Audrey Barnes and Mike Coupe

Napiers University student Audrey Barnes spent a day shadowing Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe

Audrey Barnes’ day with Mike Coupe last Monday didn’t exactly get off to a great start.

Excited to be spending a day shadowing the Sainsbury’s boss as part of the CEO for a Day scheme, Barnes – a Dallas-born masters student at Napiers University, who has been living in Edinburgh since she was four – decided to take a sneaky pic outside the retailer’s Holborn HQ. The Sainsbury’s security guards were unimpressed.

“They were all like ‘no, no, no, no’,” says Barnes. “It was quite aggressive. My nerves were shot by that, so it wasn’t a great start.”

However, the misunderstanding was quickly cleared up and Barnes was ushered into Holborn’s inner sanctum to begin what she now describes as a truly eye-opening and transformative day.

Shadowing Coupe, she sat in on strategy meetings with Sainsbury’s tech and marketing departments and attended the retailer’s big Monday ‘state of the nation’ briefing involving the heads of Argos and Sainsbury’s Bank, gaining valuable insight into the behind-the-scenes workings of a major retailer.

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“It was really eye-opening to see the degree of strategic thinking required,” she says. “It’s such a multifaceted operation – from fresh foods and stores to online and tech. There’s a whole process behind every single product you see on shelf. I really loved that kind of integrated thinking.”

Barnes is currently studying for a masters degree in intercultural business communication, which she is due to finish in August 2018. She says having experienced fmcg first-hand, she would love to pursue a career in the sector. “I was interested in fast moving consumer goods before because it’s such a fast-paced industry, and I’m even more interested in it now. I’m fascinated.”

He didn’t nix anyone’s ideas – he was interested in what everyone had to say and would ask questions. 

What really stood out to Barnes, though, weren’t so much the specifics of fmcg but Coupe’s personal leadership style. “He’s very egalitarian. He has this small office without a formal desk and a full wall of glass so everyone can see in, and the door is always open. You can feel it in the culture: in the meetings, everyone was allowed to pitch ideas, everyone had equal opportunity to be heard. He didn’t nix anyone’s ideas – he was interested in what everyone had to say and would ask questions. You really got the sense that he values everyone’s hard work.”

Seeing Coupe’s approach to leadership didn’t just make Barnes rethink the role of a CEO (“Mike said he doesn’t really like the CEO label as it puts up barriers to communication; he sees himself more as a tiebreaker in difficult situations”) – it has also made her reassess her own career ambitions.

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“When I started this process, I really didn’t think I would be selected. I am often told I am too quiet and humble about my achievements; I don’t like putting myself out there,” she says. “I certainly would never have thought of myself as someone who could be a CEO. I am not from a background of privilege and – consciously or not – I thought of CEOs as people who were in that position because they had luck in a way that I never had.”

It’s really changed my perspective, and everyone around me has been noticing a change in me too. 

But spending time with Coupe – “who isn’t from a background of privilege himself” – has opened up her aspirations, says Barnes.

“Now I think: if I take each day at a time and if I work hard and network hard and open myself up to opportunities, then maybe I could be a CEO too. It’s really changed my perspective, and everyone around me has been noticing a change in me too. It’s just been a wonderful experience and I’m very grateful – and I hope others reading about my experience will be inspired to be more ambitious about their careers too.”

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