As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Hargreaves.
Paul Hargreaves is on a mission to help businesses make a positive difference in the world and reverse some of the injustices which are increasing year by year. He is the CEO of Cotswold Fayre, who supply retail outlets across the UK and Ireland with artisan food. Cotswold Fayre is one of the founding UK B Corporations — companies that meet the highest standards of overall social and environmental performance and in their recent recertification achieved one of the highest B Corp scores for FMCG companies in the UK.
As well as continuing as CEO of a rapidly growing business, Paul is a B Corp ambassador, a professional speaker, and author of new book The Fourth Bottom Line: Flourishing in the new era of compassionate leadership
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I never thought of it as a career path at the time. Simply put I was doing unpaid or poorly paid charity work in Southeast London and running out of money to pay the mortgage, so as a sideline started selling food and drink products from the Cotswold’s to local delis in London. Twenty plus years later we have 1,500+ retail customers, a new retail and restaurant business and around 80 people.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Interesting and almost catastrophic too! It was 2014, we had grown rapidly as a business and outgrown our IT and warehouse systems. A new system was ordered and implemented to eliminate paperwork from the warehouse and move to scanning guns. Bad data and poor implementation resulted in a business meltdown. Half the stock in the warehouse wasn’t being picked as the ‘guns’ didn’t ‘know’ it was there. It was complete carnage, customers were very unhappy as were suppliers and there were so many complaints coming in, many of the team couldn’t stand it and left. We were on the edge of losing everything that had been built up for 15 years previously. Fortunately, we pulled back from the brink and now, looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened. All the right people stayed, the wrong left and that was the start of us becoming a much more focused, successful, and purpose-driven business.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I always intended to use business as a ‘Force for Good’ and wanted to give people a chance of a job, who might not normally get that chance. So, of our first five employees we had one ex-drug addict, one (ex) alcoholic and someone else who had just been released from prison. One of these guys was a driver for us who hadn’t been on the road for a while, not since the implementation of speed cameras. I’m not sure what he thought that yellow posts were on the side of the road! Anyway within 6 weeks he had 6 speeding tickets — in the UK 4 is enough for a driving ban. I really didn’t want him to lose his job as there was a very good chance he would go off the rails again. So, I wrote to the police authority along those lines and including in the letter all the speeding charges. I never had a reply to the letter, but the driver also never heard any more. I can only assume that someone unofficially had mercy and wrote off the tickets.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Without doubt, it was an ex-supplier, Jeremy, who I invited into the company as a no-exec when our growth and systems were spiraling out of control. Together he helped me make some difficult decisions, one of which was disbanding the company leadership team. At the time I had looked around the room and thought I could do everyone’s jobs better than them. That is the wrong way round and the complete opposite of now, where everyone on our board is far better than me in their area! Back in 2013 we disbanded the existing team and had no board for a while before re-building with new people. We probably wouldn’t have survived without that bold move.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Not just the USA, also here in the UK too. Having a non-diverse team is a little like an orchestra full of only trumpets, or one that has the full orchestra but only the violins are allowed to play. The best sound is when all instruments are played together. We have missed much of the potential of our businesses and organizations by only listening to the loudest voices in the room, which sadly has largely been the white, male voices.
If people within a business cannot see someone like themselves on the leadership team then they will not feel that their voice is represented in decisions nor will they feel empowered to be there themselves one day. Generally, it is demotivating and disempowering. To achieve the full potential of any business or organization requires every person within that organization to be empowered to lead and make decisions.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
A good sign of equality and inclusivity within a company or organization is disagreements and arguments as diverse people see things from a different perspective. Too many of our companies are too quiet and free from disagreements because people are complying too much with the majority (often white male) view. All minority groups being free to express their view is the sign of a healthy business. Within our business much of our change is not initiated by the leadership team but by (unoriginally named) change groups within the company. The only rule with these is that people from our leadership teams are not allowed to be in these groups. Decisions are made and then presented to the exec team and 95% of the time the answer is yes. That is one way of reversing the top-down hierarchical leadership that often inhibits equity and inclusion.
In terms of attracting candidates to work for us I asked a couple of people from minorities to look at our job ads and tell us how they could be worded differently to attract a truly diverse range of candidates. We implemented these changes and continue to ask for feedback.
