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Naomi Simson awards events EY entrepreneur of the year 2011

People often ask “Did you ever imagine RedBalloon would become what it is today?”  In all truthfulness, not really…. but I do remember that it is a long time since RedBalloon was a startup. Back in 2001 there was no such thing as social media; digital photography was rare; no smart phones; the tech industry looked vastly different than it does now… there was no TechCrunch (we had computer daily which would fax it’s daily roundup – but I digress)…

Back in 2007 was the moment that I realised that things were getting a little out of hand… I wrote this blog “Growing Pains“. I am not that specific about what exactly was going on… just to say that I learned a deep and ever lasting leadership lesson. I had to bring people with me on the journey… I was beginning to focus on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘why’ or ‘how’. What I mean by that is when I inspire people with a deep sense of purpose i.e. ‘why we do what we do everyday – how we are making the world a better place,’ then the ‘how’ we do business (our values) and the ‘what’ e.g. product, customer experience, tech development etc. all fall into place.

But what I did have (that has not changed) is a clear vision (I wanted to change gifting in Australia forever – which we have probably done) – but I had to keep talking about it. I knew that how we did business (our values) would determine our culture and that if everyone was aligned anything could be possible. I used key indicators like NPS, engagement scores (we now use eNPS), BHAG to make sure that the plan was on track and that everyone was aligned. (When I read Jim Collins Good to Great – the analogy of the flywheel being almost unstoppable resonated with me.)

Yet what was my biggest fear… not being able to ‘control’ it all – i.e. that moment when Jemma (now Redii CEO) said “You have become the bottle neck. You have a team who can deliver on the vision – they have the power to do it – you need to get out of your way.” Extremely confronting at the time… yet I knew she told me it because she deeply cared and it became a pivotal moment in the RedBalloon growth story.

I could not do it alone (or even with a small team)… if we were ever going to achieve our BHAG then something had to shift – and that was me and my approach to leadership. But sitting in the back of my head was a deep sense of doubt… but step by step, the team took me on a journey. Megan Bromley was one of those people – the Employee Experience manager – not HR (people aren’t resources) – knowing if we looked after people’s experience of work (i.e. their well being) then they could look after the customer experience.

I was a young Mum in 2001 at the beginning of RedBalloon – flexibility had always been how we did business – but over the years it has become more and more important… as I outlined in my recent post: The five new rules of work.  Discovering how ‘strengths‘ could be used for alignment in teams – and Megan even became HBDI accredited. She created our Employee Experience framework – which won us half a decade of best employer awards. One of the most useful and successful things we did was build the leadership recognition platform (now an independent software offering to other businesses).

I make it sound ‘easy’ now but as I reflect back I remember the questions I would ask myself:

  • How could I trust people to play their role in our growth journey?
  • How could I give up control?
  • How could I keep the team aligned to our vision, values and the plan?
  • How do I know if I have got it ‘right’?
  • How do I know if people are doing their ‘best’ work?

As I tour with Small Business Victoria this week I share with great pain some of those ‘awful’ growing up moments when things did not go to plan…  But more importantly I shared what I did about it… how I learned to trust myself, how I got control by giving up control and how I aligned people to the plan….

Now all these years later RedBalloon has had several CEOs since I became a non-executive director. And each of them have brought different things. Nick Baker (CEO) is taking RedBalloon on it’s next exciting phase as the business grows in breadth and depth.

It is not often people will share what it is really like in leadership, but every time I speak (or blog) about the downs (and ups) of my journey, people relax and realise that no one has it all handled… the only difference might be that I have always, (and continue to) remind my self of WHY! And if I ever forget I listen to customer stories…

What can you do right now to align your team?

Jemma Fastnedge who has worked side by side with me for more than a decade now heads up Redii. It is time to give the same tools to other small business leaders and start- ups…. The leadership platform that we created has been separated out into its own business… and we are going to give the tool to any business with sub 10 employees… to assist on their growth journey.

Click here to start the journey – Take the tour

Any sized business must ensure that every one of it’s team shares the leadership vision, values and brand essence of the business. You want to keep your team close, so that they become advocates of the business…. your team members have a choice about where they give their time (note I have never referred to the team as staff – language is so important in leadership – but then I wrote a whole book on that so let me not digress).

The first step to consider is to have a documented vision, BHAG, values and what you want people to align to….

Here is the link to the pre-set up phase for a Redii platform and there are plenty of resources available for you here too.

No leader has ever changed the world on their own… we are only leaders if we have followers. We only have followers if we trust, give up control and align people to our vision.

(I am so pleased Jemma and her team are here to help… proud moment).

Reader Interactions


  1. thank you for a wonderful evening . Your passion and commitment to share and inspire is definitely contagious.

    Kind regards gail

  2. Hi Naomi I’ll try to remember everything I just wrote…it disappeared just as I was about to press publish.
    I’ve been reading your blog tonight after re-reading the little red book of happiness book I got at your seminar I attended in Warrnambool. I was firstly so grateful for the opportunity to attend & after telling nervous Nellie to away, I was courageous enough to see the night through.
    well, it was certainly worth it.i laughed, listened intently, ferociously wrote notes & cried a little. Many points you spoke of rang true & cut deep. I realized that I’m afraid & fearful. I’m not in a happy work situation (though I enjoy my work to some degree) & it’s really having a negative impact on my personal & work lives & my confidence & self esteem has been stomped out. I wanted to run up to you after your presentation & say how much I enjoyed it but not brave enough. I wanted to jump up at request for someone from Warrnambool to go on shark tank & say me! No confidence. I was even too chicken to put my hand up with a question, then my bravery hit timeout. It sure doesn’t pay to be afraid. Stinky fear! You’re a fantastic speaker, motivator & I wish you all the best for the future. Thank you for making the journey to Warrnambool – these opportunities don’t find us often enough. One happy attendee. Hollie

  3. It takes courage to let go, and trust that others will cherish your vision and business as much as you do – but I think it also gives those staff the pride and mental validation, knowing that you DO trust them, to encourage them to shine too.

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