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How to create a fantastic work culture: “We understand that knowledge, skills and loyalty cannot just be brought on a day-to-day basis.” with Philip Rooke and Chaya Weiner

In Europe the business approach is that teams are an asset. Human capital is much more about medium- and long-term business success. We understand that knowledge, skills and loyalty cannot just be brought on a day-to-day basis. This is why we give more time for holidays, sickness and maternity cover, because a few days a […]


In Europe the business approach is that teams are an asset. Human capital is much more about medium- and long-term business success. We understand that knowledge, skills and loyalty cannot just be brought on a day-to-day basis. This is why we give more time for holidays, sickness and maternity cover, because a few days a year makes little difference versus a motivated team.


As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Philip Rooke, CEO, Managing Director at Spreadshirt. Phil joined Spreadshirt in 2009 as Head of the Sales and Marketing, bringing with him a wide breadth of experience and success in fast-growth sectors. In 2011, he was appointed Chief Executive Officer, with a sole focus on bringing Spreadshirt from a start-up endeavor to a highly-profitable enterprise.Show less His forward thinking and tireless efforts have paid off: having set the €100M turnover mark as a target from the outset of his tenor as CEO, Spreadshirt will surpass the benchmark for the first time in 2017. Phil initially launched a career in newspaper advertising before changing over to online management in the early years of e-commerce. His twenty years of experience in the new media have helped Spreadshirt become the world’s biggest e-commerce platform for on-person self-expression. Phil is dedicated to empowering customers to express themselves through creating, discovering, and selling clothing and accessories in an exciting and straightforward way. “When you work with passionate people on things that make customers happy, it doesn’t even feel like work.” This mantra is testament to Phil’s leadership style and dedication.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have always loved new challenges and ideas. That’s why I studied sciences, and then left the scientific path to work in business.

Since 1996 I have worked in the internet business, when I was one of the first to start selling online advertising in the UK. In those 23 years I have worked for some of the biggest organizations, like Tesco PLC, to smaller firms like Spreadshirt, but always because the job was interesting and offered a new development for me.

I came to Spreadshirt particularly because I loved the challenges it presented by being international. It’s a platform that allows people to create ideas, buy them and sell them all over the world and then having physical factories to produce the sold goods. The scale of these challenges was bigger than I had imagined, but clearly our growth and profitability compared to our competitors shows that we are winning where others have not.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Being international is hard sometimes. Moving from the world of UK and US companies to a German company meant a lot of adjustment. Mostly in language. It wasn’t the obvious “speak German” problem, but the difference in communication style. For example, British people tend not to say things directly and this causes confusion. If they hear an idea and say, “That’s one option but you could look at others” the British understand it is a polite message; “I don’t like your idea, but I don’t want to say it in public”. German people hear, “he likes this idea, if I have considered other options then I can go ahead”. And several things I wasn’t expecting happened as a consequence. German bosses would just say “Bad idea, find another one”. Even German employees will say things like that to their boss in public; German directness took some adjustment on my part, both to give it and receive it.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

To support our own business, we have built a network of our own factories across the EU and the US. Now we are opening that up for other companies to use. This will enable many other retailers to offer printing of individual items of clothing into their business.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

No, I think it might be higher.

I have experienced many Americans being unhappy with their work/life balance, the loyalty they are expected to show the company doesn’t seem to be a two-way thing and they lack a community feeling at work. In many cases their motivation is more a fear of losing their jobs and healthcare; rather than enjoying what they do.

Americans are also expected to be positive about the business they are in all the time. This makes it hard to admit to themselves that they are not happy.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

I think the question is the wrong way around. The most important thing is employee health and wellbeing, which leads to productivity and that drives profits.

Unhappy workers turn up, do what they have to do to get through the day and go home. Even when they are at work they are gossiping, day-dreaming, and social media time increases, so you only get 50–60% of their attention. Consistent unhappiness leads to lack of energy, depression and sickness and you are getting 0% to 50% of their attention.

Happy workers come in and get involved because they want to see the result. They want to go to work, they think about it when they are out of work. So, you get 110% of their attention. I often find myself having to send motivated people home because they are sick, and it would be better for them and their team to take a break.

If your team aren’t happy you don’t have their attention, then you don’t get the productivity. But you still financially have to pay for them to turn up.

I was raised on an organic farm and learnt at an early age “Happy Chickens lay more eggs”! This is also true for team members from the CEO all the way down.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

#1 and most important “Don’t demotivate people”. Most people start motivated, but so often managers demotivate their teams. Consistent criticism, concentrating on the problems, never highlighting success and not listening to your employees just demotivates them. It’s obvious, but I am still stunned by how many managers just do not see that.