This quote from Jane Silber is a brilliant one. “Difference between diversity and inclusion is being invited to a house and being able to rearrange the furniture.” Many businesses now are moving forward in this area, but until we allow the under-represented to come in and re-order our institutionalized furniture, we will not see the systemic change we need to see.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Well clearly, I can only speak from my own experience here and I know from some mentoring I have done that this is different from others. I have always said that now I am only really good at one thing and that is finding great people to work for me! The main difference between my exec team and me is that they are all making things happen within their various areas whereas I need to ensure that I am not involved in making things happen. Some CEOs become too involved in the ‘doing’ which prevents them spending more time ‘being’ and taking a bird’s eye view on the whole picture. My main responsibility is for them and ensuring they are happy and fulfilled and in that way the whole company benefits. As CEOs we can achieve much more by not being involved in the detail but by having a gentle hand on the tiller, which occasionally steers the ship out of a storm.
One another smaller difference would be that I am normally the one to give press comment when asked and be the face of the company, as that is what they want but this does propagate the myth below that one person is responsible for a company’s success — that is never true.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One myth I would like to bust is the one that puts the CEO on a pedestal and creates the impression that she or he is responsible for the success of a company. Team leadership is always the best way forward and a balance of different genders, ethnicities etc. always makes for the best possible leadership of a company. Having a job title with the word ‘chief’ in it is not great as it continues the myth that it is all about one person rather than a team.
Another myth is that CEOs or execs are primarily driven by the huge rewards many of them receive. I do not agree with the huge pay differentials between CEOs and the average wage in the company, but that is a subject for another day! Most CEOs I know are not primarily there for the money at all — their main focus is the purpose of the company through their product or service and making a significant difference in the world. I am not alone in not being the highest paid person in the company.
Myth number 3 I would like to bust is that CEOs always have to work 60–80 hours to get the job done. There may well be occasions when this is the case but most of the time, a better CEO will be one that spends time in reflection and thinking, time with her or his family and plenty of time on holiday. Being stuck at the coalface the whole time will not enable her or him to see the big picture.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
This is a tricky one because as an entrepreneur and founder I have grown into the role from initially starting the business from the cellar of my house. I would imagine it is a very different question for those coming into a role of CEO from outside, but for me the role has evolved over time as the company has grown.
Presumably not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Generally, there are three types of leaders, and two types should not be doing the job. First, ego-centred leaders, these are leaders for whom leading and being top dog is too important. They generally have low esteem, think of themselves first and their people last and think they should be served rather than serving their people. Insecure and not able to empathize they operate in a hierarchical way and often make terrible decisions. Yet there are some people like this leading nations!
Secondly, there are ‘doing’ leaders. Generally well-intentioned they want to do the right thing and have good motivations, but their value comes from activity and diligence. This often creates a culture of valuing people who stay at their desks the longest higher than those who might leave early to attend their children’s sports day. Burn-out would be common in such leaders and sometimes a lack of delegation to others. There are plenty of leaders like this around and often the companies will be successful, but maybe the people who work there aren’t the happiest or the most fulfilled.
Thirdly there are ‘being’ leaders, who possible have transitioned to this place from the other two types of leaders (true in my case). They have learned lessons through failures along the way and now do less but achieve more. They are self-aware people with compassion for others and are the best at empowering and serving others. They are happy for others to get the glory and happiest of all when the people within their company bring their whole person to work and don’t put on a ‘work mask’. Yes, there will occasionally be tears but often plenty of fun and people are the happiest working for leaders like this.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Companies stating a purpose aside from making profit are commonplace these days, but how many companies have a workforce that has embraced their purpose and have people that love coming to work because they are making a positive difference to the world through the impact of the company they are working for. After all, it never was very motivating to come to work to make the owner or shareholders rich.
