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Equality is win-win in business

Andrew Thornton, co-founder of Heart in Business and former owner of Thornton’s Budgens, shares how equality drives efficacy in business
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This article first appeared in our International Women’s Day issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published on 08 March 2023. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

I’ve spent the last 10+ years working out how businesses can become more effective at delivering a socially useful purpose.

I started this journey after a midlife crisis caused me to buy a couple of supermarkets in London and set up Thornton’s Budgens (TB). Today, I can look back with real clarity on my strategic process.

Bringing purpose to business

First off, you need to understand your driver for being in business.

Mine was about showing the world that there was a better way to run a business than the short-term profit focus that dominates most businesses – an open-hearted way.

Then, you can develop a meaningful purpose – ours was ‘we are the community supermarket that really cares about people and planet’.

That was actually the easy part! We then engaged the whole team in developing a set of values, which we called ‘heartsets’, that would deliver our purpose.

Without realising the significance, we developed a set of habits that would shape our behaviour to deliver those heartsets – which included ‘we acknowledge and appreciate’ and ‘I listen and learn’.

It wasn’t about the words; our focus was on how we were going to live these habits day in and day out.

Active listening

The habits we identified to drive our behaviour included ‘giving appreciation daily’, ‘active listening’ and ‘being on the pitch, not in the stands’.

The last one was my personal favourite; it meant everyone was encouraged to take responsibility.

In our weekly operations meeting, the deli manager could take one of two approaches: he could say, ‘I’m aware that the sales in my area are down and we need to do something. I’m not sure what the issue is, and I’d love your help in coming up with some ideas.’

Alternatively he could say, ‘Yes, I know sales are down – Fred and Mary aren’t up to the job and now that Morrisons also has a deli, what can we do?’

Can you feel the difference?

Again, you could argue that this was the easy stuff; it’s easy to say we are going to get in the habit of ‘active listening’, but far harder to do it!

Authentic leadership

In parallel with setting up TB, I had founded Heart in Business – the purpose of which is ‘to help you discover the habits you need to develop to become a more effective leader’.

We had developed our ‘Stepping into your Authentic Leadership’ training programme – which, guess what, was designed to teach leaders the habits they needed to open their hearts and be more effective!

Among other things, we taught the team active listening – again easy to say, really hard to do, as us humans seem to much prefer to talk than to listen!

What gets measured gets done, and the final piece of the jigsaw was to track how leaders change, which we did with our HEART Culture Model.

What actually happened during this process was quite extraordinary.

Stakeholder wins

As with many supermarkets, Thornton’s Budgens was highly culturally diverse; at one point, with two stores and 150 employees, over 50 different nations were represented on the team.

Everything we did was a real leveller; everyone had the chance to shine and bring the best of themselves to work every day.

We ended up with an approach we called self leadership: two female co-leaders and a leadership team that was 75% women, with me as the only white man on it.

It turned out that this team was highly effective, and we were able to make a positive impact on each of our key stakeholders – our customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders, community and the planet.

We changed, to quote former Tesco CEO Dave Lewis, ‘the relationship between supermarkets and plastic globally’ through our plastic free campaign, and inspired some of our smaller suppliers to change as well.

We won loads of awards in the process and found we were loved by our customers.

I, as the 100% shareholder, made a good living, and the team got the chance to share in our rewards by receiving 50% of our profits.

We achieved what I now believe to be the end game – a win-win culture.

Well actually, it’s a win-win-win-win-win-win culture – one win for each stakeholder!

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