Greenleaf Conference: Ella Heeks

[If you haven’t connected with the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership on Facebook, now’s the time!]

From the Greenleaf Center website:

Ella Heeks is the former Managing Director of Abel & Cole, an organic delivery service in England.  Ms. Heeks studied politics and economics at Oxford University to understand the systems producing the environmental catastrophe of global warming so she could find the most constructive role for her to play.  She started with Abel & Cole when it was struggling, and grew the company until it was delivering to over 25,000 customers each week. Heeks is currently a consultant who helps ethical entrepreneurs to grow their businesses in ways that clearly benefit people and the environment. Her clients come from sectors as diverse as fashion, food, transport, and training.

In a rousing introduction, we also learned that Ella Hicks is a cyclist and a climber, apparently with lofty ambitions.

After an overview of Abel & Cole’s company and services, Ms. Hicks offered five tips – beginning with “things you could do on Monday morning,” – based on stories from her time at Abel & Cole as examples of how we might continue “putting people and ethics at the heart of your organization.”

1. What’s good for your supplier is good for you.
Ms. Heeks told the story of Abel & Cole’s loan to a struggling apple grower, and how that partnership led to excellent opportunities for both parties.

Attendees discussed in pairs these three questions:
Who is your most important supplier? What do they need? How can you help them?

2. Person first, role second
Examples in this category included discovering a great person, but Abel & Cole had no specific role for her. “We put her in the marketing department.” The next example was a company role – someone who could work with suppliers – and her struggles to find someone to fill this role in a manner consistent with Abel & Cole’s philosophy. After three unsuccessful hires, she turned to the first person who had the right character – who would think like a customer – and helped her grow into a buyer. “Since then, I’ve always hired for attitude, and trained for skill.”

Discussion: Do you have any great people who could take on bigger roles in your organization?

3. Give your customer a LOUD VOICE!
Ms. Heeks discussed her realization that controlling the company was less helpful than empowering Tina (head of customer service) to “speak for the customer, wherever the customer was having a problem.” Tina in turn empowered her customer service team to do what was necessary to handle complaints. “It was like we had a dozen customers on the rampage inside our company.”

Discussion: Who speaks up for your customers? Is their voice loud enough?

4. Involve front line staff with your big decisions
The story of a marketing leaflet implementation done without consulting the drivers – “who would know better than me where the leaflets should go” – reveals the importance of Greenleaf’s insistence on “listening first.” A year later, the company had more than doubled its corps of drivers to manage its growth.

Discussion: what’s the biggest problem/decision/plan you are working on at the moment? How will you involve your front line staff?

5. Let people choose their leaders…and give them lots of support.
When the Abel & Cole drivers were empowered to choose their leader, they chose Todd, who Heeks considered “one of the most difficult people…he’s not even in this picture [of the drivers] because ‘he’s got deliveries to do.'” Upon investigation, she discovered that Todd was a true servant leader who had made tremendous contributions to the company through mentoring and assisting new drivers. Ms. Heeks stressed that the company provided Todd with “a lot of support”. Allowing staff to choose their own leaders works only when supported with sufficient training.

Ms. Heeks turned next to “some practical ways to put ethics at the heart of your organization, [starting] with the big resources…It’s easy to figure out what the big resources are. They cost money.”

Discussion: what are your organization’s three biggest costs?

For Abel & Cole, the three biggest costs were “food [about half], staff, and transport.”

1. Food

Abel & Cole brainstormed the ethical issues surrounding food, identified Abel & Cole’s activity around that issue, and created a policy for buyers that directed purchasing power in support of the company’s ethics. This process was quite rigorous – and happened nearly entirely “behind the scenes.”

Discussion: What’s your biggest resource? How can you use it more ethically?

2. Staff

Staff policies at Abel & Cole changed as the company grew, and surveys of the new staff revealed a changing set of employee needs. Creating ways to hear the employees’ needs – and meeting those needs – were necessary before Abel & Cole began winning awards for quality of work environment.

Discussion: what’s your organization’s second biggest resource? How can you manage it more ethically?

3. Transport
Running vans on recycled oil was a natural choice (no pun intended) for Abel & Cole’s delivery vans. The important indicator for this change became carbon per pound [money, not weight] of sales. The company realized that delivery from the farms to the warehouse was also part of the equation, which led to Abel & Cole developing pickup directly from their growers. Creating systems for such things – and understanding systematic impact – is fundamental to a servant leader’s responsibility.

Discussion: What’s the third resource on your list? How can you use it more ethically?

While establishing Abel & Cole as a company with ethics and people at its heart, their profit skyrocketed. Additionally, the company’s organic approach to leadership grew effective leaders from humble backgrounds.

Ms. Heeks opened the floor to questions.

A. Was there resistance to people choosing their leaders?

“It was a bit of a shock. Everyone in our organization had preconceived ideas about leaders…and didn’t necessarily trust one another….The idea needed explanation at times…My role changed to validating and informing.”

B. How did you handle the employee survey?
“I asked some rating questions, and some open questions. It was a lot of space for people to just write and tell me what they thought. Suggestion boxes led to the same people making suggestions; it was the silent majority I really wanted….It was impossible to do everything overnight, but I wanted people to know a response would happen.”

C. How did you leave Abel & Cole?
“My mission…was to create a positive example of how food could be sold. I expected [creating a national company] to be the work of a lifetime, but it happened so quickly….I found [helping others get ethical ventures off the ground] satisfying, and I wanted to give that my full attention.”

“[Succession as head of Abel & Cole] took a long time. I gave myself two years to exit the business. I really needed that much time.”

D. Did you ever have selection of a leader that didn’t work out? How did you manage it?
“I had a guy chosen because he was really popular, and he had a really bad temper. The people who felt disliked by him felt almost bullied by him. He was a popular person, but not an inclusive leader. To me, this was an opportunity to develop him as a person. This stretched the role I had to coach new leaders in their roles. Almost always, when a person got put in a position of leadership, they would confront their own [weaknesses]. I also continue to grow as a leader.”

E. Were you just making this up as you went along?

“I became CEO at 23…fresh from Oxford…with the people I was managing twice my age. I think servant leadership was a survival response in that situation! It was a natural thing to do. There was no way I could be accepted as a leader [otherwise]. It was a piece of good fortune that this was the first thing I did – I had no preconceived notions as I went along – and I had to engage them as a leader.”


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