As a leader, it’s one of the best things he’s ever done. “I was feeling a little bit burnt out and frazzled from the last couple of years”, he remembers. “I went completely off the grid, like a hermit.”
Watt was lodging in BrewDog’s Lost Forest – an area spanning more than 9,000 acres in the Kinrara area of Scotland’s national park – where the brewery is planting more than 1m trees in a bid to offset its carbon footprint. After a “phenomenal” first week, Watt’s trip was cut short after he smashed his collarbone while heading up a mountain biking tour into the forest. Nonetheless, he came away having learnt an invaluable lesson: the importance of taking time to disconnect.
It’s a philosophy that’s key to Watt’s leadership strategy, alongside communication and reflection. But these are skills he’s mastered up on a rollercoaster of a journey, that has seen the self-fashioned ‘punk’ brewery rocket craft beer to radical heights, but also dogged by controversy.
Before founding BrewDog in 2007 with school friend Martin Dickie, Watt had never run a business. In fact, he’d been captain of a North Atlantic fishing boat. Diving headfirst into the role of CEO was a “steep learning curve,” and as the Aberdeenshire-based business has evolved, Watt’s leadership style has had to grow with it.
“We’ve gone from two humans and their dog to 3,5000 employees globally,” he says. The kind of leadership the company required in its early days when Watt knew all employees by name, is a far cry from what it needs now, with operations in India, Australia, Japan, China and America. “I love that challenge, but it’s definitely a challenge,” admits Watt. “It’s a moving target, and I’ve had to learn that as I go on that journey.”
Communicating what BrewDog’s all about to thousands of employees around the planet comes with obstacles. For Watt, it’s paramount that everyone knows exactly what the company’s doing and why it’s doing it.
“All the biggest challenges come back to people challenges,” he says. “We always aspire to be the best company we can to work for, and we’ve always felt that our long-term destiny is determined by how well we look after the amazing people in our company.”
In 2021, the brewery suffered its biggest scandal to date, when 61 former employees singed an open letter under the name Punks With Purpose accusing Watt of fostering a “toxic” culture where were “treated like objects”, and left “bunt out, afraid and miserable” by bullying.
At the time, Watt apologised and vowed the operator was “committed to doing better,” with its people being its “main priority”. He later admitted that he did “push people too far”. It was tough time for him and a tough time for the business, he tells The Morning Advertiser.
Watt was “saddened and disappointed” that some staff didn’t have a good experience working at the company, and he says it’s fair to say that during that period, BrewDog should have done more.
An open letter, to BrewDog. pic.twitter.com/xEd3B83qot— Punks With Purpose (@PunksWPurpose) June 9, 2021
“As an employer, that was never our intention to look after not all of our people super well, but when you’re growing that quickly, it’s difficult to be able to do [everything] at once,” he says.
Off the back of the controversy, he claims the business has done “so many things” to try and build a better culture within the business and champion its staff. Recently, BrewDog was celebrated in The Sunday Times Best Places to Work 2023 list.
“For me, that’s one of our best achievements as a company,” he adds. “We obviously went through a tough period, we decided to use that as a catalyst to get better.”
To build connection with workers, the CEO sends out monthly emails outlining the business’ performance, and also runs open door sessions, where colleagues can pop into his office, or onto a Zoom call, for a chat. He also runs focus groups across the company and spends time jetting around the globe to visit international sites. “I want to be as accessible as I can,” he explains.
Every quarter, he also gives the entire company a performance update, and every employer is gifted a ‘field guide to BrewDog’ which outlines the brewery’s values. An independent ethics hotline is also put in place every year so anyone can raise concerns about the business.
“On any journey, any leader is going to make mistakes, and what determines a leader’s destiny is not the mistakes they make but how they learn from those mistakes, and how they can evolve their leadership style and make better decisions going forward,” says Watt. “This is what I’ve tried to do every time I’ve made a mistake in this business.”
He adds: “From that time, we’re now in a really strong place. We’ve got a fantastic team who are excited about being part of this company and helping us shape the future of the beer industry in the UK and beyond.”
But can the business still grow at its breakneck pace with Watt pushing staff less hard? “I think so,” says the entrepreneur. He usually works at a speed of 110 miles per hour with little work/life balance. As CEO this was fine, but he’s realised it’s probably unrealistic to get his team to do the same.
“We obviously went through a tough period, we decided to use that as a catalyst to get better.”
In the past, he would have just thought, “we have to do difficult things, so let’s just go in and do it”. But he’s learnt the importance of communicating with his team why things need to be done, how it helps the company, how it helps career progression, and how it contributes to growth.
