Mary Portas climbed the retail career ladder quickly, reaching the board of Harvey Nichols by the age of 31 before starting her eponymous creative agency, hosting award-winning TV documentaries and conducting an independent review for the government into the UK’s failing high streets. But getting here has involved a battle between her own values and those of what she sees as the dominant model of leadership, which values power above all else. She explains why such an ‘alpha culture’ deters women – and many men – from aspiring to senior roles
Portas has made a name for herself as a straight-talking marketing expert, a charismatic media personality and an inspirational leader, especially for women in business. It may come as a surprise, then, to find that she spent many years of her career behaving out of character, out of sync with her values and without regard to people around her.
“I was delivering – I was being talked about and the newspapers were writing about my work. I thought I was on fire,” she tells Director of her strikingly successful efforts in the early 1990s to turn the then- stuffy department store Harvey Nichols into a fashionable brand. “Then I went for a performance review with my boss, sales director Patrick Hanley. He told me: ‘I want to talk to you about your attitude.’ I was taken aback. He said: ‘You’re a natural leader, but there are times when you don’t bring other people with you. A great leader always brings people with them. You therefore need to show a little more collaborative spirit and vulnerability.’ I was gutted to hear that critique and it took me a while to get over it. Later I realised that it’s never ‘I’; it’s ‘we’. What a great man.”
Looking back, Portas attributes her past heedless behaviour at work to what she calls “alpha culture” – a concept that her latest book, Work Like a Woman, discusses at length. She explains that alpha culture is a “predominantly linear and somewhat aversive culture that is based on individualism, not collaboration. This is how most businesses work – even if the intent isn’t there – because historically we’ve seen that, in order to get to the top of an organisation, one must be the loudest person, the one who wins.”
Portas believes that alpha cultures are fuelled by individual financial goals, as opposed to the collective objectives of people in business. “The power is at the top and is untouchable, so everybody wants to get into that position,” she says. “Often the tenets of these cultures are much more aggressive than collaborative.”
She cites the recent controversy surrounding Sir Philip Green, who owned British Home Stores, the former FTSE-100 retailer that went into liquidation in 2016. “If you were to tell him: ‘I think you’ve done wrong,’ I don’t think he’d understand. He’s stuck in a time warp. He would think: ‘I made this business, so I can behave how I like.’”
Portas adds: “I don’t believe he sets out to be a bad person, but I do think that he’s greedy and he’s about the individual. His behaviour is what ‘winning’ is seen as. Let’s face it: he was knighted. So was Fred Goodwin, the former chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland Group [which had to be bailed out by the state after losing £24 billion in 2008]. These people have been honoured for the results of behaviour that’s based on ‘winning’ and getting more money. There is a huge lack of empathy and also something slightly sociopathic about alpha culture.”
The great divide
In this environment, she says, there are often only two choices for female leaders: play the game or fade into the background.
“I made it to the top by abiding by alpha codes. Three-quarters of the voices heard in meetings are male. If you have a board that’s 80 per cent men and 20 per cent women – most of the boards I’ve ever sat on have had that ratio – women need a louder voice to be heard, which doesn’t always come naturally. Once you have to change your frequency to fit a business culture that isn’t essentially you, you lose your power. The reason that women aren’t getting to the top has nothing to do with their capabilities. The alpha leadership culture is not how women want to work.”
The culture that Portas describes is characterised as male simply because men are usually the ones in positions of power. But she’s quick to add that “a huge amount of men” have contacted her to say that they don’t want to play the alpha game either.
Portas makes a clear connection between the alpha hegemony, especially in big business, and the continuing lack of female representation at senior level – there were only 30 women in full-time board executive roles in the FTSE 250 last year, according to Cranfield University.
“Diverse talent doesn’t get into seats of power. This affects how we live, because most decisions are made by men alone,” she says, adding that this is a vicious circle: if young women cannot see themselves reflected in their leaders, “who can they be?”
On finding that Harvey Nichols was paying her less than a relatively new male recruit to its senior finance team, an “incensed” Portas left in 1997 to set up her own consultancy. She entered the public eye as the star of BBC2’s Mary Queen of Shops, in which she helped struggling independent stores. Having reinvigorated Save the Children’s charity shops in 2009, she was asked by the then PM, David Cameron, to conduct an independent review of the nation’s ailing high streets. She made 28 recommendations and £1.2 million was pumped into testing her ideas in 12 towns. Within a year, the press had latched on to the pilot’s “failings”: shops were still closing in the trial towns and money was not being invested properly. Meanwhile, her relationship with long-time business partner Peter Cross had deteriorated to such an extent that he left the company.
