Reading Adam Leyland’s leader on the plight of UK supermarket CEOs a few weeks back, I too felt some sympathy. It seems crazy to me that so many businesses are now being run on the edge of meltdown - and many others are not too far away. How did we get here?

The big problem is the predominant financial model, where the need for ever greater short-term profits drives business leaders to take ever greater risks to squeeze that extra bit of profit out. It becomes the entire focus, often leading to unacceptable pressure, which drives corner cutting and dubious behaviour - until something breaks.

Andrew Thornton

It needn’t be this way. For the past four years I have been experimenting with a different way of running Thornton’s Budgens, our store in North London. We call it ‘heart in business’. We have created a business purpose that our team can feel good about delivering day in, day out (‘We are the community supermarket that really cares’) and have worked with the team to get people ‘in-flow’ (people doing jobs they are good at and love) to step up.

As part of this, we are increasingly focusing on ‘human potential’ and how we can harness it. Humans are full of potential - but over the course of our lives that potential is often shut down. If you look at a playground of seven and eight-year-olds, you’ll see them running around exploring what they love without boundaries. Then, slowly but surely, they will start to shut down as parents and teachers restrict them with comments like “big boys don’t cry”. When we get our first job, we encounter yet more restrictions and shut down further.

Our work simply starts to reverse that process. Here’s one example: my colleague Sealan, who runs our produce department, ‘learnt’ that his creativity was not welcome at work. But after his second ‘human potential’ coaching session with us, he realised that wasn’t true and started to build these amazing tomato displays. Fed by positive affirmation, these displays have grown - and so have sales.

What’s great from a business perspective is that we can quantify and measure this human potential through an online tool. We benchmark ourselves against a control store that doesn’t use the human potential approach, and have found there is a direct correlation between the amount of human potential we are using and our sales. We also know our average length of service is over 50% greater than stores that do not take this approach. Since seeing these results a few months ago, the control store’s owner and some of his team have started to work with human potential. Already his staff turnover issue has gone away.

We’ve now taken this outside our ‘lab’ of Thornton’s Budgens to other companies. One of the CEOs we have worked with started with two challenges - “the next five years can’t be like the last five” and “right now, all our focus is on meeting our monthly bank repayments (for our new factory)”. Fifteen months on, all their financial metrics are running ahead of plan - no more debt repayment worries. It goes to show: there is another way!

Andrew Thornton is the owner of Thornton’s Budgens and the founder of Heart in Business