Communication is key
“It’s just taking the time to take people on that journey with me as opposed to assuming that they’re going to want to do that,” he explains. It’s possibly the most important skill he’s had to develop as a leader.
I’m interested in whether there’s anything he does in his personal life to become a better leader. “What personal life?” he jokes, “I spend all my time working.”
But then he opens up: “Halfway through this journey I became a dad, and it definitely instils a different perspective, when you’ve got little humans to look after.” He also takes ice baths every morning to build mental resilience. “Every day, when I get in, I absolutely hate it,” he admits. “I was hoping it would get easier. But I always feel amazing afterwards.”
For the co-founder, kickstarting the day by dunking yourself into freezing water is the equivalent of having coffees, without the downside. “If I can get through something that difficult first thing in the day, then everything else should be straightforward in comparison” he reasons.
Watt also understands the value of disconnecting. Every day, he blocks out two hours for strategy and thinking time. He hangs a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door, dons noise cancelling headphones, and switches his phone onto aeroplane mode. “It’s just me and some sheets of paper and my thoughts,” he says.
“You’re constantly bombarded with so many things, and it’s so easy as a leader to purely be in reactive mode – emails to answer, people to speak to.
“Taking the time to be proactive and reflect about the business is so important when everyone’s constantly bombarded by notifications and never-ending meetings. It’s then that I do my best thinking, best strategy work, and best leadership concepts.”
Racking up almost 100,000 followers on Twitter, Watt’s social media presence is prominent: his persona is inherently fused with the BrewDog brand. Understandably, this comes with plus sides, but also drawbacks.
From the start, this had been a deliberate move, designed to give the brewery a bold, visible voice and set it apart from “faceless, corporate facades”.
“Some people like it, some people don’t, says Watt, “but I think it’s really important to understand the people behind the business – what drives them, what they’re passionate about, and what they’re trying to do with that business.”
“If you’re pushing up to the edge, sometimes you’re going to go past it.”
In an interview with The Sunday Times, Watt described the fallout of the “toxic culture” allegations as “nothing short of hell,” stating that he’d been “subject to a two-year criminal shakedown. A campaign of harassment, malicious communication and shakedown.”
Did he regret having such a public presence amid the “toxic culture” allegations? “Of course,” he says. “I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t think ‘to hell with it, let’s just delete all social media accounts and be done with the thing.”
But at the same time, he valued that people knew they could get in touch with him at any point. So many companies are not nearly transparent enough, he thinks. “As a company, we believe in radical transparency.”
He continues: “We can’t just believe that when things are all going in our favour and everything’s going well. It’s equally as important we do it when things are difficult. Whenever we’ve made mistakes, we’ve leaned into those, and held our hands up and admitted those, which most companies don’t do – they just try and sweep it under the carpet.”
And the company has certainly faced its fair share of backlash for disruptive marketing campaigns, such as a ‘Pink IPA – beer for girls’ International Women’s Day campaign, to the decision to serve drinks inside taxidermy animals.
BrewDog, explains Watt, is a very small beer company competing in an industry dominated by global behemoths with huge budgets.
“For us to get the name out there, we had to do things that were on the edge; we had to take a stand for things that we believe in, and we had to do some things that were controversial,” he says. “If you’re pushing up to the edge, sometimes you’re going to go past it.”
Some like that, and some don’t. But all campaigns run by the brewery have been to get people excited about beer, or to take a stand on important issues.
Last summer, BrewDog was also blasted for a "disingenuous" anti-sponsorship campaign against the World Cup, after speaking out against human rights abuse in Qatar but still broadcasting the tournament in its bars.
Lost Lager profits from the duration of the World Cup were donated to charity. “We’re proud to be launching BrewDog as an anti-sponsor of the World F*Cup,” a statement on the company’s Twitter said. “To be clear, we love football, we just don’t love corruption, abuse and death.”
Qatar 2022. We've said it before, we'll say it again.— BrewDog (@BrewDog) November 10, 2022
We love football and beer, we hate corruption and human rights abuse.
That’s why all revenue from sales of these special World F*Cup cans will go to human rights charities.
That's EVERY SINGLE PENNY (minus tax).
Referring to campaign, Watt responds: “We still stand behind the decision. It was an important point that needed to be made in terms of human rights at the time, and we took a stand when almost no other company was prepared to do so.”
BrewDog’s 15 years in action have been a rocky, exhilarating rollercoaster ride. If he could go back in a time machine, its CEO wouldn’t change a thing. “Every time we’ve missed the mark, we’ve then used that as a catalyst to get better as a business,” he says. James Watt has no regrets.