Being a people-centric leader is key to success

Sean Reddington skipped university and went into business with his dad. He’s now co-founder and CEO of THRIVE Learning – and a father of two. THRIVE is a one-stop shop for business’ learning, upskilling, communication and collaboration needs, and Sean is on a mission to shake up corporate e-learning. This year, he was shortlisted for the Great British Entrepreneur Awards 2022 for the Service Entrepreneur of the Year.

By Sean Reddington

Building a business during a global pandemic was certainly character-building, and there were some dark moments when that first lockdown hit. It was our biggest challenge, but it also turned out to be our biggest win. We’d only started trading in 2019, and everything I’d worked for in 17 years was invested into THRIVE. When Covid hit, we were on a knife edge as businesses furloughed workers and cut investment in non-essential suppliers. And we had to cut pay for our then 35-strong team.

But – not quite overnight, but as the long weeks of lockdown dragged on – digital transformation became essential. Smart businesses knew it was the only option to survive. Remote working was the new normal, and the ability to roll comms out across organisations at pace was vital. At THRIVE, we acted fast and focused our content on subjects relevant to the pandemic, and we were back in business.

Despite taking pay cuts, none of our team left. I’m not naive enough to think that was 100  per cent down to our company culture – everyone was stuck between a rock and a hard place back then. But we have focused our efforts on building THRIVE, from the very beginning, to be a great place to work.

The secret to good leadership: Give autonomy, trust & flexibility

I’m a firm believer in giving people the autonomy, trust and flexibility they need to produce great work and be the best version of themselves – both inside and outside of work. We want people to be committed to the business, but to also look after themselves and their families.

The lines between work and home were blurred during the pandemic, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – the more we respect people’s responsibilities outside of work, the more valued they feel at work, and this, inevitably, has a positive impact on wellbeing. At THRIVE, we lead by example. Both Mark (co-founder) and I are parents, and we’re open about the challenges of balancing being an active co-parent with running a business.

Being transparent in business is no longer seen as a weakness, in fact, it’s key to building a culture of trust. Employees want to know about your values, ethics, the work-life balance you can offer and how you treat your people. Wages aren’t everything anymore, especially as Gen Z enter the workforce. They notoriously prioritise being happy and making a difference in their work over other considerations.

Recruit well

I have no qualms in saying that being a successful leader means surrounding yourself with a successful team. You can have the best product in the industry, but it’s the team that sits around it that will prove its success. Creating a top team is not easy, and you may not get it right first time. But when you do, and you can trust those people to deliver great things, it makes being a business leader so much easier.

There are different ways to empower your people, but at THRIVE, our key staff have equity in the company. My core team have been with me, through various business iterations, for seven years and our success is their success.

Create a culture of reward and recognition

Our people are passionate and committed to our success. And that’s because of our performance-based culture. At THRIVE there are no barriers to success beyond performance, and everyone is playing a part in building something different. No one is scared to try something new and fail, because that’s how we learn and improve. And when we win, we win together, and then we reinvest in our product and our people. Not a single employee out of the 102 that have been with THRIVE for more than 12 months is on the same salary as when they began.

We also take a transparent approach when it comes to people’s careers. Having open conversations about people’s futures – where they want to be, how they can get there and what the organisation can do to help – has enabled us to move talent around and upskill people with great potential for different roles.

The driving force

Building a business that you’re passionate about is half the battle, and I’m personally driven to keep on pushing the boundaries in e-learning. Seeing people roll their eyes at the dry, uninspiring workplace training they’ve had to endure was my cue to build something better. And I’m excited by the innovation we’re driving in the industry, even if it’s sometimes a challenge to overcome the mentality of ‘we’ve always done it this way’.

But I’m also driven by building a people-centric business and giving back as we grow. I really believe in having an impact beyond just the industry we’re in, and everyone at THRIVE is encouraged to get involved in giving something back. It doesn’t have to be grand gestures, just small acts that mean something to our team, like sending pizzas to local hospital staff during Covid and celebrating hitting our sales targets by giving food vouchers to homeless people.

We’re building a people-centric business based on strong values, and despite learning every day, we haven’t changed the essence of who we are since day one. One thing’s for sure – we’re all having a lot of fun doing it.