My first boss: Michael Rouse, InPost CEO
Michael Rouse is CEO International at parcel locker service InPost. Rouse cut his teeth in the business world with United Biscuits, before moving into the payment tech space at AMEX and Klarna. After more than 20 years of experience in general management, operations, mergers and acquisitions, and go-to-market leadership, the Irishman joined InPost in 2020.
From a small start-up in Poland in 1999, InPost has become Europe’s leading out-of-home delivery partner. InPost now has nearly 25,000 automated parcel lockers throughout Europe.
When I think back to a pivotal moment in my career and what I learned about leadership and management success, it had nothing to do with work.
Twenty years ago, my brother had come out of a competitive football environment in Ireland. He went to university in London and I got asked to manage his football team as a side project. Effectively, they became my first boss.
I was in my early thirties and I learnt more about communication, teamwork and leadership in that two-year period managing the football team than I would have picked up over 10 years in my day job at United Biscuits.
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I still reflect on that period on a weekly basis today. It taught me that building a team to compete and win takes time. The problem I feel today is that no one seems to have time or patience, more so coming out of the corporate world and into tech, VC and fast-paced growth segments.
Trying to get a bunch of 20-year-olds to focus, be disciplined and put the effort in to succeed, required a fair bit of goal setting, preparation and training. You can take those analogies into the workplace, and what I learned back then was the importance of getting the right team dynamic.
In terms of trying to build an organisation, today at InPost we are nowhere near the Premier League in the UK. The people I need today are going to be different in three or four years’ time. To some extent, when a business like ours is growing twice or three times as fast as anything in the market, you need people who can grow with the business. From a sports team perspective, as you are growing and competing, you also need to develop the team and be fast and subtle in how you do it.
I built a number of different principles that have been critically important from that simple experience. Young leaders today hire in the mirror image of themselves instead of hiring what they need to make the team work. You need to figure out how to bring new skills into the team and break down the problem. The hardest thing to teach people is the art of delegation. In a work environment it’s the most difficult yet most important thing to do. Prior to managing that university team, I was guilty of always stepping in and thinking that was a recipe for success. In reality, all I was doing was creating more disruption and probably a lack of motivation.
I was getting great advice from my bosses at the time but it wasn’t until I stepped outside – managing, listening and sitting down with players – that I realised I wasn’t doing that inside the workplace and, crucially, leaders weren’t telling me to do that.
With high-performing individuals today, we don’t get those people ready to lead or manage. We put individual contributors into running teams and we wonder why the team gets dysfunctional.
There are no quick fixes, either. The challenges today in entrepreneur-led businesses are that people want results faster. But it takes time and you need to give people the opportunity to fail and succeed. The role I am playing more today is giving the business time to execute. ‘First time right’ doesn’t work and one of the things with founders is that memories are very short. It is about balancing that need for pace with the need to find consistency in the organisation so that everyone knows what it is that they are doing.
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What we have discovered at InPost in the UK – a company which is in scale-up mode – is growth continues to accelerate in treble digits. In 12 months the business will be double what it is today.
The challenge of a company scaling as much as we are is, frankly, that there are more failures than successes. You are testing all the time and our job is to create a working environment where it’s important to fail now versus when you are a significantly bigger, at which point those failures will cost us more.
We are in an interesting space at the moment. In the last 18 months our challenge was understanding whether a UK consumer would use a locker instead of home delivery. Amazon has done a phenomenal job in setting that market standard.
We need to make sure there are enough lockers and that they are convenient to use, to create that option for the consumer. We have now made it really easy for consumers to do returns and drop a parcel off if you are selling on marketplaces like Vinted or eBay.
The second thing is whether the consumer will collect from a locker. The density we have built, with 5,000 lockers in the UK and nearly half of all residents in London, Birmingham and Manchester living within a seven-minute walk of an InPost locker — means that we saw a huge uplift at Christmas.
The demand level was six times higher than we thought. What it told us was that if we provide the right choice at the right time, people will choose an alternative, as well as the fact that we are sustainable. The critical factor to move us into the Premier League is to build the service proposition for retailers such as ASOS or JD Sports. The cost of delivery is going up, but by default and moving to a locker, you are consolidating 70% of the cost.
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With the uni football team, we won the British university championships twice and one player ended up being a performance coach at Arsenal, while others went into full-time coaching in rugby and Gaelic football. For me, though, it wasn’t about winning but building the team. What was the ambition we wanted? What did success look like? What were our weaknesses and how were we going to compensate?
It had a massive effect on my management career at the time, as team performance was improving. I was taking those skills and bringing them back to the workplace.
After two years I stepped back as my own career accelerated. And frankly, I put that down to my own experience I got with my football team.
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