The Road To Transformation: Raconteur CEO’s journey from near bust to boom
Interview with Will Brookes, CEO, Raconteur
Tell us about your time at Raconteur and how you got to be the CEO
I joined the business in 2011 in an advertising sales role. I then went on to manage the main sales team for a few years. I became managing director in late 2016 and then CEO early last year.
To say it has been a rollercoaster would be an understatement. Raconteur nearly went bust in 2016, following a failed bid to launch a magazine arm, and my role has been to guide the business back to growth. We hit an Ebitda of more than £2m last year – the most profitable in our 13-year history by some distance – and things are looking good this year too.
How did I get here? On a personal level, I rode out the lows. Every organisation has its problems, and I made the decision not to job-hop. After all, the grass isn’t always greener. I intentionally stuck with Raconteur because I could see its potential and, despite the challenges, always believed in the people and the product.
If you stick with an organisation during a tough time and help people get through it, they’re more likely to progress and reward your loyalty. And those rewards might just be a lot bigger. It’s difficult, requiring patience and faith, but I’d argue that it’s a faster route to the top, especially in a smaller enterprise.
It’s important in business to find a balance between sticking to your guns and knowing when to change things that aren’t working. Sometimes, you just have to keep going and find a way through. Other times, you have to admit you were wrong, swallow your pride and change things quickly. Too often, leaders are either impatient and change things that could have been resolved, or stubborn and don’t change things that are doomed to fail. I hope I’ve got the balance more or less right at Raconteur so far.
You’ve transformed your business. What role can you play in transforming other people’s businesses?
Raconteur can provide route-one access to the decision-makers whom our clients need to be engaging. Modern organisations are far more interconnected than they used to be. If a firm is buying a big piece of HR tech, for instance, it’s not only its HR director who’ll make the purchasing decision. There’s also likely to be input from finance, IT, operations, procurement and, perhaps, members of the C-suite. If you’re selling this tech, you can’t afford to target HR chiefs alone, even if they’re the main stakeholder in the purchase.
Most business media separate into neat industry verticals, but that approach is becoming outdated because it doesn’t mirror how companies make decisions. With that in mind, Raconteur covers all the key trends across topics and sectors that we think forward-thinking business leaders need to know about. We have a highly engaged audience that spans several commercial sectors, functions, job roles and seniorities.
All of this means that we can help businesses to run high-quality and deeply engaging content campaigns that capture the attention of all the stakeholders they need to reach.
When you get such campaigns right, it can be pretty transformational for improving brand awareness, thought leadership and lead-generation effectiveness.
Looking back, if you could give yourself one piece of advice when you became CEO, what would it be?
This probably relates more to when I became the MD rather than the CEO, but it would be that you work for your employees; they don’t work for you.
This mindset shift is incredibly important when you’re moving from an individual contributor to a leader. And it’s often what separates average leaders from great ones, so getting this right from the outset is a game-changer.
A good place to start is to consider your go-to language choices. Does your speech contain more words such as ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ or more words such as ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘ours’? Generally, the former indicate that someone’s focus of attention is inward, while the latter generally show that it’s outward. Any great leader should be outwardly focused. Focusing on serving the company and its employees will encourage a greater understanding of your business and help you to connect with those who enable it to thrive.
What’s the biggest leadership lesson you’ve learnt?
Don’t let your ego get in the way. Great ideas can come from anyone, regardless of their experience. They don’t have to be yours just because you’re at the top. Nurturing these ideas, fostering a culture of innovation and encouraging idea-sharing means that everyone wins. And trust me, you’ll reap the benefits.
Another important lesson that changed my leadership style is that it’s OK to be human. I can understand why many leaders like to keep their private life private. I used to be one of them. But sharing personal information, especially your vulnerabilities, makes you much more approachable, builds trust and encourages employees to open-up about their own issues. Getting that level of insight and having empathy means you’re more likely to be able to help your employees with their challenges and get the best out of them.
How has your leadership style changed while navigating the pandemic and the great resignation?
Before the pandemic, I was something of a cynic about remote working. We did let people work at home, but only for specific reasons – so that they could take delivery of a sofa or get their boiler repaired, for instance. I feared that allowing anything more would damage the company’s culture and reduce productivity. Turns out I was wrong.
The Covid crisis forced remote working upon Raconteur, as it did for many companies, but our business is performing so much better than it ever did. There are several contributing factors, but I’m sure that the flexibility we now offer people and the work/life balance it gives them is a significant one.
We still like to see people at least once a week in the office, because some things simply work better face to face, but we won’t revert to how it was before – and I’m happy to eat humble pie on this matter. If you’ve got a good culture, show trust in your employees and communicate well, they’re likely to pay you back many times.
How do you know who is the right fit for your organisation?
I’m asked this question quite often, and I think it needs to be reframed. You should hire people who add to your business, not people who ‘fit’. When I was less experienced, I used to obsess about recruiting people whom I deemed ‘one of us’ and I thought would fit perfectly into our carefully crafted bubble. And guess what? We hired the same sort of people over and over, our culture never evolved, and we never grew that fast.
This is where the importance of diversity, equality and inclusion comes into play. I wrote an article in 2019 about my blind spots as a white male business leader – and what I was determined to do differently. The simple point is that if the makeup of your workforce is one-dimensional the same will apply to your decision-making. You’ll also be missing out on the myriad other benefits of a more diverse business.
Nowadays, I mostly care about what someone will bring to the business that we don’t already have: life and work experiences, skills, ideas and perspectives. If you build an inclusive culture, you won’t need to worry about whether people will fit in, meaning that you can always hire the best candidates for the job and empower them to do what they’re best at. Since we changed tack in this area, Raconteur’s growth has been pretty explosive.
Is company culture that important?
Simple answer: yes – especially as we’re living through the so-called great resignation. It is no longer enough to offer just a hefty salary and a hybrid work scheme. The latter is now more of an expectation than a benefit. People are more willing to job-hop than in past generations, and a toxic culture is one of the things that make people quit.
A firm with such a culture will be fighting an uphill battle to retain staff. And the people they do manage to retain will often do the minimum required and leave at the first opportunity. You must let people enjoy coming to work. You should encourage this.
Too many leaders obsess about staff focusing on work every second of the day, but encouraging a healthy balance is beneficial, not only to their work but also to the employee-employer relationship. Don’t get me wrong – you should absolutely focus on driving a high-performance culture. But, seriously, take a step back and let people live their lives and have a little fun while they’re working.
No one is micromanaged at Raconteur. We organise a lot of socials featuring a range of different activities. We regularly host coffee mornings or events to break up the day. A couple of months back, we had an all-day charity cycling initiative in the office, for instance. A few weeks ago, everyone took an hour out to test their artistic skills. This week, we had an external speaker come in and talk to us. And we’re still smashing our targets.
If you trust people to do the job they need to do and enable them to enjoy it, they will want to come to work and, almost certainly, perform better as a result.
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