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Can You Put People Before Money and Still Succeed?

Every year, the Combustion team had a week long offsite retreat. We do this mostly because we really dig each others company. (There was a meatball making competition, real-life testing of a beta board game, and other stuff we can’t mention) But it also gives us time to reflect on the year, strategize and reconnect with our vision. This year, high up on our agenda was our commitment to protecting our ‘people’ – aka participants.

11111967_10153409554014042_4978045491197312586_nThis might sound a little weird. I mean why would people who are lucky enough to have their companies invest in (awesome) training need protecting?? Isn’t the fact that their professional and personal development is important to their employers enough? Unfortunately no. The problem is that some of our clients, with all good intentions, ask us to make concessions to our training logistics. It can be anything from timing, space, location, participant numbers – you name it. We understand that they likely have no idea the impact these concessions might have on their teams. But for us, as soon as participants walk through a Combustion workshop portal, they become OUR ‘people’ and we are crazy fierce about making sure their experience is sacrosanct.

No lurking

The one we challenge most is what we call the ‘lurker’ request. This is when we’re asked to allow, usually ‘senior’ people, to sit in on a workshop to “observe”. Our answer? “No way.” Why? Let me break it down. First off, “observing” reveals nothing. If someone wants to understand what our workshops are all about, they need to take part. Only through the experience will they have any accurate context. That’s why what we do works.

Second, we ask our people to be open, vulnerable and wonderfully flawed in our rooms. People cry. Their fears are revealed. This is not something that should be “observed”. They are not lab rats. They’re people. And then there’s just the generally icky discomfort that people have when they’re trying to learn and their leadership is scanning the room with some unknown objective. Is this is a test? Are they being graded on their participation? Subject matter knowledge? Nope. Not putting them through that power dynamic either.

And last off, it makes us look like we don’t really care about the people – that we’d rather focus on what ‘management’ is requiring more than wanting to create a good room. That would never be true. And that is not how trust is built. That is not Combustion-y.

Love the People


So we decided to do something potentially career limiting. It was time to start putting some of these anti-concession points into our Working Agreement / SOW. And the ‘no lurkers policy’ isn’t the only one we’ve included. There’s also the one about how we reserve the right to cancel a workshop in the moment if the numbers are too high (we have advertised maximums for a reason) or too low (so as to be able to successfully execute the learning as designed). In fact, that very policy was recently invoked with a global agency and they were none too thrilled I can tell you. But our commitment is to the people and we weren’t willing to put them through a sub-par experience for anyone.

And we all agreed, as a team, and all who rely on those Working Agreements getting signed off by Legal so we can all get paid, that we’d rather earn less than throw our people under even the most well-intentioned bus – that we all loved what we do because we get to live by our number one stated corporate value, which is ‘Love the People’.

So would you sign an agreement with caveats like these? Would you understand the intention? Or would you think we were being unreasonable, inflexible or worse, training divas? We’d love to hear your thoughts!!

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