“In the beginners mind there are many possibilities in the experts there are few” so says Shunryu Suzuki, arguably the most influential Zen Buddhist teacher of the twentieth century.
It is a teaching that I have applied again and again throughout my varied and unconventional career. This year I’m beginning again by partnering with former LinkedIn executive, Scott Shute, to bring his USA based Changing Work training programmes to the UK. Changing Work is designed for those who want to learn how to become conscious leaders and create a work environment we all want to work in.
The world of work is undergoing unprecedented change and it seems we all want more from work. We want a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. A sense of belonging and trust. An environment where we can do our best work.
The way we work together, and how leaders lead must be re-invented and that is what Changing Work is setting out to do, changing work from the inside out!
My first experience of the food industry started with George Rose the local butcher. George, who encouraged me to help walk our older customers across the road, gave me an afterschool job and with it an education in compassion and the value of a work ethic.
It was this work ethic that propelled me into university, out of Leicester, and down to London, where I landed a job in marketing on magazines that had fuelled my imagination throughout my teens. I was marketing my magazine dream team the NME, Melody Maker, Vox, Shoot and World Soccer.
It was the 1990s. We were brave and fearless and as a team, we scored success after success. I used my beginners mind to pioneer sponsored stages at UK Festivals with the first NME Stage at Glastonbury in 1992. Reinvented Shoot’s league ladders. We relaunched the old NME awards called it the Brats and brazenly mocked the staid old British Music industry ceremony, the BRITS. We launched new magazines and award ceremonies that defined the decade – Loaded, Muzik, Uncut and the (then) cutting-edge concept of a “website” to host the “online” version of the world’s greatest music weekly, NME.com.
As the 21st Century rolled in I was near the top of my trade, but a wave of dissatisfaction set in, even though on the outside I was living the dream. I was frustrated with being a corporate man. I had the urge to be an entrepreneur, to begin again, I wanted to escape the corporate world and run my own business.
I joined forces with an old friend who ran a cool little eatery and bar in East London. We set out to make our fortune by getting into the better burger business. I wrote a business plan, and for the first time did an equity raise. We got some bank debt by putting our houses on the line and opened the first restaurant, The Fine Burger Co, in Muswell Hill. It was quirky and cool and different. It was a success. The second restaurant opened in Balham, soon after. We looked for other opportunities and new beginnings by planning an assault on the dreadful festival food that we had spent most of our 20s eating. Unfortunately, the adage – never go into business with your best friend came to pass. It was a painful and emotionally charged business divorce.
Within five years of setting up, the company I was now running alone had seven high street restaurants, a flagship restaurant site at St Pancras International station and a couple of kiosks at Excel Exhibition Centre. Our event catering business, the Fine Food Co, had disrupted the festival and live event catering market and changed the industry. We won high profile contracts in quick succession at Lords, Twickenham, Ascot, and the Oval.
On the face of it I was succeeding, but we’d grown too quickly. I was working 80 hours a week, everyone called me all the time, about everything. I was close to burn out, miserable, dissatisfied and drinking too much. Something had to change, it did, I gave up drinking and haven’t touched a drop since.
By then the business was all over the place. There were some profitable parts, but overall, we were trading insolvently. It was the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis. With the support of my investors, we did a CVA, closed five restaurants, and made redundancies. I re-mortgaged our house again, stuck some more money in the failing business and my journalist wife, Sam, came to work alongside me. Ostensibly for the summer to help me get organised, this professional partnership lasted for the next ten years.
We began again, turned the business around and built the business as an inclusive team effort. We added new outlets in stations and exhibition centres and won massive contracts at the London 2012 Olympic games and the RHS flower shows. We recruited and supported a young, committed, and authentic management team.
In 2014, too old to be standing in fields siting food trucks all summer long, we sold the event part of our business. Three years later the most profitable side of the business was also sold to a multi-billion turnover USA hospitality business.
I was now working for the multi-billion corporation who had bought my company. I had, an interesting job at some of the highest profile sporting arenas in the UK. Then the pandemic arrived, I was made redundant. It was a blessing in disguise.
I felt increasingly drawn to a new purpose. After doing a mindfulness course, I started meditating daily and going on silent retreats. I became a yogi, practicing vinyasa and yin yoga 5 times a week. I became interested in Buddhism and realised that the purpose of studying Buddhism is not to study Buddhism but to study our mind.
Listening to a Sam Harris Podcast, Waking Up, I encountered Dr James R Doty a Neurosurgeon and the creator of the Centre for Compassion, Altruism, Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University. His message was so compelling and engaging to me, I immediately applied to his Applied Compassion Training, CCARE course. In January 2021, while Covid ravaged the world, I began my studies. For my Capstone project I published 10 episodes of my own podcast, working4compassion. I talked to business leaders about how being a conscious leader and using compassion can improve their teams’ work lives and their own and can create competitive advantage for their businesses.
When I reflect on the most impactful moments of my life, my most cherished experiences of success – from George the butcher’s nod of approval to the crazy hedonistic successes of my publishing career and the (eventual) financial triumph of my business – I can see that my successes were all fuelled by teamwork, collaboration, humility, leading with presence, compassion, clarity, and kindness.
Changing Work feels like a natural and inspiring new beginning and purpose. I’m less restless and dissatisfied, I’m hugely motivated to help employees feel more engaged with their work, increase their connectivity, psychological safety, and productivity within their teams and help companies achieve great results.