Henry stewart podcast transcript

Shona: My guest today is Henry Stewart, Chief Happiness Officer of Happy Ltd. Henry founded Happy Ltd in 1987 after being determined to find out what would create a productive and happy workplace. Happy has been awarded ‘Best UK Business for Customer Service’ by Management Today and best in the UK for ‘Work-Life Balance’ by the Financial Times. In 2011, Henry was added to the ‘Thinkers 50 Guru Radar’ being identified as an influential thinker who will shape the future of business. Prior to Happy, Henry was part of a team looking to disrupt the media industry with news on Sunday. Although News on Sunday was not a success, it sculpted his innovative thinking and set him on a path to trail blaze happiness within the workplace.

Henry is the author of the Happy Manifesto, shortlisted for CMI business book of the year which is the definitive guide for anyone who wants to transform productivity, loyalty and innovation within their organisations. Outside of his professional life, Henry is a passionate cyclist having completed the Etape tour and the 7 day route. Henry it’s a pleasure to have you on our “Reflecting on Achievements Podcast”. Just to start, what is your definition of success?

Henry: I think success is seeing people grow, develop and take leadership.

Shona: Would you class yourself as successful?

Henry: I’d like to think so, Happy has changed the lives of many people so I would like to think I am successful.

Shona: Looking at how you’ve got to where you are today as CHO of Happy Ltd, what do you think got you to where you are? Do you think it was a product of upbringing, what drives you to be who you are today?

Henry: I come from quite a high achieving family, but there was also very clear socialist values and feminist values in my upbringing so it was a desire to change the world and the experiences drove me to find a better way to do things.

Shona: Where did your career path start?

Henry: I left university and the Liverpool riots had just happened and I wanted to be a journalist so I went to Liverpool to try and write the all account of the riots and completely failed to do that. Instead, I ended up teaching in an occupied school and then I went to work to study job generation industry because my degree was economics so I went to Newcastle University to study that, went on to work for the Trade Union Studies Unit where my boss was Alan Milburn who grew to a famous health secretary later on. Then I got involved setting up the ‘News on Sunday’ which was a radical campaigning tabloid newspaper designed to change the nature of the media.

Shona: Talk me through that a little bit because I read an article saying that you’d been involved in that and it sounded absolutely fascinating.

Henry: News on Sunday, we raised 6.5 million pounds in the mid 80’s and we lost it all in 6 weeks. The book is called ‘Disaster’ which is a fairly accurate description of it. It was briefly rescued Owen Oyston who was famous for going to prison then running Blackpool FC in such a way that all the fans started boycotting it. So that was another part of the rather horrendous experience. I did reach an absolute low point, I remember writing in my diary “I can’t believe I’ll never be happy again”. We raised the money, employed the people, at one point where the 1987 election happened just after we launched and there was one point where I thought we would single handedly lose the election for labour because it was being seen as this left-wing project. I was getting delusional at that point.

Shona: It’s difficult sometimes when things are black to see yourself out of that, so being able to get over it and come out the other side is quite a journey.

Henry: Yes it is, I was involved in something at the time called re-evaluation counselling which is basically one to one counselling. It was going to a conference of that that helped me lift myself out because I got to a point where I was stuck in my room, I didn’t talk to anybody and so I managed to re-establish myself as that same person and then left but left on my terms.

Shona: What was your move then, it sounded like you found a way to see light at the end of the tunnel so what were your next steps after that?

Henry: The next step was I worked for left-wing pension advisory, who sacked me after 12 days. 1987 wasn’t the best of years and all they ever said was they didn’t like my attitude. I decided I did like my attitude, so I was very badly sunk for a few days. I met my dad that day and he encouraged me to see it as an opportunity and not rush into something new and that was very good advice so I decided I would never work for anyone else again, I would set up my own company and work out how you create a workplace that is great to work in that delivers great service and is principled. That’s the start of the journey to where we are now.

Shona: That’s lovely because you can tell just from being this office and for the benefit of the podcast that the Happy offices in London are bright, energetic, enthusiastic, the ethos of the company is coming out of the walls, you can really feel it as soon as you walk through the door. You can’t fake that, you can’t just put up some nice posters and fake that attitude and you certainly can’t do it for the 32 years you’ve been going so that has got to be lived and breathed by yourself but also the team that you bring through it. How do you keep that drive going?

