How did I get here?

By Duncan Smith

15 years ago I joined Mindlab to run the lab and fieldwork for neuromarketing experiments for Neuroco and Mindlab. The idea was to find out about people without having to ask them explicit questions. We used a variety of physiological monitoring equipment such as eye tracking and  brain monitoring EEG.

Over the years we have moved away from the lab to an online platform but this article isn’t about the work we do, it’s about keeping engaged staff.  In 2009, Neuroco was bought out by Neurofocus (now part of Nielsen) which gave me an unexpected opportunity to manage Mindlab. To be honest, at the start I didn’t know what I was doing. There was no vision or value proposition that I really believed and I didn’t know where I was meant to take the company.

I obviously wanted Mindlab to be successful and make money but they are empty goals. With the help of numerous business mentors I was able to start asking myself the right questions: What do we do and why do we do it? We’ve even conducted research ourselves that backed up the claim that people who actually have goals are more likely to succeed. As the Cheshire Cat in Alice of Wonderland said, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there”.

One piece of advice that kept cropping up was about getting the right people on the bus and the need for having the right staff with the right attitude. We’re based on campus at Sussex University and our early plan of getting bright, enthusiastic graduates worked really well. We were going places, had a great culture and we spent loads of time putting effective processes in place.

Two problems emerged. Firstly, it’s difficult to keep recent graduates in their first job for more than three years and secondly, as you grow, not everybody has a view on company culture that aligns with your own. Don’t get me wrong, three years is a great innings for a bright graduate but people need a reason to stay with a company. We’ve never been in a position to pay outstanding wages so we need to provide other reasons to both attract and to keep talent.

 I want an easy life. I’m not a relentlessly driven business leader who works 14 hour days and expects everyone to be the same. I’m not saying I’m lazy but life isn’t a dress rehearsal. I want to spend quality time with my friends and family. I figured that I’d never get to where I wanted to be if the people who work around me are unmotivated, bored and undervalued. When it’s all figured out, it sounds so simple but I have a goal to create a workplace that draws extraordinary employees who love coming to work every day. That means I’m constantly identifying what attracts, retains and motivates the very best talent.

Company culture is a tricky one. I was once told that true culture is what happens when management is absent and things go wrong. Over the years we have had several whole company sessions where we thrash out a collective view on what matters to us. This type of activity can’t be a one off. It’s important that everyone you work with knows and believes what the company stands for and what we are trying to do.


Duncan working on a laptop and smiling into the camera

We are continuing to build a workplace environment in which our employees feel engaged, inspired and productive. At the heart of this is an employee-first approach, whereby we demonstrate to our team that they are valued and trusted. It’s often the tiny noticeable things that make a tangible difference. Celebrate the small wins as well as the big ones.

Putting our theory to the test, we entered some awards over the last 18 months and won a clutch of them at company, team and individual levels. I’m proud of what we have achieved and I couldn’t have gotten here without amazing people by my side. I am forever grateful to the fantastic Mindlab staff both past and present. 

Ironically, after 15 years we still feel like a start up, ready to take the world on. One of our values is a permission to fail. I believe that failure is an integral part of success and nobody gets everything right. You learn and move on.

It sounds clichéd that we are on a journey, but we are and we may as well enjoy it!

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