Shortbread Leaders #22
By Graham Bell
Last weekend I drove south from the heart of shortbread country in the north east of Scotland and my thoughts turned to longer connections with biscuits and how they integrate with leadership.
As usual a little bit of background research was required; why is Scotland synonymous with shortbread? Well, thanks to Mrs McLintock, the first printed recipe for it dates back to 1736 and it is widely believed that the buttery, crumbly biscuit originated here.
This is no ordinary biscuit!
There are records of it being eaten in the 12th century, and in the 16th century Mary Queen of Scots refined it. But this is no ordinary biscuit! It was so expensive that it was reserved for the rich and for special occasions – New Year celebrations are indelibly linked with shortbread in my mind and heart!
My own connections with biscuits date back to one of my first jobs in the early 1970s – a summer one in the long-gone Co-op biscuit factory in Clydebank. The biscuits were fabulous, but the factory and its methods seemed archaic, even to a young student like me. Inefficiency and poor labour relations are what I remember most (apart from the thick chocolate jaffa cakes). It had opened in 1903 and at its peak employed 500 people. But this institution did not seem ‘built to last’. And it didn’t.
These memories were in stark contrast to my time in Aberlour, home of Walker’s Shortbread, Scotland’s biggest food exporter – much of which is shortbread. Dating back to the late 19th century, it is a story of adaptability and quality. And just about the same age as I started in the biscuit factory, my youngest daughter has just started working in the shortbread one. This is her first exposure to a big working space and she is in awe of it.
She is also proud of what she is doing and as she described the routines around health and safety and maintaining production volume and consistency it seemed very different to my youthful work experience.
It’s funny how small memories re-emerge after some years. Fifteen years ago we had taken my parents to Disneyland in California. My late father, who by this time was in his 80s, loved to potter around the gift shops there. I have a vivid memory of him standing in front of the Disney branded Walker’s Shortbread, both amazed and impressed that this Scottish company had such a global footprint. Actually, I was too!
Every business, every sector of our economy and society, needs good leadership to make it efficient, relevant and adaptable.
Peter Drucker said, ‘Wherever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision’.
With businesses that stand the test of time you can be sure that this has meant many brave decisions.
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