BrewDog and the dangers of the ‘cult of personality’

While having an exuberant personality at the top of the business can be an advantage for startups, it's important to learn the lessons of BrewDog and make a change before it becomes a cult
BrewDog CEO James Watt (right) and co-founder Martin Dickie (left)

Self-described punk brewing company BrewDog is known for its playful marketing campaigns – whether it’s releasing its ALD IPA in a nod to the grocer’s imitation beer or launching a Barnard Castle Eye Test brew, following Dominic Cummings’ infamous Durham trip. 

But this irreverent facade allegedly masked a toxic work culture within the craft beer company, according to a group of former employees. In an open letter signed by 61 people, ex-staff members described the company as being “built on a cult of personality” and held founder and CEO James Watt responsible for the “rotten culture” within the organisation.

The letter alleges the company didn’t live up to the values it purports to uphold. The signatories added: “Being treated like a human being was sadly not always a given for those working at BrewDog.”

While the situation at BrewDog might be unique, how to shift from a plucky underdog to a serious business is one that many companies face. The open letter, says Sarah Owen, CEO of communications agency Pumpkin, is a sign that people felt things couldn’t be changed from the inside.

“The letter was excoriating and a masterclass in how to openly address a toxic culture and blow the whistle on the terrible lack of internal management BrewDog had in place,” she says.

Owen claims that such problems are often commonplace at fast-growing, owner-led organisations but “plenty overcome it by hiring the right talent and then listening to their advice”.

Avoiding the corporate cult of personality

Internal communications specialist David Barber also believes that the company’s fast growth could have been at the root of the problem. “BrewDog started out in a ramshackle warehouse in Aberdeenshire and grew into something far bigger,” he says. “When you get to a certain size in your organisation, it becomes even more important to work together and give people an even say in what’s happening in the business.” 

A corporate cult of personality can form when an organisation revolves around its leader’s ego and successes are presented as a result of the individual. Telsa CEO Elon Musk is someone who has carefully curated his persona and is often credited as being one of the company’s most important marketing assets. 

Being the founder of a company and successfully getting it off the ground can often carry heroic connotations

However, it can easily backfire. WeWork’s co-founder Adam Neumann developed a larger-than-life personality to help woo investors. But his cavalier approach to corporate governance ultimately contributed to its sudden downturn in valuation. 

“There are some dazzling examples of the cult of personality leadership styles,” leadership consultant Barry McNeill says. “Being the founder of a company and successfully getting it off the ground can often carry heroic connotations. Investors love it too, and that strength of personality is often what attracts them to an opportunity.” 

However, it can be important to shed this image as the business grows. McNeill adds: “A lot of those individuals will create a bit of an echo chamber around them, of people who feed their ego. Actually, what they need is someone who’s willing to hold up a mirror and help them listen to feedback. By letting go of your ego, you will become a far more successful business leader.” 

The prevalence of this style of leadership within startups is often a result of a culture that prioritises growth and speed over everything else, according to executive coach Elle Harrison. She adds: “Startup founders are often younger than your average business executive too. They may be less experienced as leaders and potentially haven’t developed that inner wisdom and self awareness that counters the pull towards celebrity leadership.”

A change of leadership

Part of the issue may be not knowing when to stand aside. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin recruited Eric Schmidt to firstly act as chair of the board and then CEO during the company’s early stages of growth. Speaking at the time, page said Schmidt’s management experience was crucial for the company’s expansion.

As a founder, it is often important to understand your own limitations and be willing to look to others for expertise. Harrison sees this as a growing trend, something which she defines as the “humble leader”. She says: “This style of leadership is becoming more aspirational and requires leaders to deeply listen, be responsive to change and be much more grounded, in contrast to the conventional image of a leader who has to have all the answers.”

Company culture is influenced by founders but it isn’t only determined by them

However, in the case a BrewDog a simple change in top management may not be sufficient. Harrison doesn’t believe that a change of leadership is a panacea for a toxic work culture. She says: “It can be easy to look to a new leader because it provides a neat solution and shareholders might like it, but often the culture is created through a web of people and relationships. It is influenced by founders but it isn’t only determined by them.”

Listen and lea

Brewdog’s Watt has already shown more evidence of introspection than the likes of WeWork’s Neumann. In its response to the letter from former staff, the Scottish brewery said: “We have always tried to do the best by our team — we do have many thousands of employees with positive stories to tell as a result. 

“But the tweet we saw last night proves that on many occasions we haven’t got it right. We are committed to doing better, not just as a reaction to this, but always; and we are going to reach out to our entire team past and present to learn more. But most of all, right now, we are sorry.” 

Owen describes the response as “a welcome example of public contrition”. She says: “The management now need to act fast and communicate significant changes. Clearly there is much to be done to sort this out properly within the company.”

Crucially, shedding the alleged cult of personality around James Watt will involve re-thinking BrewDog’s internal operations and more accurately aligning it with the image it presents to the world. “Ultimately, cultures aren’t about the values on a wall, the PR messaging or the marketing spin that people talk about,” McNeill says. “It’s about the reality of people’s experience inside the organisation.”