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7 Questions on Leadership with Tony Cooke

Name: Tony Cooke

Title: Managing Partner

Organisation: Bartlett Cooke Partners

Tony Cooke is an executive, team and board coach in sustainability leadership and Managing Partner at Bartlett Cooke Partners. He works with CEOs, C-suites and sustainability leaders to accelerate their companies’ strategic transformation to a more sustainable business model.

He juggles this with a part-time Deputy CEO role at ICC, a UK-based veterinary education and accreditation company with customers in 110 countries and accredited clinics in 50 countries. Before that, he was CEO of WWF OPEN, a sustainable business education spinout from WWF in Switzerland. Prior to joining WWF OPEN, he was a VP at Sodexo, the world’s largest caterer.

He has over 25 years of executive and non-executive leadership experience across a variety of sectors and has been closely involved in the emergence and mainstreaming of the sustainable business agenda over that time.

Tony is an Honorary Associate Professor in Sustainability Leadership at the University of Nottingham in the UK and is in demand internationally as a speaker on sustainability leadership. He has also hosted his own ChangeHackers podcast, with over 40 episodes and listeners in over 100 countries.

Tony earned his MBA from University of Exeter Business School in the UK and is a Fellow of both the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society of Arts.

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Tony's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

Getting out of the grass.

It becomes progressively harder the higher you climb in leadership roles to be across everything. I’ve found it challenging to let go of my tendency to want to know and have an input on all the granular details. This can lead to atomising your time and attention across so many different things that you can’t possibly make a useful contribution to any of them, and it’s a big cause of stress and burnout in CEOs.

As a senior leader, it’s incumbent upon you to operate at a different cadence to your wider team. If you don’t slow yourself down and invest sufficient time in scanning the horizon, thinking and listening to your key stakeholders, you risk leading your company to accelerate towards a cliff.

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

My first taste of, and interest in, leadership came as a teenager at school when I was appointed Head Boy, which came with the responsibility of being a role model to other students. That was the start of me identifying as a leader.

After a brief stint after graduation working in banking in London, I returned to my family business to take over running it at the age of 25 in 1995. It was a baptism of fire to hold the reins at such a young age and feel the responsibility for the staff, their families and my wider family, all of whom depended on our business for their livelihoods. It was an early lesson in the moral responsibilities of leadership that made me realise that I first needed to lead myself before leading others. I grew up very quickly and committed then to being the best leader I could possibly be.

But it always felt like a ‘shoe-in’ to leadership gifted to me by my parents, without me feeling like I’d earned it, so I was constantly out to prove myself. External validation as a leader eventually came when I was asked by the UK Government to lead part of a major transformation programme for the food and farming industry in 2002. That led to further roles with Government, and then in 2010 to a VP role with Sodexo, the world’s biggest foodservice company. By then, I finally felt like a proper leader!

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

My typical day now is a far cry from what it was even only 3 years ago.

Since getting close to burnout during COVID-19, I now prioritise wellbeing alongside productivity and actually find that I can now achieve more work than I used to in less time overall.

My alarm goes off at 6.20am, which I press snooze on, knowing that it will go off again at 6.45am. That gives me 25 minutes of slowly waking up, meditating in bed, thinking about my day ahead.

I get up at 6.45am, have a mug of hot water with lemon slices (it’s very good for cleaning your kidneys) with a banana for slow release energy, then I then walk 5 minutes to the sea and go for a 30 minute swim. I do this all year round (without a wetsuit!) and find it brings immense benefits to my physical and mental wellbeing - from improving cardiovascular flow and my immune system (I never seem to get a cold) to always starting the day feeling calm, refreshed, centred and extremely present with a clear head.

I then have a bowl of cereal mixed with muesli, berries and nuts to give me more slow release nutrients, then start my work day around 8.30am, initially by scanning and prioritising emails for replying.

Meetings generally start by 9.00am and can go on through the day, mostly on Zoom or Teams, as I generally work from home, but I do go into the office several times a month for team meetings. Since COVID-19, when all we could do was work virtually, I’ve learned to chunk my day up to leave room for thinking time and for exercise breaks, when I tend to go outside for a quick walk with the dog. I often take calls with particular people whilst I’m walking, as I find the conversation flows better and is often more creative.

