, it’s, it’s kind of given me something to cling to, actually, during dark moments during the pandemic, where I’ve been like, I’m just gonna go and pick up a bag of trash and hope someone else maybe gets inspired to do the same. And that’s, I know, it’s helped keep me going.

Steve Chaparro 

That’s such a powerful image. And he reminds me of the image of you know, you get one person with a candle, who lights you know, in a sea of people, and they just one person lights another, another candle, and then everyone starts lighting other candles, and you start to see just a tremendous exponential impact of just one person starting it off. And I think, you know, it reminds me of this idea of just a culture of one that if really want change is something my father in law told me when we first started having kids. He said, Steve if I wanted my kids to change, I needed to change first. So if I wanted to change my culture, whether it’s in my team, my company, or even in industry, it starts with me.

Phil Burgess 

Yeah, it’s so powerful. And I think it’s something that I’ve realized more and more. And it’s, it’s both sorts of freeing and maybe a burden because you realize that as a leader, the way you show up and what you do sets the tone. And I think it’s back to being intentional, that what you do other people look to you and then start to do it. And if you do the right stuff, other people will tend to do the right stuff. And if you do the wrong stuff, people would do the wrong stuff.

So I mean, it’s all pretty simple when you boil it down. But again, we’re humans, and we’re messy, and we make it complicated. So that’s another reason why I’ve been excited about this campaign. Because amidst the complexity of life and work, there’s something nice about having something so simple to focus on. It’s like being back in my bookselling days, all I had to do was knock on the door and see if they wanted to buy books. I didn’t have to think about everything else going on in the world right now. And I think we all need that because it’s kind of it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the state of things right now. And that can become paralyzing.

Steve Chaparro 

Well, I love it. That has been very inspirational. Phil, I appreciate you coming on the show. If there’s folks that people want to learn more about your work at C Space and just you in general, where can they go?

Phil Burgess 

So the best place is LinkedIn, and maybe a cheeky plug, if anyone wants to get involved and go out and collect a bag of litter anywhere and then they can find us at #justonebag2020 on Instagram. That would please my wife.

Steve Chaparro 

That would be awesome. Yeah, we’ll include it in the show notes for sure. So we’ll make sure that people get that message. Thank you, Phil, for being on the show.

Phil Burgess 

It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.


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