Giving Everyone a Seat at the Table: Why a Focus on Respect is Good Business

There’s a story I love because of what it tells us about purpose at work.

When John F Kennedy was touring the NASA facility in the early 1960s, he struck up a conversation with a man who was emptying the bins. When the President asked him about his job, the man replied: “I’m helping to put people on the moon.”

To me, that’s a powerful example of what happens when every single person in an organisation understands and buys into the bigger vision. It gives them a goal that’s bigger than themselves.

I think about this idea a lot. Our business, Seating Matters, came about because my mother was an occupational therapist who had seen the need for better quality clinical chairs for the acute care, long-term care and community care patients she treated.

Her goal was to reduce the burden and strain on caregivers and improve the patient’s quality of life.

The values we had as a family became the unwritten principles that we ran the business by: care and respect for people, be resourceful and entrepreneurial, unleash the potential that exists within our customers, the sales team, and the users of the chair.

It was this mindset that led us later to Lean manufacturing. We’re a big proponent of this approach – but not for the reasons you might think.

Most people familiar with the term associate it with the continuous improvement process that emerged from Toyota’s factory in Japan. They probably think it has something to do with employing a consultant to carry out value stream mapping, identifying process efficiencies or cutting costs and staff to get better results.

I believe anyone who approaches Lean from that perspective has misunderstood what it’s all about and is doomed to failure.

Lean takes its essence from the Japanese culture of respect. In the same way that everyone in a village would help during the rice harvest, Lean applies this ethos in a manufacturing environment.

A culture of respect

As a leader, if I truly respect the people who work for me, I’ll provide a clean working environment, that’s well-lit and well heated, with a positive atmosphere where there’s good craic among everyone. As a result, it becomes an environment where everyone has the opportunity to unlock their creativity and fulfil their greatest potential.

If people need to take time off because they’re sick, we’ll look after them. If someone gets married or has a baby, we’ll look after them.

And in turn, if the people who work with us respect the company, they’ll show up on time and they’ll give their best efforts.

If we truly respect the customer, it makes us think about what we do with their money: build the best product possible and to remove waste at every turn.

In other words, our Lean approach doesn’t start with the aim of making a particular manufacturing process faster. We’re about respecting the person and respecting the place we work. The outcome is that we make products that are more profitable or that have fewer defects.

We’re starting from a place of principles and values and the rest flows from that. Not the other way around.

Creating leaders, not followers

One of the things I have learned from our journey is that the Lean model is the opposite of what we often think of as leadership. It reminds me of an excellent book called ‘Turn the Ship Around’, by L. David Marquet, a former submarine commander. He tells the story of how his men were standing to attention, and were asking him: “what do you want us to do”?

When the commander told his men to dive the sub, their unquestioning actions nearly sank the ship against reefs. All because they did what he told them to. To me, that illustrates the 18th century leadership style. It’s command and control. It’s “I’m the boss, and you’re paid to do, not to think”.

As the book outlines, they were followers, not leaders. With a Lean approach, it’s our colleagues in the company who ‘own’ the problem, not management telling them how to solve it.

When you truly respect the person, you understand that, for example, the welder in the factory, or the accountant, or the clinical researcher, is the most knowledgeable at that process. It would be foolish to micro-manage that person!

Empowering others

As our business has grown and matured, we realised we’re not experts in everything. I don’t have to be really good at welding, accounts, or clinical research – I just have to talk to the person doing that job, ask the right questions, give praise and constructive feedback, and together we discuss how to solve a particular problem.

Our management philosophy is to give people the tools and let them get on with it. My job as ‘chief energy officer’ or ‘chief culture officer’ is to empower people to be the best version of themselves.

This is another way that values and principles guide actions. It’s reflected in our job adverts. When we are recruiting, we make it clear that we’re not looking just to fill a title or offer a salary in return for hours worked.

Today, people want meaning from their work and to contribute to society: that the business they work for won’t pump carbon into the atmosphere or pollute rivers. My sense is that people want to work on something bigger than themselves.

It’s why we spend the first hour of every day on personal development. All 50 people come together in the factory, and we spend 30 minutes on stretches, exercise and learning something topical. So, for example, if we take a phrase like “serving the customer”, the entire team talks about what this means to them. We then spend the next 30 minutes being creative to improve our workplace or our processes.

The DNA of Seating Matters is: D (driven by growth); N (never giving up) and A (a servant’s heart).

This allows us to make connections between serving the customer and having a servant’s heart, in the same way that a nurse might stay on past their shift because someone is sick, and they want to see a patient rehabilitated.

Sometimes we might show a video of a company in another part of the world that we think exemplifies that value.

Instilling inspiration to improve

These morning get-togethers are the most important hour of the day. Everyone’s energised and their minds are firing with new ideas. So, they go back to their work inspired to make improvements in line with the principle we were all just talking about.

That might be simplifying forms to note all the customer’s details or redesigning the packaging to improve the instructions so the customer can set up the product faster, out of the box.

Our improvement comes from a connection to our principles.

To outsiders, business can seem a cut-throat game, where it’s every man for himself. It’s not what I believe.

And when the time came for me to deepen my own business knowledge and leadership skills, I saw a lot of courses taking a tactical approach like the things you have to think about if you’re selling a company or hiring.

The Timoney Leadership Institute was different. It was set up to promote ethical business and is values- and principles-based, so it aligns with our own approach.

And what I learned at the Timoney programme reinforced the notion that doing good is good business. It showed me that there are people who are building good quality businesses that improve society.

Measuring what matters

Of course, business involves growing profits and increasing sales but I believe they aren’t the only measures of success. In fact, our management meetings track two other highly important metrics: the net promoter score (NPS) for staff and for customers.

We track this NPS using a survey with just two questions: ‘would you recommend working here to a friend or family member?’ and ‘do you have any feedback that could help us to improve’?

Ultimately, NPS measures people’s happiness. (We could ask many more questions, but we’re putting our Lean principles into practice by limiting ourselves to just two.)

We word the questions openly, so they include things like pay, conditions, personal growth, and whether their work is helping them to achieve their aims for themselves and their family life.

Personal growth is intangible; you won’t find it on any balance sheet. But I believe it matters. I think of people in the company who bought houses after working here for ten years. They were the first members of their family to own a house. For me, that’s amazing. It’s a real mark of those workers’ personal growth and the stability they are able to offer their families.

As I learned on the Timoney Leadership Programme, friendships and meaningful work are two keys to happiness in life. If our people form friendships at work and the work itself is meaningful, with a worthy goal, that stirs up something inside a person to come to work on a wet Wednesday in November or when there’s ice and snow on the ground.

One final thought to share: we recently developed a vision for the business, looking out to the next three years and, beyond that, to the next decade. We created a 50-page book that distils our ideas for entering new markets, creating new partnerships and exploring opportunities for development.

We shared it among the whole team and discussed the chapters at length so there’s full openness about what lies ahead, and how we’re going there.

The idea of a strong leader pulling everyone else on the team behind them is one for the history books – if it was ever true.

It’s an understanding that we can’t do it ourselves, but if we have everyone’s help, we’ll get there better and faster.

Martin Tierney (ALP 2017), Director, Seating Matters, Limavady

If anyone has questions, please feel free to email me at