Sadie Chowen

Sadie Chowen is CEO and perfumer/creative director of The Burren Perfumery. She bought the business in 2001 with a vision to provide high quality Irish beauty products with great contemporary design and has since grown it from 2 to 32 employees. Trained as a perfumer in Paris with Sylvie Jourdet, President of the Société Française des Parfumeurs, Sadie draws inspiration from the Burren flora and landscape to create her perfumes.

A supporter of organic skincare before its current popularity, Sadie launched a range of certified organic face and skincare in 2008 and the perfumery now offers a range of 120 products from perfumes and organic skincare products through to hand made soaps, candles and herbal teas. All of the perfumery’s products are made on-site, by hand, in the Burren. Manufacturing by hand is a core part of the company’s ethos to create and maintain rural employment, use sustainable ingredients and build a business that has long lasting benefits for the community, environment and customers alike. The team consists of thirty-two local staff whose aim is to provide only the highest quality of Irish products coupled with great contemporary design. Sadie is a member of the ‘Going for Growth’ women in business community and won the IMAGE “Creative Women in Business Award” in November 2017

Can leadership be taught? If so, how?

Yes, leadership can be taught, just like any other skill. But leadership is not like learning to drive a car, where learning to drive a car teaches you how to drive all cars. Leadership may mean very different things in different organisations and across different cultures. For example, leadership techniques that may work well in the US may be received poorly by Irish employees. Similarly in some companies many employees are self-directed and fairly autonomous; the leadership they require may be different from that needed by an organisation that is, say, more procedural. Leadership can be learned by example, and often is, but in that case, I would recommend supplementing internal learning with external courses.

When you are filling a leadership role in your organisation what qualities do you look for from candidates?

The ability to communicate well and clearly is obviously important. A leader needs to be responsible, to own the work they do and to take responsibility for the performance of those they lead. They need to balance empathy, a genuine caring for the welfare of their staff, with autonomy, willingness to allow employees the space to do their jobs on their own, to make mistakes. Leadership is a delicate balance; at its best perhaps it should almost be invisible, but nonetheless aware of the overall state of the company or team and ready to intervene to correct the ship’s course as needed. At its worst, leadership is hanging over everyone’s desk, constant meetings, endless rules and procedures.

If you had to leave your organisation for 1 year what would you ask of your team and what advice would you give them?

I would ask them to think for themselves while remembering the company’s ethos and brand values. If the ethos and values are clear, then the merit of almost any decision can be evaluated by asking “how well does this align to what we stand for?”. If you don’t have a solid answer to that, then you probably shouldn’t take that course of action. There will always be less resources and more demands; if you focus your resources on the activities that best align to the company’s values and goals, you optimise for success. There will still be mistakes made, but that’s fine.

What are you doing today to make sure your organisation will be relevant in 10 years time?

Avoiding trends. Building customer loyalty. Re-investing. The retail sector in general and the beauty sector in particular can be very trend-centric. New products get big very fast and disappear equally fast. We have always concentrated on product quality and marketed with the aim of build long term brand loyalty rather than relying on fads to drive sales. We may have missed out on some explosive growth opportunities but our growth has been steady double-digits for 10 years and we hope to continue in that vein. We were early adopters of e-commerce and social media and as retail moves ever more quickly in that direction, I feel we are well-placed to benefit from the increased global reach that the web provides for smaller companies.

What leaders outside your own organisation do you admire and why?

Oonagh O’Hagan of Meagher’s Phamacies in Dublin is an inspiration to me. As an entrepreneur and CEO she has managed to grow a now hugely successful business whilst maintaining her integrity.
For different reasons, I very much admire Mary Robinson. She has an ability to enter into complex situations and organisations and to then align diverse interests and entities to achieve goals. She has a great ability to persist and keep moving forward despite the many difficulties and obstacles she faced in her roles as President and as High Commissioner in the UN. Romy Fraser, founder of Neal’s Yard, is another role model for me. Starting from scratch, at a time when there was little awareness of the virtues of organic beauty products, she built up one of the world’s most iconic natural beauty brands, and did so while remaining true to her ethos and values.

What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?

Start with Peter Drucker. Look for guidance that is backed by data, preferably across many sectors and many years. Industry changes but people’s needs change much more slowly, so the people problems tend to stay the same. There are a lot of leadership books by celebrity-type leaders – be wary of them. Luck and fortunate timing are often as big a factor in the success of a company as the unique skills of its leader at the time. Look for people who have had repeated success across multiple endeavours. Podcasts are an excellent way today of hearing directly from leaders and founders. Again, look for matching context, similar industries to where you are working. There is an obsession today with start-up culture and the leadership skills of Silicon Valley, but the vast majority of the world’s business is not transacted by SV start-ups, so it’s worth taking a wider view.