Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne: “Keep things simple and fight against complexity creep.”

Non-executive directors

6 min read

Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne is the founder of Genius Foods, chair at Scotland Food and Drink, and holds multiple non-executive roles. Here, she shares her tips for ensuring your organisation remains agile as you scale, and explains how the board can foster an innovative culture within an organisation.

Looking back on your career, are there any defining moments that stand out to you?

The first was when I was working for Bibendum — a Michelin star restaurant that took my knowledge of food to the next level and, between the intense pressure and long hours, made me realise how hard I could work in tough conditions. When my son was diagnosed with a severe gluten intolerance and I could not find tasty fresh gluten-free bread to make sandwiches for his packed lunches, I decided that with my cheffing experience, a science background, and two children with allergies, it was up to me to find a way to fix this problem for my family and others struggling like us. I bought every gluten-free ingredient on sale at my local health food store and started blending them to find a way to create bread that my son would enjoy eating. That moment was the first step in the journey of Genius.

The next defining moment was when I realised that I couldn’t do it all myself. I just didn’t have the skills to take my products to market — I’d never dealt with supermarkets, worked at a FMCG business, or done any kind of marketing and branding. But by a stroke of luck, I was able to give a loaf of my bread to Sir Bill Gammell, who is coeliac. He told me that it was the first time he had managed to eat bread in 30 years, and that he wanted to invest in the business. Sharing my project with him was how it finally got off the ground, as he put me in contact with the people who had the expertise we needed.

Finally, the reaction we received after launching Genius Foods sticks out. As a founder, there are countless moments where you wonder whether you’re on the right track, and hearing people tell us we were making a positive difference to their lives was a truly validating moment.

“As a founder, there are countless moments where you wonder whether you’re on the right track, and hearing people tell us we were making a positive difference to their lives was a truly validating moment.”

How have you maintained a sense of agility as the business has grown?

Initially, we sought to remain agile by not owning the manufacturing part of the business. The idea was that by being asset-light, we could quickly pivot and focus on product development and our go-to-market strategy. However, this created issues around access to the bakeries and quality control, making continuous innovation and improvement hard. Therefore, we decided it would be better to own our own bakery — which in turn impacted our agility, as we went from an organisation of 20 people to 400 overnight.

To recover that lost agility, we invested in the team to ensure we had the right skills and the right people in the organisation to make effective decisions. Also, I retained a lot of flexibility in my role, which meant I could shift my focus depending on where I could make the most impact — something that’s key for founders, since your job changes all the time.

As I see it, the most important factor is to keep things simple and fight against complexity creep. When we took over the bakery, we inherited over 200 products, so we streamlined that offering to only its most profitable parts, which gave us time back to innovate and bring new products to market. Creating that space for innovation is vital, especially in manufacturing businesses where you can easily be swamped by the many different products you’re making — and it’s agility that matters.

“As I see it, the most important factor is to keep things simple and fight against complexity creep.”

How do boards foster an innovative culture within their organisations?

Most importantly, they can celebrate the innovators. I think there is a tendency in businesses for office-based staff to overestimate their own significance – of course, they bring unbelievably valuable input and insight into the business – but it’s the people at the coalface who are often the ones doing the really innovative activity. They need to be looked after just as much as the exec team, really, because if they don’t feel supported with the right investment in equipment, talent, and training then how are they going to produce the best product or deliver the best service? I think it’s absolutely critical that you keep your ear close to the ground and deliver what the team need to do and be their best.

Another way that we are able to enable continuous innovation is by placing our consumers at the core of what we do – this also helps everyone to remain humble. One of the ways we do this is to directly ask them what kind of products they’d like to see; we do this in a newsletter and have received thousands of responses within a day. We also make an effort to broaden the horizons of our development team, and invest in travel opportunities for them so that they can develop and maintain a global outlook as they go about developing products for us.

Do you have any golden rules that you follow in the boardroom?

I think that it’s important to make sure that I’m not in awe of the people sitting around the table with me. A critical aspect of this is just being comfortable in your own skin, and appreciating the great privilege – and responsibility - that comes with sitting on a board. Moreover, don’t be afraid to ask what you might think are silly questions – more often than not, most of the people around you are thinking the same thing, but people are hesitant to ask in case they look foolish. So, I try to be bold and courageous in asking those questions – and whatever you say in the boardroom, it’s rule number one that you say it in a constructive and polite way. I like to spend some time thinking about the questions I’d like to ask and make a point of noting them down. This means that I can ask questions clearly and succinctly, and not devolve into a rambling question that nobody really understands the point of.

“Whatever you say in the boardroom, it’s rule number one that you say it in a constructive and polite way.”

I also learned a great deal from my first role as chair at Scotland Food and Drink. As chair, I think the most important thing you can do is to stay close to your board members, and make sure you give yourself the opportunity to really understand each of them, their motivations, how they feel things are going, and where they think improvements can be made. Additionally, it is important also to proactively make a point of including everyone in the discussion; often, it’s the quietest ones who have thought most deeply about it and have the most valuable things to add.

What book is on your bedside table?

At the minute, it’s Greatest Heights by Vanessa O’Brien. She’s an extremely inspiring lady who was made redundant in the financial crisis and moved to Hong Kong with her husband as he was going for work. Having left a structured life behind, Vanessa was looking for a new purpose in her life, She decided to dedicate her time and energy to preparing to summit the highest peaks on each continent, descend into the world’s deepest trench, visit both poles, and go to space. She was determined that these extreme physical achievements were not just for her own benefit. Instead, she arranged to collect precious data and samples for the furtherment of scientific knowledge on each journey. Her view is that even if something has been achieved or discovered before, one can always give it new meaning and value. This is a positive and inspiring approach for change-makers and entrepreneurs to use as they seek to transform the ordinary into something meaningful and extraordinary.

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