5 min read

Culture Club: in conversation with 11:FS Head of Talent, Michael Curds

Geoff Whitehouse

Our new Head of Talent, Michael Curds discusses how to scale a business, common pitfalls, and why he believes the right attitude is as important as aptitude when building a truly diverse culture.

Michael recently joined 11:FS to oversee the next phase (and beyond) of the company's expansion. New clients, new types of projects and geographic expansion should be keeping him pretty damn busy.

I grabbed some time with him to get his thoughts on how to scale organisations without losing their culture, tackling diversity and finding the next generation of talent.

He’s lived quite a life, having worked in the UK and Malaysia, ranging from agencies and digital sports media companies, to the biggest High Street brands (Tesco) and one of the most admired firms in the world (Apple).

“I’ve been firmly in the hyper growth phase at a couple of firms. At PERFORM, a digital media company that commercialised sports content, that firm grew from 150 people to 500 members of staff based in 26 offices globally, in around 18 months.

Most recently he worked at BCG Digital Ventures, the innovation arm of one of the world’s largest management consultancies. There he was employee number two, hiring the first Partner for the firm and scaling it to more than 150 staff in London. He helped build and run the team that was responsible for identifying the founding teams for the ventures they built, tallying 19 businesses in a little under five years.

That diversity of experience, from the startup world, the firms experiencing hypergrowth through to huge corporates and across multiple verticals means he appreciates the pain points associated with rapidly growing a tech team.

He’s been there, built that. He’s seen the good, the bad and the ugly of scaling teams.

I’ve witnessed how poor cultures are allowed to grow. Seeing it play out, it made me sick.

Michael Curds, Head of Talent, 11:FS

Throughout it all, he’s become aware of the pitfalls of scaling at the cost of everything else. With pressure to “get people through the door” to meet growth ambitions the first casualty is often the culture that made it an attractive place to work, both for him and potential candidates.

“I’ve witnessed how poor cultures are allowed to grow. There was a huge disparity between certain hierarchies, and pay grades that created a culture that led people to trampling over anyone in their path to that promotion. Seeing it play out, it made me sick. I actually dreaded getting up in the morning, knowing what I was going into.”

What culture actually means

The obvious question is why join 11:FS. According to Curds, the culture and leadership were a major pull because he was determined to work “with good humans”.

“It sounds so obvious but the thing that struck me was the people. From the start I was very clear about my thoughts on culture, what it is, what it means and what it takes to shape it. I needed to see buy in from the top and I got that straight away from everyone.

The way the firm has built a community is impressive and something that intrigued and excited me. In meeting with various people during the process, the passion for what the firm is looking to do...you can tell it’s genuine. It’s not slogans and posturing and then behind the scenes a completely different firm."
It’s easy to say culture, or talk about values. Posters with ‘8 things we live by’ dotted around the office.

I’ve seen it play out plenty of times at firms that have a set of core values but plenty of people who clearly act and interact with other team members in ways that are so contrary to those values, they become empty.

Our work will be better, our ideas will be better because they will be coming from a more diverse set of inputs.

Michael Curds, Head of Talent, 11:FS

So what does it mean in the context of trying to scale a business?

“We need to attract people from diverse backgrounds but they all need that one thing in common...they’re a decent human being. Everything else will work itself out. Of course, there's pressure to get people in, especially when you’re growing as quickly as 11:FS is but that can’t be to the detriment of the culture.

That matters because there will always be issues in a rapidly scaling business, that’s just the way it is. It’s how you address those issues that matters - hiring brilliant arseholes is not one we’re willing to consider. Having a leadership team that is 100% aligned on that is rare, yet we have it. They understand how important it is to get to where we want to but in the right way.”

Tackling diversity and inclusion

Returning to the hiring of diversity topic, it’s one many firms are attempting to tackle, in - let’s be honest - an industry that is not representative of the population is serves.

So while it would be an easy default position to say “this is hard”, Curds believes that change will only come by actively tackling the problem. That starts with having a diverse talent team to think about the problem through multiple, different lenses.

“It can’t be a box-ticking exercise. We have to be always mindful of it, and then find ways to tackle it. It’s diversity of thought, background, gender, religion and so on. I’ve seen it play out that you have Execs deny the issue saying, ‘of course we’re diverse, we have all these nationalities working here’. Great, except you find they primarily went to the best schools, usually in the West, and I have to question...is that really the best you can do when you say ‘diverse’ because to me, it isn’t.”

Another facet will be proactively connecting into different communities of people through a diverse talent team.

It’s important that we create and sustain an environment that welcomes and enables the widest community of people to do their best work.

Michael Curds, Head of Talent, 11:FS

“I’ve learned to spot the type of people that will benefit a company and the warning signs when things aren’t going well. I’m also aware that I don’t know it all, or have an answer for everything. That’s why building a diverse Talent team is so critical to everything a firm does because without that we don’t stand a chance of success.

It’s important that we create and sustain an environment that welcomes and enables the widest community of people to do their best work. Our work will be better, our ideas will be better because they will be coming from a more diverse set of inputs.”

A vision for the future

Ultimately, Curd’s has a vision for building 11:FS into a place for curious minds, technologists, product managers and designers to build their skills. One idea is building an Academy to grow people from a wide range of backgrounds and find the roles that will work best - from school leavers and college students through to people looking to return to work after a career break.

“We can train them using our own methodologies and immerse them in our culture. They either stay with us and develop, or they go through the programme and leave but then feel an affinity and come back after a few years.”

Another element he is keen to explore is giving more of a voice to the makers and selling the story of the people behind the services or ideas we’ve built.

“Ultimately, we’re a people business and to show what gets the people here pumped up to be here and do the work we’re doing and how the culture is an inherent part of that, will be hugely beneficial.”

Any final thoughts on what comes next?

“Let’s shake things up a bit!”

If you’re interested in exploring new career opportunities, or like what you’ve read about our culture, you can check out all of our latest vacancies here.

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 Geoff Whitehouse
About the author

Geoff Whitehouse

Geoff oversees the teams that create content, generate demand and produce our industry-leading podcasts, with overall responsibility for maintaining the company brand.

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