In this transcript of Series 1, Episode 2 of our 'Reflecting on Achievements', Justin King talks about his ladder of success from a young age and progressing through his career, and whether there are elements of luck and prosperity in success. Listen to the podcast by clicking the link below or by subscribing on iTunes/Google Play.
Shona: Now regarded as a “grocery industry heavyweight. Your career has predominantly been in the food industry, serving your time with Mars, then PepsiCo as well as other well-known names in between. Joining the Supermarket big 4 came in the mid 90’s when you joined Asda and then later M&S – managing the food division.
Justin, you grew up in midlands and attended Bath University where you gained a Business Degree in later years Bath would award you with an Honorary Doctorate.
In 2004, appointed CEO, you took on the challenge of reversing Sainsbury’s slide in market position. A challenge you took readily, launching the initiative "Making Sainsbury's Great Again". By listening to customers the changes you implemented where highly successful, with 12 consecutive quarters of growth in the prevailing 4 years and beyond.
Your work was rewarded by The Crown in 2011 with Honours, namely a CBE appointment.
You left Sainsbury’s in 2014, joining Terra Firma a private equity firm, as Vice Chairman in 2015, and since then have been part of the success stories at the firm. Additionally you recently joined M&S as Non-Executive Director. You have a keen interest in Motorsport and football.
Although we’ve just glassed over your career in a matter of sentences to get to your level of success, in a difficult industry, takes grit and determination and insight. But everyone’s path to success is different and each gives us nuggets and insights that we can use in our own journey. With that in mind Justin, let’s start by asking what is your definition of success?
Justin: My view of myself is that I’m my own harshest critic so for me it’s always been about the goals, the targets that I set myself and achieving them and so it’s very inwardly focused. Of course you get projected upon you definitions of success, in 2013 I was voted Britain’s most admired businessman and inevitably you have ego and those things give you a sense of external validation that others do value you as successful but I’ve always been, as I said, my own harshest critic, I’ve always tried to set challenges that in truth wasn’t sure I could achieve and I’ve always particularly enjoyed doing things that others don’t think are achievable. When I took the job at Sainsbury’s, the vast majority of phone calls and messages that I got was “why on earth would you take that”, “Sainsbury’s is a busted flush” “It’s a business in decline”. For me, the fact people didn’t think it was a doable job was the quart of its attraction because one, I thought it was a doable job, and two it therefore seemed to be very worthwhile work if you can do something that others didn’t think could be done. I suppose somewhere in that narrative is what I think success looks like.
Shona: I take from that maybe a competitive nature whether that’s with yourself or with others?
Justin: Most people would say I’m the most competitive person they know. I’m the eldest of four boys. Coming back to the subject of success, I think there’s quite a lot of empirical evidence that the eldest children in big families tend to have a lot of competitive drive. My brothers and I are still close and we were very close in terms of age, I was 6 when my youngest brother was born so my mum had 4 boys under the age of six and so all I can remember from what was a very happy childhood was firstly I was always in charge because I was the eldest. I can remember in those days, your mum did go out to the shops and leave four kids in the house. So I can remember her saying to me many times “you’re in charge while I pop out to the shops”, but also we fought like sewer rats and whether it was playing monopoly, playing football in the garden or slam against the garage door, we were always competing and for me a big part of competition is competing with myself, doing more than I think is possible. Most people would say of me that, as I said, that I’m a very competitive person but also a lot of the competitiveness is channelled back on myself doing better than I would otherwise do.
Shona: Early years shaped you, was the path to university always set? Is that where you were destined to go?
