Best Boss Series: Simon Baldry, Co-Founder and Director (UK)

Simon Baldry has worked in the corporate world for over 30 years in senior leadership roles for Mars, Cadbury Schweppes and Coca Cola Enterprises. He has lived and worked in the UK, Russia and Poland. He is now a founding partner of a new start-up launching a low alcohol drink called Woodstar offering a healthier way for adults to drink socially.

Tell me how you define a successful leader.

For me leadership is about articulating a compelling vision, setting a clear direction of travel and inspiring and motivating people to embark on the journey and make change happen. Successful leaders do this effectively to create more value, in the widest sense, than was being created before.

When in your career did you find you really began to be an impactful leader and what gave you proof of this?

My second big leadership role was as Regional MD for Cadbury’s in Eastern Europe. I had been appointed to deliver a recent acquisition case and integrate the Wedel business into our Eastern European operations, rebranding as Cadbury. However, it soon became clear that retaining the Wedel brand and using Cadbury’s expertise to resurrect this local iconic brand could achieve greater value. I took this to the Cadbury’s Board, a risk given we were in the days of global master-brands, and successfully argued my case. “Re-establishing Wedel as the leading brand” then became the rallying cry for the whole organisation and the means of inspiring our competing businesses to unite as one and implement the change plans required. We rebuilt the brand portfolio, created a far more effective organisation and delivered substantially more value than the acquisition case required.

Importantly we created a high performance, winning culture where all felt part of a successful, purposeful team.

Making this choice was bold at the time but definitely worth the risk. I am also proud of the legacy left, even though only those of us involved at the time know the reason why. Wedel is still a successful branded business in the market today, creating value for a different company that now stewards it and supporting the livelihoods of all the employees whose responsibility is to work on the brand today.

Who have been your greatest mentors? Were they a colleague or did you hire a professional coach? What about this person or the experience had the biggest impact on your growth?

I was very lucky to have a mentor appointed when I got my first MD role in Russia in 1996. Donal Byrne was the CEO and later Chairman of Cadbury’s Irish business. I got a huge benefit from his commercial acumen and his approach to leadership. At the time I was operating in very challenging business conditions and a long way from the Group’s centre. Having the ability to discuss issues through in a safe environment and to benefit from his experience and additional point of view was immensely valuable. What impressed me most were the commitment Donal had to his mentoring role and the time he was prepared to make available to me. Back then we didn’t have the technology available today. It was either by phone or getting on a plane to visit. Donal often made the trip to Moscow when the need was greatest and his focus on the personal touch has been something I have incorporated into my leadership approach and the investment I now make in mentoring myself. Donal remained my mentor thorough out my career at Cadbury’s, in both an official and unofficial capacity. Today, over 20 years later, we are still good friends and still meet up.

Common opinion states that in order to succeed in business one has to be ruthless. A quick survey of world’s most domineering companies seems to support that view. Do you think it’s possible to be very successful in business and still be a nice person?

I don’t think it’s about being nice. I think it’s about being clear on what your expectations are and being fair in the way you deal with people. I have always treated people the way I would like to be treated myself. If a situation isn’t working then lets discuss it straight away and find the appropriate solution.

Let’s talk about managing pressure – how do you control your own emotions and temper when things don’t go to plan? Not lashing out on those around you is a skill – what are your tips?

I have always asked my team that if things are not going to plan I would like to be the first to know. No surprises! I have plenty of experience of operating in difficult circumstances and so I am rarely phased by how bad things can get or the pressure it brings. I think if you approach things this way and talk it through together it makes the pressure for everyone a little easier to bear. However, when something does come from “left of field” I think you have a to take a deep breath and think through what you say before you react. As a leader your responsibility is to your team and it’s unlikely that your colleague will have intended to create the issue you have to deal with. If you can get past this initial reaction in a supportive way I think the bonds you build with your team are that much stronger.

Also from Best Boss series – Minter Dial: “You’ll only get established if you lay out what your legacy will be when you leave”.

At times, we all hit a low point. How do you motivate yourself?

