· 2 min read · Features

People-focused CEOs: Martin Hellawell


In the final of a series of interviews we meet some of the UK's most people-focused CEOs

Softcat CEO Martin Hellawell’s description of what the company he leads does is on the low-key side: “We’re an IT reseller. It’s not clever.” But Hellawell keenly understands that because “thousands of companies” do the same thing as Softcat, the “quality, enthusiasm and motivation of our people” is the only differentiator. “If we got that wrong we’d go out of business pretty quickly,” he adds.

Hellawell’s leadership style is resolutely non-hierarchical. “It makes it a lot more enjoyable for me,” he says. “If I felt disconnected from [my workforce] it would be a much lonelier place.” And it’s clear on visiting Softcat’s Marlow HQ that working there is anything but lonely – despite the fact the office is quieter than normal because a large number of people are on an all-expenses paid holiday to Thailand… So what else makes it the best large company in the UK to work for, according to Great Places to Work?

Don’t skimp on incentives

Incentives are a big deal at Softcat, with much of the focus on bringing people together. As the business has grown to 1,000 employees and several offices, it’s about “having things pulling different people from different departments and offices together to create that fabric of the culture,” says Hellawell. That includes giving each team the budget for a quarterly night out, taking top performers (critically including those outside of sales) to “posh restaurants”, and those big trips abroad for high performers from right across the company.

“It’s aspirational trips,” says Hellawell. “If people do a fantastic job they can go and do some amazing things. It means they push themselves that bit harder. We would never cut back on [the trips]. It’s where the most important bonds are created.”

‘Fun’ is different things to different people

When Hellawell became CEO 10 years ago Softcat was a sales company, with a sales culture. “When I joined it was fun city, it was mad, like a zoo,” he recalls. “It was fun for some people, but it wasn’t fun for those getting water pistols in their faces.” And attrition was high, with good people often leaving to build a career elsewhere.

For Hellawell it’s critical that “fun also means success”. “You have to be careful what you mean by fun,” he says. “It’s not the same for everybody. Forcing fun down people’s throats is awful. You’ve got to get to where it’s naturally enjoyable. We didn’t ban fun, but we tempered it by making sure people weren’t being picked on and putting on different events.”

What’s also been effective has been “making superheroes” out of people who have demonstrated the desired behaviours. “It’s about showing you can get a lot of fun through doing a good job and being successful,” Hellawell explains.

It’s not about ‘being on a list’

Since coming top in the Great Places to Work rankings Softcat has been inundated with HR professionals wanting to learn from the company. But Hellawell is depressed by those who only seem interested in improving their ranking on a ‘best places to work’ list.

“You’ll never be number one if that’s your approach, because that’s not how it works,” he says. “It’s about getting buy-in from the organisation about what it is you want to do and being consultative.”

HR’s role is to be the catalyst, he believes, and getting everyone to buy in to the culture: “HR has got to set the tone, because if HR doesn’t then who will?”

And what if you don’t have a people-focused CEO? “Be a partner, show them how [this approach] can be successful. I know there are converts; people who have seen the power of this. And if you can’t convert [them] you probably need to go and work somewhere else.”

More people-focused CEOs

Jason Stockwood, Simply Business

Martin Bennett, Homeserve

David Done, RHP