Justin: No, I’m one of many people in their family who can say they were the first to go to university but I had dreams of being a professional sportsman obviously I lacked the talent for that. It is surprising how often you come across sports people who say “I’d have loved to be a successful business person” then you come across business people who say they’d love to have been a professional sports person, I think there’s a lot in common. I didn’t enjoy school particularly, I enjoyed sport at school but not the academic side, and I was bored largely and didn’t imagine I’d study. A couple of things happened, I went to a sixth form college whose whole purpose was to get people into university so the line of least resistance at age 16, 17 and 18 was they were trying to push you there. Also, I broke a leg playing football, I played for my 17th birthday. I’ve had many consequences in my life, but I think the most profound one was that pretty much for a year, I couldn’t play sport and so I had to study which broadly speaking got better results than otherwise I would’ve got. As part of that mind-set in the college, we were dispatched to go and see universities and one of the ones I took a daytrip to was Bath. I took a daytrip not because I was interested in the university but it was a place I was interested in visiting. I quite liked the university, sat on the bus on the way back with the prospectus and determined I was going to go to Bath because I liked the town and study whatever course had the last number of hours of lectures and it turned out to be sociology, and apologies to those listening who studied sociology, I couldn’t bring myself to do that so I chose the course with the second lowest number of lectures which was 13.5 hours a week which was business.
Shona: I think it’s a rarity for teenagers to go “oh yes, I want to go into business or an office type job and there’s usually paths that kind of merge to get you there.
Justin: I think there’s a lot more luck and serendipity in peoples outcomes than we all care to admit. The reason we don’t like to believe in that is because we like to believe we can plan and direct our lives. We like to believe that the outcome is due to our brilliance and talent and of course they do play a part but fundamentally, another part of the equation is luck and serendipity and I don’t think, as you said, the average 17 year old on the whole sits there absolutely sure what they want to do with the rest of their life. Now in some professions of course, we require that. If you’re going to be a doctor, unless you’re pretty passionate about the idea in your teens you probably won’t study the subjects that allow you to be a doctor, I’m not sure that’s a good thing even in the medical profession but it’s probably true in areas like law and other professions too. Actually, if you think about the way the world is changing with technology, it’s probably true in a lot of the careers in technology if you don’t study the “right” things. Now that seems to me a pretty strange approach because we spend somewhere in between 10 and 20 years of our lives in education on the whole, and all being well, we’re given about 80 years of being on this planet so it seems to me it ought to be possible to determine a very different outcome in your life during your 20’s and 30’s too it shouldn’t be set aged 18 when you leave school.
Shona: I agree, I think that’s what we’re trying to help with, with AIA and our BRIAN app, it is about if people need to change careers and change skills that they can have those goals and they can bring them forward. You mentioned luck, and that was going to be one of my questions. Do you think it really is luck or do you think it’s more that you see the opportunities as they potentially arise? You’re open to taking risks and taking chances?
Justin: I don’t think you can put luck in a box and bottle it, if you could we’d all be gamblers I guess but I think it’s an Arnold Palmer quote, he said “the more I practice, the luckier I get” and I think there is a deep insight in that quote which is that undoubtedly, the harder you work, the better results you deliver, the more focused you are and what you are trying to achieve then the more likely it is to come your way. But I think that whilst I think there is a strong correlation on all of those things, it’s wrong to think of them as being truly causal. There are many talented people who have chosen perhaps the wrong company in, chose a profession to work in that as they matured and grew older proved not to be something that was suited to their talent. I remember having a career development conversation in my late 20’s and the conversation went something like this, “you’ve got a great skill set for being a chief executive but actually your skill set at the moment is not actually that well suited to the type of jobs that you’re doing. That was part and parcel of the journey for me of moving into general management fairly early, I was managing director of Häagen-Dazs at age 29 which is a pretty unusual that happened very fortuitously, I was working for Pepsi internationally, Grand Met bought Pillsbury. They discovered Häagen-Dazs within it. They recruited a guy called Ove Sorensen to run the Häagen-Dazs business worldwide and because I’d met him at Pepsi, he phoned me up and said “I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do here, can you help me write a business plan” so I helped him write it and he said “well as you’ve written a business plan, you better execute it” so I ended up running the business in the UK. That wasn’t very much when I started, it was the proverbial one man and the dog. It was a reasonable scale business, 13 million or so turnover by the time I left 3 years later so I got to build a business as the leader of it but it made me realise that’s where my skillsets lay, they lay in that general management environment, they lay in change, transformation. So, for me the next step which was to move from the manufacturing side into retail, came about because of that because I realised, to me at least, the place where those skills are most valuable in my life at that time was in retail. How much of that is luck? How much of that is serendipity? How much of that is that I was actually quite good at what I was doing? I think it’s quite hard to pick the bones out of that.
