The Talent Poole

Leadership perspectives from a leader in global distribution

By Jon Poole

- Last updated on GMT

How many times do you check your distribution list? Santa recommends at least twice. Credit: Getty/Wavebreakmedia
How many times do you check your distribution list? Santa recommends at least twice. Credit: Getty/Wavebreakmedia

Related tags Leadership

At this time of year, most food business leaders are, inevitably, extremely busy. However, this month The Talent Poole was fortunate enough to secure a special interview with one of the best known and most successful global distribution leaders of our time.

We are, of course, referring to Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus, who agreed to share some of his well-honed leadership tips. We started off by examining his leadership style. We can easily deduce that Santa is a highly empowering leader. He would not be able to manage such a large and diversified business by being overly hands-on or through micro-managing. Of course, he can apply an empowering style of leadership because he knows he can rely on a very experienced team of elves who have been doing the job for many years.

Santa reflected: “I am extremely lucky to have built an extremely reliable team around me. I have total confidence in their commitment and dedication and most of my team of helpers have been doing the job for many years. At the end of the day, it’s about trust and this is something I have built up over many years – it’s an inherent part of the brand.”

Leveraging the brand

Santa really understands and knows how to leverage his unique brand and core offerings which are, delivering happiness in the form of gifts to all the children on his ‘nice list’ and none to those on the ‘naughty list’. That said, he has still managed to diversify over the years. In the early years of activity, the focus was on merely putting sweets and fresh oranges into stockings. Now, the offering includes delivering games consoles, smart phones and even fashion trainers...quite a transformation!  

Santa sees agility as being critical to the enduring nature of the business: “We are a business which is known for its traditions, but we also recognise we can’t rest on our laurels – it is just not an option to continue delivering the same solutions, year after year. We have a team of elves whose sole responsibility is to maintain a watching eye throughout the year on trends and developments.” 

Discretion and trust

Probably one of Santa’s strongest leadership qualities is his discretion. Santa and his carefully selected team of elves have to work tirelessly to deliver the right gifts to the right children. Of course, until the big night itself, no-one knows which children are on which list. It is essential that this is not disclosed, otherwise the good children would stop trying and the naughty children might just give up and become even naughtier! Santa agreed: “It all comes back to the importance of trust. Unlike most modern businesses, we don’t ask anyone to sign any confidentiality agreements. It would be impossible to administer and maintain GDPR compliance given the sheer scale and nature of our business. But parents and children trust in our discretion and our ability to deliver, year after year. We have not had a single data breach…mainly because we don’t rely on technology!”

Just-in-time management

It is a little-known fact that Santa was the originator of just-in-time production principles. Most of the kids’ letters to Santa don’t even get written until a week before the big day. It wouldn’t be wise to hold huge quantities of stock for up to a year when we all know how fickle children can be over their choices. At this point, Santa became a little uncomfortable over the questioning: “You will appreciate that I can’t divulge too much about the operational side of our business – this has to remain a tightly guarded trade secret, if we are to maintain our competitive advantage. All I can say is, we run like a very well-oiled machine and all our helpers know what has to be done and their important roles in the process. Clarity of roles is key.”

Team welfare

The welfare of all of Santa’s huge team of helpers is paramount and the climate which Santa has created for all his workers is extremely positive. Santa puts this down to both his empowering leadership style, but also to the amazingly positive and supportive spirit demonstrated by everyone. “We are very lucky to be working in an environment where it is literally Christmas every day! Like many food businesses, however, this is our busiest time of year, so, while many other businesses are starting to wind down during December, we can’t allow any time off.”

Santa continued: “It’s a tough job with extremely tight deadlines and any mistake could be disastrous if we got a delivery wrong. Everyone knows this and will lend a hand to anyone in the team who appears to be struggling. I do also like to offer the odd ‘Yo-ho-ho’ along the way to keep everyone motivated and happy.”

Attractive package

People assume that all Santa’s elves and helpers have been around for years but, like any other business, they do need to recruit new elves to the team from time to time. Therefore, having an attractive rewards package is important to attract new talent. Santa recognised this: “It’s not a job that everyone could do, and the job of recruitment is made particularly difficult as all of our positions are unpaid. But we do compensate for this with some very special perks. For instance, most of my helpers have ten months’ annual leave and, for many, the job also entails a lot of foreign travel, which many enjoy.”

Valuing diversity

Santa operates a very flat, non-hierarchical structure. Of course, work is allocated to specialist teams – toymakers (although this is now largely outsourced), packers and logistics. But within these teams, there is no need for any supervisors or management. Santa explained: “We have always operated in this way and I see everyone’s contribution is equally important. We have roughly equal numbers of male and female elves but, because we don’t operate any management hierarchical structures, there’s never been an issue over recognising or promoting one over the other. I know I have received some bad press in recent years over the fact that I am ‘Father Christmas’ and so ultimately a patriarchal construct, but, what most people don’t realise is, these days, my wife, Mrs Claus plays an equal role in running the operation.”

Task-and-finish

There are some real benefits of working on a task-and-finish project. Having a relatively short-term, well-defined goal can give a real focus for all involved. Whilst it can create a massive peak of activity leading up to the deadline, everyone recognises it is short-lived. There is no other way for Santa and his operation to work but it suits him, as he reflected: “I’ve never been good in roles where the work just continues from year to year with no real focus. I’m much better working my stockings off for a short time-frame where I can see the finish-line and so, pace myself accordingly.

“Of course, by the end, I’m shattered, as are all of my amazing team. I have to confess, that when the job’s done, we do have one or two celebratory drinks to unwind.”

Thanks to Santa for these insights and also to all the other amazing food business leaders who I have had the benefit of interviewing this year. We wish you all a restful and safe festive season.

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