#2 Onboarding is really important. It matters how fast you can get someone up to speed on what the company and teams do. When I arrived in the company there were people who did not know what the people next door did and only understood their team’s purpose. But often that purpose was not aligned with the company or other teams. This led to low cooperation and frustration. We now run an extensive onboarding where everyone at every level is taught about all the areas of the business. Now, new team members are more effective, faster and more aligned to other teams.

#3 Over communicate: Visions, Missions, Objectives and Strategies need to be continuously communicated and discussed at every level. And in particular how each role fits within this. I was very happy when a potential big client told me he visited one of our factories, and a factory worker was able to tell him something about our strategy and why his role mattered in achieving it. But people forget quickly, messages need to be repeated continuously. This is why Brands advertise messages all the time. Your company messages also need to be repeated.

#4 Work on your company community. We have a Feel Good Manager and her job is to provide opportunities outside of the everyday work to get the teams to interact and also enjoy work. There is nothing like an informal event to actually get two people talking and liking each other, who might later come up with a game-changing improvement.

#5 Lastly smile and look happy. Trust me it makes a difference, even when things are very tough and you don’t have an answer about how to fix it. If you look miserable people avoid you and catch your feeling. You are a leader, so you have to also lead the mood. Better still, I have found smiling makes me feel better and happier!

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

When I came to the US, I found that people are treated as a commodity, not as an asset. Decisions made by management are often short-term bottom-line decisions to the detriment of the workers. So many US business decisions are quarter by quarter decisions and not even medium-term. People are employed “at will” and can be disposed of as soon as things are tough.

In Europe the business approach is that teams are an asset. Human capital is much more about medium- and long-term business success. We understand that knowledge, skills and loyalty cannot just be brought on a day-to-day basis. This is why we give more time for holidays, sickness and maternity cover, because a few days a year makes little difference versus a motivated team.

I think the US in general needs to rethink its attitudes to holiday, sickness, “at will” employment and worker benefits. Stop thinking of employees as a commodity to be consumed to make profit, instead think of them as the Human Capital Asset behind the business success.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I am very honest, down-to-earth person. I am terrible at politics and secret agendas, so I just don’t do that. I hope this means that I am very approachable, and people can talk to me directly. This is important because I need to know the truth about what is happening, but I recognize even then it is not easy for some people. So, I have an anonymous email route through which people can send me feedback without me knowing who it is.

I’ve recognized that with over 750 people in my business we gain two working years of experience every day. In total that is something like 5000 years of experience in my company. I have been working in ecommerce for 20 years; so, they know 250 times more than me. Therefore, my job is to bring that experience to play by getting the right, motivated team facing in the right direction. This has meant over the last few years completely changing my job role from ecommerce expert to “shepherding” ecommerce experts. Sadly, this means I do not get to play with marketing and product decisions. But on the other hand, it is so exciting to see what an empowered team can do, and see with pride that they do a better job than I could have done

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have been lucky and worked with several great bosses and CEOs. I think the most influential was still the first who believed in and promoted me; Austyn Hallworth at Hearst Magazines, in the days when I sold paper advertising before, I moved to the Internet.

He worked so hard on building a high-performance team, he was bold in his vision and brave. Even when things went wrong, he kept a brave face and worked on getting results. He wasn’t perfect and we loved him even more for that. 25 years later his teams’ members from then still stay in contact and several are CEOs. When I have a bad day, I also find myself thinking “What would Austyn do?” and I get out there and walk the floor.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I do of course have charities I donate to. My wife and I even have a little personal charity building teacher housing in rural Tanzanian schools to help attract better teachers.

But mostly I hope my impact on the world will be making work a rewarding experience. I hope that the success of my team members and the attitudes that we develop at work extends into other work places. I try to help ex-team members as they develop and hit problems in their careers. I hope they also go on to make happier work places for their teams.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“When you talk you only repeat what you know. When you listen you might learn something new”, Dalai Lama

I was struggling at work to get some strategies or behavior changed. I could not understand why others did not see the problem. So, I kept repeating the problems and solutions. A colleague gave me this quote and advised me to not speak as much in meetings, but to listen. She even said “Really listen, do not listen to form a reply. Only form the reply when you have heard everything”. What I heard was genuine blockers and problems that had to be resolved. In a few cases I was just wrong. In most a little adjustment to new knowledge got things done.

A funny side-effect was people used to respect my knowledge and experience. Now I think by listening more and saying less people saw me as being cleverer because I also understood their needs and problems.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The cure for ignorance is to ask the question. The route to “being right” is listen and understand the answer.

I was in Jerusalem recently for business seeing first-hand the divides between the Abrahamic faiths and yet they are so similar. My personal life is pulled apart by Brexit, bi-partisan politics and the pattern of “I am right” in politics.

Perhaps, if we just sat down and listened properly to the other side, we may not agree but at least the anger would be lower because we would understand the other side. Then we can live together and find compromises.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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