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As a special guest speaker in our ‘Three Things’ series, we were honoured to welcome Boots CEO, Sebastian James, who gave his three pieces of advice to other CEOs and founders as they navigate the challenge of leadership.

Joining us on a surprisingly balmy evening in September, Seb spoke to a room of 50 Volunteer Advisors as they joined us for a special ‘thank you evening,’ hosted by our partners at Investec. The serial CEO and entrepreneur didn’t disappoint, delivering practical, honest advice for SMEs, ‘the engine of our economy,’ along with a few good anecdotes…

Get stuck In.

For his first piece of advice, Seb recommended that CEOs roll up their sleeves. When transitioning from being CEO of Dixons Carphone to being CEO of Boots, he recognised that he was entering unfamiliar territory. The solution, he decided, was to get ‘stuck in.

It can always be challenging to learn a new industry and so Set decided on first joining Boots to work 120 hours as a ‘trainee pharmacy advisor’ in store, even earning his NVQ level 2. He learnt loads, met colleagues and got an insight into the day to day challenges faced by his staff, even being described by one elderly customer as ‘eager to please’. Whatever she meant by that, Seb reiterated just how valuable that experience turned out to be to him and his deeper understanding of the business.

Do good business.

Authenticity, purpose and why we do things are becoming more important than what we do in business. Seb suggested that in modern society, consumers will pay more, and talk more, about brands that participate in good business practices. Be that giving back, paying the living wage, accelerating towards net zero – consumers more than ever are opening their wallets for socially conscious brands. However challenging the economic environment, Seb is clear that you are ‘better off bust than breaking your values.’

Get help. All CEOs go mad in the end.

Delivered to an audience of fellow CEOs, you might expect that Seb’s third point caused some raised eyebrows. In fact, it was met with wry smiles and knowing looks. See outlined 5 key indicators for when a CEO is close to madness, issued in a paper by MWM (see below). Seb was keen to emphasise that the solution lay in the CEO’s support network.

“As a CEO,” he said, “to some extent every member of your team depends upon how you do, which can be a taxing position to be in. This is why All Together is so important.” Our Volunteer Advisors, or indeed any external sounding board, offer clarity during both the good and bad times, alleviating mental pressure and enabling you to do your job: being CEO.

The 5 Signs of CEO Madness

Worried you or your CEO might be going mad? Check here with these handy clues:

1. CEO’s obsessed with their own remuneration: Is your CEO incessantly worried they aren’t paid enough or don’t get enough recognition? Probably mad.

2. Obsessing on how big their office is: If your CEO cares more about the material constitution of their waste bin, they might be going mad.

3. Continually speaking at public events. (The irony was not lost on Seb here).

4. Avoiding talking ‘in teams’: Does your CEO prefer to divide and conquer, rather than talk in teams? Definitely going mad.

5. And finally, are they rejecting dissenting voices? Calculated removal of trusted challengers means they are certainly, entirely and completely mad.

Huge thanks to Sebastian for taking the time to join us and share his ‘Three Things’ with our community. A full recording of the speech is available here, and for more great advice, search

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You can find the key indicators that a CEO is going mad by MWM here: (Page 7-9).


2022-12-01T10:33:40+00:00October 19, 2021|
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