Once a month we sit down in conversation with one of our Volunteer Advisors, discuss their career, and ask them for Three Things – three pieces of actionable advice that other CEOs can implement today. In this month’s wide-ranging interview with Claudia Harris, CEO of Makers, we discuss the power of work in transforming lives, the responsibility we have to find ‘under-discovered talent’, and we lift the lid on some of the more unique aspects of the Makers culture.

Leaving the hallowed halls of Oxford university, equipped with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Claudia Harris was writing letters in the hope of securing an internship. She wasn’t writing to Goldman Sachs or McKinsey (who would later employ her, pay for her to go to Harvard Business School and promote her to Partner). Instead, she was writing about Virginia Woolf and female emancipation, hoping to impress the leaders of various micro-finance organisations around the world.

Claudia’s fifteenth letter finally got a positive response. And after a short course in basic Spanish, Claudia jumped on a plane to Bolivia to work for Pro Mujer, who invest in and empower underserved women across Latin America. “I was incredibly humbled seeing what these women were doing. I learned from them how much you can achieve – and how you can change whole communities – if you set your mind to it. And the power of business in doing that.”

It would seem the seed was planted. Claudia loved the work with Pro Mujer, of course. But more importantly, Claudia saw the freedom that comes from good work, and the justice that can be achieved by opening up opportunities to the underserved.

Claudia Harris’s CV

2003-2015: Partner – McKinsey & Company

2005 – 2006: Health Team Member – Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit

2015-2020: CEO – The Careers and Enterprise Company

2020-Present: CEO – Makers

In Search of Purpose

After her internship at Pro Mujer, Claudia joined McKinsey for two years as a Business Analyst before again seeking out another social cause, spending a year in the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit. She was assigned to the health team, whose primary task was to reduce the number of hospital-acquired infections in Britain. Her colleagues were nurses, epidemiologists, and managers, who were all devoted to making this target a reality. “It was an incredibly purpose-driven organisation,” Claudia states. “What we were doing really mattered, it really made a difference to people’s lives, and I’ve always been someone who’s loved working on things I care about.” Working with such a passionate group of people to achieve a goal they all really cared about was intensely fulfilling, and demonstrated the power of a clear purpose.

Harvard Business School in 2006 was not, however, a hot bed of progressive thinking when it came to the concept of purpose in business. But rather than moderate Claudia’s beliefs, Harvard provided the foil for her developing conviction that business can be a force for good, and that the concept of shareholder primacy, along with the neo-classical free market economics she had been force fed at Oxford, were simply wrong.

“I was utterly struck by the lack of moral philosophy that was taught at business school. You weren’t given a framework about how you could make moral decisions in business”, she says. “There’s something akin to a Milgram experiment embedded in the capitalist system. It’s as if wearing a nice jacket and a smart shirt somehow makes people very comfortable doing the uncomfortable”. Thankfully, Claudia was able to find a cohort of like-minded Professors who were looking at the growing debt bubble – forewarning the impending financial crisis – and “really bringing to life the inequality in the US, which had become as severe as it had been since the 1920s.”

Despite her misgivings about the corporate world, Claudia loved McKinsey and was keen to return after business school. “When I first joined [McKinsey], I met these people who absolutely believed in the power of problem solving – that you could solve any problem if you put your mind to it.” McKinsey consultants work with little or no prior knowledge of their client’s industry. Rather than be a hindrance, this often allows a clearer perspective on the issues, and a unique path to problem solving, unencumbered by prior knowledge of how things are usually done. “This was a different lens for seeing the world”, explains Claudia, “I could see that with the right tools and approaches, you can solve any problem. That’s an intoxicating concept.”

Despite rising rapidly up the ranks and making Partner at McKinsey, it was clear Claudia would eventually leave and use her refined problem solving powers for good. “I knew I wanted to work in an organisation aligned around a campaigning mission. I also knew I was very interested in the idea of people having work that they love. It’s something I’ve been passionate about for years. Business school gave me the lens I needed to understand why this mattered. Focusing on inequality, you realise how bleak so many people’s working lives can be, and how unfair that is”.

Levelling the playing field

“I believe so profoundly that having work that you love is one of the most fundamental parts of the human experience”, says Claudia, as she reflects on the amount of time we spend in work and the impact this has on us and the people around us. “But for so many people, they don’t have the opportunity to express themselves at work in a way that is meaningful.” Unsurprisingly, when she heard that the Careers and Enterprise Company was hiring a new CEO, Claudia didn’t hesitate to throw her hat in the ring. “What could be more important than helping young people make good decisions?”

Working in the education space for 5 years simply reinforced Claudia’s convictions. “It is so painfully obvious how unbelievably unfair the distribution of opportunity in our education system is. There are so many ways the system limits individuals. If you know that, then you know there is an enormous wealth of talent out there that is being boxed in by CVs.”.

Makers – the company Claudia runs today – was designed to unlock this pool of under-discovered talent. Makers retrains people to be software engineers, putting them through a 16-week boot camp which lands them an entry level job and a £33k salary in one of the most exciting – and important – careers of modern times. Uniquely, Makers selects students based on their aptitude and attitude – an ideal known in HR circles as blind recruiting – rather than their CV. This opens up the tech industry’s appetite for engineers to the under-discovered talent held back by our traditional education system.

Makers training goes beyond just software engineering. “Yes, we train people to be software engineers, but more than that,” says Claudia, building on her McKinsey experience, “we train people to learn how to learn and feel confident in solving problems.” Students are given problem-solving tools, but this also gives themselves the tools to be happy because they feel in control of their own destiny.

“I feel passionate that this is a space that can have a really big impact on how people feel about their own lives and their work.”

