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Self-managing teams were a condition for our rapid growth.

From the start, Teal Partners consciously opted for self-managing teams. Their employees independently determine their goals and working methods, without guidance from above. Now, six years later, we take stock. How do they practice self-management at Teal Partners? What are the benefits? What are the pitfalls? An interview with founder Koen Denies.

Self-managing teams were a condition for our rapid growth

What does "self-management" mean at Teal Partners?

Our employees choose how they organize their work, where and when they work. As a horizontal organization, we have no bosses, no departments, no project managers. Colleagues decide among themselves who joins the team. They know how much everybody earns and how the company is doing financially.

We take decisions by consulting our colleagues. We divide the internal work into teams, from HR to finance, and we combine the work in these teams alongside our other assignments.

Why does Teal Partners choose self-management?

We want to attract competent people who are not afraid to take responsibility. These people function best when given the freedom and trust to work autonomously. We place trust above control because we believe our people know how they thrive best.

Remember that self-direction is not equal to flying around free as a bird. Freedom comes with responsibility. Call it a mature way of working together.

What do you think is the most essential effect of self-management?

Because of that freedom, there is more engagement. People feel responsible for their work because they get the flexibility to organize it the way they want.

One of our new colleagues put it nicely. He was struck by how committed the team is to our customers. He had never seen it that way at previous employers. Everyone feels responsible for the company, for the whole.

Teal Partners has been in existence for six years and has 34 employees. Has self-management helped you in this rapid growth?

It was the foundation of it all. By dividing the work rather than centralizing it, we could move forward more quickly. At the start of a new project, a clear framework is created regarding expectations and agreements, allowing the team to work autonomously. The rapid growth that we are experiencing sometimes poses a challenge. New people have to get used to the new way of working and the freedom and responsibility we expect of them.

Therefore, we looked for a comfortable growth rate. Now one or two people join us every month. That pace works for us. Self-management helped us grow efficiently and sustainably, without the classic growing pains and the need to restructure regularly.

Do you think self-management can work in any company?

I don't know. For our team, it is the best formula. Our colleagues are competent people who know perfectly well how to organize their work. We are specifically looking for people seeking 'the Teal way of working', who like to take ownership and strive for a mature way of working together. With an average of ten years of experience in their backpacks, they know their strengths.

Those who like to take responsibility are given every opportunity. At the same time, we encourage people to try out new challenges. We try to create a safe environment. That gives employees the confidence to step out of their comfort zone. In addition, a close bond with colleagues, but also with our customers, is part of our DNA.

What makes Teal Partners different from other companies experimenting with self-management?

Right from the start, the team had many questions. Am I doing my job right? Am I meeting expectations? Giving feedback is good, but being upfront and clear is even better. As IT professionals, we work in software development according to clear objectives within a well-defined framework of design principles.

We also apply this way of working to our internal operations by creating a clear framework. If certain choices have to be made, this serve as guidelines. They are not absolute rules, but principles providing a foothold.

Don't you make it harder for people, by letting them decide everything for themselves?

That's right. Freedom is not easy. You have to be able to deal with it, and it's not beatific either. For example, the team has indicated that they don't want to decide on each other's pay. As founders, we also don't want to make them feel like we're shifting responsibility.

So we set up a system that clearly organizes the distribution according to logical parameters, such as experience and team impact. We make a proposal that we discuss with the group and adjust together if necessary. This allows decision-making without sacrificing transparency.

What do you think is the biggest pitfall of self-management?

We work at a fast pace against tight deadlines. It is easy to lose sight of each other in the everyday hustle and bustle, which may be disastrous.

For us, the technological and functional aspects of the job run like clockwork. We know how to develop quickly, qualitatively and safely, understanding what the customer wants. But putting five good people together doesn't automatically make a team. Teamwork only occurs when you actively work on forming the group. Informal networking moments are therefore essential. That is the condition for successful self-management.

You have been working according to these principles for six years now. How have your insights evolved?

We started with the idea that we would also divide the internal tasks among our team of developers. After a while, we realized that some of those tasks were left unexecuted. We needed different talents than the ones we had in-house for some of them.

So we started looking for profiles to take on those tasks. By hiring our ''Jacky-of-all-trades'' Britt last year, we engaged someone who has no IT background for the first time. She makes sure things move forward, from office management to administration. That was a bull's eye. And recently, we welcomed Isabelle, who will support our growth with her expertise in sales and marketing.

Many companies choose to establish a home office policy, even after Corona. Does Teal Partners do this as well?

At our company, we don't have a work-from-home policy. We don't believe we need one. People know best how to organize their own work. The company deciding how often you can work from home? That's contrary to our philosophy.

What if someone says: I want to work at home the whole year?

We have no definite rules regarding working from home and it's also not our ambition to impose any rules whatsoever on this topic. During the Corona period, we did notice that our people attach a great deal of importance to personal and more informal moments with their colleagues, such as having a drink after work or having lunch together on the ‘Eilandje’.

Our organization has a caring culture based on closeness and trust. Self-management presupposes collegiality, which only arises when people meet to exchange ideas and take pride in their work together. People who prefer to work entirely autonomously do not fit into that picture. Collaboration is more than bringing a project to a successful conclusion.

We certainly don't want to become a remote organization, as you see with some American tech companies now. But if someone says: 'I am working at home this week to program in silence,' or 'I am working at home on Wednesdays, that's easier with the kids', who are we to decide otherwise?

Specifically, how often can someone work at home?

We don't put a number on it. That depends on their team, their assignment, their family. People are the best judge of that.

In the way Teal Partners organizes self-management, you have the best of both worlds as an employee. You have the freedom of a freelancer, but you belong to a team. Does anyone ever leaves dissatisfied or have you really created a unique work culture?

No one has ever left because of our company culture, and we are proud of that. The reverse would make me unhappy. People have left in the past for personal reasons, or it turned out that a position we wanted to introduce into our organization didn't fit, such as project management.

Occasionally, we meet someone for whom the principles of self-management don't work. You have to like working independently and being a team player. There is no unique formula, but self-management is an excellent guide for our tasks and for the profiles we are looking for.

By Isabelle De Vil on 2022-01-20