Ruth Handcock is the CEO of Octopus Investments — a B Corp that invests in the people, ideas, and industries that will help to change the world. She also chairs two group companies, Seccl and Octopus MoneyCoach, as well as UK charity SWATS, is a NED for Aldemore Bank, and has had 14 jobs, ranging from factory salad chopper (night shift) to finance director at Bacardi.
Competitive advantage is all about strategy — but often we think about where to play rather than how to win. How important has “how to win” been in the Octopus growth story?
In 22 years we’ve grown into an organisation of more than 750 employees that manages over £12bn of funds on behalf of 63,000 investors, and we attribute a large part of that success to two sustainable competitive advantages:
First, culture. Because what determines how you’ll engage with your customers isn’t how “nice” your people are, but how much they care about your customers getting the right outcomes. And the only way you can make people care for an organisation is by getting culture right for employees.
In our case, we’re uncompromising around who we hire, and we value humility and a flat structure — one where there’s no “super decision-maker” but where everyone is empowered to make decisions and just get on with the job. Often, new starters — or boomerang employees! — will remark that “there’s no politics here,” and that’s the best compliment we can get.
And second, the power of distribution. There’s received wisdom that customers only buy performance — especially in financial services — but the truth is that the way they’re treated is just as important a factor. And so, we extend that lack of hero culture to our whole business — valuing customer-facing teams just as highly as investment managers — which is quite unusual in the investment industry.
“There’s received wisdom that customers only buy performance but the truth is that the way they’re treated is just as important a factor.”
We’ve taken that one step further by becoming a B Corp in 2021. That means that our decision-making must consider not just shareholders and customers, but also the environment, our community, and our employees. Having the discipline to talk about these five stakeholder groups is not easy when you get started, but, eventually, it becomes second nature and starts influencing the “how” in your strategy.
Within your ways of working, what gives you a competitive edge…
We rely a lot on feedback — not just as an end-of-the-year thing, but as an ongoing process. Everyone’s annual objectives include giving a certain amount of feedback every month, and that constant interaction drives the humility I mentioned. It’s about acknowledging that we’re never the finished version of ourselves and that there’s always more we can learn from others.
“We’re never the finished version of ourselves and there’s always more we can learn from others.”
Feedback without recognition isn’t particularly motivating, so, in addition to the usual “top-down” awards that most companies have in place, we have a peer recognition system where anyone can send a virtual cheque to anyone else within the company — something that says “I noticed you did this; thank you.” You can then convert these cheques into other things, such as vouchers.
Our feedback platform was built in-house and is probably the one thing that I would recreate identically if I were to move to another place. It’s integrated with our main collaboration tool, which makes it easy to stay on top of the comments you receive and the cheques you’re being given. And that in turn helps make the whole thing concrete and impactful, because it becomes part of our daily life instead of being limited to occasional appraisal discussions.
…and what keeps you awake at night?
I’m generally of the view that a decision made is better than a decision not made — even if it’s the wrong decision. We can always talk about what worked, and what didn’t, afterwards. But when you’re making decisions that directly impact someone, this has real significance for that individual, and you need to think long and hard before making the call.
What’s your key to being “agile” and ensuring your organisation moves at a fast pace?
I won’t sugar-coat it: the larger the organisation gets, the harder remaining agile becomes.
One thing that can really help, however, is moving your talent where it’s most needed. Rather than anchor our people in a specific job, we encourage them to take the lead on completely new roles as needs arise. It’s uncomfortable at first, because we all like to think that we’re indispensable in the function we’re currently occupying, but the truth is that, if you’re good at what you do, you’ve likely already solved most of your job’s challenges and we can make better use of your skills elsewhere.
“We all like to think that we’re indispensable in the function we’re currently occupying, but if you’re good at what you do, you’ve likely already solved most of your job’s challenges and we can make better use of your skills elsewhere.”
In most organisations, the chief of staff and the HR team are too overburdened with the day-to-day to focus on fostering that kind of internal mobility. But it’s key to being able to act quickly.
What innovator stemming from business do you most admire, and why?
It’s a cliché, but I’ll go with Bill Gates — and how he redefined how one can transition from business to philanthropy.
Instead of “just” making use of his considerable wealth, he’s taken all the best bits from the commercial world and applied them to the charity world. And that’s helped ensure that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation wasn’t simply well-intentioned but also truly effective in its fight against poverty and disease.
What’s the one decision that took you where you are today?
As weird as it may sound from a professional point of view: marrying my husband.
I met him when I was 30, back when the roadblock that was truly holding me back was my own view of what I was capable of. And, since then, he’s been the one constantly reminding me that “Well, of course you can do that job!”
That’s not to say you should arrogantly believe you’re qualified to do it all. But you shouldn’t be stopping yourself from giving something your best shot. I’ve learned that from him, and I’m now the one advising our kids on how not to get in their own way.
This interview was conducted by Pippa Begg and Maximilien van Gaver.