25th February 2016
Leadership in Action Series: Karen Hester, Chief Operating Officer, Adnams
Karen joined Adnams in 1988 as a part-time cleaner. Today, as Chief Operating Officer, she is responsible for over 400 employees, ensuring the smooth running of all day-to-day operations at Adnams Brewery, Hotels, Pubs and Cellar & Kitchen Stores.
Karen won East of England Business Woman of the Year in 2008 and First Women Business of the Year in 2013. Most recently, Karen became the first woman to be appointed to the Adnams Board as an Executive Director. Karen was awarded an Honorary Degree by University Campus Suffolk (UCS) in 2015. In 2009 Karen became a magistrate and in her spare time enjoys spending time with her family and is regularly found on the terraces at Ipswich Town Football Club.
Like any of the fine Adnams beverages, Karen’s leadership is a precise blend of commercial acumen and people-centered leadership. Read on to discover more about Karen’s approach to leading and engaging the workforce.
How would you describe your approach to leadership?
My approach to leading the business is based around being inclusive drawing on values of honesty, openness, and transparency.
My first role at Adnams was a part-time cleaner (1988), since then I have undertaken many roles within the company and have a real understanding of the business from a firm hands-on perspective. I place significant value on relationships and engagement with all employees that work for Adnams.
I know all the names of the people under my business operation along with information and personal interests; it supports me with engaging with all team members. We have an open dialogue which grows employee engagement. It is obvious, but engaged employees lead to better decision making which has commercial benefit to the business.
One of the approaches I use is called ‘snack and chat’. It’s now part of our work culture. I meet team members in small groups and we literally eat some snacks and just chat. I’ll answer any questions raised, anything goes.
Sounds simple, because it is! As a leader taking the time to speak to employees is invaluable. It provides me with real-time learning and perspective that contributes to running the business.
Some might say that being close to the team makes difficult or unpopular decisions harder. I disagree. My team knows exactly what to expect from my leadership and would say that my decisions are fair, informed and objective.
I’m a leader that takes time to understand my team and not afraid to show my own emotion. Holding a senior role doesn’t mean that I am any different from my team.
Respect is a value I place importance on. You have to earn respect. On induction, I meet all new employees. If they are based at the distribution centre they come in my office, sit on a chair and we just chat. I get involved where needed, whether it be pulling pints at an event or making coffee for a busy team.
I always say that “if the cleaner doesn’t do his/her job properly, you have unhappy customers”. Whatever role the team have they are a cog in a large wheel. The customer is at the heart of everything we do.
As a leader adopting a style that connects me with the workforce has positive commercial benefits from employee accountability, creativity, smarter decision-making, employee retention, positive employer branding and increased productivity.
How have you approached your own leadership effectiveness?
Learning is integral to how I lead the business. I left school at 16 years old and joined the British Army specialising in logistics. My military experience opened my eyes up to the role of people management and leadership.
Qualifications through evening college courses informed my early years in operational roles. As I have progressed my career more informal arrangements have proved invaluable.
My boss (Andy – Chief Executive) has been my mentor for a number of years. Over the years we have both moved forward in different roles and I have experienced having a mentor with whom I can discuss a range of work and development issues.
Having an external coach has also been highly developmental and supported me in gaining more self-awareness that has improved my effectiveness as a leader. our management group. I attend the same development days as my managers. My attendance demonstrates that I am still keen to learn. As leaders, you never stop learning and can always do something better!
Keeping up to date with operations is a component of learning. I keep connected with the shop floor, I’ll pack boxes in the warehouse and clear down tables in a hotel; this approach allows me to keep my finger on the pulse and make better informed business decisions. People feel part of the decision-making, owning the solutions.
Learning should also be extended to learning about your people. The workforce at Adnams is diverse across a range of specialist roles. I make it my job to know all peoples names as well as a few personal facts. It supports being able to talk freely to people and to engage on local issues and build a better business.
I actively support people taking part in other interests that cross-over into work. For example, I am a Magistrate; my training and development is transferable to my work such as being objective and improvement to my critical reasoning skills.
How have you continued to evolve your leadership throughout your tenure at Adnams?
When you work your way up, you may become the boss of the person you previously worked with. As an internal promotion, you have to work harder to gain respect.
You have to invest more in building new or different relationships given the dynamic shifts when you take on more accountability. As a leader, I have put emphasis on really understanding the impact my behaviour and leadership style has on others. This requires some honest self-reflection to understand ‘you’!
I remember my first management job; line management to 28 male colleagues. I had to find a way of connecting and football was our medium. Over the years I have learned to stay authentic and never distract from being myself. The way I lead the business has a direct impact to the bottom line. Engaging at a human level enables the people that work for me to choose behaviours that have commercial value such as being open and honest, wanting to get up in the morning and do a great job. After 18 months’ service employees become a shareholder. Commercially our employees think like shareholders and are accountable for driving the business forward regardless of role or location.
In 2015 I joined the Adnams Board. I am still the same person as I was. Sometimes leaders underestimate the impact they have on others.
Any final tips or techniques you would like to share?
My top three tips are:
1) Be authentic in your leadership, don’t lose the ‘you’ factor.
2) Never stop learning; also recognise that sometimes experiences inform you what not to do! Show humility.
3) Connect with your people, find out who they really are, what they are interested in, what makes them tick so you can maximise their true potential.