I competed at sport internationally when I was younger and my teenage years were dedicated to relentless training. This built a lot of personal resilience and self-awareness – an ability to read myself and how I am feeling. In the corporate world this has helped me retain my perspective, even when low points have been reached. I think it is essential to never lose sight of your goal and to retain confidence even when you are taking the hits.

If you are clear on where you are going and you have built a strong team to get you there, you will succeed.

What are your top three book titles that were most impactful for your leadership development?

I like practical books that provide clear frameworks you can apply to your own circumstances and which stimulate you to think differently. The 3 books I still keep going back to today are:

Good to Great by Jim Collins. I love the concept of Level 5 Leadership, humble yet ferocious. Confront the brutal facts is a mantra I always remind myself when I embark on a new assignment and the Hedgehog Concept is a simple way of keeping at the forefront the core drivers of your success.

Eating the Big Fish by Adam Morgan. I love thinking about how you can win as a challenger brand, few of us get to work on market leaders. Or how you can change your thinking if you are the market leader! Particularly Build a Lighthouse Identity and Assume Thought Leadership of the Category.

Playing to Win by A.G Lafley and Roger Martin. This book is an excellent blueprint for creating value maximising strategies. I particularly like the focus on understanding your core capabilities and playing to your strengths.

Working in an organisation where business culture isn’t people oriented, how do create an environment where people want to work for you/in your department?

I have always set a vision or ambition and defined the direction of travel that my part of the organisation needs to take and I have tried to do this in a “story telling” manner that has inspired people to want to go on the journey. Always this has involved change and often required new structures, skills and capabilities. I have seen it as my responsibility to define the end destination and the speed with which we get there. However, I have looked to my team and employees in the organisation to recommend the exact detail of how we get there, empowering them to identify the change programmes they will then implement. I have also stewarded the change process, the steps I believe necessary for change to be implemented successfully.

The final step in my change map is “communicate, communicate, communicate” and this is another area where I have taken an active leadership role, although encouraging my team to do so too.

Finally I see it as my role together with my Finance Director to manage upwards and to do so in manner that seeks to keep the corporate pressure away from flowing downwards to the team and wider organisation. We provide the umbrella that lets the rest of the team get on with making the change happen we have planned.

Most large organisations today have a strict bonus and pay raise policy, which makes it difficult to reward people even when you know they truly deserve it. Have you found a way of dealing with this?

It’s difficult as pay is a highly emotive subject and paying for performance is essential to reward effort. With pay rises I have always worked within corporate guidelines but in the past we have done something different in Cadbury’s regarding bonus. For a number of years we ran a bonus scheme called “pay the tigers.” As part of our annual plans communicated to the senior management team we announced that exceptional performance would be rewarded ahead of corporate guidelines and under performance would be lower. At the end of the year the executive team then reviewed personal contribution and rewarded accordingly. The overall bonus pot earned by the business remained the same but allocations within were handled differently. For the years this ran it did motivate exceptional performances and no one left citing that this approach was unfair. But it didn’t last long and we were asked to realign with Group pay and bonus policy, despite the success of our scheme.

Also from Best Boss Series – Bronwyn Kemp: “As a leader, you’re the creator and manipulator of the world around you, you’re the gateway to your staff’s experience, happiness and productivity”.

Companies often refer to themselves as “family”, yet only a few supports their employees like a family supports its members – unconditionally. Aside from professional training, what support do you offer your employees?

I don’t recognise “family” as term that has been used. Other terms such as “winning” and “creating value” have been more widely used in my experience and these are not terms usually assigned to a family. However doing it in a manner where employees can contribute their best and get satisfaction and enjoyment from their role is essential. I am therefore a big fan of mentoring and encouraging senior managers to mentor junior employees at all levels through the organisation. In my experience both the mentee and the mentor can get a lot from an assignment and it is a great way of sharing experience and building bonds up and down the business.

Some managers believe in a strict hierarchy and the “do what I say approach”, sighting cultural norm as an excuse. What are your thoughts on this?

It’s not my style at all. Getting the most from people and celebrating with them their success is one of the most rewarding aspects of the role. It’s what motivates me!

Tell me how you decide what to delegate and to whom.

