Fight the silos

Huub Vermeulen

CEO bol.com


Huub Vermeulen joined the Bol.com team in 2001. As an executive board member in the role of chief operating officer, Huub was responsible for logistics, customer services, financial operations and product & content. After he became CEO in 2017, the company expanded to 1800 colleagues and developed into a respected brand with the highest growth potential in the Dutch e-tail industry. To keep the level of innovation and fun high, and bureaucracy low, bol.com introduced their team to an organizational design called ‘SPARK’.


Don’t go for this traditional structure; fight the silos!

How is organizational design related to organizational culture?

Culture is far more important to be successful than organizational structure, especially in a company's early stages. As you grow bigger, you want to keep the culture alive and therefore at bol.com, we always put the structure in service of the culture. Think about what made your company a success, how do we work together and why do people love working here, and then organize yourself in such a way to keep that essence. I still see lots of young companies using a very traditional structure with departments like Sales, IT, and Logistics. They forgot that they became successful because they pursued the same goal, and now they’ve ended up in silos. Don’t go for this traditional structure; fight the silos! Almost everyone hates big companies, so why would you organize your own as a traditional one? Think about how people cooperate effectively, and consciously design your organization around that.

How did bol.com introduce its agile structure?

We also got it wrong in the beginning and had those silos as well. Around 100 people we started to notice that the IT team was failing to deliver. They didn’t meet their deadlines, built the wrong stuff, and they, themselves, didn’t feel like they were part of our common goal. We started a project with three goals in mind: to have parallel progress, instead of just working on one project at a time, to have a short time to market and to have fun. In my opinion, fun is a very sensible business goal because everything will feel easier if you make it fun, even when it’s serious business.

Culture is far more important to be successful than organizational structure, especially in a company's early stages.
Wisdom is in the organization as a whole, not just at the management level.

We introduced an agile structure derived from holacracy called ‘SPARK’, which was relatively new back then in 2009. We broke down our organization into small teams with one common goal per team and a lot of autonomy. This is easy when you’re a small company, but giving people autonomy as your organization grows larger is a lot more difficult. However, true autonomy is only present by a lack of hierarchy and structure. We saw that the multifunctional teams worked, and decided to implement it throughout the organization. As an example, nowadays IT is not a separate team at bol.com anymore, but part of all kinds of multifunctional teams. To make this structure successful, you have to continuously focus on the front line: the colleagues who are in direct contact with the customer. Let all the small teams do meaningful things for this frontline. In general, these frontline roles, like customer service, are not the highest-paid roles, but everyone needs to put themselves in service of the people who meet your customer. If you do this, you can keep the fun, the autonomy and you can leverage the knowledge of the entire organization.

What are the two biggest challenges of having this agile way of working? All multifunctional teams have their own goals, but it’s challenging to coordinate across all the teams. One day they will need each other and in the end, we all look at the same bol.com website. The other challenge is that ‘being agile’ means that we’re focused on improving things, but we also need to keep innovating as a whole. In a nutshell, how to do new things as an entire organization, and how to synchronize across all teams, while keeping our agility and supporting bottom-up ideas are our two biggest challenges. What helps is to understand that wisdom is in the organization as a whole, not just at the management level. We also constantly try to bring our way of working to a new level. We do this in an agile way as well. If something doesn’t work, we try something different. The essence, however, stays the same: a common goal and short lines of communication.

True autonomy is only present by a lack of hierarchy and structure.

What are the most significant pros?

It’s still fun to work at this company, even though we’re bigger now. Most of your time is spent on your job. Why waste your valuable time on something that’s just a career? You should have fun at what you do for a living. At bol.com, you’re always part of a team with a common goal. We don’t have a traditional organization with a buying department, a supply chain, and marketing team. We have those specialisms, but these are centered around, for example, the ‘health & beauty store’ and the ‘toy store’. The ‘toy store’ team has all the expertise to build a successful online store, from buying and product management to marketing. Each person knows what they’re accountable for, but puts their knowledge and capabilities to best serve the toy store customer and meet the three main goals: a certain sales number, a certain margin, and a high customer satisfaction score. In this way, it’s far more interesting and fun to work as a buyer for the ‘toy store’ than just looking at a spreadsheet to optimize your stock turnover.

What other effects does this organizational design have on the team? We measure engagement and commitment, and we’re in the top 5 highest scoring companies. People do the right thing for a company when they are engaged and committed, not because their boss tells them to do so. Dogs have bosses, you can tell them when to sit or walk, but that’s not how you treat people. It’s best to tell people what you want them to achieve and then leave it up to them to do it.

How does the agile structure affect the hiring process?

We need people with communication skills, even when you’re an IT person. You’re part of a team, and you must be able to work and communicate with the team. Besides, egos don’t work well at bol.com, especially for leaders. When leaders put too much ‘I’ in their presentation, it’s a very bad sign.

People do the right thing for a company when they are engaged and committed, not because their boss tells them to do so.
You have to be humble and interested in people, even more than in goals.
Also, think about the structure you have, don’t just let it grow wild.

What specific traits should a leader at bol.com have because of this structure?

You have to be humble and interested in people, even more than in goals. You also need to stop talking and start listening. Some companies are quite successful under a dominant leader, but if you want to keep innovating, it can’t just depend on you as a leader. Inspiration needs to come from you, as well as vision and strategy, but for the rest, you have to figure out as soon as possible how much of what you know, you can give away to your colleagues. A common pitfall is that leaders have a couple of people around them they trust, mostly people who joined during the early days. However, they find it hard to trust new people who join and they don’t really get the opportunity to prove themselves. If you’re not able to give trust to new colleagues, your company won’t scale. Management is all about showing trust and giving responsibility, and it works in that specific order, not the other way around. Give trust first and people will take responsibility. Your task is then to remain critical. You have to speak up when you think a person isn’t the right fit anymore. When you grow as an organization, what’s asked of management is continuously changing. In a startup, you need a clever, hands-on management team, but not everyone will be able to keep up with how the organization develops. Don’t be afraid to make these hard decisions. Managers are not the source of an organization’s success, but they can be the source of trouble.

What is the best advice you have for scaleup leaders?

Keep in mind that having fun is a sensible business goal. Focus on what motivates people, how you can activate them and how to keep it all fun. Also, think about the structure you have, don’t just let it grow wild. Before you know it, everyone wants to have an assistant and teams build very traditional career ladders. I think this is all nonsense. A company should have a hierarchy of goals, not of people. Appoint those goals to teams and build your organization around that.

If you’re not able to give trust to new colleagues, your company won’t scale.

More interviews

Mayke Nagtegaal

COO MessageBird

Design for change

Read more

Pieter van der Does

Founder & CEO of Adyen

Build for talent

Read more

Chris Yeh

Author Blitzscaling

Learn infinitely

Read more

Judith Eyck

CEO Vakanties.nl & Zoover

Forming a tribe

Read more