How CEO Philip Rooke’s new communication philosophy unlocked growth at Spreadshirt

When Philip Rooke joined Spreadshirt, a company that prints clothing and accessories on-demand, in 2009, the small company was struggling to transition from a startup into something bigger.

When he applied, at the time, for a position as head of sales marketing, he says he prepared a presentation for that interview that spelled out what he would do with the company — a list of things it needed to accomplish to be globally successful. When he became CEO in 2011, the challenge wasn’t identifying the problems. Instead, it was prioritization — what should the company work on and when?

“The toughest thing in any business is not deciding what to do,” Rooke says. “It’s deciding what not to do. My list of 100 things I put into my job application years ago could be marked as urgent, extremely urgent, even more urgent than that and urgent with swear words. But you still have to prioritize and just take the top things you can get done, ignore the rest and live with that pain.”

Human synergistics

One of the top issues Rooke confronted at Spreadshirt, one that was most responsible for holding it back from moving into the next stage of its life cycle, was the culture. He says there was a lot of blame being passed around among employees for work that wasn’t getting done, or about where work priorities should be.

People were expressing their frustrations about problems in a mostly negative way, or asserting organizational power, where they had none, to try to control the outcome. So Rooke rolled out human synergistics, a communication system that identifies communication behaviors — red behaviors that center on power and perfectionism and blue behaviors that center on goal setting and empowerment.

That meant instituting a new philosophy that governed a new way for staffers to interact with each other, setting parameters on language and the approach to what would be considered productive conversation. And rolling that out was made even more difficult because Rooke was trying to get an international organization, spread among several locations in Europe and the U.S., all on the same new page. He wanted to be there physically, in the meetings, to call out and distinguish proper and improper behaviors.

“You just have to publicly raise that in meetings,” he says. “If somebody was being red, you call it red behavior. Somebody’s being blue, you praise people for doing a positive blue thing. So, we have to, in our communication, come up with common language.”

Time and place

To Rooke, rolling out the new philosophy was a little bit like TV advertising — people need to see the message five or six times before it sinks in. So, in addition to those visits, they had company stand-ups during which staff presented what was going on in the company around the world. Some were weekly, some were monthly, but they always emphasized that same communication strategy that prioritized behaviors or values to reinforce them as much as possible.

Where people just weren’t able to align themselves with the new culture, the company moved on from them. Rooke says, for example, that there were some staffers who had been there when the company only employed some 20 or 30 people. Because many of those places have grown to require a few hundred people to do the work, those locations now require different management. That meant replacing some very good people, those who were accustomed to the company at a different stage of its life cycle and who no longer fit.

“Somebody can be really successful for a couple of years, or quite some time, and then gradually the environment around them changes,” Rooke says. “And it’s not that they are unsuccessful. It’s just that they now don’t fit the environment you have.”

In rolling out the new communication strategy, Rooke says he wasn’t interested in identifying whose fault what was. Instead, his focus was on solving problems and making everyone in the company a part of the solution.

“Everybody, even the best CEOs in the world and the best people in their jobs, will make mistakes or they will make decisions based on what was right, then that turns out not to be right later. Or they take a guess based on a lack of information that turns out not to be right later. But if you play the blame game, then nobody will make decisions or everybody fights over what went wrong,” he says. “Who cares if a founder started it, who cares of a manager started it, as long as we all work towards solving it.”

It took about three years before people really started to pay attention to the change and probably another year before people in a habit of it. To ensure the revamped culture sticks, Rooke says the company addresses the communication style during onboarding, highlighting with new hires what Spreadshirt is trying to achieve and why. But it really comes down to consistency: the consistency of the culture, of the language and of the objectives to meet. That, he says, produces a distinct model of behavior in the first couple of weeks a new hire is in the organization.

Numbers game

Also helping to drive Spreadshirt forward in a competitive market is analytics. Rooke says on any given Monday he would receive about 40 different types of reports all customized to the different parts of the business. Those reports enable management to get a granular look at the productivity in specific areas. When a number goes up, mangers will be accountable to explain why. Rooke says the executive team is constantly challenging people regarding what’s going on with their numbers so that people have to get used to using them and taking them seriously.

“It’s always like, well that one moved,” he says. “Why did it move? Go and find out why it moved and if it moved in the right direction find out why it moved and keep doing that. We went in the wrong direction? Find out why it did and stop doing that.”

He says sometimes the numbers show a technical mistake that couldn’t have been predicted. That starts the conversation to address the problem, rather than finding someone to point the finger at.

“So, if you don’t play the blame game, then people are willing and happy to discuss the numbers,” he says. “You don’t try and avoid them. It can’t be a fear-led organization. It has to be positive.”

The next stage

With the company larger — it now employees more than 900 people — and operating more smoothly, Rooke is set to step down from his position in March 2021.

“It’s just part of the normal life cycle of a CEO,” he says. “I came in and took this company through four different phases of growth and it’s time to bring in somebody else who’ll take a fresh view of the problems that we have and our competitive set and how we might approach that.”

He says stepping down became a real consideration in September 2019. That’s when he says he really started to question how much more value he could add to the business as well as how much drive he had to take it through another phase of growth. He says if the pandemic hadn’t happened, he might have left this year. But he felt he needed to take the team through it and get everything stable before making a change.

Rooke says he had considerable say in candidate selection at the beginning of the search process, discussing with the board the strengths and weaknesses of the organization as well as his strengths and weaknesses. The next CEO might not be like him, but he or she should have a skillset that is suited to moving the company to its next stage. Until the next person formally takes over, there’s still work for Rooke to do.

“I’ve had a discussion with them about how those candidates might fit in, but I haven’t been through the whole interview process,” he says. “I’m trying to deal with the complexities of a business which is multiple brands across multiple countries in COVID. That is honestly enough.”