When our founders, Ish and Brad decided to build their business, they wanted to create something that was bigger than just themselves. A business that really had people at its heart. They’d always had a passion for a person’s ability to do great things and they wanted to harness this not only through the work that Aston Holmes would do, but also in the teams they would build around them.
That’s why we build our teams here at Aston Holmes, and our business, on the basis of the “Ubuntu” philosophy. For many across Africa, and particularly in South Africa, this will be a familiar concept, but for those who are less acquainted with the term, we’ve built our business culture around a single phrase that represents the Ubuntu philosophy: “I am who I am because of who we all are.”
Ubuntu comes from a Zulu phrase, which translates as ‘a person is a person through other people.’ The word embodies a sense of community, a society built in the knowledge that what makes us human is each other. Our humanity is something we can only truly experience through the eyes of someone else. An idea that, through recognising and appreciating the unique differences between each other, we can create something much bigger than ourselves.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu defines it perfectly “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”
We’ve built our team on the basis that we are all connected and what each of us does will affect the other. If we are generous, grateful, humble, respectful and do well then, in turn, we will all do well. If we all support each other to succeed we, in turn, will succeed as a result. By working together, we build a place of work that is happy and supportive. By doing so, we develop each other, learn from each other and deliver higher quality work to our customers. It also means we all have a vested interest in giving all of our clients and customers the best experience possible.
By improving and enriching ourselves, we can positively impact the lives of those around us. We are all influencers of positive change and we are all responsible for each other’s wellbeing and success, but that change and positivity must first start with ourselves. We’re in a unique position as a Talent Acquisition consultancy to use this philosophy in a really powerful way and it is particularly important as it links directly to our overarching purpose as a business: to “improve the lives of others through work.” Our ubuntu philosophy is a natural extension of our purpose and supports us in achieving this.
Ubuntu is what underpins our culture here at Aston Holmes. It’s something that we’re all passionate about, gives us the belief that we’re all in it together and reminds us that our thoughts, feelings and actions impact everyone around us. We can only consciously effect positive change through each other.
A practical way we embody our philosophy is through our shared ownership scheme. We view our people not just as employees, but as our family and because of this, it’s really important to us that our people share in our success and feel part of the business and the philosophy we’re trying to build. That’s why we offer them a share option scheme and it’s why all our people really feel like a part of our journey.
We’re really proud of the culture we’ve created over the last few years but the one thing we’re still working on is how we keep the culture, and the philosophy that underpins it, authentic and meaningful as our business grows. If anyone in our networks has any advice on how to maintain a strong culture as we grow, we’d love to hear from you.
As I sit here on my flight from London to our Cape Town office. I can hear the voice of our Head of Marketing, Christine : “Ish, it would be great for you to write a blog and share some of your experiences”. However, I’m sat here thinking: do people really read them? I suppose a fair few do. I know I have on occasion. I have always believed that if you do anything, do it because it adds value; whether big or small. So naturally the first question in my head is – will what I say add any value? The thoughts go on: I’m not sure if anyone out there has ever felt the same.”
Well, for better or worse here goes – my first ever blog – I hope someone finds it useful! I thought I would kick off on a topic close to my heart: “embarking on an entrepreneurial journey.”
Corporate Life (pre-2014)
I started my working life as a cinema attendant before studying law and then making a complete switch to embark on a career in resourcing. I worked my way up, starting as a junior recruiter, and ending my last corporate role as part of the Senior Management team, managing several large client accounts for a leading RPO business. Life was good; I was blessed with a beautiful family, a successful career and the good fortune of working with some incredible people. However, I felt something was missing. Maybe it was the daily routine, I wasn’t being challenged or perhaps a simpler explanation: I yearned to maximise my time here and do something I can look back on, and be proud of, that was done on my terms and had a positive social impact.
Entrepreneurial Life: Finding Your Purpose
Having made a plan with my business partner Brad, (who I’ve had the great fortune of working with for over 15 yrs) we embarked on an adventure that was full of hope and promise.We were excited. We believed we would make a real difference, whilst delivering outstanding value to all those around us: our people, our clients, our local neighbourhoods and people less fortunate. Put simply, we wanted to “improve the lives of others through work” and this became our purpose as business.
We had a clear idea and vision and we implemented this with a few clients. Before we knew it we were trading!
Choosing Your Name
How do you go about choosing a name? And, why Aston Holmes? We wanted something that represented a strong, qualitative, consulting brand. Something that was also personal to us. It just so happened that Aston Martin was both mine and Brad’s favourite car brand, so Aston became part one. And, after having our first ‘board meeting’ at the Sherlock Holmes Hotel in Baker Street, we stumbled across part two of our name. Sherlock Holmes is a British icon who is methodical, intuitive, observant, meticulous, inquisitive and insightful. The way he solved his cases is the same way we would solve our clients’ problems. Aston Holmes was born!
Open Heart Surgery and The Early Days
The early days were off to a great start and I was beginning to wonder why more people weren’t embarking on the journey of entrepreneurialism. However, whilst we grew quickly and despite the years of corporate training and success, we made plenty of mistakes. This was different and something neither Brad nor I had experienced before. It got challenging. Cash got tight. We had invested a lot of personal money and taken minimal salaries. Sales just weren’t coming in as quickly as we had anticipated. We had grown rapidly and our cost base was high. To compound matters further, I was diagnosed with a serious heart condition in 2015. It came completely out of the blue and in seconds, my whole life flashed before me. I wasn’t even 40!. I was staring down the barrel of major open heart surgery to correct a faulty mitral valve I had been carrying since birth, whilst also in the early stages of building a start up.
I don’t add this to elicit any sympathy but merely to add context. I know I am one of the fortunate ones: born in a loving family, stable and diagnosed and treated early. It was an interesting time. I had to take considerable time off and leave Brad to run the business. The words “team” and “partner” had never held more meaning. I count myself lucky that I had Brad and a team of people who were happy to step in to take the reins and keep the dream alive. I have always believed that by surrounding yourself with great people and allowing them to shine will always make you collectively stronger.. I now had the proof… I can’t ever thank Brad enough for what he did, the beautiful part is, somewhere along the line our relationship moved towards being more like family than just business partners..
Hold Your Nerve
I was lucky. I made a full recovery, thanks to a great medical team, my wonderful wife, daughter, family and friends and whilst it took some time, and I still feel the effects from time to time, I was ok and I was back. The team had done a superb job of keeping the business trading and delivering to our clients. We still had big challenges ahead, but the words I kept hearing in my head were that we must ‘hold our nerve.’ If we could get through this, then surely we could get through anything.
We refocused, were more targeted with our hiring, we turned away from distractions, streamlined our messaging, believed in each other and worked hard. You just can’t get away from hard work, long hours and belief.
So today as I write this, our dream is still alive, we are stronger, wiser and more determined than ever. We are more secure financially, we have a great team around us, we are profitable and we are growing and if possible, more excited about the future..
My advice to all of you budding entrepreneurs out there: make a plan, surround yourself with great people and go for it. Live with no regrets and most importantly: “hold your nerve“.