Leadership Lessons

Creating a culture where people can thrive

Phill Burton (Philosophy, 2003) is the Chief Operating Officer at Beams, a startup company that aims to make house renovations simpler and greener. Before Beams, Phill worked as Chief Operating Officer at Bloom & Wild. There, he helped grow the company over eight years across eight different European markets to become Europe’s leading online flower company.

Phill began his career as a solicitor at Slaughter and May, working in their merger and acquisitions team. In this feature, Phill reflects on his eclectic career journey, and how his leadership style has evolved along the way.

What does ‘leadership’ mean to you?

For me, leadership is about creating an environment and culture where people can thrive. I recently left Bloom & Wild after eight years. Looking back, the thing I was most proud of was not a specific project, metric or company milestone – it was that I had helped create an environment where many people we had hired in the first couple of years as relatively junior members of the team had gone on to become senior leaders. Each had their own unique style but with strong core values and principles in common.

How did King’s help you in your career journey?

I read Philosophy at King’s, and there was a real emphasis placed on both critical and original thinking. The ability to approach a problem with first-principles thinking (the practice of questioning every assumption you think you know about a given problem, then creating new solutions from scratch) and then a willingness to have a unique viewpoint on it (which might not be the popular view) has really informed my management process, particularly around strategic decisions, and I think has helped me see things which others could have missed.

What’s your leadership style?

I definitely took a more commanding approach in the early days but as I’ve matured as a leader, I’ve come to embrace servant leadership (a leadership philosophy in which the goal of the leader is to serve). I like to consider myself as consistent and fair, and I try to get as close to the detail as required so I can provide meaningful support to the team.

For me, leadership is about creating an environment and culture where people can thrive.

What inspired you to switch careers?

I began my career in mergers and acquisitions, and I was always interested in what happened after the deal was completed: How did the acquirer integrate the acquired company? Did the team gel? Was it considered a success? We never found out what happened after the deal. When I started working with technology clients, I saw how entrepreneurs were using innovation and technology to scale companies. They provided meaningful job opportunities and created real value for customers, and that’s something I really wanted to be a part of. I flirted with the idea of doing an MBA but ultimately left law to join an early-stage fashion ecommerce company. Three startups later and I’m now at Beams!

My personal strength as a leader is…

Being comfortable with change. This has really helped when working in startups and scaleups. I think my comfort with it and my willingness to change plans based on new information we’ve learnt has translated to the organisations I’ve been a part of and has hopefully provided stability and calm during periods of time that otherwise could have felt quite stressful.

What advice would you give to students or graduates for success in life after King’s?

I’d recommend patience. There have been occasions in my career where I’ve almost been seduced by the newest, ‘shiniest’ company, but successful companies take years to build and generally when I’ve exhibited patience it has paid off.