Shona: It sounds like there was maybe influences there within your peer or bosses you were under who were seeing your potential and helping you to strive forward. How important is that circle around you because you have got to have your own insight but there’s a degree of other people recognising that as well.
Justin: Buried in that question I suppose is the idea of mentorship and I’ve always been quite weary of it actually. I’m a terrible parasite, I steal from everybody that I come into contact with. I’ve worked for good leaders, bad leaders, I’ve worked alongside highly talented people and I’ve worked alongside some much less talented people. But I’ve always tried to learn often. It’s easier to learn from watching people fail than it is to learn from watching people succeed. I’ve done the odd newspaper column over the years and they always ask you “who was your mentor?” and I say “everyone I’ve ever worked with or for” because I think there’s something to be learnt every working day. One of the reason mentorship troubles me in a way is that it’s the idea there is something out with yourself that can help you achieve more. It seems to me that mentorship is a very small step to patronage and I think patronage is a bad thing because ultimately what goes hand in hand with patronage is usually somebody is getting opportunities that they don’t deserve or they’re not capable of. I think that is bad for the individual because you’ll get exposed. I also think it’s bad for the organisations in which it happens to. Now I am a great believer in meritocracy. I’m a great believer that talent can and should rise to the top and I think the challenge of leaders in big organisations is to create an environment and to create a structure where that can actually happen and I was very fortunate that I started my career working for Mars. I ended up being sponsored through university for which I am ever grateful because it meant I left university with no debt at by Lucas Electrical. 1983 was a spectacularly bad year for graduate employment, we talk about the challenges of graduate employment now, but it was much worse in 1983 with the early Thatcher years and massive unemployment. I had a guaranteed job and I applied for a few companies and I applied on the basis of companies that reputation for great training and development and Mars was one of them. I got on the scheme there and Mars tried to recruit great raw material, great talent but they took the view that if you’re recruiting great raw material, you shouldn’t hold it back you should try and equip it to advance and progress with all the skills as quickly as possible. Mars had the attitude, “you’ve got enough, you’re old enough” whereas very few businesses do. You look at most training schemes at most businesses, they’re still driven by “2 years doing this, 2 years doing that, nobody gets to be this level until they’re 28 years old” and all of those kind of things. I understand why businesses have them, to try and have some sense of order and control and there was a little bit of that at Mars too. But I still remember at the time that part of my ambition when I joined, which I failed to achieve, was to be the youngest person ever promoted off of the scheme.
Shona: That was something you set yourself?
Justin: Only because there was a ledging in the business of how quickly people got promoted off the scheme so it was one of those things that was talked about at Mars.
Shona: You talked slightly about potential knockbacks and things that could take you off course but didn’t, so how have you coped with that? How have you stopped any knockbacks from holding you back?
