Balance, Reward and Choices: Q&A with Aquascot MD, John Housego (Part 2)

The second half of our chat with Managing Director John Housego focuses on the on changes, recognition and the crucial importance of continually making choices.

"Don’t get paralysed. Continually make choices."

Do you think there are any major changes that will live on beyond the ‘lockdown’ era?

Yes I hope so. You know, talking about efficiency gains and effectiveness gains, we saw increases in productivity in lots of different areas. Now some of that’s not sustainable. I would say people working from home, we did see some improvement – meetings start on time, they finish on time, they tend to be more efficient and effective in doing that for some reason, working remotely – but I also believe it is not a sustainable way going forward.

People need people, and people need trust. Some level of trust can be met through meeting people online and through videos, but I also don’t believe it’s the same as actually being in the same room and meeting with people and talking with people. I think there needs to be a balance going forward, and taking the learnings that we’ve had; for example, some things you get done better when you’re at home, focused, and not interrupted – but there’s an emotional, personal ‘human being’ need to have contact with other people. For me, the thing I’d like to live on is that balance of efficiency and effectiveness, to the human need to be part of a trusted team and maintaining that trust across partners within their teams. I think home working is here to stay, flexible working is here to stay, and all of that comes back again to trust.

So you know, can we trust partners to do their commitment and allow them to manage their time to do their commitment? And I’d go ‘yeah of course we can’. Because if we can’t do that, then what is it that we trust them to do? For me it’s a no brainer and it’s always been a no brainer, the challenge is that some partners might abuse that, but I’m hoping we can build some mechanisms that will detect that, and that they either exit the business themselves or other pieces will affect them because it’s not all about abuse. What I very much dislike is where you manage your policy and practice to manage the 1% and that impacts the good 99%. I’d much rather have policies and practice that give freedom and opportunity to the trusted 99% to help them do better than to manage our processes for the 1%. We need to find other mechanisms to find the 1% to either improve them as individuals, or to exit the business, because they’re not good enough to be with the 99% of us.

Maybe that’s the right cue to talk about the R&R process? There are now mechanisms in place to reward those partners who have contributed to the growth of the business?

The R&R process is a very straightforward concept around ‘Recognition’ & ‘Reward’ – the recognition of a contribution that’s been made by individual partners that’s openly discussed and understood, and then a broader group of leaders and managers get a common understanding around capability and competence of our team and consequently rewarding appropriately. There’s a mechanism there: it has to be internally fair and consistent, and it needs to be externally competitive in all aspects of what’s competitive.

When I say all aspects, it’s not just about how much money you get paid, it’s also about opportunity to grow and develop. One of my mindsets is to remove any barriers that prevent individual partners following a passion or a desire to contribute. If it’s too hard for someone to take up a part-time commitment or a project commitment that’s outside of their day-to-day commitment, then we’re doing something wrong. Because what we need to do as a whole group is to help each other grow and be more capable; and if we could all grow and do a little bit more, then not only do we get more done and more value done, but we’re all growing and developing ourselves. We feel better about ourselves, our self-esteem rises, and actually, you get an upward spiral of capability and competence and that ends up being a better performing business! So it doesn’t matter what role you’re in, there needs to be opportunities to grow and develop.

The R&R process is starting to uncover some of those for us and starting to show us a different way and over the next few years, I’m sure it will have a dramatic effect on how we organise ourselves and how we manage individuals. It’s covered very much in the Personal Development process: having a document that’s jointly built between the partner and their line manager, looking at what their contribution has been, where their growth areas are, where their interests are, and it does lay down a different challenge to our line management team.

The challenge I’m setting to all of them is: ‘you’re here to manage the business yes, you’re here to deliver what your team delivers, but you are also here to ensure that partners’ other needs are being met, in growth and development opportunities’. And what I’m interested in is if there’s things in place today that stop us doing that, then let’s have a look at those things and see if we can remove them.


Photo: Fyrish Monument by Justine Fourny

What have been the most important qualities within Aquascot as an employee-owned business that have helped us during the crisis?

If I look at the work ethic and the demand across the team… When I first joined – you know, I’ve been connected to the business since 2008, remotely, and I knew it was a good business, I saw the numbers and I saw the figures and I interacted with a few of the people in the Leadership Team and occasionally with the Partnership Council – I knew there was good people here. So coming in and taking this commitment, I was looking at: do we have the confidence and the capability of the team, do we have the organisation that best fits what we are trying to achieve and do we have the tools that they need to be able to do their jobs well? As an employee-owned business, and learning to be a better employee-owned business, what I saw in the crisis last year was a whole load of people step up; everybody stepped up and became engaged to protect our livelihood, which is our business.

