Is an ustwo board meeting anything like an episode of Succession?

When ustwo studios became an employee-owned business in April 2022, it felt exciting. We all felt proud to work at a company that puts its words into action and is truly doing things differently. We were officially partners! We could remain independent and protect our studio culture.

A few weeks later, after the dust settled, it felt like not much had changed in our daily lives, but there’s a reason for this. ustwobies already had a huge amount of transparency, we already received a third of profits each year, and we had many opportunities for decision-making and participation in the business. However, there was one major shift when we became employee-owned. For the first time in history, we elected three employee (partner) representatives to participate in ustwo board meetings.

After a democratic election with enticing pledges from all candidates, ustwobies took to the polls and the results were in! The New York studio elected Katie Bruce, Senior Delivery Manager, to represent them, while Andrea Önnerfors, Delivery Lead, was elected to represent the Malmö studio, and Maggie Fitzsimmons, Principal Client Partner, was voted in by the London studio.

So, what exactly do the partner representatives do?

  • They attend board meetings and contribute to the agenda, discussions, and decision-making (without the formal legal responsibility of a board director)
  • They provide a feedback loop between each studio and the board for ideas on key initiatives, suggestions, and concerns

I caught up with Katie, Andrea and Maggie to hear how it felt to finally enter the boardroom and take a seat at the well-polished oak table adorned with pastries (or at least that’s how I imagine it).

What did you expect an ustwo board meeting to be like before you joined? And did it meet your expectations?

Andrea: To be honest, I thought there would be some conflict, and the biggest surprise was that there was so little conflict. I’ve sat on several other boards, and that’s what I experienced, but the board meeting at ustwo was quite civil in comparison.

Brucie: Unlike Andrea, I’d never sat on a board or understood what a board did. I expected it to be like an episode of Succession. I thought it would be intense and dramatic, but the boardroom itself was super comfortable and the space was warm. Before the meeting started, we had a brief talk with some board members and they prepped us on what to expect. I also got the chance to visit London and meet everyone in person, which was fun. It felt very glamorous!

Maggie: I also expected it to be like Succession but I quickly realised it was nothing like that. It was honest, warm and open, and we even sat on sofas!

board-eot-repsustwo’s first board meeting with employee (partner) representatives in May 2022.

From left: Gabriel Marquez (New York Managing Director), Katie Bruce (New York partner rep), Sinéad Ryan (Chief People Officer), Carsten Wierwille (CEO), Maggie Fitzsimmons (London partner rep), Cath Keers (NED), Andrea Önnerfors (Malmö partner rep), Giovanni Donaldson (NED), Nicki Sprinz (European Managing Director), John 'Sinx' Sinclair (Co-founder and Chairman), and on the screen, Abigail Bigelow (CFO/COO).

What did you enjoy about being a partner rep, and what was most challenging?

Maggie: It was interesting to see how much thought goes into decision-making. The most challenging part was juggling being a partner rep with my day job, and not knowing how much time and effort to put into implementing the changes we discussed.

Brucie: I agree with Maggie. It was hard not knowing how much time to commit to making changes within the company, and balancing that with client work. We also had to prevent feedback fatigue among ustwobies. We were asking a lot of people for feedback, so we had to make sure we were acting on their comments and suggestions too. I personally enjoyed working with the other partner reps and hearing different cultural perspectives across the studios, especially from someone like Andrea who has been at ustwo for ten years, whereas I joined two years ago.

Andrea: I enjoyed being with Maggie and Brucie, and learning more about the different studios. That was the biggest takeaway for me. It was great to learn what works well in other studios and what doesn’t because it helped me understand how to improve the Malmö studio. It was also nice to build a closer connection with people I don’t meet very often, like Carsten, Nicki and Sinx who are all based in the U.K. and U.S.

How did you make sure you could capture the voice of all ustwobies?

Brucie: I experimented with a few things. I split the feedback sessions according to departments because the New York studio is small, and people feel comfortable speaking openly within their own teams. I also used Miro because some people are more comfortable writing feedback, while others prefer talking face-to-face. The only drawback is that an approach like that could result in siloed feedback. My favourite part was being able to connect with people I don’t naturally overlap with in my day-to-day work.

Andrea: An Employee Ownership Trust isn’t common in Sweden but we have other forms of cooperative ownership, so I took the time to speak to everyone in the Malmö studio to understand how they felt about it. I had one-to-one conversations with them, and it was enjoyable and valuable to hear their perspectives.

Maggie: I took a similar approach. I did one-to-one interviews and ad hoc conversations. When we started as partner reps, the conversations were mostly about improving studio life, but then the world changed and the economy started to decline, so the discussions were suddenly about making a profit and surviving as a business.

How do you feel now that your first term of office is coming to an end?

Andrea: I’m happy I did it. I’m also excited to see what the next group of partner reps will achieve, and how the role will evolve over time. I hope to be able to check in with them, and maybe we can create a partner rep alumni network to stay connected.

Maggie: It went by quickly! I feel good about the progress we made, and I’m excited to see the new energy that the next group of partner reps will bring, and what they do with it.

Bucie: I’m so grateful for the opportunity. It was fun to meet people in person. I feel closer to the other studios and more excited about ustwo in general. It would be cool for the next partner reps to come from different departments within the business. Me, Maggie and Andrea all work in similar disciplines (Business Development and Delivery), so I’d love to see how someone from the People or Finance team contributes to the board.

Has being closer to the board given you any unexpected insights into how ustwo is run?

Andrea: No, I’ve been here for a long time (ten years) and I’ve always felt like ustwo is fairly transparent.

Maggie: It validated that ustwo does care and think about the human impact of every decision. They truly discuss all possible options. So I’d say the experience provided more validation rather than surprise.

Brucie: I’d always heard people talk about ustwo’s flat structure and how approachable the leadership team is. Having been on the board, it became very apparent that it is a flat structure. As someone who joined the company two years ago, it helped me feel connected with the leadership team and with ustwo overall.

Any advice for the next group of partner representatives?

Andrea: Take the time to connect with your studio, don't be afraid to speak up, don’t be afraid to be a little bit annoying, and share your point of view. At the end of the day, we are there to offer a different perspective.

Brucie: The point of being a partner rep is to bring new perspectives to the board. You don't need to have a ton of experience, so don’t feel intimidated. Just go for it. Take the time to form relationships with the other partner reps and with the Non-Executive Directors (NEDs). It’s nice to talk to other board members after meetings to reflect on how things went.

Maggie: Don't be afraid to disrupt the status quo. Yes, ustwo becoming employee-owned doesn't change our day-to-day lives, but maybe it could. So bring your opinions on how we can evolve for the better. Also, a year goes by quickly. Brucie helped us to be intentional about what was realistic to achieve in a year. Know that small progress helps too.

That’s all folks!

In September 2023, three newly elected partner representatives will join the ustwo board. Huge congratulations to Qasim Ahmad, Developer in Malmö, Ashley Evangelista, Senior Strategist in New York, and Alasdair Blackwell, Tech Lead in London! We can’t wait to see what you bring to the role.