High-trust culture in action: lessons from Bellroy

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Bellroy’s product launch could not have been more poorly timed.

The Melbourne-based wallets and handbags designer had prepared an entirely new range of cabin bags, luggage and travel accessories planned for launch in April 2020, just as the COVID pandemic was grounding airlines and closing borders.

But it is in times of crisis that values come to the fore, and Bellroy, ranked the number one small company on Australia’s Best Workplaces™ 2021, leant into its hard-won high-trust culture to find a way through.

“We make products that help people move around the world. COVID was a direct headwind. It was brutal,” Bellroy CEO Andy Fallshaw tells the fourth and final Great Place to Work® CEO Masterclass.

But it was also a great test of values.

“We saw many competitors stand staff down. We saw many panic, batten down the hatches and put people on the unemployment heap.

“We didn’t want to do that.

“One of the things we’ve always done is value the resilient business and organisation.

“So, we decided to keep the team together and trust their ability to innovate our way out of it.”

The result was a rapid pivot to accessories and technology to support remote working and working from home.

“Sure enough, quickly we found the green shoots, we moved resources, we updated plans.

“We backed them, and our staff have done just a remarkable job of bringing us back into growth,” he says.

Fallshaw says Bellroy uses a metaphor of choosing between the elevator and the staircase to success: the elevator is quicker but someone else is in control.

“We try to take the stairs,” he says. “As you take the stairs, you’re building muscle, you’re able to go up or down a few stairs at a time. You’re more in control of it.”

Lina Calabria, Bellroy’s chief operating officer, says the culture of trusting in staff is embedded into the day-to-day decisions of the organisation.

“We like to say that the Bellroy culture is full of smart people with good intentions who get shit done,” she says.

“When you know that they’re the people that you’re working with, and you know that that’s what we’re recruiting for, it’s the beginning of being able to feel comfortable that you can trust each other to have at least those things.

“We think a lot about decision-making proxies”

“Who could you trust to make a decision for you?”

“We say to our managers, rather than you having to make every decision could you think about the three people who could align together to make this decision for you and then you don’t have to be involved in it?”

This kind of high trust culture relies on an acceptance that mistakes are made and a commitment not to blame. In fact, 100% of Bellroy staff surveyed by Great Place to Work agreed that Bellroy’s management accepts mistakes are simply a part of doing business.

“There’s a real difference between whether a decision was the right decision or not given the information we had and whether a person did the wrong thing,” says Calabria.

“Whether a person did the right thing or not is never the question — what was the information we had at hand? How did we convert that information to a decision? And what could we have done differently next time?

Calabria says the high trust culture is also coming to the fore as the company deals with the global supply chain challenges and shortages.

“This is another gift that COVID has given many businesses around the world,” she says.

“What we’re seeing in supply chains is that materials are difficult to source, freight is difficult to procure and organise and we’ve all seen lots of images of ships waiting out at sea to dock and unload.

“This creates tension for a company like Bellroy who is sourcing materials, producing products and then trying to get them to customers.

“Some of our products are air freightable and some are sea freightable.

“Sea freight is slow and challenging … but you can get some air freight pockets.

“So, for us what that means is bringing our teams together and saying ‘how do we pivot our campaigns so that we’re bringing in the products that are light enough go on air freight?

“We have teams of people, and they are always thinking about the ways that we could respond to a particular situation

“We are both forever grateful for their brilliant ideas.”

This was the last of our 2021 CEO Masterclass Series. The four 20-minute sessions hosted by Sean Aylmer, one of Australia’s most experienced and respected journalists, interviewed CEOs from the companies that ranked #1 in the Best Workplace™ Australia 2021 Lists in the large, medium, small and micro company categories. These companies truly made it their mission to foster a Purpose Driven, People First approach to workplace culture.

The Masterclasses are available to watch free online. Click here to watch the recordings and read our event Blogs.

Samantha Huddle is the General Manager of Great Place to Work® in Australia and NZ. Sam has more than two decades of experience from the grassroots to the C-suite and helps businesses build high-trust, inclusive cultures that deliver tangible results. With experience across the government, philanthropic and corporate sectors, Sam brings a collaborative, values-driven approach and a passion for achieving social impact through business. Sam publishes a well-read monthly newsletter which can be read **here.**

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To be eligible for the World’s Best Workplaces list, a company must apply and be named to a minimum of 5 national Best Workplaces lists within our current 58 countries, have 5,000 employees or more worldwide, and at least 40% of the company’s workforce (or 5,000 employees) must be based outside of the home country. Extra points are given based on the number of countries where a company surveys employees with the Great Place to Work Trust Index©, and the percentage of a company’s workforce represented by all Great Place to Work surveys globally. Candidates for the 2017 Worlds Best Workplaces list will have appeared on national workplaces lists published in September 2016 through August 2017.

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