beer bottles on a bar

Last week’s open letter from (over) 60 former Brewdog employees was hard to read. It was heartfelt and generated a lot of supportive comment on social media. Brewdog’s co-founder James Watt responded originally by suggesting staff write a counter letter, before realising that addressing what they had to say might be a more profitable approach if he wanted to restore his brand reputation.

What can other leaders learn from this experience?

  1. The ends do not justify the means

Machiavelli could not afford to have a conscience. But we, thank the Lord, do not live in a ‘Princely state’. In a democratic society, if you don’t care about people, all your purposeful intent will come to naught.

People are not going to put up with your abuse anymore. #BLM, #MeToo, the school strikes – these are popular movements of solidarity whose roots lie in a more confident generation.

  1. Humility is an underestimated virtue

Entrepreneurs have drive. However, if the business relies too much on the personality of the founders, the ego can get in the way.

Thanks to SimonTerry from Anglepoise, who pointed me in the direction of Saint Augustine, summing up the role of the servant leader. “Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”

The cult of personality at Brewdog bear similarities to the struggles of megachurch pastors. The higher you soar, the more people look up to you, the harder the fall when you fall. The subsequent disappointment goes two ways:

  • Disbelief – some people invest so much of their identity in the leader that they just refuse to believe the evidence of their eyes – a certain US President comes to mind
  • Disillusionment – We see this in what is known as cancel culture. All the good X has done is forgotten in a moment. What’s worse, the fall of our hero leads us to suspect everyone. Cynicism reigns.

Brewdog bar exterior

  1. Employees matter

Do we still need to spell this out? Almost everyone in business knows Richard Branson’s quote that “Clients do not come first. Employees come first.”

Every HR professional I speak to at the moment knows how important staff wellbeing is to productivity, retention of talent and recruiting the people they need. The Age of Ambiguity, a study by Aviva, revealed that the pandemic has resulted in 74% of workers saying they are positive about the idea of moving jobs more frequently than before.

  1. Endless growth is not a sustainable strategy

The best does not necessarily mean the biggest. Businesses who focus on constant growth easily lose focus on quality. Clever businesses get this. Just ask Avis.

Not to mention that the authenticity, edginess and taste that is the hallmark of craft brewing does not sit comfortably with relentless growth. Craft brewers take their time, luxuriate in the process, value their skills. If the retail staff are treated differently – pour it fast, sell it quick , pressure, pressure – then the brand stumbles.

  1. Developing companies need process not just passion

When businesses get to a certain size, the founders cannot personally know how all their staff are being treated. That is when the seat-of-the-pants excitement of the start-up needs to be combined with the processes, feedback loops and management intelligence of the mature organisation.

A culture of strong and engaging internal communications, with a strong listening ear is the only way to prevent this taking hold when times get tough, especially where ethics and values are concerned.

Does Brewdog’s fall from grace do lasting harm?

You may say, this is just one company, there are bound to be some bad apples, does it really matter? Yes. It does.

The fall from grace of a firm which has so aggressively promoted its ethics and values, creates an unholy alliance between two groups – those old school capitalists who believe business should not try to solve the world’s problems and those anti-capitalists who believe business cannot solve the world’s problems.

If, like I do, you think business plays a crucial role in solving the ills we see in the world today, then we need to guard ourselves against Brewdog syndrome.

Stay humble; seek partnership; reinvest; serve; care. And enjoy the journey together.