Liz Ralph, COO at Afortiori Development

Welcome to our very first interview in our series on Compassionate Leadership. During the course of this series, we’ll be talking to leaders from a whole range of industries, exploring what Compassionate Leadership means to them, how it can be practised, and how running an organisation led by values and purpose impacts profit, people and planet.

We start with talking to a leader within the Clinical Research Industry. This is a field very close to my heart. I’ve been a part of it for over 20 years, and it’s where I gained the majority of my experience in leading and developing high performing teams on high-stake projects. We all benefit from the work the Clinical Research Industry does in making sure healthcare products are safe and effective, and this has especially been the case during the past year, where the industry collaborated in the most extraordinary ways to meet the many challenges of understanding, preventing and treating COVID-19. I have been proud, astounded, and moved by the incredible work that has been undertaken by friends and colleagues to address this global crisis.

As part of my consultancy work, I’ve been working with a fantastic Clinical Research Organisation (CRO), Afortiori Development. It was very clear from the first conversation we had, nearly two years ago, that owners Liz Ralph and Nicola Wall were on a mission to create a very different offering to the standard CRO model we are used to seeing in the industry.  I caught up with Liz, COO, to talk about what Compassionate Leadership means to her, and why living and breathing company values are such a vital part of running a successful organisation with purpose.

Hi Liz. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today about what Compassionate Leadership means to you. Let’s start by summarising what your organisation does and how you serve your customers.

We are a full-service clinical research organisation (CRO) and we provide clinical trial and consulting services to those who need to run a clinical trial on their product to provide evidence for regulatory approval and/or market penetration.

Our extensive network also allows us to recommend excellent complementary service providers, who we trust, to our clients. These include regulatory affairs, legal services, and market access specialists.

This is such worthwhile work with a great impact on the world at large. I’m interested to know, what are your company values and how did you choose them?

Our company values are partnership, respect, integrity, and transparency.

All of these are extremely important to both me and Afortiori Development Co-founder Nicola Wall and they have been chosen carefully to represent the way in which we approach working with our clients and our internal team. Both Nicola and I come from working in large global organisations where we felt that these fundamental values were often not part of the client relationship. We deliberately set out to offer an alternative to that, where our size and breadth of experience means that we can work as an extension to client’s own team, rather than offer a transactional relationship which may not be in the best interest of the client.

Our internal team have often been used to working in teams within large global organisations where burn out and continual staff turnover is the exception rather than the rule. Nobody benefits when this is the case. Both Nicola and I want very much to provide a work environment which is supportive, intellectually demanding and allows people to feel rewarded for the work that they do. We strongly believe that when people are given the tools to succeed in their careers and the space to grow in a way that develops their interests and talents then great things happen. We want to train the next generation of clinical research professionals in an environment which respects that we all need a successful work life blend to be successful – whatever success might mean to different people.

Having worked with you and your team for a while now, I can confirm that it really is evident that your values shine though in the work that you do! How do you feel your company values inform your work practices?

Our values inform our work each and every day, with each and every interaction. We aim to grow an organisation which embodies all of our values and expect that our team shares them and demonstrates them routinely. We listen to our staff because they are best placed to tell us what is actually going on at a grass roots level. They know their team, their clients and also what needs to happen to get the best out of a situation.

You’ve clearly thought a great deal about how your values impact on your staff, and how this can create a really positive work environment. What do your customers gain from your values?

Our values are customer focused so the benefits are many fold.  As I have already said, we aim to work in partnership with our clients, with their best interests in mind, rather than providing solely a transactional relationship based on the services we are contracted to provide. We will always act with integrity and due respect, as if our client decisions were our own. Our team is transparent in their work so that clients can see for themselves how and why work is completed at a particular time and in a particular way. This is especially important to smaller clients, who may not be as familiar with the complex environment they must navigate to deliver a successful trial. Our client feedback is extremely positive and there is a lot of work which goes into trying to ensure that each client’s experience of working with us is as positive as it can be.

Like you, here at Team Up to Perform, we’re really passionate about values led behaviour, along with a deep connection to a clearly defined mission or purpose. What would you define as Afortiori Development’s mission or purpose?

We have always set out to provide something very simple; excellent service delivered by a team with the appropriate knowledge to deliver scientifically robust projects.

Our mission is to be able to offer that service to small and mid-sized companies, wherever they are based.

While many organisations appreciate the importance of values and purpose, we know that for some, profit will always be the first factor in decision making and direction. What are your thoughts on the role of profit for an organisation that leads with values and purpose?

We are clearly in business to make a profit, otherwise we would be a charitable cause. However, it is important to consider carefully the differences between, say, company A which is profit driven, and company B (such as ours) which is value driven.

We aim to provide a rewarding work environment which values and nurtures the team through a workplace culture, training, appropriate workload, and a competitive remuneration package with health and well being benefits. It is likely that we have all seen the corporate joke about ‘The Company’ managing the well-being of staff not with an appropriate workload and a supportive culture, but by giving them a voucher for a one off yoga class that it is likely everyone will be too busy to go to because they don’t have time for a lunch break!