Henry: Through that 32 years there have been ups and downs, there have been times where things went wrong that didn’t feel great, but I have to say at the moment it feels brilliant. What you see is what it’s like. I love coming in, I love chatting to people here, I love the work I do. We do measure how much joy people find in their work, I’ve just done the calculation and we’re currently, on average, people find joy in 70% of what they do. There’s one or two people at 90-95%.

Shona: I would imagine the brand and the ethos is fed right through to your recruitment strategy.

Henry: Completely, I try not to advertise for jobs, we have somewhere on the website where you can sign up if you’re interested in working at Happy even if there isn’t a job available. Its such a simple step and I can’t believe more people don’t do it. I’d much rather recruit the people that have actively been looking at our website than somebody who randomly sees it elsewhere. Most of the time we just send one email, get dozens of responses from those who know who Happy are and are eager to work for Happy. We recruit for attitude. We try not to ask questions in interviews. The analogy I give is with football, let’s say we’re recruiting a star footballer, what would you do? You’d watch them play. But let’s say instead you learnt from the best incorporate recruiting you might ask them questions instead. You might ask them “When have you played in a team” or “What would be the best way to play Germany” and say your two candidates were David Beckham in his early days and John Motson a commentator who’s never played the game, who would answer the questions better? It would be John Motson. So, I see, generally, no point in asking questions as you get very little out of it. For trainers, we get them to train, for techies we get them to fix things, for our customer service people we get them to talk to customers. Get people to do the job.

Shona: It seems that you do things differently for positive gain, which is quite brave, what gives you that element of bravery to go against the groove?

Henry: Well I think, coming back to what you said about my upbringing, it partly comes from there that I was brought up to question. Show me a rule and I will think “how do you break that?”, I will never accept something because it’s the way of doing things, it’s “what’s the best way of doing things?” so I will endlessly look for more interesting ways to do things and particularly are these things giving people freedom, are they giving people trust, are they enabling people to fulfil their potential more or are they stupid rules and processes that get in the way?

Shona: Are you consciously analysing that, or do you think it’s second nature to you?

Henry: Probably quite second nature now but I am still consciously analysing it, continually questioning why we are doing something that way.

Shona: There’s a lot of energy in that isn’t there and maybe, again, that’s just your nature, but I think there’s a lot of people who feel like if someone is proving this is a good way of doing it, I’ll follow that rather than test the water myself.

Henry: If something’s proven, then that’s very different.

Shona: I think my words were wrong there, there’s not much which is probably proven and I think especially today, there’s so much information accessible on the internet, Google and so much of it is clickbait such as the “top 5 tips for this” all of which are just there to solve a purpose for Google analytics not really to provide the best content so I think there’s something quite brave in always questioning it.

Henry: I’m an avid business book reader, I’m always looking for the organisations, whether its Google etc, who are doing things differently based on people, a fundamental trust of people.

Shona: I absorb a lot of business books like yourself, I have books in my bedroom just full of highlighted tabs where the interesting bits are. It sounds like there were some critical moments there especially in the mid 80’s with News on Sunday, were there others where there was a path of one or another and you had to make a decision of one?

Henry: Yes, there’s been difficult periods. I remember in the mid 90’s there was a point where for a few months we were expanding so fast, we hadn’t had time to do the accounts and when I did the accounts, I discovered we were 6 weeks from running out of money. In training, there’s a key ratio, if you don’t get that ratio of the cost to the cause to the income right, everything collapses.

Shona: It sounds like you probably are quite aware of your skills and maybe your weaknesses and you have team around you that can fill the gaps, would you say that’s true?

Henry: We’re a great believer in playing into your strengths often at an appraisal you come up with “these are your weaknesses, these are your strengths go and work on those weaknesses” that is a waste of time instead work out what your strengths are and how you can do more of it. I’m very lucky at Happy, if people see me getting involved in the detail or something like that, they’ll say “can I take that off you Henry”. I’m great at public speaking, inspiring an audience and the entrepreneurial stuff such as coming up with new products but it’s very important that I then hand them over because I’ll get bored of them.

Shona: You’ve been in business a decent amount of time; how do you keep innovative?

