Recently I went to speak at my old alma mater Bournemouth University. They’d ask me to come and speak about life in the industry, what my career had been like so far and, most interestingly, how my values as a person are reflected in the work I do.
The question actually took me by surprise - largely because it may be the first time I remember someone asking me that. Such a large part of why I’ve been at Octopus Energy for as long as I have is because I believe entirely in the mission that we’re all pushing towards, but even so it came as quite a refreshing change.
When I was at Bournemouth, I took part in the “Student Development Award”. It was an extra-curricular program designed to get students involved with other things around their course. Useful without a doubt, but perhaps lacking a bit of direction. That’s definitely changed as they’ve re-branded it to the Global Talent Program, and that was the purpose of my talk.
Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all
Alongside me for the talk was Senior Lecturer Sukanya Ayatakshi-Endow. She had some excellent comments about the practicality of students getting ready for life in the industry, and how that’s usually at odds with thinking about how a person feels about that work:
Often what we do with education is we’re trying to build a set of skills for you to be employable, for you to be able to get the best job out there in the market, especially in trying times like now when competition is steep and opportunities are minimum, but often what happens in that kind of traditional educational setup is we’re not necessarily talking about feelings.
This was certainly the case for me when I reflect on my time not only at Bournemouth University, but my earlier education and even my first couple of jobs in the industry. She asked the group a few simple questions:
- What are you good at?
- What do you love to do?
- What things in the world do you care about?
- What will you get paid for?
What is it that you love to do? because if we put love above everything else, then your purpose in life becomes very clear. If we lead with love, then all the challenges become far more easier to grapple with. We may be good at a number of things…we might even aim to get some work where we have an expectation of remuneration of a certain amount…But what is more important that we love the job that we do. Then we can align our values and our purpose to the things that we do.
- Sukanya Ayatakshi
She then shared some examples of factors that make up someone with a ‘global heartset’ - someone who’s values are their driving force and what she believes we need more of in the future:
- 💪 Resilience
- 🧠 Emotional Intelligence
- 🤝 Teamwork
- 👥 Collaboration
- ❤️ Empathy
- 🏛 Social Responsibility
- 🔁 Inclusivity
Admittedly it took me a while to realise what my working values were, and to ask myself why I was working where I was, and whether I was making a difference in what I was doing and where I was doing it. By “making a difference” I don’t necessarily mean single-handedly making a “dent in the universe” as Steve Jobs put it, I simply mean being proud of who I was working for, and what I was working towards.
Here are some questions to ask yourself, based on my experience. Because at each step of the way, I found myself asking them too.
Are you still learning?
Fishrod Interactive was my first job out of university. It was a tiny start-up, founded by Gavin Williams who had completed the same degree as me a couple of years previously, and it was unbelievably fun. It had real “us against the world” energy because of its size, and yet the clients we worked with had serious name recognition: Sky, Budweiser, and Metro. My favourite by a mile though was WWE. I’d been a fan since I was a kid, and as part of this job we got to tour with them around the world. My first day at Fishrod was in Berlin Germany, four days after I’d handed in my last assignment at university, to help with an installation the company had made for a youth festival. Gavin actually missed his flight that day, so myself and a videographer he hired to record the event had to find our way there and make sense of the various boxes of kit that had made its way there ahead of us. It still ranks as one of the most stressful and awesome days in my professional career.
What followed was months of moving around, seeing new sights, maintaining equipment, and hoping things didn’t break that we couldn’t replace locally. One thing it didn’t have much of though, was front-end development.
It was what I loved during university, and what I ultimately wanted to do full time. I was touring but not learning my craft. Gavin was a fantastic developer, but not in Front-end, so there wasn’t anybody to work alongside and learn from. In the end leaving was a really tough decision - I had a blast at Fishrod and they were the first company to give me a shot. For two years I gave it everything I had, but I needed to grow in my field. I think this choice was my first brush with my working values (although I didn’t know it at the time - I wanted to learn my craft and hone it, and I couldn’t do that where I was). Tangent Snowball was where I went to next.
Are you happy with who you work with?
The answer to this, and “are you still learning?” were both now yes. I had finally gotten the chance to work with a proper Front-end development team, full of talented people with years more experience than me. It was exactly what I was looking for and, what’s more, they were all really friendly! In terms of the values for a “global heartset”, I was getting the chance to learn more about teamwork and collaboration every day - working with designers, project managers, and a whole host of other disciplines. It was, despite all the fun I was having, everything I was missing at Fishrod.
Are you happy with who you work for?
This is a trickier question, and honestly one I didn’t really ask myself until right at the end of my time there. The fact was, working for an agency, you were asked to work on a range of different clients - could be commercial, could be charitable, could be political.
