Apr 04 2018| Leadership | Values

Redefining the Cs of Leadership

Interview with Justin King, CBE

by Phil Eyre Founder

We recently hosted a leadership event in Guernsey, interviewing Justin King CBE on what makes for great leadership. Justin is Vice Chair and head of Portfolio Business at Terra Firma, one of Europe’s largest private equity firms. He was previously the Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s (2004 to 2014). Justin has an engaging and honest style that resonated with the business leaders in the audience. Listen to a podcast of the full interview here.

As Justin described his experiences, I was struck by his re-framing of classic approaches to leadership. Rather than assert a command and control approach, as might be expected of someone with his experiences, Justin presented us with some challenging thinking. I have summarised his key messages into a set of leadership “Cs”.


1.     Challenge

When asked about his most formative leadership experiences, Justin referred to his early career at Mars Confectionery. The Mars approach to graduate development was to quickly expose their people to real-life, business challenge. Deliberately placing people at the sharp end, the business expected people to rise to the challenge. But crucial to this expectation was also the understanding that first-time failure was OK if it led to growth. ‘Too many business structures are designed to prevent people from making any mistakes at all, but in fact, the big leaps of progress are made through making mistakes,’ said Justin.

Justin's insight resonates with our work with leadership teams. Creativity flows when people are set up to succeed, which includes room to foster curiosity and experimentation. This approach is not about permitting poor performance - even at Mars, there was no room to make the same mistake twice. It is about enhancing performance via experimentation and improvement. 

Challenge also implies stretch, rather than comfort. Working hard to achieve challenging objectives can, with the right conditions, be extremely motivating.  These conditions include healthy feedback - praise when it’s due and critique that is both direct and empathetic. 

Feedback and goal-setting also need to be frequent, appraising as a matter of course rather than at six-monthly formal scoring sessions.

These questions will help you to consider whether you are establishing a positive challenge for your people: 

-    Do I set high-level objectives or provide every detail and parameter for my team?

-    When did a team member last make a mistake? Am I creating enough room for innovation in my business?

-    How does feedback happen in my organisation? What can I do to be clearer and more timely whilst ensuring that my team knows that I care for them?

-    Have we become too comfortable, working hard but focussed on the familiar? Do we need to rediscover the positive impact of achieving more stretching goals?


2.  Colleagues

People perform at their best when they are treated with respect. Respect provides the basis for trust, the key ingredient for high performing teams. 

‘Practically no-one gets up and decides that they want to do a bad job. If they are failing, it’s probably your fault and not theirs,’ he said. 

At Sainsbury’s, Justin referred to everyone as colleagues, not staff, as a way to communicate his belief that everyone was working together to achieve their challenging objectives.  

Personal values will strongly influence our behaviour with other people and the impact that we make. A leader that believes in respecting others, will respect others. Values are not for walls and screensavers - they are for hearts and minds, reflected in everyday actions. 

‘If you value equality in your business, you can’t have one person turn left when they get on a plane and everyone else turn right,’ said Justin. 

Values must be lived.

Leaders that distance themselves from the people at the front-line quickly lose a sense of how the business is truly performing. 

Justin described his incredulity at an episode of Channel 4’s Undercover Boss, when a CEO went undercover despite leading a team of less than 30 staff. 

Being visible is not about self-promotion, but recognising and encouraging the people that are making the business work. In his current role as Head of Portfolio Business at Terra Firma, Justin has spent a week on a cattle ranch in Australia - one of the investments in the Terra Firma portfolio. This will enable him to bring the best advice and interventions to the business, seeing issues and opportunities that a remote, financial analysis would miss.

Prioritising colleagues and customers will generate optimum long-term returns. Justin noted that too often, business leaders are focussed on maximising short-term returns to try to please and appease shareholders. However, this is often at the expense of colleagues and customers, resulting in a deteriorating in shareholder value over the long term as talent and clients leave the business. Place the right people first, and the returns will follow.


3. Confidence and Courage

Confidence is a critical ingredient for effective leadership. Confident leaders take risks and lead with the courage of their convictions. They are not easily swayed by distractions or the negative opinions of others. However, for confidence to be a productive skill, it needs to be woven together with humility. Otherwise, hubris and ego will rapidly derail personal and business success.

Justin King describes it like this:  ‘To be a brilliant leader, you do have to have a deep, inner confidence that you are the right person to do the job, combined with humility and some basic insecurity to understand that you need other people to do a better job.’

This sounds like a contradiction, but in fact, expresses the key difference between productive confidence and destructive arrogance. Some of the best leaders are not the most technically proficient. They are the ones that know what they don’t know and are keen to bring skilful people to their team. 

Confident leaders point their competitive energy outside of their own boardroom, building trust and respect with their own team rather than silos and personal fiefdoms.

The importance of personal values is once again brought into focus. Confident leaders know their ‘red lines’, the things that they are not prepared to do regardless of the potential benefits to them or their business. This points to a servant-leadership ethos, whereby high-conviction decision making is informed by a set of personal values, at the heart of which is a desire to make a positive impact on other people. By implication, confident leaders are high in integrity.

When working with our clients, we explore these questions to help understand and build confidence:

-    Who is it that you serve? Who’s lives, or what aspect of the environment, are you improving?

-    How does your work connect with and reflect your unique purpose in life?

-    When was the last time you recruited someone better than you?

-    What will bring you a sense of satisfaction when you’re successful in this business?

-    What do you do to keep your ego in check?


Command and control approaches to leadership might have worked in the past (although we’d argue differently). Today’s volatile and uncertain world requires a better, more human approach. Leaders that decide with conviction and implement with compassion. Our mission is to advance such leadership. Contact us today to find out how.

About The Author | Phil Eyre

Phil is Leaders’ founder. He has an enthusiastic and inspiring style, drawing on his experience in business, academia and social sectors to help any leadership team to achieve phenomenal performance. Phil has sophisticated expertise in psychometrics and in the application of human data for individual, team and organisational success. He has trained with, and been mentored by, global leaders in this field, notably Dr Chuck Coker in the US. Phil began his career in the UK offshore finance industry in 1994, working for a wealth management company in Guernsey, Collins Stewart (CI) Limited, now Canaccord Genuity Wealth International. Phil was head of the company's Guernsey division, with a staff of 120 and assets under management of £4.5billion before resigning from executive responsibilities in 2008. Phil has served on the boards of three charities, including BMS World Mission, a UK charity with over 80 employees and a global reach. Phil also ran the Guernsey hub of a national theology college, received accreditation as a pastor in the Baptist Union of Great Britain and served as a non-executive director for Canaccord Genuity Wealth International. Phil is a member of the NED Forum and the Institute of Directors.

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