The art of being a CEO

Transitioning from consultancy to being a CEO is not necessarily straightforward. For one, you have to shift away from an ‘advising’ mindset towards the ‘doing’ mindset. But for Claudia, this wasn’t the issue. “I have always been quite a doer. More than your average McKinsey person”, she says. “But I still made a million mistakes in my first year,” she admits.

One early lesson was to close her laptop. At McKinsey, she lived behind a screen, deep in presentations, spreadsheets and documents. And on elevating to her first gig as CEO, she continued to spend too much time at her desk before the truth dawned on her. “The art of being a CEO is to never have your laptop open. You should be talking to people, almost never touching a document or computer.”

The biggest thing Claudia noticed after leaving McKinsey was “just how strong the culture had been”, and how everyone had bought in to it. It was so strong as to be almost imperceptible and yet it underpinned and held the organisation together. Processes run smoothly and management is (relatively) easy with such a strong culture. It was clear to Claudia that building and maintaining a culture of that ilk would likely be a prerequisite of success as a CEO.

The culture at Makers was clearly one of its strengths and what attracted Claudia to the role: “Makers was always a business focused on doing the right thing”. Her predecessor, Evgeny Shadchnev, believed that everybody should enjoy their work, and founded the company with that very idea at its core. “We have a Chief Joy Officer. She was Evgeny’s first hire”. In fact, sustaining an enjoyable work experience for staff and students was so fundamental to Evgeny that it formed the foundation of the company’s values: “At Makers we favour trust over fear, nurture a growth mindset, and prioritise joy”.

That Makers should care passionately about individual’s personal development should be no surprise. Taking inspiration from their students, the team at Makers are encouraged and supported in their personal growth. And a walk through the office demonstrates the sheer joy of their work. Employees are also encouraged to share this joy through a culture of appreciation. “Thanking people around you and them thanking you back has a really positive cultural effect.”

In exploring these unusual company values, what impressed All Together the most was the level of cultural innovation that has derived from ‘favouring trust over fear’. For instance, Makers allows employees to set their own holidays, trusting that individuals will balance their personal need for rest and adventure with the company’s – and colleagues’ – needs at work. Furthermore, Makers even allowed employees to effectively set their own salaries in its infancy. If someone wanted a pay rise, they wrote a note to their colleagues explaining their reasons and then the team would decide. While not something that has been possible to sustain, the extraordinary trust it engendered is alive and well today.

“We make sure that we listen to feedback and openly communicate with our team and our students,” Claudia explains. “We offer the ability to take time off work whenever people feel like they need to do so, for example. In cases like that, there is never a shortage of people willing to step in and cover for them.”

All Together believes that business is, at its core, a human endeavour, yet that too often business processes and policies act to dehumanise. When you value an employee truly as a human being, and when trust is embedded in to the culture as it is in Makers, any dissonance between the version of themselves they bring to work and the version they leave at home is eliminated. Team members can truly be themselves, meaning they feel relaxed, comfortable, and express themselves freely.

Suitably inspired, we asked Claudia for the secret sauce. For a CEO with an idea of the culture they want to create, and some values they want to embed, how do they best achieve their goal? “Role modelling is hugely important”, says Claudia. For example, “from the first day he founded the business, Evgeny was extremely appreciative of those around him.” By projecting the values you want your organisation to promote, your habits and actions seep into your team and reach every corner of the business. Those characteristics become deeply ingrained in the fabric of your company, which creates an almost self-perpetuating cycle.

Many businesses with unique cultures can draw a direct line back to the character of their founder(s). But it can be harder as a CEO coming in to a business to affect change culture change quickly through modelling alone. Nevertheless, one thing we can be sure of is that, without modelling from the leadership team at the top of the organisation, any attempt to define or change a culture will fail.

Claudia’s Three Things

At the end of our conversation, we asked Claudia to reflect on everything we’d discussed – and even things we didn’t have time for – and pick just Three Things, three pieces of actionable advice that CEOs should implement today.

number 1

Apply your domestic morality to your professional life.

It sounds so simple, and many of us likely believe we already do this, but give careful thought and we see the very subtle ways in which some organisations mould us in to something we are not. “There is a strange thing that in business we sometimes feel it is alright to make moral choices that would not feel alright in our personal lives. I think we should all feel free to apply the same moral lens to work decisions as we apply in any other sphere.”

number 2

Hire bravely.

Returning to an earlier theme, Claudia reminds us that “talent is too often screened out by a lack of qualifications and experience. You must think of ways to uncover that talent and use it to your advantage.” This is no easy task, and Claudia admits Makers themselves are on a journey. But where can we start? Claudia recommends we look at where we currently find our talent, and investigate different talent pools, perhaps in adjacent industries. Once you identify talent pools with a more diverse make-up, consider if the people within them could have competencies that would be useful in the role you’re looking for. They won’t have done the job you are hiring for but combine competencies with the right attitude, and you’ll have success. By hiring this way, you are more likely to find undiscovered talent and build a team of diverse experiences and perspectives.

number 3

Embed a culture of appreciation.

For Claudia, this is fundamental to any culture, not just Makers. The benefits of having a team that feels appreciated are significant and plentiful. People who feel appreciated are more positive, work better together, and feel more committed to doing a good job. One place to start would be to formalise appreciation. As a CEO, why not diarise that every Thursday you write three emails to individuals in your organisation explaining what you appreciate about them. Once you’ve started you won’t want to stop. Then encourage other leaders to do the same. Soon you’ll be surprised how many people undertake this simple task, and positivity will spread like wildfire.

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Claudia was awarded an OBE for Services to Careers Education in 2021. After spending an hour in her company, we’d recommend the Queen immediately upgrade this to a Dame-hood. To hear more of Claudia’s career and her Three Things, you can listen to the whole conversation hosted by Jamie Mitchell, All Together’s co-founder, below.