Why Happy's Henry Stewart Stopped Making Leadership Decisions

In: BlogDate: May 20, 2020By: Billy Burgess

Over the last couple of years, Happy has undergone a transformation. Happy was losing a lot of money a couple of years ago, but thanks to the transformation the London training company went from £185k loss to £166k profit in the space of one year.

In this short video from the 2019 Happy Workplaces Conference, Chief Happiness Officer Henry Stewart explains that he took inspiration from David Marquet, a leadership expert and former commander of the nuclear-powered submarine, USS Santa Fe.

Marquet says, “If you want your people to think, don’t give instructions, give intent.” Henry followed suit. “It isn’t enough to not be the tyrant; you have to step out,” he says.

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Why Happy's Henry Stewart stopped making leadership decisions

When I look at other organisations I often think the problem is at the top. Would you agree? How many people think the problem – it’s difficult if some of you are CEOs – is at the top in your organisation? It came to a point where I had to wonder could that even be true of Happy?

I did an exercise a couple of years ago where I asked people, ‘what are all the things you don’t do because you assume I wouldn’t like you to?’ Even though I may not give many orders and I hope I’m not hierarchical or command and control, I suddenly realised there were dozens of things – many of which I’d never suggested or would actually like them to do in many cases – which people were not doing because they assumed I wouldn’t want them. So you have to consciously step out in many ways. It isn’t enough to not be the tyrant; you have to step out in many ways.

So I decided to make no decisions and it led to 26% increase in sales and a move from loss to profit. So my question to you is, particularly if you’re a manger, could you aim to make no decisions? And he did allow an exception, what was his exception? Launching the missiles. So would you have an exception?

After assessing the significant financial downturn, Henry and his leadership team realised they’d lost sight of some core principles. So instead of cutting things and getting more hierarchical, the turnaround was made possible by revisiting their core principles and acting in accordance.

Henry explains that whenever he looks at other organisations, he generally determines the problem to be at the top. So could that be true of Happy as well? Henry specifically designed Happy to not be a hierarchical, command and control workplace. However, he recognised that many things were not being done because staff members assumed he’d disapprove.

Resources and related content

  • 12 Ways in Which Toyota Create a Great Workplace — Henry Stewart visited Toyota and learned about 'kaizen'. Each member of staff is expected to come up with at least two kaizen, or improvements, each month. They are allocated 15 minutes a day to identify and test these.
  • Leading in Agile Environments — Happy has partnered with Adventures in Agile to offer this two-day transformational workshop to develop leaders driven by purpose, creativity, curiosity, and empathy.

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About Henry

Henry is founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happy Ltd, originally set up as Happy Computers in 1987. Inspired by Ricardo Semler’s book, Maverick, Henry has built a company that's won multiple awards for providing some of the best customer service in the country and being one of the UK’s best places to work.

His first book, Relax, was published in 2009. His second book, The Happy Manifesto, was published in 2013 and was short-listed for Business Book of the Year.

Next Conference: 2025 Happy Workplaces Conference

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Our 2024 event was our first ever hybrid event, and so we hope to run next year's in the same way. We will host up to 50 people face-to-face at Happy's HQ in Aldgate, London, and we can host up to 200 people online via Zoom. However you choose to join, there will be interaction, discussion, space for reflection and opportunities to network with others.

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