Mark Hewlett of 2San Group: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Be visible — during the Test & Trace days, I held an organisation wide Teams meeting every day for 18 months at 0900 to communicate previous day performance and focus for the next 24 hours (sometimes even at weekends).
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Hewlett.
As Global CEO, Mark Hewlett leads the 2San Group Executive team, having recently joined from the UK Health Security Agency, where he was Chief Operating Officer for the Government’s testing programme.
Mark was instrumental in the UK’s fight against the Covid-19 virus and created an organisation at the forefront of diagnostic capabilities worldwide. As an internationally experienced leader, Mark is used to operating in complex environments, and working within public, private and government organisations.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My back story starts in family business, and I am a fourth-generation retailer. My great grandmother owned a tobacconist kiosk on the Liverpool docks which my grandfather inherited and ran once he’d returned from active service in WW2. He grew the business to a few kiosks and newsagents in and around Liverpool, but my father decided to go it alone, starting a market stall at the weekends in the 1970s (he was a PE teacher in the week). This quickly became more lucrative than teaching and he decided to leave teaching and open his first clothes shop in the early 80s, growing a successful family business that he only recently retired from. My youth was spent in my father’s business with most weekends and school holidays seeing me doing something for the old man, whether that was working in one of the shops, processing deliveries in the warehouse or driving delivery vans. Once I’d been to university and then travelled for a while, I had a decision to make to join the family business or like my father, go it alone. I chose the latter and joined Lidl (then the relatively unknown and somewhat bizarre German discounter) on their first ever graduate intake programme in February 2001.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Six weeks after joining Lidl as a fresh face and naïve “graduate” I was sent to a newly opened store in the middle of what was then Europe’s largest council housing estate in Bentilee, Stoke-on-Trent. The manager of the store had recently been attacked outside the store and was understandably taking some time off to recover. The day I arrived, someone drove into the store entrance on a motorbike and proceeded to drive around the store for 5 minutes until I finally persuaded him to leave, you could say it was a baptism of fire! At that time, Lidl undertook a physical store inventory count every 6–8 weeks, meaning the entire store team closed the store at 8pm and then physically counted every single item in the store, even the carrier bags (which even back then Lidl charged for). This could take anywhere between 4 and 6 hours and was extremely manual and painful. After completing the dreaded “inventory” I closed the store and drove back to my hotel which should have been no more than 20 minutes away. Two hours later I was somewhere on the outskirts of Birmingham, had been “flashed” by 2 speed cameras and was utterly delirious at 3am. I phoned my parents and bawled my eyes out, questioning my sanity for ever deciding to join Lidl. What did I take away from this? Resilience, strength of character and a determination to not let things beat me no matter what happens.
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?
Dan Ronald is currently Group Managing Director at ALDI UK and I worked for him between 2006 and 2010 when he was Regional Managing Director in Neston on the Wirral. I joined ALDI directly from Lidl and at the time this was not only unheard of but highly controversial in the German discount world. Dan embraced my arrival as an opportunity for ALDI to learn from its most fierce of rivals and he actively sought to build my profile quickly within the organisation as he knew I was ambitious and keen to progress. However, it was his direct approach to my personal development that I benefited from most and he challenged me to better understand myself to progress. He asked me to read “What got you here won’t get you there” by Marshall Goldsmith which inspired me to further explore my personality and how aspects of it were preventing me from reaching my goals. Inadvertently, Dan set me on a path that resulted in me leaving ALDI, but I will remain eternally grateful for his support and guidance.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Our purpose and vision at 2San is “Better Care. Better Life.” We fundamentally believe that people lead better happier lives when they have access to affordable and high-quality health care products and services. 2San began life in the middle of the current pandemic because our founders and shareholders believed there was a better way to provide access to life saving products and services, and that, left alone the system would not right itself quickly enough. We are relentless in our pursuit of this vision and purpose and believe there’s a better way for patients and citizens to own their own health and make smart choices that are right for them and their communities.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
In August 2020 I was asked to become the COO of the UK’s Test and Trace programme, focussing on the testing operations across all 4 nations of the UK. This was an extremely daunting prospect and at the time it was fair to say, the country and the programme itself was in a full-blown crisis. Ultimately the programme employed (directly and indirectly) 65,000 people across test centres, logistics operations, within laboratories and central operational teams including innovation functions quickly stood up to find newer faster testing technologies. This was by far the biggest leadership challenge of my life and required stakeholder management on a level I may never experience again, answering directly to Secretaries of State, Ministers and ultimately Prime Ministers. The risks involved were enormous, the budget responsibility (taxpayers’ money) was acute and information flow was overwhelming. Times could not have been more uncertain or more difficult and my leadership qualities were tested hourly for 18 months. I could write several books on this topic of my career (one day I will), but if I could single out one thing from my leadership that helped the most, I never forgot that everyone on the programme had chosen to be there, to help their countries in their most darkest of hours and that at any time they could walk away and relive the unprecedented levels of stress and pressure that came with this 24/7 dedication. I chose to focus on the individual and I dedicated myself to their wellbeing. I firmly believe this brought further discretionary efforts across the board, more than anything else I did during my time working for government.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Every single day for 18 months, but I am inherently competitive, and I saw the virus as the competition. Perhaps I approached this from the naïve optimistic viewpoint of a retailer with no scientific, epidemiological, virological or public health background, but I believed we could improve our services every day, offering more tests to more people getting results back to them as quickly as possible, we could win over the virus and stop its spread. That sustained my drive right until the very end when politics and policy changed dramatically!
Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
“The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey” by Ken Blanchard and William Onken. I give this book to every member of my direct team, and I relentlessly pursue it’s application. I believe in the 5 Ds of high performance leadership:
Delegating to others
dealing with Distractions
making Decisions and
As a new company, at 2San we are creating a leadership development model around these principles and how they can inspire high performance in our teams. I credit this book above all others with a simple model that takes dedication and determination to apply effectively.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I touched on this earlier but just to reiterate, a leader must stay close and connected to their people when times are tough. Over communicating the mission, remaining visible, listening intently, and taking full accountability. These are qualities that see authentic leaders thrive in crisis.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I value the leaders who remain visible and communicate a lot. People need to understand what is going on and why decisions are being made. The ability to make decisions and own the risk, is also a vital trait leaders must possess during times of crisis, as nothing demotivates more than ponderous pontification when speed is required.
Leaders need to accept that they do not have all the answers and pretending to do so is quickly seen as lacking credibility. It is OK to say that you too have never experienced anything like this, but that togetherness and a strong sense of purpose are likelier to successfully navigate unchartered territory.
I also believe most humans enjoy exploring and finding out new things, I believe we are genetically programmed to take risks and step into the unknown. Leveraging this during difficult times and tapping into this sense of exploration boosts morale, fosters creativity and motivates people much more than the mundane day-to-day, isn’t that why people are drawn to start-ups?
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be honest, tell the truth and accept responsibility. Never personalise.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You can always make plans but like Mike Tyson is reputed to have said, “every opponent I ever faced had a plan to beat Mike Tyson until I punched him in the face.” Therefore, accept that plans fail, and failure is often an opportunity to learn and get better but be adaptable open minded and always alert. Like James Dyson failing 5,226 times with cyclonic vacuuming cleaning, his 5,227th attempt changed his world.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I honestly don’t think there is as it really depends on your company, its culture, the sector you are in and the competitors you face. That said, organisations that think longer term and less about pleasing short term shareholder demands, tend to prosper through turbulent times.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Making too many snap decisions in the short term that are driven by quarterly results. If I look to the air travel industry as a current bell weather, except for a few organisations like Ryan Air, most made immediate short-term decisions that they are now perhaps deeply regretting, especially when it came to their own people. They saw the culling of teams as an inevitability and an easier route to cost reduction and perhaps fiscal survival, but they failed to recognise that the world of “human resources” has altered fundamentally in the last 3 years. People are businesses they are not commodities of businesses, to exploit and manipulate at the whims of executives or shareholders. I recently returned from a summer break with the family and waited 2 hours at the baggage carousel because too many baggage handlers had been laid off during the pandemic and the ground handlers who made these decisions were now suffering the consequences, as were their vital customers. People have so many choices now and unemployment numbers are so low that companies need to cherish their people, develop them, and reward their hard work.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be visible — during the Test & Trace days, I held an organisation wide Teams meeting every day for 18 months at 0900 to communicate previous day performance and focus for the next 24 hours (sometimes even at weekends).
- Be authentic — I used to hate and avoid public speaking. I learned how to do it with a great coach, but I never hide from the fact that it still makes me nervous. Helping others understand this common phobia and how it can be overcome is something I really like to talk about.
- Take team wellbeing seriously — setting up sessions where openness, trust and complete vulnerability are OK is essential during tough times. People feel better after they have shared how they feel with others they can trust. I have run sessions on race relations, the menopause, mental health, physical fitness, yoga etc. It is now part of a leader’s portfolio to know and understand their people better.
- Over communicate — every Friday evening I post a VLOG to the 2San team via WhatsApp where I talk about the week that was and set up the week to come. I celebrate success, add the odd touch of humour, and challenge the team to deliver more.
- Stay on mission — the German discount retailers are absolute masters of this concept. Never wavering in their determination to lower the cost of groceries for their customers even avoiding online shopping for years when others thought them crazy. In the UK their joint share of the market now approaches 20%, this was deemed impossible by industry “experts” when I joined Lidl back in 2001! Unlike the ill-fated fighter pilot in Stars who was repeatedly told to “Stay on target!” the German discounters have done so and prospered.
Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Growing up, my uncle Shaun was a big influence on my life, especially how seriously I take health, fitness, and wellbeing. He always used to say to me “Mark, your health is your wealth.” I exercise 4–5 times a week, I eat a healthy diet that benefits myself and our planet and I read extensively about the latest developments in the fitness and wellbeing areas.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I post very regularly on Linkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/mark-hewlett-75465119/
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Mark Hewlett of 2San Group: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.