In Memoriam: Important Leadership Lessons From Anita Roddick

In Memoriam: Important Leadership Lessons From Anita Roddick

The recent passing of Body Shop founder Anita Roddick lacked the kind of coverage in the U.S. press that one would expect her legacy to receive. Perhaps this is always how we feel when someone we've met and who's influenced us passes away. But Anita had important lessons for business leaders and especially those who are positioning their companies at the forefront of sustainability. Below are four lessons we can all learn from Dame Anita Roddick.

Lesson One: Create the Culture

Close to twenty years ago, when I first traveled to Body Shop’s pagoda-like offices in Littlehampton to consult with the company, I thought they had discovered a great "green" marketing hook for selling cosmetics and soaps. After a week of meetings that ranged from senior executives to distribution and shop floor workers, my initial cynicism was replaced by awe at how well aligned the company was in terms of what it meant to work there.

Supply chain and manufacturing issues were discussed in terms not only with regard to financial impact, but also included environmental or ethical perspectives that at the time few companies considered. This was a direct effect of the singular culture Ms. Roddick created that was reinforced by the products as well as the operational processes of the company.

Takeaway: Companies must embed their sustainability principles in every function and business unit of their global operations.

Lesson Two: Constantly Innovate

My first introduction to Anita came during a meeting between Body Shop distribution and IT teams and a large ERP vendor. By my second trip to the company I had adopted the corporate dress of jeans and a sweatshirt. During a break in our meetings, Anita seemed to float into the room, ignored "the suits," and announced she’d just invented a new lip balm. What seemed at first an arbitrary visit quickly evolved into a discussion of manufacturing and packaging strategy for the new product.

Ms. Roddick personally sought out uncommon natural ingredients and pioneered zero waste strategies such as encouraging customers to reuse containers and printing promotional material on post-consumer recycled paper. For many years, Body Shop built a loyal customer base by serving a lucrative niche that other beauty product companies were slow to recognize.

Takeaway: By continually innovating and refreshing products, companies can define and maintain category brand leadership.

Lesson Three: Never Give In

Several companies in the past few years have built corporate strategies that include sustainability and corporate citizenship as foundational elements for growth. From a long-term perspective, we believe this will reap benefits in terms of differentiation from competition, aligning them with shareholder interests, as well as top-line and bottom-line returns. But it also means being held to a higher standard, especially in the court of public opinion.

During a corporate outing, one Body Shop executive lamented that if the company spilled a teaspoon of shampoo in its parking lot it would become front page news, whereas its competitors had been responsible for tanker-load spills with no mention in the press. Interestingly, most staff noted that Anita was more concerned for what the company had done and what corrective actions it had taken than how its competitors were rated. In fact, she appeared to embrace having Body Shop set to a higher standard.

Takeaway: Transparency and a commitment to corporate values are critical for weathering harsh short-term criticism and focusing the company on its long term goals.

Lesson Four: Be Passionate

Businesses grow by the force of the people who lead them. Anita Roddick defined core values for the company in terms of never testing on animals, promoting indigenous and community trade, environmentalism, encouraging personal self-esteem, and defending human rights. Where some company founders may make donations to support their passions, Ms. Roddick did not separate her personal beliefs from the corporate mission. She turned Body Shop lorries into mobile human rights banners and took sourcing in new directions by accounting for the impact of raw material purchases in terms of the communities affected (both negatively and positively).

Takeaway: Tightly linking a company’s mission with its sustainability activities must be defined uniquely for each company. But once defined, they must be aggressively pursued to have effect.

John Davies is vice president of AMR Research's Green Technology Research. For more news on sustainability initiatives, subscribe to AMR Research's free Green Alert.