I think it is easier to say what I will not delegate! If you have worked to create a high performing team with a common purpose and clear roles and responsibilities then most things can be delegated. However I will not delegate the ambition and goals we are striving to achieve, the direction of travel or the time in which we need to get there. Essentially the what – the how is what we as a team need to work out and I am happy to play my role in achieving this as the team decides.

Team building has become a buzz word in the corporate world, yet many still do not see the value in applying it to their group or organisation. What are your beliefs and or successes around team building?

I think the most important task of a leader of a team is finding time to spend together discussing how the team will work with each other. Deciding why the team should get together and therefore defining its purpose. Agreeing how to “disagree well together” and determining it’s communicating style. Establishing the roles and responsibilities of each team member. This should be done through formal sessions where the leader and all team members participate together. After this I prefer as much social interaction as we can find the time for. Getting to know each other over a dinner or at an out of work event.

When it comes to morning or weekly briefings do you conduct those in person or via a memo?

We would hold weekly “lightning rounds” on a Monday morning. A short meeting in person for those who could attend or by phone or written report if team members were elsewhere. A concise update on all that was happening in the week ahead and how we could best work together.

How do you decide to be available to your team (i.e. text/Email/voice call/video call)? How do you determine the best way for them to contact you that does not interrupt your workflow?

I always prefer to speak in person if possible. I think making time for this is one of my first priorities. It is easier to judge issues when discussing first hand. Otherwise what ever way works for us both, given where we are and what is happening, as long as we communicating regularly together.

Also from Best Boss series – Andrey Seleznev: “A good leader can perform well only in an open and democratic environment, a leader nurtures and supports openness at work”.

How much do you value transparency of information at work? To what extent do you share information with your team?

I think transparency is essential. I would always prefer to make more information available rather than less if it is relevant to what we are doing together. I think all members of the team should be up to date on the latest status and know what is happening, good or bad. I would also try and make as much information available to the wider organisation through our monthly “stop the floor” routines where my top team would speak on current issues, in person to all present in the office and via email/video blogs to those out in the market. Of course there are confidences you need to keep and specifics you should not communicate to avoid putting employees in a position where they hold market sensitive information but there are ways to communicate the direction of travel that keeps everyone informed.

Also from Best Boss Series – Penelope Jones: “Leaders surround themselves with people they can learn from. “

How do you best separate work life from personal life – for a healthy balance? What are your biggest challenges around this? How does this impact you personally?

Surprisingly I found this easier whilst in my corporate past than in my current entrepreneurial role! For me I always saw the home doormat as the threshold I stepped over where I left work behind. Now I need to be honest and say that I would spend a significant amount of time travelling or in the office and so much of the task aspect of the role could be dealt with whilst in the work environment. However I could switch off from the pressures of work when home and did not feel the need to check email or voicemail until the next working day. The exception to this was whilst out running, still my most productive time for thinking, and where I could muse on issues or opportunities whilst working up a sweat!

Now that I am out of corporate and working on my own start-up from my home base it has become a lot harder to separate work from home life.

I still don’t suffer from the fear of missing out on matters or have a compulsion to keep checking my smartphone but with my office so close I am often finding myself back at my desk jotting away when I have some inspirational thoughts even though the work day is over.

Explain how you work with HR for recruiting and interviewing. What works for you and how do you handle the interviewing process for vetting candidates?

I have always worked very closely with my HR Director and saw this relationship as one of the most important on my team. Getting the right people on board is essential but also making sure you know what the temperature is in your business is critical too. As the MD getting to hear and feel this can be difficult and so I have looked to my HR Director for this guidance. Therefore when it comes to recruitment it has always been an area where I have worked closely with HR. From making sure the brief is correct to screening final candidates and then conducting interviews in a structured manner, we have shared the responsibility together.

Sometimes an employee is not working out despite your best efforts and you know that this relationship is not serving them or the business. At which point do you decide to part company and how do you go about it? 

As soon as you realise this! I think it is important to be honest and clear. If you are in this situation it is best for both parties to discuss openly as the business will not be getting the results required and most likely the employee will not be getting satisfaction from the role they should. Therefore an open conversation and a fair approach should be taken before the situation develops.