Mary Portas: "I've never been a manager, I don't do detail"

The retail consultant on alpha male cultures, the future of the high street and rising from the ashes of Brexit.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 03 Mar 2020

On her early influences:

My mother was my biggest influence. She ruled the roost at home. Every morning she’d get me and my four siblings out of bed and ready for school, she’d manage the home, do all the washing and cooking, then work in the evenings as a cleaner. She worked bloody hard – harder than any man I know – and yet in the eyes of the outside world, it was my dad who was "in charge". And it was dad who always had his dinner waiting on the table the moment he walked through the door.

I was also inspired by a local family friend (I called her "auntie"). She was a Brown Owl and hugely capable and caring. I remember thinking "I want to be a leader just like her".

I went to a Catholic school and it was my history teacher who really "discovered" me and put me on stage. Up until that point, I’d never felt that special: I wasn’t the eldest child in the family; I wasn’t the youngest; I wasn’t the only daughter. But he believed in me, he helped me find my own voice – and that’s what gave me self-confidence and won me a place at Rada.

On her toughest moments:

I lost my mother at 16. My older siblings had already left home and gone to university so, by default, I became the matriarch of the family.  I turned down my place at Rada and picked up the responsibility of looking after my younger brother Lawrence, who was 14 at the time. That was the most catastrophic and loneliest time of my life – but I didn’t let it defeat me. I had to step up.

I’m now approaching my 60th year and of course there have been times of grief, times when I’ve felt let down by people or disappointed with the world, and times when I haven’t felt "good enough". But those were the times when I grew the most.

On her biggest mistakes:

When I launched my own creative agency [Portas], I had a lot of interest from investors. I assumed I needed them (and their experience) so I took their cash. But I shouldn’t have. I knew my business inside out and I should have just grown it myself. I bought them all out a few years later – and that cost me. I could have bought another house with that money!

On alpha cultures:

From politics to finance, businesses have been built on an "alpha culture" that rewards risk rather than courage, and individualism instead of collaboration. The loudest voice has made it to the top and a whole raft of society, particularly women, has been alienated. Alpha leaders, at their absolute worst, made a lot of money, fucked over our planet and people, and then got knighted for it. 

We need to make a stand. We need to bring the softer, "feminine" powers of kindness, compassion, vulnerability, resilience and collaboration into the boardroom. And we need to make diversity essential to the way we run business.

On leadership:

I don’t think I’ve ever been a manager; I’ve always been a leader. I don’t do detail. I’m no good at performance reviews or KPIs. I’m not bothered about timesheets or whether my employees are working from home or in the office. I’m all about progress rather than activity. I’ve never been a party girl and I’m quite intense: I’ll beaver away at something until it gets done.

On staying sane:

I do yoga and meditate most mornings. I’m not a big worrier – but I’m not a great sleeper either. Some nights I’ll wake up at 2am so I’ll listen to a podcast.  I love Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time; The Shrink Next Door, 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy, Great Lives by Matthew Parris and Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin? I have a house in the Cotswold Hills and I write all my books and lectures from there.

On the high street:

When I wrote my report in 2011 on the future of Britain’s high streets, I talked about putting "social capital" back into the heart of our communities – an economy built on the stuff that we care about. Everyone went after me. They thought I was mad.

But it’s happening. The internet has fundamentally shifted not only how we consume but how we live.  The game is over for the big legacy retailers like House of Fraser and Debenhams, and the huge out-of-town supermarkets, all built around the construct of how fast, how big, and how quickly you can flog to the consumer.

It’s the small, instinctive, independent stores that will thrive on the high street. People want the stuff they can’t get online – the yoga studios, the crèches, the surgeries. People want to get out and connect.

On Brexit:

I’m a complete Remainer and I’m shamed by what’s going on in our country. We should be coming together, forming communities and connecting rather than isolating ourselves. We’re zigging when the world is zagging. We look like fools and we’re run by fools.

I think the whole thing will come crashing down and a whole new way of governing will emerge out of the ashes. That’s our only hope.

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