For us becoming in a B Corp in 2015 helped us clarify and articulate our purpose better and, more significantly, helped all those in the company know why they were coming to work. This has also helped us attract very good new people into the company, thereby improving the culture year on year. Having all or part of a company owned by the people who work there also make s significant positive difference to company culture, and this is a process that we started in 2019 with their being 5 employees owning shares now and everyone else having share options.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
The only certification I know of that scores companies on how good for the world they are is the B Corp certification. Our company just certified for the third time with our highest score ever and one of the highest scores for an FMCG company in the UK, so we our good for the world: our people, the community, the environment and other stakeholders having above median scores in all areas. The area though I am most proud of is our carbon reduction programme. Our business model is carbon-reducing anyway as we consolidate products from artisan food and drink producers, delivering products from 100s of producers on one delivery. In addition to that carbon reduction, in 2020–21, despite increasing revenues by 46%, basically an extra 46% of boxes delivered, we reduced our carbon impact for deliveries by 14%. This would have been a good result if revenues had stayed the same, but astonishing with that level of growth. This was done by a warehouse move and changing the way our deliveries were done, with fewer going through a central hub.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- “Go with your gut — even if others try to persuade you otherwise”. My biggest mistakes I have made in my business career so far is when I have let others persuade me to do something different than what my intuition was saying. Of course, the cerebral cortex plays a part in decision-making but if more leaders learned to listen to their intuitive side more they would make better decisions. (Interestingly recent research has shown neural connections between the gut and the brain, so they may even be a physical side to ‘gut instinct’). One of the times I have done this resulted in us choosing the wrong third-party manufacturer for a new brand we were creating. On paper they were a great fit, but I had a nagging feeling when meeting with their directors, but let others persuade me they were the best option. We signed the paperwork and a month later the company went out of business.
- “Recruit the best people even when you think you can’t afford them.” Good people will always save you the extra you may need to pay them. It is a false economy to not recruit and pay for the best. After several years of largely doing this, I finally saw the light and started to recruit better people for important positions from outside the company; the value they brought and changes they made built the platform for our current steep growth curve.
- “Delegate as much as possible.” I have an innate trust of people and have always found it easier to delegate, but subject to point 2 above, having the right people, I would have delegated even more. Companies tend to pull people into the detail, but it is so important to stay out of the detail if you are to become a successful leader. Trust and delegation empower people; the Covid pandemic has helped some leaders who didn’t trust their people to trust them to be productive whilst working at home. There was a nervousness even amongst some people I know back in March 2020, but the reality is that most people are good people and want to do a good job, so left to their own devices in lockdown, they did! We will have better companies post-Covid than before where leaders have embraced this reality.
- “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” A lesson I am still learning, but the ability to know in very difficult situations that strength and resilience is being built and that a company will come out of difficult times stronger than before is great to know. One rider to this though is that just knowing this may not be enough, I think leaders need to go through this to really believe it. As a company we went through a very difficult third-party warehouse move in August 2019. Our motivations were good, the move was going to significantly reduce our carbon impact, but everything that could go wrong went wrong. There was lots of stress and many tears, but everyone pulled together and showed much resilience. I believe the resilience we built in 2019 enabled us to react quickly in the pandemic at the beginning of 2020 and resulted in tremendous growth.
- “Compassion, vulnerability and empathy are some of the most important characteristics for a good leader.” When I was younger I thought leadership in business was similar to the leadership I had done on the football field or in the Rowing Eight. It was about being strong, not showing emotions and putting on a show for others. It isn’t. Well, it isn’t for the best leaders. That kind of leadership distances the leaders from the people they are leading. God leadership in business is about being vulnerable and showing our emotions. It is about being human and because the people in our companies are also human (!) they will have more respect for us if they know that we are like them. I have no issue in shedding tears from time to time in team meetings; that doesn’t make me a weak leader, it makes me a better and more authentic leader.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Well, I am proud to be an ambassador for the B Corp movement, which is achieving great things, but you are looking for something here that isn’t happening already. We live on a planet that we are destroying and where there is increasing inequality, so how about I inspire a movement in the political space that makes it illegal in all nations for shareholder primacy to exist. All companies have to exist for the benefit of all their stakeholders rather than just the stakeholders, and companies that don’t will be subject to having to pay for reparation. Or maybe large corporations will have to pay for reparation now for the damage they have done over the past decades.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“What counts is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead” Nelson Mandela
Learning that the test of a ‘successful’ life is not the size of the houses we live in, the cars we drive or even the amount of money we leave to our children in our wills has been a profound lesson to learn. Real success is having as many people as possible say at our funerals how much their lives were positively impacted by what we said to them or what we did for them. It is our compassionate action that lives the most lasting legacy.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I would have loved to have had breakfast or lunch with Nelson Mandela, but that is clearly not possible. Second best would be to spend time with Richard Stengel who spent much time with Mandela, wrote his own book about him and also collaborated with the great man in writing his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom”