Be human

I recently attended a Once Upon a Time event in Bournemouth. It’s always a good event, held in the beautiful Shelley theatre (once home to Mary Shelley) and organised by the indomitable duo of Mark Masters and Matt Desmier. Between them their contact list must be among the best and longest in the land of digital creatives, communicators (of all breeds) and entrepreneurs.

At this latest event we heard from four great speakers which I wrote about last week. One stood out for me for his enthusiasm and energy, and his authenticity and humanity. The person he was on stage, was the person I imagined he’d be before I heard him speak, and when I met him a week later for a coffee and to find out more, he was exactly the same.

Mark Cribb, founder, Urban Guild
Mark Cribb, founder, Urban Guild

Mark Cribb is local entrepreneur who set up shop in a run-down B&B in the dodgy end of town ten years ago. That was the start of his brand the Urban Guild, which now boasts that once run-down B&B, now turned glorious boutique hotel and restaurant the Urban Beach, a farm in the New Forest, the sea-front restaurant and café Urban Reef, the Urban Renaissance café nestled inside the Russell Cotes museum and Jenkins & Sons which has kept the name of its forebear, a family butchers renowned for top quality meat and poultry, where you can now can enjoy craft beers and great grilled meat and fish. And the latest plans for the Urban Guild brand, are for wood fired pizza take away on the beach front.

Mark’s Urban Guild brand stands out for me because he doesn’t carbon copy what works and take it to another town or area like so many other popular restaurant brands. He creates something new each time. What is intriguing is how he manages to keep innovating while keeping the connection to Urban Guild. How does he perpetuate the culture that keeps his brand alive through the people employed to deliver the hospitality as his business grows and diversifies?

I think it comes down to his qualities as a leader so I went to meet him to find out and get his advice.

Mark doesn’t profess to be a leadership expert, but he is authentic and his businesses are successful, so I figured his advice will be useful for all of us who need to help our leaders be more human and our businesses to be more successful.

Be human

The whole ethos of the Urban Guild brand is built upon the essentials of great hospitality. The company has recently adopted the pineapple in its branding (the pineapple has been used as a symbol of hospitality for hundreds of years) and developed the Hug club loyalty scheme. At Once Upon A Time, Mark referenced a quote from Danny Meyer: “In our first 30 seconds on earth we get… eye contact, a smile, a hug and some food.” This epitomises the approach to service and business at Urban Guild.

Mark is present and visible as a leader and open and honest with his teams. He admits his mistakes and lets his teams make their own mistakes too. Because he started the business, he did all the graft for the first six years. He knows the business inside out and understands the work his people do. This undoubtedly gives him a level of empathy with his teams that is hard to get by watching.

Let people take responsibility

Mark is actively involved in community initiatives like the recent shared space in the nearby shopping centre which removed the road markings and signage encouraging more careful driving and pedestrians to be more aware. This is all about removing the rules and letting people manage themselves and their own safety. This is reflected in letting people take responsibility at work too.

“We let people take responsibility for their own budgets and their teams. We let them learn from their own mistakes. While I have high expectations, I don’t make high demands. I let them make the decisions they need to make.”

“We take an open book approach to our accounts – everyone in the business can see how we are doing, how much we owe the bank and how each part of the business is performing. Our financial controller is incredible and provides the most useful and fascinating data to help keep us on track. Numbers are fun, they may not be the primary motivator but they do show us really clearly how well (or not) we are doing.”

Mark steps back from the day-to-day business. He doesn’t step in to serve when they are short-staffed or because there’s a rush on. He lets his teams find their own solutions which will no doubt be better outcomes and he recognises that he’s not the best person for the job. There is no micro-managing here…

Urban Reef, Boscombe beach
Urban Reef, Boscombe beach

Provide an environment and the opportunity for people to develop

“I’m a firm believer in never regretting what you do. Everyone is an individual and has potential. A good leader should spot that and help to bring that strength out. We’re a hospitality business and I know some people just come to work for the money and others want to do more. It’s my job and that of our managers to help those who want to go further in our business to do just that. We have some really great managers and emerging leaders in our teams and we aim to encourage them to reach their potential.”

Learning is encouraged at Urban Guild. “The free flowing availability of information now available to everyone in today’s society is a great leveler. We can’t blame outside influences or our lack of money for not being able to access the information we need to do better for ourselves. Books, podcasts, the internet are all there to help us learn. Read instead of watching TV, and keep learning. We’ve started our own ‘urban library’ with some great books on anything and everything from humanity to hospitality – it’s just the start” explained Mark, “to encourage and support people in their own development.”

Communicate and be visible

A year ago Mark employed a ‘Head of Happy’, thinking that the role would help him to delegate some of the task of sharing the culture with his growing workforce. But this approach didn’t work out – the split between counsellor and leader is a tricky balance to strike and it was clear that they needed to emphasise the leadership more to encourage and empower people.

Mark joins the staff inductions and says, “They aren’t like the kind of ‘Health & Safety guidelines’ and ‘these are the rules’ monologues you expect an induction to be. I just join in for a conversation, tell the story of the Urban Guild, share the inspiration, the hard work and ethos behind the brand.”

Urban Guild produces a video each month for social media and external marketing. At the same time, they produce an internal video with Mark updating the staff with the same content as the external video, but with extra information as appropriate and flexed in style for the internal audience.

Mark is also in or around one of the outlets much of the week, so he is a highly visible leader.

Urban Guild embraces using social internally too, with a closed Facebook Group and Slack to have conversations and collaborate.

Knowing how to communicate is vital says Mark, “I flex my style and approach depending on who I am talking to. I’m still me, but ‘me’ with a suit jacket on when I meet the bank manager, or a more relaxed ‘me’ when I’m meeting new employees.”

It all seems so simple, so logical.

But we know it’s not so easy. It takes time, conscious effort and a willingness to be vulnerable and available to make a good leader. By showing our reluctant leaders that it is simple, it’s possible and that others are being successful leaders by being more human we can encourage them to change how we communicate in our corporate settings.

If there’s one thing that I personally took from talking to Mark above all else, it’s that if you follow your heart and truly believe in it others will believe and follow too. A little bit like this guy:

Not all of us are so lucky to have jobs we truly love, so get learning and get yourself where you want to be.

What’s next for the Urban Guild? The brand is definitely one to watch as Mark’s ideas abound, from micro-breweries to bikes and hospitality. But if you visit Bournemouth, perhaps for All about people in June, be sure to visit one of the Urban outlets for a local treat you can’t get anywhere else.

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This post also features on CIPR Inside

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