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Merle Becker

Naomi Ryland about leadership, humanity and self-reflection.

In a world beset by numerous crises, the manner in which we carry out our work and conduct business must be reevaluated. This begins with leadership and organisational structures. Naomi Ryland has taken on this challenge. As a founder, speaker, author, and revolutionary, Naomi states: „Our days of aspiring to fit into a start-up world – and an​ ​economic system – that is so severely broken are well and truly over.”
I engaged in conversation with her regarding social and economic transformation, innovative leadership, and personal energy.

This interview was conducted in German and translated by the interviewer into English.

Prior to establishing your own social enterprise tbd*, you were employed in the non-profit sector. What prompted you to make the decision to venture into self-employment?

I came to the realization early on that I do not relish the prospect of having a conventional supervisor. tbd* eventually came into existence because we could not find a platform like it and decided to create one ourselves. We reasoned, „If no one else will do it, then we shall do it ourselves.“ Many individuals in our network had already started their own businesses – particularly men – so the notion of starting a business was no longer intimidating for us. We thought, „If our friends can do it, surely we can too.“
We started with a Facebook group. We initially scoured job listings on charity websites and shared them within the group. In a short period of time, we amassed several thousand group members, as the demand was evidently high. And from there, it took off.

Was self-employment always your intended career path, or did you happen upon it by chance?

I found the way of collaborating within traditional hierarchies to be fundamentally challenging. However, the idea of self-employment was not something I had considered. My father was self-employed as a lawyer, but that is a completely different field. Self-employment was not something I had planned for, it simply occurred.

In „Starting a Revolution,“ you outline a vision for an economy without glass ceilings, discrimination, and with a greater emphasis on humanity. However, you also mention that this approach to work has not always been successful in your own company when you were in a leadership role. How do you address this issue at tbd* today

I am still associated with tbd*, but I am no longer actively involved in operations as an employee. Nonetheless, I still observe the company and the difference is palpable – the paramount priority is placed on humanity, above all else. Naturally, this approach also has its disadvantages; for instance, if the aim is to work as efficiently and profitably as possible, then this objective may not always be attained as effectively. However, everyone is encouraged to be transparent and admit when they are not performing well. No one should feel under undue pressure, and if they do, the team collaborates to determine what changes can be made to the system to ease the pressure.

 Are you currently holding a leadership position?

No, I am self-employed. I voluntarily relinquished my managerial role at tbd*, and the company transitioned to a self-organised structure. Following this transition, I was no longer the boss, nor were my co-founders. To this day, tbd* operates with a hierarchy based on competence. I wouldn’t want to return to a traditional management position as I can no longer support such a system. The idea that one can command others simply because of a certain status is no longer acceptable to me.

Is the ideal leadership style one where there is no leadership at all?

No, everyone should lead with a sense of self-responsibility and through collaboration.

Is it feasible for all companies to adopt a self-responsible and cooperative leadership style, or is it a requirement for them to be driven by a purpose?

From a systemic perspective, it would be ideal if jobs lacking a sense of purpose were done away with. This is because it is inherently unhealthy for individuals to work in a role in which they do not feel a sense of fulfilment. There are certain jobs, such as those of pilots, where a clear hierarchy is required for safety reasons. However, this type of leadership role should be based on competencies, rather than just one’s status. In many conventional companies, it is not always the most capable person who gives direction, which is a major issue that needs to be addressed.

You are a co-founder of SEND e. V. Do you consider social enterprises to be the solution?

I believe that social enterprises are a positive step towards change, but not the final destination. I too find myself confined by the current system, both externally and internally. Our prior experiences and learned behaviours in conducting business shape us and it is challenging to completely break away from that. External pressures can often lead us away from our own values. Though I have observed some progress from social enterprises, I believe that significant and systemic change can only be achieved through collaboration and cooperation among social enterprises, working together to break free from the current system.

Now, there are many companies and individuals who aspire to lead and be unique, but the next step is to bring these people together and consider what can be achieved through collaboration.

What would you have liked to have known ten years ago? What advice can you give to other impact-oriented entrepreneurs?

Coaching and therapy are paramount. Many founders set out to compensate for something or to attain status or validation from outside. This was the case for us as well. If these are part of the driving force, then it can be challenging to bring about genuine change. You remain ensnared within the system. Deep introspection and self-development are crucial aspects of social entrepreneurship, to remain steadfast in your values and mission, and to work as ego-free as possible.

Additionally, do not presume that you can continue at a fast pace without encountering burnout. No one I know has managed to avoid it. It’s almost inevitable. So, it’s best to be mindful of it right from the outset.

Would you say it’s feasible to launch a business without committing 150% from the outset? And to maintain a healthy balance from the start, or do you have to put in 150% at the beginning and then make sure to reel it in early enough?

It’s a matter of perspective. If giving 150% means pushing beyond one’s own limitations, then that is not advisable. Exceeding one’s limits can be dangerous and can have negative consequences. Energy levels are subjective and depend on various factors. It’s important to understand one’s own limits and strive to not exceed them from the start. Failing to do so may have detrimental effects in the long run.

Naomi Ryland<br />
Copyright: Thulani Hose-Simantov

Knowing that an increasing number of individuals are seeking purpose in their careers yet struggle to find it, Naomi, along with Nadia Boegli and Nicole Winchell, established tbd* in 2014. tbd* soon became Germany’s premier platform for careers imbued with significance.

Naomi was also involved in the founding of SEND e. V. in 2017. In 2019, she co-wrote the book „Starting a Revolution: What We Can Learn from Female Entrepreneurs about the Future of Business“ (Ullstein ECON) with Lisa Jaspers, which has since been published in German, English and Spanish. In 2022, Naomi and Lisa published the SPIEGEL bestseller „Unlearn Patriarchy“ (Ullstein). Naomi contributed to the book by writing the chapter on „Unlearn Power“, drawing on her experiences as a founder.

Picture Credit: Naomi Ryland/Thulani Hose-Simantov