Justin: Well I think I’m a pretty resilient human being and I think when you look at leadership in big organisations, resilience is actually one of the core skills you need to have because the nature of running a big organisation is you have a lot of stuff to deal with so you have to be a pretty resilient human being. You hear much more of the bad news than the good news. One of the mistakes a lot of leaders make is that they seek out the good news, they want to wrap themselves in it because it feels so challenging and relentless that you get this bad news when actually because your job is to deal with the stuff, broadly speaking, that the organisation can’t or won’t. So I think I am an inherently resilient individual, I’m not given to a retrospection. I don’t wake up in the morning wishing I did something differently yesterday. I might wake up in the morning and think what I did yesterday I did wrong and I’m, gonna change it today, but I don’t have regrets over it. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the fact I’ve done it. What I might do is think about why I did it, why I made a wrong decision, what was it about that decision at that time that caused me to go what now looks in the wrong place. But what’s the line, the past is interesting for what it teaches us we should do differently in the future and I think that’s deep in my psyche and that’s helped me tremendously. The nature of seeking out success is that you’re the type of person therefore that will also have more failure. I think one of the reasons a lot of people don’t succeed in their ambitions is because they’re not prepared to embrace the possibility of some knockbacks along the way, or indeed the possibility that they won’t achieve their ambitions, it seems to be perverse not seeking it out for fear I may not achieve it. I think, as I touched on earlier, there are lots of sporting metaphors that work in business and if you look at the great strikers in football, they are the people that don’t fear missing. If you ever hear some of the great strikers in football talking about when they lose their mojo, it’s when they stop shooting because that’s the bit that worries them. It’s interesting, I don’t know if you saw last night, I’m a Manchester United fan but last night at the time of recording this, Manchester United came back against Paris Saint-Germain, but I don’t know if you saw Marcus Rashford being interviewed about the penalty. He’s a 21 year old who took a penalty in the 4th minute of stoppage time which transformed the match, they won as opposed to lost because of the away goals rule, who has never taken a penalty in a competitive match before. Imagine that, and go seek out the interview, he talks not about the fear of taking it which I think most of us would’ve done, but the feeling he was looking forward to when it hit the back of the net and I thought that was fantastic and I doubt many of us would have the spine to step up in those kind of circumstances.
Shona: That’s lovely actually because some of us would very much worry about the failure rather than concentrating on the feeling of success.
Justin: Well the fascinating thing about that is that Lukaku who had scored 2 goals already in the match and would’ve had a hat trick had he taken that penalty, didn’t take the penalty and I think it would be fascinating to hear what conversation would have taken place. When did they decide between them who was going to take the penalty and that being decided before the match or was it in that moment when everyone looked around and the only person not crushed by the possibility of failure was Rashford and I think that probably is the explanation?
Shona: Has there been critical moments or crossroads where things could’ve gone differently?
Justin: I’m sure hundreds. I suppose in that context, for me the most pivotal point in my career was the move from the manufacturing side to the retail side. I’d run a small business in Häagen-Dazs, I’d come to feel of myself that I was skilled in running businesses, that I liked the idea that one day I might run some very big businesses and it seemed to me that there was no career path from running a small business to running a big business that involved running medium sized businesses in between and that therefore I had to find a different platform where my skills would be better matched to the challenges and I thought that was retail. And partly the reason I thought it was retail was that I felt very strongly, and this turned out to be something which now looking back looks very prescient, which is that I thought retailers were dining on a legacy supply chain model, a legacy of a type of buying, an approach towards their skill base which could not survive. I remember saying to my mum who was a loyal Sainsbury’s shopper “I think Sainsbury’s are going to be in trouble soon.” This was back in 1990, because I know what it feels like to be a supplier to Sainsbury’s and it’s not a great experience. So I thought that people who knew what it was like to sit on the other side of the table were going to be very well equipped and I’m not sure I was the first but I was one of the early transitions which now is a very common thing, Dave Lewis at Tesco for example is ex-Unilever, people crossing that table and realising the skills and knowledge they’ve acquired on the other side of the table has become very helpful and powerful. If there was a moment in time where the outcome of my career was most pivotally changed, I guess that would be it.
Shona: Looking at it a bit more day to day, would you class yourself as someone who’s quite formulaic about how they set out their time, their goals or is it less structured than that?