In all of my time there, I was never asked whether I felt comfortable working on a project. Admittedly there weren’t many that would spring to mind as being outlandishly controversial or divisive, but it certainly wasn’t asked. One client I worked on, for example, was The Labour Party. I’m very Labour-leaning, and so this wasn’t an issue for me at all, but I wasn’t asked. If I were Conservative I may have felt different.
This is an important point. Unless you’re a decision maker in an agency, you very rarely have control over the clients that the business works for. I may be over-simplifying this, but the attitude always felt like “do they pay? then great!”. This is of course not true of all agencies, but it can often feel like it lacks a conscience in a way. To return briefly to what Sukanya reflected on during the talk, she said that:
Traditional community led businesses in the olden world used to serve the needs of the society. Now businesses have become decoupled from the needs of the society and have become a profit generating entity only for their own shareholder maximisation of wealth.
I think near the end of my time at Tangent I was beginning to realise that this was what I was missing. I’d learnt how to do my job, found great people to work alongside that inspired me, but hadn’t ever asked myself if the work I was doing (and who I was doing it for) matched what I cared about.
UN sustainable development goals
The UN sustainable development goals are 17 goals created by the United Nations. The aim is for them to act as a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. If you were to take a look at this list, could you say that your company, or the company that you work for, contributions in any way, however small, to any of these goals?
- No Poverty
- Zero Hunger
- Good Health and Well-being
- Quality Education
- Gender Equality
- Clean Water and Sanitation
- Affordable and Clean Energy
- Decent Work and Economic Growth
- Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
- Reduced Inequality
- Sustainable Cities and Communities
- Responsible Consumption and Production
- Climate Action
- Life Below Water
- Life on Land
- Peace and Justice Strong Institutions
- Partnerships to achieve the Goal
My answer at Tangent was “no”. So I needed to make a change. To put my values at the forefront of my work. For that I needed two things: to understand what my values were, and to be good enough at what I did to offer real value to a company that matched my values when I found one. Because of my time at Tangent, I now knew my craft far better than I did when I was at Fishrod, so I could now provide real value to a company.
So, what were my values? I did some thinking, and came up with:
- 🌍 Battling climate change
- 🙋♂️ Helping vulnerable people
- 🔁 Making the web inclusive
- 😍 Working with, and learning from, smart, likeminded people
- 👩💻 Teaching others
- 🤩 Creating a team people love to work in
With these in place, I could find a company who’s values matched my own. Or, even better, I could be a part of a new company, and help the fostering of those values myself…
Octopus was the perfect place for me since day one, namely because a lot of the people that had kept me at Tangent for so long were here too. This ticked off collaboration and teamwork from the global heartset checklist Sukanya mentioned. Over the years, the rest of the them have been checked off in some shape or form:
- 💪 Resilience - Staying together as a team through entering the energy market, trying to win the trust of customers, and surviving the wave of small suppliers having to close a couple of years ago. The same core team is still here.
- 🧠 Emotional Intelligence - Working in a way that’s truly focused on the people we work with and for. A flexible and accepting workplace, and a service that is customer and not profit driven. Things like covering the cost of sky-high energy prices for our US customers during the crazy issues in Texas recently, just to name the most recent example.
- ❤️ Empathy - True care and acceptance of each other in every office, and projecting that same approach to everyone connected to, or supplied by, us. Things like random acts of kindness, where we send flowers to a customer each month (never to settle a complaint, just because).
- 🏛 Social Responsibility - Doing the right thing, even when it’s hard or not good for business. This includes actively speaking out on issues like BLM, and taking proper action rather than token gestures, like setting up an internal BLM charity that was funded by Greg’s own money.
- 🔁 Inclusivity - We’re forever working on building the most inclusive company we can. From how our websites work, how people interact with us, and how we hire.
I’ve written a lot about Octopus recently, so I won’t go too far into it here, but I think it’s important to mention that we haven’t gotten it all figured out. There are still tough questions to ask ourselves as a company even after we’ve done a lot. The world is ever-changing and we never want to shy away from the new challenges it sets. What’s important is the fact that we don’t want to. That, and our responses to challenges so far, are how I know this place matches my values.
I don’t think your values just ‘appear’ all at once. They may be in you, but I feel like the more you work and gain experience, the more you understand intimately what matters to you and, importantly, what doesn’t.
When I left university I thought I would be my most happy working on big clients, but I wasn’t. I thought I needed lots of money to be happy with what I was doing, but I didn’t.
I’m glad people are being posed these questions before they reach the industry - I would have benefitted greatly from thinking about them then. However, it’s never too late to think about them, decide what truly matters to you, and make a change so that your workplace matches your values.
(Note: if you’re interested, you can watch Sukanya’s talk, and mine, here)