If I look alternatively outside of our business to other businesses – where partners didn’t feel safe, they just left site, and stopped production because they didn’t feel safe at work for whatever reason. That would tell me that there is something wrong in the business – that people don’t recognise that actually, if you don’t come to work, work might not be there. It can go, and lots of people have lost their jobs; and there’s still a lot more people that are going to lose their jobs. But when I saw us as an employee-owned business – and it may not have been felt completely by everybody – but what I saw was that commitment to our livelihood and our business, and the dual challenge of the volume increases and COVID just resulted in a very positive ‘go get' attitude — 'yeah we can do this’.

You know, I’ve lived and worked in an employee-owned business since 1996, and it is a common thread through all of that experience that when crises hit, people step up. Because I’ve not lived in a non-employee-owned business, I haven’t seen it the other way during a crisis – although I did see it a bit in Kodak when they had some financial crises in the late 1980s-early 1990s, and I just saw a big separation between senior management and very clever people – there was no comprehension around what was going on. But I’d like to think here that we had a joint comprehension around the problem, the crisis, and through that communication and understanding, there was some sort of appreciation in everybody’s mind around ‘this is our livelihood, this is our plant, this is our business, and I need to work in it to keep it going’. So that was not universal, we saw some not get that message, not understand that message, but the vast majority – back to that 99% – absolutely stepped up and understood what that was. Otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to achieve it the way we could have achieved it. And for me, in the role that I’ve got, it's about how we build on that and take that learning and grow forward, because the other things that happened last year – if I look at not only getting us through that – but we purchased machines, we reorganised our layouts, we introduced projects, specified projects that we’re now implementing to take us forward (the IT, the MES, QPulse and other HR systems that we’re deploying); we recognised there were issues that we needed to fix going forward.

We’ve started the deployment of Teams and better digital communication, so there’s an awful lot of things that spanned out of last year. We recognised things that were holding us back, we got behind project teams, and they’re going to deliver this year a great deal of improvement and capability that we didn’t have before. We managed to get all of that thinking, at the same time as running through a crisis. So for me that’s another example of putting together an understanding, but also I think some of the efficiency and productivity gains that we’ve seen with better, faster decision-making and knowledge decision-making in action.

People ask how do you develop people – well the best way to develop anybody is at work, doing their job. You can send people on training courses and everything else, but there’s nothing like a crisis to really teach you and train you on what’s possible, there's nothing more useful in that regard than the actual action and seeing what it is. And that’s why we asked the team to pull together a lesson sheet of what we learnt; and you know one of the things we learned was imposing some shift patterns just didn’t work for people, and we had to learn, we had to take it away and put them back. We learned so many things around what we thought was possible, what worked, what didn’t work…

The key lesson for me in the whole of last year was: ‘Don’t get paralysed. Continually make choices'. Because if you stop making decisions – whether they work out as good or bad – if you actually stop making decisions and stop making changes, you don’t improve, you don’t learn. You don’t find better solutions. So if you want to find better solutions, you have got to keep making decisions – and you won’t get it right every time – but be afraid of not making decisions because that means you definitely won’t be getting it right.

If you had just one sentence to express how you feel about the work that Aquascot partners have put in this year — what would it be?

If I look at overall as a sentence, I think for me it’s the commitment shown to get through the crisis and all the challenges that got thrown to us and in a way, really living our values, yeah we’ve had some casualties in that process but in general, I think being ‘Actively Ambitious’ & ‘Naturally Kind’ has really worked for us this year. It may not be a conscious thing that people are doing in their day-to-day stuff, but I can see it manifesting itself in lots of areas. So the delivery of what we’ve been able to achieve and the commitment shown by partners has been outstanding, and it’s been a joy to watch as a new partner coming in and just watching it and going ‘wow, there’s so much capability here’.

Single sentence would be: 'I think being ‘Actively Ambitious’ & ‘Naturally Kind’ has worked for us this year!'

The last question which is more personal – what’s been your favourite thing since you moved to the Highlands?

Obviously I’ve got a love of the outdoors, whether that’d be climbing hills or technical rock climbing, mountain biking, cycling, swimming, paddle-boarding, whatever, I’m always out doing something. I’ve always done that all my life, but moving here, it’s like you don’t need to go more than five miles to get all of those things all at once. For an outdoor pursuit person like myself, it’s just been fantastic here and I think I have had the joy of experiencing it here through lockdown. So, the lack of people, and some fantastic weather last year as well made it wonderful!

My favourite thing is just the environment of where we find ourselves living now, and that’s made even more special by the interaction I’ve had with people. Wherever it is, there is definitely a better sense of caring here, than in the Central Belt, just in conversations in shops or garages or wherever you interact with people that you don’t know; there is a better level of respect and care I would say, which has been fantastic.

Part 1 of our Q&A session with John Housego is also available here.

Follow Aquascot on LinkedIn for the latest news, recipes and information from the Scottish seafood people in Alness.

Interviewed by: Justine Fourny (Category & Marketing Officer)

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