When I’m coaching, I tend to block 90 minute sessions with my clients and leave time in between for preparation before and for reflection afterwards. This makes me a better coach by ensuring I’m really there for my clients during our sessions.

My work day finishes around 6.00pm, though I do occasionally work through into the evenings, but only if I’m feeling creative and I want to harness a flow of ideas.

When I can, I like to cook with my wife Emma. It’s sociable and cathartic and helps me unwind as well as centre myself by doing something with my hands. We then always eat supper around the table as a family to share how our day went.

I watch a bit of TV including the 10 o’clock news, and then try and go to bed straight afterwards. I’m naturally a night owl, but I’m getting much better at making myself do this as I get older. Sleep is under-rated (I survived for years on 4hrs a night) but we really need it to replenish our batteries and to stay the course for the long haul (I'm thriving far better now on a good 7hrs a night).

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

That the best leaders are those who wear their crown lightly and humbly.

Leadership is not about you, it’s about serving others and your organisation’s purpose to the best of your ability.

It follows, therefore, that what others and your organisation need from their leaders will change over time, and that means that there will be a time that you’re the best fit to lead them and there will a time when someone else will be. Many leaders forget this and cling on to power until it’s too late, their time has passed and the end of their tenure comes about abruptly and ignominiously.

I was reminded of this by Dame Jacinda Ardern when, following two terms as Prime Minister of New Zealand, she graciously stood down at the age of 42 stating that “I know what the job takes and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It is that simple. We need a fresh set of shoulders for that challenge.”

Whatever your politics, that’s selfless servant leadership.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

There are so many on my bookshelf that it’s hard to single out one.

But if I had to, I would say 'Positive Intelligence' by Shirzad Chamine. Shirzad runs a class for Stanford MBA students on mental fitness - they all call it 'Jedi mind training'!

It really is a game-changing book with profound insights on how to quieten your inner ‘saboteurs’ and access your ‘sage’ brain. Since reading it, I went on to do the accompanying self-assessment and 6 week online programme to learn the tools and techniques that really help you master your ‘self-command’.

This has resulted in so many benefits to my wellbeing, satisfaction and performance in all aspects of my life, personal and professional. I feel so much less reactive and judgmental, and calmer, more clear-headed, appreciative, empathic, attentive and creative.

I also now notice how almost everyone I come into contact with still suffers under the weight of these inner saboteurs - they are the root causes of all of our stress, anxiety, fear, anger and frustration - all the negative emotions that prevent us from becoming the best version of ourselves as leaders and as human beings.

The book has really inspired me to apply what I’ve learned into my executive coaching practice so that I can help more leaders ‘get out of their own way’ by tackling the root causes of their negative patterns of thinking and behaviour, accessing their wiser self and taking more clear-sighted, decisive action to accelerate their organisation’s path to a more sustainable future.

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

Every single day, ask yourself what you need to do today to ensure that, in later life looking back, you’ll be proud of how you conducted yourself.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

One evening, I was saying goodnight to one of my teenage sons and he said to me, ‘You know Dad, my generation can’t afford to take the time that it’s taken your generation to make the world more sustainable. How can you help us get there more quickly?’

That, for me, was a profound thing for a teenager to say to their parent - the true wisdom of youth?!

It struck a deep chord and reminded me of the power of listening with humility to everyone around you, for you never know from where a transformational insight might come.

That one remark from my son led to me redefining my personal mission and to shifting my focus from hands-on leadership roles to working with leaders as an executive, team and board coach in sustainability leadership.

My key takeaway from this story, and from my many years of leadership practice, is that your roles don’t define you as a leader and that leadership can and will take many different forms at different times in your life. The priority throughout for me is to remain focused on my ‘why’, and then remain open-minded and flexible to my ‘what’ and my ‘how’ I can best serve others.

In other words, keep asking yourself as you go through life on your leadership journey (or allow others to ask of you) - ‘in what way can I best serve others?’. The answer to that question will (and should) change over time. Embrace it!

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