Would you invite 20 of your team round to your house for lunch? That is exactly what Simon Lawson, Chairman of Lawsons, has been doing regularly for the last six years. In this short video, Simon explains how the Values Lunches started, and how they have been contributed to creating a happy workplace.

Speaking at the 2017 Happy Workplaces CEO Conference, Simon explained that none of the 20 people who attend the Values Lunches have management responsibility. The attendees are from all over the company’s 18 sites across the south-east, with one person per site. The day has no agenda, and while Simon takes some notes of things that could be improved at the company, they are welcomed to open up and talk about themselves.

“One of the things that happened with me, I decided to make myself quite vulnerable in this – I talked about all my difficulties of life, including my divorce… all of that, over time, really lowered the barrier between me and the staff.

“I was seen very much more as a human being who had suffered in various ways, and I think we all suffer in different ways. I think the more open we can be about that, the greater empathy we have with people,” says Simon.

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Full transcript

I decided to hold lunches at my house for my staff. I think Henry, in the introduction of the book, talks about servant leadership and so the idea was for me to serve my staff a lunch for them to talk about what they value, we called them ‘Values Lunches’ and they’ve been going now six or seven years. I get twenty staff, who aren’t management, who aren’t directors, they come round and I cook them lunch; and they can talk about whatever they want. There’s no agenda, they can talk about football, whatever, they can talk about work and it’s not compulsory so they can come and go whenever they want.

So I did this about seven or eight years ago and I must admit it’s been absolutely fantastic. It’s become a really good talking shop, you can go round to the Chairman’s house, have lunch and you can tell him what you really think. My role, which I ask permission to do, is just to keep some notes, so I can make sure I record what they do and talking about power, with the suggestions that come up, I needed the power to make sure those things happened within the organisation, which they did. For me that part of the power is very necessary. I’ve been doing that for about five or six years.

This next slide shows a picture of some of the staff that have shown up for one of the lunches. It’s a whole cross-section of staff, we have 18 sites across the South East, so they come from all over – generally one person per site, there’s no management and no Directors there, and they’re waiting for their lunch as you can see.

So what were my observations about this? And I’ll talk about my ‘checks on power’. One of the things that happened with me, I decided to make myself quite vulnerable in this – I talked about all my difficulties of life, including my divorce, I’m a single parent, I have an alcoholic ex and coping with alcoholism and my children, so I brought up four children on my own, and all of that, over time, really lowered the barrier between me and the staff. I was seen very much more as a human being who had suffered in various ways, and I think we all suffer in different ways. I think the more open we can be about that, the greater empathy we have with people. And it’s interesting, one of the things I note, I don’t know what the stats are about divorce, but it’s one in three or whatever, so when people go through divorce or single parent issues, it really resonates with myself, I’m a lot more sensitive to those people’s issues. So some of the values that have built up around that are that we have a 24-hour counselling service for people and that’s been driven by people being much more open at these lunches, where all our values are starting to come up.

So the values aren’t prescriptive, they’re all about where people are on their journey through life. What’s great is it all comes up from the staff. A chap called Andy Law’s book called ‘Open Minds’, this quote I think is very important he says: “It’s reflection. It’s unless you give up something about yourself and be stripped down, you will never develop or change. The baggage of your past will emerge as the biggest driver in your decisions”. So making yourself vulnerable, while very challenging, I think has great benefits because we’re all human and we all have issues with our lives. So that for me was a good check on power and it was a good basis to get values moving up through the company.

Simon LawsonAbout Simon

Simon Lawson is chairman of Lawsons, a timber and builders merchant in London, employing 450 people. Graduated from Bristol University in 1981, then an MBA, followed by a Masters in sustainability which focused on his second year dissertation ‘Love at Work.’ The last decade has seen him put that into practice.

Simon left the corporate world in 1989 to pursue a career in the family business and develop a compassionate business model that could not only deliver profit but sustainable business practices – and have a positive social impact.

Coming from a long line of Quakers, Simon’s spirit and soul is with people who want to ‘have a sense of belonging’ to a company. Simon’s journey has been to explore values within in a business context and to see where employee and employer can serve each other for the greater good.

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Happy's next event is Creating Happy, Productive Social Enterprises on 20th September at Happy's training centre in Aldgate, London. This joint seminar hosted jointly by Happy and E3M and is for leaders and senior team members in social enterprises. You will hear from inspiring leaders: Jonathan Bland of Social Business International; Henry Stewart of Happy; June O'Sullivan MBE of London Early Years Foundation; Brendan O'Keefe of Epic CIC; Liz Mouland of First Community Health and Care CIC; and Scott Darraugh of Social adVentures. Visit the event page for full details and the agenda for the day, and to book your ticket.

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