As a teacher, Mikey Ellis wanted to be the kind of teacher he wished he’d had at school. As a life coach, he helped adults live the lives they wanted to live. And now, as he settles into his third year as Head of Culture at Vinomofo, an online wine tribe that curates and retails wines for its community, he’s creating the workplace he always wanted to work in.
“I guess there’s this theme that’s run through my working life, and that’s been education: teaching and learning,” says Ellis. “I’m always trying to understand things, particularly human behavior and why people do what they do.”
He spent ten years working as primary school and outdoor education teacher before, again led by his passion for teaching and learning, Ellis moved into life coaching. He gained a Diploma in Life Coaching and really enjoyed the different dynamic that comes from working with adults on things that really mattered to them.
“It was exciting working with adults and seeing them apply what we discussed directly to their lives, to either improve their relationships, improve their careers, change direction, feel more connected or inspired with the work they were doing,” he says.
What happens next shows just how much Ellis’ own learning has driven his career. His willingness to take on challenges and confidently learn on the job have shaped his unique people geek journey.
Create your own adventure
His conversations with clients eventually led Ellis to direct his coaching expertise inwardly.
“As a coach I was working with people saying, ‘you can create your own reality when it comes to your ideal job’. So I started thinking, well what would my ideal job be if I could create that? And it was to be working with people in and around food and wine.”
It was a real-life lightbulb moment. The self-proclaimed self-help junkie, immediately set himself the challenge to make that reality happen. But the journey from life coach to Head of Culture wasn’t exactly linear – it included stop-offs in leadership consulting and copywriting.
Ellis initially joined Vinomofo’s content team when the company was about five years old. At the time, they were going through a restructure which included bringing HR in-house. A few months after Ellis joined, an opportunity came up to lead the newly created culture team.
“The brief was to make sure that we maintain integrity with what we do, do what we say we do, and follow through with leading by example as a values-first company,” says Ellis. “I thought, that’s exactly what we need to do. And maybe it’s something I can do.”
Building culture from the ground up
Taking on the Head of Culture role involved a steep learning curve, but Ellis welcomed the challenge and the unrestricted opportunity to help shape a people-first workplace.
“It was a really exciting opportunity and there was no one saying, ‘this is how we’ve always done it, this is what needs to be done’,” says Ellis. Instead, it was about figuring out what the organization valued, what really mattered and how they wanted to work together, led by the internal and external brand created by co-CEOs André Eikmeier and Justin Dry.
“The CEOs’ intent was really clear. What we needed to then do was take that intent and create a strategy to translate it into something that everybody can relate to; something that we could implement, as opposed to just being an ideal,” says Ellis.
One of the key steps in the translation process was learning to trust what they were doing. “We stopped looking outside for other examples of what other great companies were doing. We realized what we’ve got here is really special and we don’t need to change a lot, we just need to build upon what made it special in the first place,” says Ellis.
The importance of values and keeping people at the center
This meant clarifying the mission and values for the organization. “We spent a lot of time making sure our mission and values were genuinely expressive of the essence of our culture. They weren’t what we thought they should be or what we wanted them to be based on what other great companies were doing,” says Ellis.
While led by Vinomofo co-founders Justin and André, the process was quickly taken to the individual level. “We worked with people in their roles and said ‘you’ve got the freedom here and the opportunity to create something really meaningful and special through the work that we do. What do you want to create? What impact do you want to have? What legacy do you want to leave? What matters to you?’,” explains Ellis.
This individual focus is an example of another of Ellis’ guiding principles: keeping people at the center of culture. “Remembering that people, while they’re extraordinarily complex, all have some pretty similar fundamental needs is really important,” says Ellis.
“I think it’s easy to overlook those sort of fundamental needs, and the more we did overlook them in favor of a new system or process or initiative, the more we lost the essence of what we were trying to achieve, which was a human-first culture.”
People, data and scaling culture
When it comes to advances in HR analytics, Ellis combines this same focus on individuals with enthusiasm for the gold that data can help uncover.
“There’s a real revolution happening in HR and culture through the application of these tools and we’re able to find out so much more than we have before,” says Ellis.
“Data are signposts, they’re a map to the treasure, but you’ve still got to dig to find that treasure. We can get distracted by technology and miss the value in just actually caring about somebody and asking them how they’re doing, and then doing something about it. Those little things make a big difference.”
He sees this as the secret to leveraging and scaling culture. Data provides insight, while culture creates the conditions for empowering people to make use of those insights.
“We have expectations that people in our company are self-aware and that they have, and deploy, empathy,” says Ellis. “It’s not my role to do that, it’s not someone else’s role to do that, it’s everybody’s responsibility to do that with everyone else.”
He looks forward to when he can step back and see this idea fully embedded in Vinomofo’s culture, as a baseline behavior for all employees, rather than being a directive of a culture team.
“I think that’s when we’ll really hit critical mass, and the outcome of that is a place where you know everyone’s got your back and it’s a place where you can come and feel like you can be yourself,” says Ellis.
“That’s a pretty cliché expectation, but it would be a pretty cool outcome if we could achieve it.”
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