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CEO Q&A: HR must have “a human ear and a computer-like brain”

Mark Fox, CEO at motorway service station operator Roadchef, shared what it takes to lead a Best Companies ranked business.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Open, collaborative and empowering yet rigorous and challenging.

I prefer to give a relatively high-level objective and allow the individual or team to work up the detail using their knowledge or by collaborating with others.

When this works well, I learn something too. That’s great for me but it also unearths times when the issue has only been tackled at a cosmetic level, so it helps to prevent half-formed initiatives getting out into the ecosystem.

I always encourage my teams to make sure they fully involve their own teams in decision-making and idea generation. The greater the involvement in the creation of an initiative, the higher the appetite to see it succeed.

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What’s your top leadership tip?

Without wishing to sound lazy or uninterested, my top tip would be to let others do their work. As a leader, I see my job as: ensuring that the end objective is clear, the broadest parameters within which we must work are clear, the capability to deliver is available, resources are available, and that the culture is one that encourages and motivates everyone to give their best. 

If you are doing all that for your sphere of influence then there’s not a great deal of time to actually deliver the initiatives yourself. You should avoid getting too far into the long grass, only occasionally diving in to make sure everything’s okay and that the four factors above remain true.


What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a leader?

I definitely don’t have all the answers. There was a time in my career when I thought I did have all the answers but, back then, my spheres of influence were smaller, and I was the specialist that was expected to have all the answers. 


What do you do to help others progress through the company?

I always try to provide opportunities for employees to demonstrate their ability, share their ideas and be involved with initiatives outside of their day jobs. 

I am especially keen to involve the end-users in the definition of processes that they will end up using as it helps to ensure they are robust and they will buy into their use. It also helps to expose those with passion, commitment and great ideas who might otherwise just be unsung heroes.

I also insist on anyone in management being clear that they have an obligation to identify and prepare their own backfill. This helps to ensure that everyone has a role in developing others and helping them progress.


What do you look for from your people team?

The people team need to have a human ear and a computer-like brain to interpret the human signals that percolate around the organisation to ensure we maintain positive engagement and that we are continuing to build our reputation as an employer.

This is important given continuous improvement will be central to maintaining or improving on our IIP Gold and Best Companies Top 25 Big Company to work for status. 

I also rely on them to help me ensure that everyone with stretch in our organisation is identified and is being stretched. There’s nothing I dislike more than the thought of talent being left undiscovered and employees of ours not fulfilling their potential.

"I also rely on the people team to help me ensure talent isn't left undiscovered."


Do you think HR directors have the skills need to be CEO?

In theory, a good HR director should have many of the key skills needed to get the best from people which is the over-arching purpose of a CEO. My personal view of the ideal board director is someone who has specialist knowledge in their field and sits on the board with the objective of making the whole organisation successful. They therefore need to engage with the full business agenda and support the wider objectives in any way they can. 

This is often easier in smaller organisations. In larger ones, functions can end up in silos meaning that, as a CEO, you have to work a lot harder to keep the whole board focused on the bigger picture whilst progressing their specific objectives as a functional head.