These bruising experiences left Portas questioning her approach and the future of her business. “I was making a lot of money, yet I wasn’t deeply connected emotionally to any of it,” she admits. To change things, she re-evaluated her leadership style and priorities. Patrick Hanley’s advice still resonated two decades after he’d given it.
“My values as a woman, I realised, were primarily about people,” she recalls. “I’m at my best when I feel supported, when I collaborate and when trust is at the heart of things. When that goes, I am at my worst, because it becomes about individuals fighting to survive.”
In Work Like a Woman, she writes: “I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the phrase ‘it’s business’ during my working life. And by that people mean ‘this isn’t personal’. Try telling that to someone who’s got three kids to support and has just been sacked. Work is personal. Really personal. Through it, we can create a sense of progress, accomplishment and community. It fuels our self-esteem, happiness and confidence.”
Although Portas uses the phrase “work like a woman” to describe her new ethos, she stresses that “it might as well be called ‘work like a decent human’. Alpha culture has killed the soul of so many businesses. Working like a woman is about putting your true values at the heart of your work and connecting with your inner frequency to the fullest. When you sit with people and you can be completely yourself, isn’t that when you’re at your most powerful?”
What does the workplace look like when your employees can be themselves? In Portas’s agency, the results are tangible: “It’s a better, more profitable business. It’s a more creative place, a more joyful place. We retain staff, employees put forward people to work here. They speak highly of the company. We’re delivering better work. Honestly, it’s affected all levels.”
If the leader of a growing business wants to encourage such a culture, where should they start? “First, you have to know your goal – what do you want to achieve? Write down what’s important. Is it ‘making clients happy at whatever cost’, for instance? Is it ‘having a hierarchy based on competence, not power’? Then you build your culture on these blocks.”
Ultimately, Portas stresses, effecting change is down to the leadership team, but it needs to listen to everyone in the organisation. “If your people don’t have a voice, you’ll never hear the truth,” she stresses. “We have a programme called ‘MD for the day’, where people in the agency tell us what they really think. And at the junior level we have a sunshine committee of people who keep an eye on happiness levels.”
The beauty of such initiatives, she says, is that they don’t cost the Earth. For SMEs that struggle to compete with big companies on pay, a reputation for treating people with respect will attract talent.
“We make absolutely sure that we look after our people,” she says. “Christmas parties, summer parties, teams socialising – these things matter. Culture eats strategy for breakfast in business.”
Portas is also a believer in 360-degree reviews, in which even her performance is rated by those who report to her. “Everybody has the chance to say: ‘This is how I think so and so’s been working’. I could have eight people saying in my own review: ‘I don’t like this; I don’t enjoy working with her.’ And you have to listen to that – it makes you a better person.”
Such an open approach, she adds, brings to the fore a valuable asset in leaders: confidence. “This comes down to you knowing who you are and knowing that you can deal with anything without changing your shape to fit a certain mould. Someone once said to me: ‘Just being nice in business doesn’t get you to the top.’ I’m not talking about being nice; I’m talking about being kind. Kindness has a fierceness at the heart of it, because it’s about doing what’s right.”
Work Like a Woman, published by Penguin, is out now.
Mary Portas started her retail career as a window dresser at John Lewis, Harrods and Topshop. By 1989 she had progressed to the board of Harvey Nichols as its creative director.
In 1997 she started her own brand consultancy, Yellowdoor (renamed Portas in 2013). It has served clients including Liberty, Sainsbury’s, Louis Vuitton and Westfield Shopping Centre.
In 2007 she found fame when BBC2 screened Mary Queen of Shops, in which she tried to rescue a series of struggling independent stores.
In 2009 Portas helped to turn Save the Children’s worst-performing branch into one of its top 10 outlets. Separately, she opened the first of Mary’s Living & Giving shops, which have since raised more than £12 million for the charity.
In 2011 the then prime minister, David Cameron, commissioned her to conduct an independent review into the state of the nation’s high streets. The Portas review made 28 recommendations and the government committed £1.2 million to fund a trial of the proposed measures in 12 towns. This attracted criticism after it failed to prevent shop closures.
Portas had her third book, Work Like a Woman, published in November 2018, and she continues to present Channel 4’s annual review of the nation’s retail spending habits, What Britain Bought.