Justin: I’m a terrible planner and organiser, its back to that conversation we had about great skillsets to run a business but perhaps not to do the jobs on the journey to getting there. I’m not a completer finisher, I’m a butterfly as things grab and seize my attention for a period of time then I move on to the next thing and so one of the things that comes with that self-awareness is that I’ve always tried to surround myself, whether that be my leadership team or the corporate support structure when I was a CEO, with people that fill those gaps. I’ve met a lot of people who are fearful of surrounding themselves with talented people because they might feel somehow threatened by it. I’m quite the opposite, I love being surrounded by talented people, I don’t want anyone working for or with me where I go to work in the morning thinking “I could do your job better than you” because the problem I have is I will try and do that job if I think I can do it better than them. So the best way to solve that problem is to not have it. Because I’m a terrible organiser of my time, I’ve always been very dependent on and very privileged to have fantastic assistants who quite frankly I have to let control my time. They’re in that slot because somebody other than me determined this their slot and I trust that person to do that, and they manage my time much better than I ever would do so myself. I suppose in the end, we’re talking about delegation and it seems to me if you can find people to delegate stuff to that you’re not good at, you can focus all your time and your energy on stuff that you are good at and I spike when I spike and I spend as much time in that spike as possible and that’s been a core part of my success I’m sure.
Shona: You touched on it earlier, I think your term was a “parasite of learning from others”, so it sounds like you would class yourself as a lifelong learner, would you say that’s correct because some people very much don’t but it sounds like you really take enjoyment from absorbing information from others around you?
Justin: Completely, I’m a miner of utterly useless information, my kids who are grown up now, they’ll go on “you’re not allowed to tell us anything more than 3 times Dad” and I always used to say to them, and I still do, “if you listened the 1st time I wouldn’t need to tell you the 2nd or 3rd time. I love acquiring knowledge and I love acquiring experiences because I think that’s just how you keep growing. For me, if I ever woke up in the morning and thought “I don’t want to learn something” then I should really be in a box, and that for me is why I wanted to move on from Sainsbury’s, there was no pressure for me to move on, I suppose there were two real components. The 1st was, back to my point about being my own harshest critic, on the whole I don’t think people do their best work beyond their tenth year at their job. When I got the chief executive job at Sainsbury’s, I’d never done a role for more than three years, that’s the nature of the beast if you have a rapid career of advancement. Ten years felt like a very long stint. Political systems, the reason they have things such as two term presidencies I think is because there is that deep insight that, broadly speaking, you’re able to do your best work if you spend more than ten years in that job. I thought it was very important therefore that I left before I did wake up one morning and go “I’m stale at this”. I had to rehearse that in my brain a lot and it took a long period of time to get there because it was a very challenging thing to leave, but also because I was fortunate to have the role relatively young. I left Sainsbury’s after ten years of being chief executive which is younger than it is for the average person to get appointed chief executive for the first time. It was a great opportunity to go out and do a whole bunch of new and different stuff. I’ve done some incredible stuff. I got involved in motorsport, I cheered a F1 team for a couple of years and that was never my life plan. I had been involved in the last few years at Sainsbury’s in the organising of the Olympics in London as a result of that, I’ve started developing trusts in what’s generally known as a sport for development space which has been hugely rewarding. I’ve learnt a whole new lexicon in a way of working in private equity which I never imagined I would be in. I’ve also done quite a bit of personal investing, for example this interview we’re doing in a place called the Clubhouse which is one of my investments which meant that although I rejected the word “mentorship” earlier, one of the things that I’ve tried to do is that it’s not just my money that I bring to businesses, but also my knowledge and experience so I try to help young businesses grow and that’s another leg of my life I thought would be there. It’s constantly seeking out that challenge. It’s partly about making yourself uncomfortable and going to space you’ve not been in before. I had an old boss who used to say “if you’re feeling comfortable, don’t be” and what he meant by that was that it’s a short step from comfort to complacency and complacency is where damage gets done and I kind of feel that in life too.
Shona: If you’re slightly outside of your comfort zone, you working much harder to get to the next step. So we’re nearly coming to the end. But a couple last questions. What advice would you give to yourself just starting out or maybe somebody looking for a similar career path?
