Viisi: Holacracy Through Thick and Thin
Where some companies relied on massive layoffs to survive the Covid-19 crisis, others were able to cope perfectly. Viisi is one of them.
In 2019 and 2020, it was voted first company in the "Great place to work" ranking of the Netherlands. That hasn’t slowed down the firm’s growth though. Indeed, it currently manages a portfolio of nearly 7,500 mortgages, worth no less than 2.5 billion euros.
Its co-founder, Tom van der Lubbe, does not hide his ambition. He wants to change the world of finance, in particular by putting people first, starting with his employees. A mantra that is rather unusual in this industry.
And this is not the only way in which Viisi stands out from its competitors. Radical transparency, decentralization of decisions and self-management are just some practices that make Viisi unique in the financial sector.
A Credible Alternative to Short-Termism
Dissecting the way in which Viisi teams reinvent work plunges us into the heart of Holacracy principles and opens the door to a strong vision of entrepreneurship, far from the all-too-common focus on short-term results.
To all the skeptics who thought these experiments were not credible, the results are there for all to see. The economic turbulence caused by the health crisis has so far failed to erode this very particular model of work organization.
Employees and Collaborators at the Heart of Growth
What is immediately striking in the organization of the company is the paramount importance given to employees and collaborators.
From the start of his activities, Tom van der Lubbe has applied a stakeholder hierarchy policy. In other words, employees always come first. Before customers and before shareholders.
Whatever the situation, this principle doesn’t change. It has even withstood the storm and the turbulence caused by the Covid-19 health crisis. Indeed, right at the start of the crisis, employees were told in no uncertain terms that they remained the number one priority for the business.
The focus was no longer on goals or performance, but on keeping everyone on board.
This helped employees feel more secure psychologically and thus remain productive. A perfect and concrete example of how a company can apply the precepts of Maslow's pyramid.
Listening to Tom van der Lubbe speak, it is obvious that Viisi’s focus on employees is not concerned with productivity alone. There is also something deeply humanistic and spiritual in his approach.
Teams have fully integrated this golden rule. The idea? Treat others as you would like to be treated. Inspired by both religion and philosophy, this ethic of reciprocity is constantly reminded because, according to the entrepreneur, it is essential that human beings are placed at the center of the activity.
It would be risky to read it as a mere spiritual whim however. For almost 10 years, this approach has served a fundamentally holacratic project.
Viisi teams, made up of a few dozen employees, are organized into self-managed and decentralized circles. That is the only way, according to the co-founder, to keep running a large and complex structure in a constantly changing environment.
Each circle then fits into a larger circle, a bit like a federal democracy and its successive levels of governance: parliament, states, cantons, municipalities etc.
Within the circles, governance then always follows the same approach: that of the “primus inter pares” model, a practice taken from the Senate of Imperial Rome. In practice: formal equality within the group and, when a manager is required on a specific point, he is elected and chosen by all and always with respect for regular rotation.
In short, there is no indebted power or artificial hierarchy within teams.
In order to push holacratic logic to the end, the teams and the different circles are also organized on a model of radical transparency. The organization, missions or even the overall resources of the company are accessible to everyone, internally and externally! Even salaries have been available for consultation since 2016.
Is such a level of transparency essential?
More than a dogmatic approach, Tom van der Lubbe prefers to speak of long-term thinking. His bet? That the younger generations have different expectations, including transparency and information sharing. Considering this, Viisi tries to position itself in line with the times, and draws up what new generation companies could look like.
This logic of radical and uncompromising transparency has made it possible for Viisi to put the question of wages and salaries on the table, without it turning into a fight.
When the Covid-19 crisis emerged, Viisi considered downsizing or reducing certain working hours until the bulk of the storm had passed. However, those questions were not imposed from above, on the contrary. Individual teams debated these issues in a decentralized manner, with confidence in collective intelligence.
That process seems to have borne fruit, with new balances emerging naturally within these small collectives. This way of operating also allowed employees to show very concrete and immediate solidarity.
As we can see, what is emerging within Viisi is a far cry from what we’ve come to expect from the world of finance. Tom van der Lubbe does not hesitate to claim his attachment to a continental, almost family-like vision of the company.
The Covid-19 crisis is a reminder of the glaring differences between entrepreneurial approaches and logics. Where some companies immediately relied on massive layoffs to survive, others, smaller in size, were able to cope perfectly. Viisi is one of them.
The threat of recession in the mortgage sector was understood and anticipated very quickly by the teams of Tom van der Lubbe. Different scenarios had been ready internally for years to counter and prepare for such economic contractions. That approach has borne fruit and has real calming virtues for the teams. Indeed, once the worst scenario is on the table, the reality is often more encouraging.
The Covid-19 crisis has also acted as an eye opener.
In the storm, everything becomes clearer and employees get to the point, understand better than ever their role and responsibility, but also the importance of the solidarity that unites them to others.
There’s no better time to test the holacratic organization of teams and to understand the strength of the collective.
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