Henry: I’m always looking for new stuff, like last year we analysed what our clients would do and we realised that too many of them were busy but not productive which is actually getting in the way of implementing the things we’re teaching them, so we looked at what was making them too busy and it was emails so we found a solution for that, it was interruptions then it was meetings. So, I put out there “Who knows how to run meetings”, and amongst all the people saying “you need a clear agenda” etc, there were a couple that were really interesting. One was liberating structures which is 32 new ways of running events that involve people and are really focused so that’s one of my key new products at the moment. We’ve had a conference in November, we’ve got another one in May on how to use these structures. To me that’s a new product. My other key thing at the moment is the Happy MBA which we’re launching in September. We’re running apprenticeships, we’re running a level 3 management apprenticeship for new managers, level 5 one for established managers and one of our clients said, “can you run a level 7?”. Level 7 is masters, so it is an MBA. So, I started exploring, started speaking at the conference and someone asked what my next goal is, and I said the Happy MBA. The two people I was talking to signed up on the spot so when you get something like that, you realise you’re onto something that will be of interest to people. The next 6 months will be really exciting for me developing, making the links, getting the people, working out the syllabus etc but crucially I’ve got somebody else. I would do some of the speaking, but I’ve got somebody else who will actually run the thing who would not want to do the bit I am doing.

Shona: So, the support of others is crucial and constant, are there any key individuals in or outside of work that have supported you along the way.

Henry: Absolutely, there’s Kathy who is my managing director at work. I don’t manage anybody at Happy and I can do that because Kathy loves 1 to 1’s, she loves managing people and she takes care of all of that side of things. She has a bunch of coordinators who do that. My wife is pretty crucial, she’s quite a high-powered individual and her support is crucial. There have been other key people through various stages who have influenced.

Shona: There are a lot of people that have ambitions and it’s fair to say you sound like you have always been driven and ambitious but not everybody succeeds through best endeavours, what do you think has made you different and aside from that do you think there’s ever any place for luck?

Henry: Completely, I can tell you of the time in the 90’s where we almost went out of business, but our local council didn’t collect the rates for 18 months. There was the other occasion in 2012, where our government would outsource all of their training in every subject for every department for one organisation and we came second which meant we lost 25% of our business. Giving all your training to Capita, they soon discovered was not a good idea so again I would say that was luck. There is a lot of luck on the way. Is it the key to success? For me, it’s about unrelenting positivity which fits the Happy brand. One of my key mentors gave me the idea “go make mistakes, don’t worry if you make them, celebrate them, and then work out what to do next.”

Shona: You mentioned mentors then, network and mentor ship I think is a crucial part to play, are those formal mentors or informal?

Henry: More informal, that one was Sherry Brown who’s with the Revaluation Cancelling Community, and that whole community has been a key influence because the core of that community is the belief that everyone is good. Everyone is born into this world good, intelligent, successful but some of us lose that along the way, we are all inherently there. These core beliefs are very core to Happy and very core to me.

Shona: It sounds like you are, but would you class yourself as a risk taker?

Henry: Yes, I would like to think qualified risks, I am quite prepared to take a risk on things.

Shona: Didn’t you say before about your mentor saying, “go make mistakes”, you learn from mistakes don’t you, if you’ve never made a mistake in your life, you’ve probably never left the house. So, there is an element of risk in order to be confident on some of the mistakes you make and move forward.

Henry: You’ve got to try new things, you’ve got to try stuff, see what works, see what doesn’t and move on. It was like at the MBA, someone said to me today, “September, isn’t that a bit too soon, maybe we should take a year over it” and I thought “what on earth would we do in a year that we couldn’t do in 6 months?” but its just getting out there and doing it.

Shona: You mentioned books earlier, and business books, is there any particular tactics or elements of those books that you relay into Happy?

Henry: There’s a lot of key books for Happy, one of them was ‘Maverick’ by Ricardo Semler, read that in 1992 and at that time I was a typical small businessman, micromanaging and ringing back from holiday to make sure everything was okay, and his book completely changed and was the key influence for Happy in those early days and a year later, everyone since then, has had a copy of the book but the level of trust and freedom which was in the book was key.

Shona: If you look at your day to day, are you quite formulaic in how you manage things and your time or more spontaneous?

Henry: I believe I’m not busy and that’s key, Ink Magazine put out an article saying, “all the most successful people in the world get up at 4 o’clock” and there was a glorious tweet that said, “I thought the whole point of being successful was that you didn’t have to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning.” I don’t get up at 4 in the morning, I get up at 7:20. I have a relaxing breakfast reading the printed copy of the Guardian, I do the code work, I have meditation, I then cycle gently through the backstreets of London, I stop at a café for a hot chocolate, take time to reflect, normally don’t get in here until 10, don’t check my emails until 11, and it gives me time to think about new ideas, new products and work out what I need to be doing. Obviously, some days I have a meeting at 9.

Shona: I think when you’re in a leadership role, and a leadership role that requires innovation, time to reflect and think is critical, and I don’t think many people schedule that.

