Empowering employees is easy... when you agree with them

"I wanted a culture of autonomy, but I had no faith in the product." Ella's Kitchen boss Mark Cuddigan tackles a modern leadership dilemma.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 02 Mar 2020

If the buck stops anywhere, it's with the CEO. It's their responsibility to set the direction, mitigate threats and steer the organisation towards its goals. As the ultimate decision maker in the company, you would therefore expect them to be an omnipresent cross-functional expert able to quickly grasp and dissect any business problem, any time. Right?

Not according to Mark Cuddigan, MD of the UK’s leading baby food brand Ella’s Kitchen. Since taking the helm of the £65m B Corp from founder Paul Lindley in 2014, he has worked hard to foster a culture of autonomy, that allows employees to take the lead and fundamentally make mistakes.

However when a decision pushed by the marketing team came at direct odds with his gut instinct, his method was put to the test.

"Our marketing team came up with this product called Melty Sticks. I really didn't think it was going to work. It was overly packaged, expensive and just didn't understand the consumer need for the product.

"In the back of my mind I was torn, I didn’t have any faith in the product, but I was trying to put forward this culture of autonomy and therefore have to be happy with mistakes happening otherwise we’ll never innovate.

"In the end we let it go through our product development process, it took a year and we invested a lot of resources into it.

"Every month the product would come in to the meeting, and I couldn't even make a face. I just had to grin and bear it, I genuinely thought it was going to be a mistake that we would learn from.

"Of course I was completely wrong. We launched the product and now it is our best selling out of 200. I took a pie to one of the marketing team meetings as way of eating humble pie.

"You've got to trust your team and even if it doesn't work out you've got to just dust down and work out what went wrong - and there are plenty examples where we’ve done that. At the end of the day the marketing team are the experts and they should know better than me what sells. The CEO can’t and shouldn't always know best."


If you want to find out more about what it takes to foster a culture of failure and more, read these pieces:

Image credit: Courtesy of Ella's Kitchen


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