Purpose in practice: how a Swedish IT company is transforming Ukraine

This is the story of two Swedes, Gustav Henman and Andreas Flodström, who, fascinated with Eastern Europe and having learnt Russian, went to Ukraine in 2012 to build an IT startup. They knew they wanted to create a social enterprise, but all they had was a Lada car, a few contacts and a rented basement office, where they ended up sleeping on the floor for five months while travelling around the country and recruiting developers. Fast forward to today and Beetroot is now one of the fastest growing IT companies in Ukraine with more than 250 employees.

Do good

Part of their vision was always to do good, so they started Beetroot Academy, which initially began as an initiative to train Internally Displaced People from the conflict zone in Eastern Ukraine, and has since grown into a well-established educational institution with ten locations across Ukraine. They’ve also created various partnerships, for instance with Estonian Ministry for International Affairs, to provide scholarships for women, IDPs and ATO veterans. IT is one of the most promising sectors in a somewhat unstable Ukrainian economy, so Andreas and Gustav see the academy as a real opportunity to contribute to forging a “new Ukrainian middle class,” where people have financial security, and share a sense of civic responsibility and engagement.

Feels like home

One of the most palpable aspects of Beetroot, and no doubt key to their success, is the culture they’ve created. Here are some of the features:

  • Home — when you arrive at their offices, there’s a huge shelf filled with shoes like in a bowling alley where you’re invited to swap your shoes for a pair of comfy, custom Beetroot slippers. Their new office in Kiev is effectively a giant, four-story house. “A warm, sociable, home, not a drab factory,” says the Beetroot brand handbook.
  • Friendly — when we visited the office, Andreas and Gustav were constantly greeting their colleagues with huge, warm hugs like they hadn’t seen them for years. Turns out, this is just the standard greeting at Beetroot. From day one, the founders have shunned formalities — many new employees take time to drop the formal use of “you” in Russian, which is usually used when addressing managers in Ukraine.

“We’re building spaces where people love being together. And we strive to be the most human employer possible. Because that’s when we think people become the best versions of themselves.”

  • Fun — we heard stories of many Beetroot parties and the Beetroot brand is playfully embraced by all. Employees call themselves Beetroots or Beets, and use light-hearted hashtags like #beetrootoyourself, #maytheborschbewithyou and #beetiful, creating a strong sense of belonging.

Flat hierarchy

Since reading “Reinventing Organisations” by Frederic Laloux in 2014, Gustav and Andreas have been keen to evolve their company structure (already fairly flat to begin with) towards self-management. On their careers website they state: “We see ourselves as a living organism rather than a stale, grey corporation. We don’t believe in bureaucracy, and we don’t have a pyramid-like hierarchy to control or micro-manage each other.”

Developers are empowered to communicate and build relationships directly with the clients, with each client having a dedicated team. When we ask Gustav and Andreas what is the root of their success they say “high levels of trust.”

“Sometimes we compare Beetroot to what we call “the corporate onion,” Andreas explains. “When you cut into an onion, what you see is lots of layers…and it makes you cry!”

Karin Tenelius and I with the Beetroot team in Kiev

Next stage evolution

Here are some of the current challenges and areas Beetroot is developing as it continues to grow rapidly:

Scaling up

Andreas was reading “Reinventing Scale-ups” when we visited, co-authored by my good friend Susan Basterfield. How can Beetroot scale up without losing its special culture? The founders believe that self-management, if done right, can really help them here by empowering individuals. Part of this means their own development as founders in letting go and constantly deflecting responsibility back to their colleagues.

Feedback culture

Key to individuals developing and taking responsibility is having a strong feedback culture. My colleague Karin Tenelius and I from Tuff Leadership Training were invited to lead a training on how to give empowering feedback that makes a difference. As is often the case with companies that reject hierarchy and traditional ways of organising, they’ve ended up in something of a “buddy culture” where there’s high psychological safety, but a fear of giving and receiving feedback. People shared that they didn’t want to risk being disliked; that they were worried about what the response would be; that they were scared to “lift the lid.” Yet the reasons for creating a feedback culture were clear to them: next-level trust, people developing personally and professionally, more effective decisions, authenticity, responsibility, caring.

As we began to train in giving what we call at Tuff a “KLONK conversation” (where the feedback really lands and the penny drops), people realised this didn’t have to equal “rude” or “harsh”, but in fact demonstrated a commitment to contributing to another’s development and relating to their potential.

Decision-making

We joined a meeting where team members were in the process of designing their decision-making process. A frequent scenario for them is scouting new offices and sometimes the decision-making can be painful. What guidelines could they agree to streamline decision-making and give people authority to make informed decisions? Karin and I shared some examples with them, such as tools like Loomio which are great for dispersed teams to make decisions collaboratively and track the evolution of a decision. They want to aim for Minimum Viable Bureaucracy, experimenting first and only documenting what becomes common practice, perhaps something like Enspiral and their agreement on decisions in their handbook.

You sweep me off my beet

We left Kiev in somewhat of a haze. In what was an unintentional homage to the founders’ origin story, Karin and I had slept in the Beetroot office on sofa beds in the top-floor lounge for three nights (and clients often do the same). Our visit was a bit like a whirlwind romance — we were so impressed with the founders and had been enveloped in the warmth and energy of the team. The Beetroot bond is strong. I can see how clients, employees, and job seekers all around the world are falling in love with Beetroot too.

This blog was originally published on the Corporate Rebels website, which you can read here.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy the podcast I host called Leadermorphosis. I interview thought leaders and people from organisations all over the world who are experimenting with self-management and new ways of working.

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Lisa Gill

Lisa Gill

1.8K Followers

Founder of Reimaginaire, trainer and coach with Tuff Leadership Training, host of Leadermorphosis podcast.