Henry: I do think we need to reflect; one example is that a headteacher told me that she spends two hours on a Monday morning going for a walk through the woods with her dog in her work time, because that’s the most valuable time of her week she says. I was with a group this week who are front line staff who basically said, “well we have to keep busy, if we’re not busy we have to look like we’re busy” and I wasn’t aware of how extensive this is. My nephew told me he is in his first job, he’s got about 3 hours work a day, he spends the rest of the day trying to look busy. I want people to be staring out the window and coming up with new ways of doing things.

Shona: If you’re happy in the job you’re in or driven, then the time is spent wisely isn’t it because you’re thinking about for yourself and the organisation, where you want to be


Henry: One of our members of staff said to me that she got some training from one of our trainers in mail merge and suddenly what had taken her 6 hours before now took her 10 minutes. She had been so hectic doing the 6 hours that she never thought of finding an easier way to do it.

Shona: I think, if you’re in the job you should be in, then you’re not sat at the window dreaming of something else and if you are sitting at the window dreaming of something else, you probably should be doing something else.

Henry: We get a lot of organisations, and often people who are really hectic, really busy, haven’t got any time to spare for you but don’t seem to get anything done and on the other hand, we organised a couple of competitions with Google and I know Google isn’t perfect, but an interesting thing was everybody seemed to have time. They seemed to be fairly relaxed, they seemed to have time for you and yet they get tons done and there’s something there about the busy, hectic nature we’ve got into so when people say “I’m really busy” I say I’m not.

Shona: I know a chap who works at Google, I might have the numbers wrong, but I believe that about 20% of their working day, they are asked to be spending time on a pet project.

What does a normal day look like for you?

Henry: It looks like how I’ve just described, so I’ll get into the office about 10, I’ll wander round, talk to people, check how they are, check in with them but it might be a speech, but it’s more likely to be working out how to get new things done. I have one internal meeting a month, I have one day a month where I have one to ones. I try and avoid meetings, I have some with clients obviously. Tomorrow, I have absolutely nothing, it’s a free day.

Shona: It’s quite nice that you’re so comfortable about that and that you don’t feel the need to have a packed diary, in fact I’d seen something on Twitter not so long ago, someone had taken a screenshot of their diary and put it on as a kind of “heavens above, look how busy I am” but it didn’t feel like something to necessarily be proud of. There was no space there for thought.

Henry: There’s a very nice little video called “Busy is the New Stupid” which has Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and Bill Gates is talking about how his diary used to be completely packed whereas Warren’s had about two things in there. Warren Buffett runs a multi-billion-dollar empire and it’s a choice whether you’re busy or not.

Shona: With what Happy does, I’d say that learning is very important to you, it’s the ethos of the company, would you consider yourself a life long learner?

Henry: Definitely, I learn talking to people, I learn at conferences, I learn through books which is a big thing for me, discovering what other people do and discovering new things like on the meeting side, liberating structures and something called LoMo. LoMo has a slogan called “hate meetings, love collaboration”, so it’s how do you create meetings that energise and become excited about going to them.

Shona: What would you say is your greatest achievement?

Henry: That’s a tough question. On a personal level it was 7 days through the alps, 3 Tour de France calls a day, managing that. It’s known as the most challenging amateur race in the world.

Shona: I’m a cyclist myself but not as dedicated as yourself and it is an extreme ride that I am not sure I would ever be able to do it.

Henry: On a political level, I am still involved in various political campaigns. One of them was Local Schools Network. On a business level, that Happy is still thriving after 32 years and that we’ve made a real difference in peoples lives and when I see some of our clients and how they’ve changed things and how they’re thriving, and particularly when I see a client who’s moved from 80 hours a week working and is now able to do just as much in 40 hours.

Shona: What advice would you give to your younger self or somebody starting on their career path today?

Henry: Go make mistakes.

Shona: Just a couple of fun questions just to round it off, what is your favourite book?

Henry: It’s between Maverick on the business side, the Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov, I’m quite a fan of science fiction or the Ragged Trouser Philanthropists which is a classic, socialist novel written in 1912.

Shona: Do you have a favourite app or piece of technology?

Henry: Strava, for those who don’t know, Strava is the cycling app that measures what you do but also compares you to everyone else who’s ever been on that road and so you challenge yourself to beat others who you’ve never met.

Shona: What is your favourite place?

Henry: I am going to say anywhere on my bicycle but particularly, cycling through those Alps on the bike, getting to the top of those mountains. The other one is actually Cuba, when we went to Cuba, there was something about it that just made me happy for 2 weeks.

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