Building Successful Businesses podcast: Martyn Phillips MBE, EP1

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Welcome back to Series 3 of ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses. In the first part of our series chatting to Martyn Phillips MBE, we ask him about whether his HR background changed his leadership style when he became CEO at B&Q, and why he believes imposter syndrome can be a good thing.

Listen to Episode 1.1: 

Available on Apple Podcasts:


Fiona: Welcome to ECI’s podcast, “Building Successful Businesses,” where we speak to business leaders about the building blocks of their success, and what they’ve learned along the way. I’m Fiona Moore, and today I’m joined by Martyn Phillips MBE, who was CEO at B&Q before becoming CEO of Welsh Rugby Union, and today is a Non-Exec Director and Chair for a number of companies, including some of ECI’s portfolio. Martyn, hi! It sounds like a varied and fascinating career!

Martyn: Yes, very much so. That’s not something I particularly planned, which is sort of shame on me, really. But I feel like I’ve had three different careers.

Fiona: What did you learn from sort of the world of retail?

Martyn: I started working for WHSmith straight from university, so I went on to a graduate programme with them. I then joined Kingfisher after four years and did about 20 years there. So, in total, that’s 25 years in retail. I think the bit I loved about it is obvious. It was very, very people-centric. So, you’re always talking about big numbers, big teams and large groups of people to mobilise, and lots of customers as well. So, 5 million customers a week, which clearly places huge stresses on any business to try and get that running in the direction you want, so a brilliant grounding really from a leadership point of view.

Fiona: When you became CEO of B&Q in 2011, was that always the plan, that you always saw yourself being a CEO at some point?

Martyn: Genuinely not. I was in HR for quite a long time, so I probably did 15-odd years in that. I enjoyed it, I didn’t particularly have plans to do anything different. But while I really enjoyed HR, I did always have that feeling of being slightly one step removed, so I really tried to immerse myself in the business and got close to the customer experience side. I always felt a little bit – not quite a fraud – but I wanted to have the weight of the accountability really. I guess my break came when the then-CEO literally out of the blue asked me if I would be the Retail Director. I’d never run a shop, never mind all the shops. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was on a Friday, and I said to him, “You know, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Because I was his HR Director! And he said, “Well, okay, well, I think you need to rethink that, and I’ll give you the weekend.” Then I spoke to a bunch of people, and I thought, do you know what? I’ll never get a chance like this again. So, I went for it. And I think of all the jobs I’ve ever done, I think that was the job I was best at. I just really, really enjoyed leading the stores and 30,000 people. Trying to get everybody really motivated, and behind the cause was probably my favourite job, really.

Fiona: Why do you think you enjoyed, and maybe still enjoy that side of it so much in terms of kind of leading those stores and leading people?

Martyn: That’s the thing, isn’t it? I think whatever business you’re in, it literally comes down to how you get as many people as possible motivated towards a certain direction – helping them to understand their part in it. I’m a big believer in the individual, and how you get the best out of the individual. I just don’t believe in broad-brush-type approaches to leadership. So, finding a way to really switch on the people who serve the customers, helping the people who run the stores in that instance to run those to the best of their ability. And this is back to my point about people. We used to call it ‘getting 30,000 noses pointing in the same direction.’ You’ll never crack it. But if you can get the majority of those pulling in the direction, understanding the mission – I don’t mean as in the company mission – but what’s the mission of the day almost? I don’t see any other way of doing it. Every business, in the end, will come down to you’ve got your human resources, and whether they are motivated and lined up behind what you’re trying to do?

Fiona: On this podcast, we often talk to business leaders about their different journeys to becoming CEO, and how that impacts the type of leader they become. You obviously went from an HR Director role to then moving into that leadership role. It sounds like that had quite a big influence in terms of your style of leadership, and how you want to motivate people. Do you agree with that? Do you think that changed your perspective in terms of leadership style?

Martyn: I don’t think it did. In some ways, it was easier, because I think as an HR Director, you can see where the performance is coming, where it isn’t, and what’s getting in the way of it. People tend to disclose quite a lot of things to you, so you’ve kind of got all this information, but not, frankly, the authority to do something about it. So, when I moved into the Retail Director role, and then CEO, I felt like, for the first time, I had an opportunity to really make a difference, and to address some of the things that were getting in the way of performance.

So, I really, genuinely found it easier in those roles than being in an influencing role. But equally, I had impostor syndrome as well. I knew that people were looking and sort of saying, “huh, you know, the HR guy has got the retail job, we’ll see how this goes”. I was very aware of that. But I’d like to think that I’ve always been a performance person, so if there was one thing that was always a passion for me, was that it was great that you’ve got a plan, and I love the PowerPoint, but it’s all about performance. And I think I was always quite rigorous around that, good and bad. I just had a thing for it.

Fiona: And you mentioned impostor syndrome there, and actually, we’ve heard that quite a lot from people who’ve moved from different roles, especially the less typical routes to CEO. How did you overcome impostor syndrome? Have you overcome impostor syndrome?

Martyn: I don’t think you ever do. I think insecurity drives a lot of it. We all have to recognise that for some of us, it’s 20%, and for some of us, it’s 80%. But I made peace with that because I knew it was driving me. I think it made me better. I never thought, and to this day never think that I’ve cracked it. I probably spend too much time thinking about where didn’t I show up well enough there, what would I do differently, and how would I do that better next time? So, I think it’s healthy to a point, but obviously, you can go beyond that, and then it becomes debilitating. So, I would always make peace with it, but also try and keep perspective, and realize that you never actually crack these jobs, and that’s okay.

Fiona: That was Martyn Phillips MBE, discussing how working in HR and retail impacted the type of leader he became, and why impostor syndrome can be a good thing. In the next episode, we discuss his move into the world of the Welsh Rugby Union, how those working in sports deal with criticism and scrutiny, and what it’s taught him about business more broadly.

Listen to the next episode here:

About the author

Fiona Moore

"I take a lead on progressing ESG initiatives for ECI and its portfolio, and sit on ECI’s ESG Committee. There is a huge opportunity for companies that can take a lead on areas such as D&I and sustainability, and ESG is now intrinsic to running a successful business. I also manage marketing activity across ECI and you may recognise me as the host of ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses."

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