Justin: I suppose that its core, the answer is trust your judgement and go with your gut. I am actually quite an analytical person, I was good at maths and probably should’ve done maths at university rather than business if I was thinking in purely academic terms. I chose all those options, I didn’t choose any of the people options in my degree. I chose maths, economics and statistics as opposed to human resources etc which is kind of funny given where my career ended up going. So I am an analytical person but I worry tremendously, one of the phrases I used to use at Sainsbury’s was “crime by numbers” and I think that’s truer today than it’s ever been. If only numbers had taken the decision, if only algorithms had taken the decision then what’s the point of human beings? I think first and foremost for yourself, trust your own judgement and go with your gut is incredibly important. I remember I had a lady working for me once, she had a new job inside the business, and she was a very analytical person, came from a management consulting background and she came and said “I need your advice about which job to take” and she said “I’ve done this analysis, I’ve listed out 50 criteria for the job and I’ve given them scores out of 10, I’ve added them up and they both come to the same number” and I said “which one gets you excited?” and she said “this one” and I said “well why have you done the analysis then?” It sounds obvious but actually I think a lot of people struggle with that and when it comes to changing jobs, it’s often when people are asking about career advice, I’ve always said three things. The first thing is ask yourself whether you will get more from the next two years in that job than whatever it is you’re currently doing. Ask yourself whether you can do it well because I do think it’s important, people often take jobs that they kind of know they’re not going to enjoy and not do well then surprised when they’re not successful. Ask yourself whether in two years’ time having done it, you’re going to have made progress, be more valuable in the longer term. The reason third one I think is important is that too many people, and you’ll notice I didn’t say in that criteria, “Is it promotion?” Too many people think in terms of linear career, and I remember, again I suppose it was a profound thing in my own career, the very first day. I think it was the Sunday night before my first day working at Mars, 2nd September 1983 and the HR director to the graduate intake that year did a little introductory speech and he said “The thing you need to understand is that you’re five promotions from being chief executive in this business because we’re a very flat organisation. So, if you’re as brilliant as you think you are, and you’re going to become chief executive in your 40’s, you’re roughly going to get promoted once every 5 years also. And 5 years is too long to wait whether you’ll find out if you’re making progress so work out how you use those 5 years to build your knowledge and skillsets so that when the opportunity to be promoted comes along, you’re the right candidate for the job.” So sideways moves that truly build your knowledge and skills set, they always seem to me to be a really important part of the mix. I did spend a year as HR director at Asda, and people who don’t know me would laugh out loud at that idea and it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience, but when I joined M&S subsequent to joining, I was chatting to the HR director and she said “Do you know what the difference was about you that we really liked? The fact you’ve been HR director.” I asked “why was that so important?” and they said “Well we were really worried that somebody who worked at Asda would culturally just not fit, and we thought the fact you spent a year in HR would’ve knocked a few corners off you.” But nonetheless it was what they believed of the impact it would’ve had on the mix. So for me, that’s a really important part of the mix.
Shona: Now just some fun, quick questions to end, what is your favourite book?
Justin: I’ve never read any books cover to cover, except for two. One, my partner Claire insisted I can’t go to my grave without having read a book, she made me read Catcher in the Rye. Then in business terms, the only book I’ve ever read cover to cover is Gung Ho which actually just about does my intentions and I do think it’s a fantastic articulation of how you communicate, engage, motivate and lead big organisations so I do recommend it.
Shona: Do you have a favourite app or piece of technology?
Justin: I’m sitting at a desk here, I’ve got an iPad, iPhone and a Blackberry in front of me which tells you something about my technical incompetence.
Shona: What is your favourite place?
Justin: I could flippantly say wherever I am, but I don’t think I have one, back to that butterfly thing, there are places that have been important parts of my life such as obviously where I live but I suppose often people talk in holiday terms. I love South Africa, I go there a lot, I’m trying to do business there and I think sub-Saharan Africa is the most exciting part of the world and I intend to spend more time there. I was talking with my new assistant about the diary for the rest of the year and I said “that’s when I go to my caravan” and she looked at me slightly strangely and said “what do you mean caravan?” and I said “I have a caravan on the south coast of England that was my parents before and my grandfather’s before and it’s been on the same site since 1938 and I’ve gone there every year of my life. And I’m going with my partner and step kids for a week this summer.”