When our staff have been appropriately rewarded and clients have been properly served then the excess is profit. Contrastingly, in a profit driven business the quality and resources are often compromised and driven down until everyone is affected, except the very few at the very top.

Ultimately, we have set out to create an organisation that we are proud to own and to work in. All of our employees have their birthdays off as additional day’s annual leave. Of course, there is work to get done. Lots of it! But who said working can’t be rewarding and make people feel part of something bigger and worthwhile? After all, many of us spend a significant proportion of our lives at work and so it’s important that it contributes positively to lives, families and society.

You’re clearly driven by a sense of purpose and have embedded your values deeply into your organisation. How do your employees benefit?

Well, as I said, they get their birthdays off work and who wants to work on their birthday?! Seriously though, I think that there are multiple benefits to employees, which I have already mentioned. It’s important that people feel that their contribution is valued, that they are supported, have access to appropriate training, that they have the support of their colleagues and managers and that they get to work on intellectually stimulating projects which they are trusted to deliver on. Our staff survey responses tell us that staff do feel that they are given the tools to do their job, are listened to and can rely on others for support – whether that’s for a grumble to after a long and challenging day, or to help out to cover for absence.  Staff turnover is very low, particularly given the industry normal levels. In fact, nobody has left after 5 years of us being in business, which I do think speaks for itself.

We’ve talked quite a bit about values and purpose. What role do you think compassion or kindness has in today’s workplace?

Compassion and kindness is about being human and ultimately, we are humans interacting with humans, whether in our work with clients, employees or colleagues. Whatever relationships we find ourself in we all remember occasions when we have been treated with kindness and compassion and this ties in to our values of ‘respect’ and ‘integrity’  which encompass both of these qualities.

I can see that leading with compassion is really important to the way you lead Afortiori Development, and it’s great to see this reflected in your values. Do you think there are any misconceptions about what it means to be a compassionate leader?

To me compassionate leadership is about giving individuals that you are investing in the tools to succeed in what you are asking of them, whether that is buying into the company values, working with others or providing great service. A big misconception is the compassionate leadership is somehow inferior to the ‘alpha’ model of leadership. As I said already, leading is all about people and people are human. We all want and need to feel valued and a part of something, or we just won’t properly commit to it. Compassionate leadership considers the individual needs of people and speaks directly to what they need to give them the tools to succeed in what you are asking of them.

It’s clear that you are on a real mission to break free from the traditional ‘alpha’ model of leadership. Have you come across any particular challenges in your journey to leading an organisation that prioritises compassion and values-led behaviour?

There are so many ways to look at leadership and what works best depends on the circumstances of a particular given situation. I have seen lots of posts on social media about the difference between ‘leaders’ and ‘bosses’ and also a really interesting analogy to a pack of wolves, which are apparently led from the back by the pack leader to make sure that the young and weaker wolves aren’t left behind.

Leading an organisation requires that people are on board with your organisation, you as an individual and the things that you are asking them to be involved in. It is important that leaders fully understand what is important to the organisation they are leading and why these things are important to be able to convince others to come along with them in the direction you are heading.

I would say that the challenge lies in trusting your gut for each unique situation and being able to decide what is needed, whether that is for the leader to stand up and take the lead, or for the leader to recognise that it’s better to give the team the tools to decide on the best direction for themselves and their current situation. Leading isn’t always telling people what to do. It’s about having clear direction and letting others see that what you are trying to build is worth being part of. Of course, there has to be direction, but the information which informs the direction can come from anyone in the team.

It sounds like there is so much to be proud about in the way you’ve built and continue to run your organisation. Is there one single thing you’re particularly proud of?

The team that we have built, and continue to build, and the way that seeing a high performing team in action benefits our clients. I feel privileged to be in a position to be able to provide the elements of great teams, listen to feedback and try to make the team the best it can be so that our company is able to provide jobs that people are proud to have.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. It’s been a real pleasure to learn how you’re embedding values into your organisation, and leading with compassion to benefit your employees and customers. I’d love to finish the interview by asking you what advice you’d give to leaders who want to bring more compassion, purpose and collaboration into their organisation?

  1. Trust your instinct. It’s usually right!
  2. Listen to your team as they are working closely with clients. Both your team and clients are ultimately what make up your business. Without them you have nothing. Create opportunities for feedback in a variety of formats. Not everyone likes to speak out publicly but is likely to have a point which is as valid as any other, more vocal, team member.
  3. Create a culture which allows people to try new things and suggest improvements to the way of doing things if they can see a better way, regardless of seniority ‘But this is the way we have always done it!’ never served anyone well.
  4. Treat people as you would want to be treated. This costs nothing. Be fair and be clear. To see the best of a team and have them perform at a high level they have to feel valued, trusted and supported.
  5. Deal quickly with ‘bad apples.’ One individual with a different ethos can undo all of the good work very quickly. Make an effort to hire the right people and be on the look out for potential problems. If you spot them, get to the root of the issue immediately by clearing up misunderstandings, being clear about expectations and direction and identifying where specific support will help.

Check out the brilliant work Afortiori Development do at their website http://www.aftdev.com and connect with Liz on Linked In to start a conversation!

Stay tuned to this fortnightly Compassionate Leadership series by subscribing to the Team Up to Perform newsletter.

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