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Lessons from the C-suite: Graham Bell, B&Q

Bell: I get a real buzz about giving people clarity at work -

Graham Bell, CEO of DIY chain B&Q, shares his journey to the top and why more HRDs could make it to the top spot.

I started out… My first ever job was working in a forest at the age of 16, thinning out the trees to enable new ones to grow. I had a massive chainsaw and stayed in a caravan. Some days it was so cold and wet and miserable, but it taught me to stay focused and to get the job done.

I knew this was the right career path for me when… I’ve always really enjoyed helping customers and colleagues alike. I get a real buzz about giving people clarity and getting other people to get a good job done.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned along the way… That working with people is what I really love. Another of my early jobs was working in a shortbread factory; it was repetitive, and I had little interaction with people. This is why I put so much emphasis on people and culture when I lead.

My proudest achievement… In 1998, I joined B&Q, first in operations and then as director of training, setting up training through the B&Q University.

I was also leading training for senior colleagues on how to work as a team and led the shift in the culture to a more can-do spirit. That spirit has evolved over the years, but it’s still core to the business and helped us adjust how we work in a rapidly changing world.

Read more: Workplace culture: values matter

My biggest mistake… Staying in a job too long where I didn’t agree with the culture, and I knew the direction wasn’t right. Sometimes the right thing to do is move on to the next challenge.

My biggest inspiration… My mum, who was a successful businesswoman working for Tupperware. Her self-belief, her outgoing style – she believes in approaching life positively.

I was inspired by how she worked long hours, travelled all over the country, met so many people – and she got a new car every year. She gave me the confidence to work and strive hard to achieve in my career.

She always said: "If you want something, go out and get it, what’s the worst that could happen? You could be successful."

Keeping me awake at night right now… Managing the change of pace that customers are expecting of businesses and balancing the pace of change with the costs and the disruption.

For example, how people think about sustainability has changed in recent years and is now so central to customer expectations for how companies do business. B&Q has a great heritage in sustainability, but we know we always have more work to do.

The biggest challenge for organisations over the next five years will be… For B&Q it’s the ever-evolving nature of retail. It used to be very one dimensional – you sold products to customers.

Now there are many more elements to it; we still have to have the right price, but we need to be able to get product to customers in the way they want it and we have to be a more responsible and sustainable business.

I need my HR director to… Be a conscience for the culture. Keep it top of the agenda while creating opportunities for the leadership to do more.

I truly believe the only way you can move forward, stay relevant and set up for the future is by staying connected to the reality of customers’ and colleagues’ lives and keep doing what’s right for them.

Read more: Culture change is never instant

More HR directors would become CEO if… They went for it. So many HRDs I’ve worked with have such a passion for HR and people they don’t want to leave the role. For those who do, getting broader experience is important.

Most businesses’ biggest overhead is their people – if you’re investing so much in an asset you want to make sure it’s looked after properly.

What I’m reading right now… I always have a few books on the go. Currently it’s Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, Ozzy Osbourne’s autobiography I Am Ozzy and Sparring Partners by John Grisham.

My top leadership tip… Be honest, give clarity and listen.

This article was first published in the September/October 2023 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.