Once a month, we invite members of All Together to join a confidential round-table discussion on a business issue of shared interest, hosted and moderated by our Volunteer Advisors. This month, we were joined by none other than Douglas Lamont, the former CEO of innocent, and forthcoming CEO of Tony’s Chocolonely.

Douglas has spent the last 16 years of his career at revolutionary drinks company, innocent. After joining the team as the Head of New Opportunities, he fell in love with the culture, the purpose, and the people. He knew from day one that he wanted to lead the business, which is exactly what happened when he was appointed CEO in 2013.

Since his tenure began, Douglas has taken innocent from strength to strength. Revenue now stands at more than double the amount he inherited, and the source of that revenue is now 80% international sales– up from just 20% 9 years ago.

But even innocent, a company that is renowned for its amazing, unique culture, has had to implement methods to make that culture more transparent, democratic, and inclusive, especially as it grew. Many of those methods have been introduced during Douglas’ time as CEO, and so we could think of no one better to lead this month’s discussion.

Build a democracy that listens

Douglas kicked off the discussion by stressing the importance of listening mechanisms to making the best, most democratic decisions, giving a specific example of a choice he had to make while at innocent. “There was a point where we were thinking of going into the dairy space, but we weren’t too sure whether it was a good idea or not”, he explained. “So, we set up what we called ‘lunch and learns’, which gave everyone the opportunity to share how they felt about the decision.” By providing a platform for everyone to speak, every member of your business will feel like they have had their say which will make them more inclined to agree – regardless of the final result – that the decision was made fairly.

Douglas Lamont’s CV//

1996 – 1999: Corporate Finance, KPMG UK

1999 – 2006: Director of Corporate Development, Wanadoo UK/Freeserve PLC

2006 – 2013: Various, Innocent Drinks

2016 – 2018: Board Member, British Soft Drinks Association

2016 – 2020: Board Member, AIJN European Fruit Juice Association

2014 – 2021: Trustee, Innocent Foundation

2013 – 2022: CEO, Innocent Drinks

Co-Chair The Better Business Act Campaign

At this point, one of our members asked Douglas about appointing an employee representative to sit in on board meetings. Although a good idea in principle, Douglas said, there is a major drawback to that idea. “A solitary individual is unlikely – particularly if they are a junior employee surrounded by board members – to speak up and be honest, which is the entire point.” Instead, he suggested appointing a shadow board.

“A shadow board, made up of the younger members of your team, will ensure they have the collective bravery to be really honest”, he argued. And, by ensuring that board is comprised of a diverse range of individuals, you incorporate a whole variety of perspectives into your decision-making process.

Nevertheless, reservations remain about the implications of having a truly democratic business, particularly when it comes to making decisions that are almost guaranteed to face considerable resistance. This perspective was demonstrated by one of our CEOs, who asked: “Wasn’t there any push back when the founders decided to sell the business to Coca Cola?” At the time, this decision sparked controversy, with almost everyone other than innocent’s leadership opposing it. But Douglas explained how innocent managed this situation by giving the staff the opportunity to listen to their reasoning.

“We stood up in front of the employees and explained why we thought selling the business to Coke was a good idea”, he said, “but we realised that – no matter what we said – they wouldn’t be happy. So, we put a date in the diary exactly a year later where the leadership team would listen to and answer any questions and criticisms, and ultimately take responsibility for what ensued after the sale.”

The idea behind this strategy was to give everyone at innocent the chance to voice their opinion and hold the leadership team accountable. As it happens, however, that meeting never took place because, by the time it was due, it was clear that their decision had been completely correct.

Be transparent, but balanced

Of the three topics up for discussion in this month’s CEO Circle, transparency was at the heart of the most questions. “Where do you draw the line with transparency?” asked one CEO, whilst another questioned whether it could hinder the decision-making process.

The first query was made by a member who explained that they had to manage factory, office, and retail staff. “They all want different things”, he explained, “and I think interest in understanding the detail varies from group to group, so how do you decide what to share with everyone?”

Douglas sympathised with this challenge and explained that it wasn’t so much to do with what you share, but how you share it. “We wanted to share most things at innocent, but the question we would ask was always if it was simple and clear enough for people to understand. We gave information little and often rather than giving it out in one big splurge”, he explained. There is no use in being transparent if none of your staff are able or willing to digest what you share. Douglas’ approach of giving regular, simple information will allow you to be transparent and ensure that your staff are able to appreciate it.

In terms of transparency impeding the decision-making process, Douglas agreed that that could certainly end up being the case. With so much information available, the tendency to pontificate can sometimes override decisiveness. To avoid that eventuality, Douglas detailed how innocent managed the issue.

“There is a balance that must be struck”, he admitted, “and we really saw the benefit of using RAPIDs.” This is the practice of assigning a leader to each of the five key roles in the decision-making process, with RAPID representing a loose acronym for Recommend, Agree, Perform, Input, and Decide. “Those leaders worked on the basis that if they were 70% sure about something, then they would pull the trigger because the thought process was, if you’re 70% sure, you must have researched it, applied logic, and have decided it’s a good idea.” This method will make sure that your business considers its choices enough but doesn’t get bogged down and move too slowly to remain competitive.

Another member then explained how they had begun to encourage transparency by asking team members to give deep-dive presentations on their projects. “Every two or three weeks, a different person will do a kind of show and tell. So far, it’s really helped those in other areas of the business to gain an insight that they’ve never had before.” All in all, this makes for a strongly-knit group comprised of individuals who work hard not just for themselves, but for each other.

Create opportunities for your staff to educate each other

The discussion around inclusion began with Douglas claiming that it should be prioritised above diversity. “There’s no use in hiring diversely if your culture is not inclusive”, he clarified, “because the diverse people you hire will leave if, when they arrive, they find a non-inclusive culture.” The solution to this, once again, lies in the creation of listening opportunities, which Douglas only fully realised after the murder of George Floyd.

“We didn’t have enough listening mechanisms to really understand how people were feeling about it”, he admitted. “So, we enabled people within the business to set up effective affinity groups across the entire range of protected characteristics.” Each of those groups were sponsored by a board member, whose job wasn’t to manage, but rather to simply shut up, listen, learn, and then share those lessons in board meetings. This approach isn’t just beneficial for staff, it is also hugely advantageous for the CEO because they can ask those groups how they should deal with situations that have the potential to cause friction within the workforce.

In a similar vein to innocent’s affinity groups, several of our members detailed how they had started to build more inclusive cultures by giving their staff the tools to educate one another. “We offer our staff the opportunity to give the entire workforce homework once a month”, said one CEO. “So, if there is an issue they feel particularly strongly about, they can give not only their peers but also their superiors, an article to read or a podcast to listen to, for instance.”

They went on to say how this had been useful for helping the team understand how their colleagues were feeling about certain situations, which, in turn, allowed them to act in a more informed, considered manner. Offering employees the chance to educate their colleagues is a great way of promoting an inclusive culture because it gives individuals both a sense of authority and the feeling that their perspective matters.

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Douglas rounded off the discussion by reiterating the importance of breaking silos within your business. “At innocent, we’ve never sat people in teams”, he explained. “We like to put people from different areas of the business together so they talk and share and understand the total business picture.” This avoids cliques forming and ensures a continuous flow and cycle of information throughout the organisation.

We’d like to thank Douglas for leading this discussion and offering such valuable insight into what is a very relevant topic. We wish him all the best in his new role as the CEO of Tony’s Cholcolonely and are looking forward to seeing what he has planned for the business.

If you found this article useful and would like more guidance, apply to All Together today for up to five hours of pro bono advice from one of Britain’s leading CEOs.