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Women in Leadership: Anita Roddick

Posted by: guest_contributor

Business Strategy

Much has been written about the late, great Dame Anita Roddick, visionary founder of the Body Shop, ethical British business leader and socially-poised entrepreneur extraordinaire.

This could be partly due to the fact that she founded and grew one of the most iconic and successful British brands of the 21st century, starting out of a tiny shop in Brighton.

It may also be partly down to her inspirational style of leadership and the impact that her altruistic approach to capitalism and entrepreneurship left on her customers, employees and our society as a whole.

Anita Roddick undoubtedly remains one of the most innovative and influential British business leaders of all time, and rightly deserves the first slot in our blog series “Women in Leadership”.

Here are even more persuasive figures: there are over 2000 Body Shop retail outlets in 52 markets serving over 75 million customers. There are few other British brands that have enjoyed such huge international success.

The secret leadership sauce

What was it about her leadership style that set her and her business apart from the rest?

What was it that drove her to build a business which enjoys such sustainable and long-term success, nearly 40 years later?

Above all, which leadership lessons can we learn from Anita Roddick and her Body Shop brand that can help us on our journey to business and personal success?

Let’s see.

“She was an amazing inspiration to those around her… She was so ahead of the time when it came to issues of how business could be done in different ways… She was a true pioneer.” – John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace


Anita Roddick was undoubtedly a business and social visionary of our time. She not only combined the powerful elements of entrepreneurship, strategic thinking and ethical leadership, she also truly believed that “businesses have the power to do good”. She lived her vision, without exception.

“That’s why the Body Shop’s mission statement opens with the overriding commitment, ‘to dedicate our business to the pursuit of social and environmental change'”, she is famously quoted as saying.

Before founding the Body Shop, Roddick worked as an English and History teacher and travelled extensively throughout the world, picking up experiences and first-hand impressions of cultures and traditions, which were a world away from her British roots.

She was also employed in the Women’s Rights Department of the International Labor Organization in Geneva before she set up shop and started her own business making products out of natural ingredients.

In fact, the Body Shop was founded – as with most small businesses – out of necessity to provide a livelihood for herself and her 2 daughters. Constantly motivated towards a burning vision of combining driving her business with environmental awareness, she grew the business to dizzy heights. She was driven by a vision and a set of values which remained unchanged for a decade to come.

In 1984 she won the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year, and in the same year, the Body Shop was floated on the stock market. (This has since been described by her husband, Gordon Roddick as “probably the worst move I’ve made in my life”.)

Nonetheless, this is a steep success curve for a mother of 2 who started her business on her own, in a tiny shop beside a funeral parlour on the south coast of England.

One of the most prominent aspects of her leadership during this period surely has to be the connection which she created to the environment and nature for everyday people.

“I want to work for a company that contributes to and is part of the community. I want something not just to invest in. I want something to believe in.” – Anita Roddick

In spite of still being very young, I can certainly remember the growth of Body Shop during the 80’s.

I seem to recall that going into a Body Shop outlet (usually with a parent) always felt like I was stepping into a new world, where the bigger things mattered. Somewhere, where I was suddenly connected to things that I had never heard of in the mainstream: testing of cosmetics on animals, the ozone layer, the damage to the rainforests, the exploitative sweatshops, and the plight of our earth’s whale population, to name just a few.

There was a real sense of revolution and change, certainly in the early years of the Body Shop.

In a pre-internet world, Anita Roddick and her powerful brand of environmentally aware consumerism brought these causes into our collective consciousness.

Having been awarded an OBE in 1988 and a DBE (which made her a Dame) in 2003, she sold the Body Shop to the French company L’Oreal for £652m in March 2006.

Business Vision

Like any successful business leader or owner, Anita Roddick’s own unique vision drove everything about the Body Shop. Taking her altruistic approach to the board table, she built a business philosophy based primarily on human relationships, both inside and outside the organisation.

Central to this vision, was her need to create a company which harmoniously united social and human rights with animal welfare and environmental protection. Her management principles were to work hard, and to see work as a “labour of love”, built on mutual respect between employees and managers, and customers too, of course.

Above all she aimed to balance her ethical and profitable business strategy with the needs of her staff, her customer base and the natural environment in which she lived.

At the heart of Roddick’s vision was the belief that a version of capitalism could exist which was ethical and profitable at the same time. Of course, we now know this concept as social responsibility, yet it hadn’t even been invented when Anita Roddick dreamed her huge dream, from her small shop in Brighton.

“I am still looking for the modern equivalent of those Quakers who ran successful businesses, made money because they offered honest products and treated their people decently…This business creed, sadly, seems long forgotten” – Anita Roddick

Propping up the socially-responsible vision of the Body Shop were 5 core values:

  1. Against animal testing
  2. Support community trade
  3. Activate self-esteem
  4. Defend human rights
  5. Protect our planet

No mention of “best in class” or “outstanding customer service” or any other gobbledygook-filled, PR-smothered brand values here.

Just a focus on important issues.

Anita Roddick’s Leadership Style

David Holmes, a UK-based transformational leadership expert and a great colleague of mine, worked as a coach and mentor to Anita Roddick for many years. In the early 2000’s he was famously described by her as “the only consultant I ever admired”.

He recalls fondly, that during their coaching and mentoring sessions Roddick was only ever interested in talking about the REALLY BIG stuff in life, and always described herself as an activist first and business owner second.

“She was a straight down the line entrepreneur, yet she always used to say that she had never run a business in her life.”

“Nonetheless,” said David, during our phone interview for this article, “Anita was always very generous with her time and was a charismatic and passionate leader who was completely principle-driven. She was the first person to make social responsibility part of company culture”.

From talking to David about his work with Anita Roddick, it is clear that she started out with ambitious ideas of building a successful business. She built the Body Shop brand strategically and saw the potential scalability of her business very early on. Indeed, she is a perfect example of how important vision and purpose are to the long-term success of a business or organisation.

As far as leadership goes, Roddick is known as one of the great transformational leaders of our time, as well as a true pioneer of social responsibility, fair-trade and community building within the global business community.

When she founded the Body Shop, these concepts were relatively unknown. Over 30 years on – with over 2045 Body Shop stores serving more than 77 million customers worldwide, Roddick’s original business values have now become part of our common consciousness and of our organisational language.

Which female leadership figures have inspired you and your business vision?  Please leave your thoughts and answers in the comments section!

David Holmes is a senior business leader, executive coach and mentor who advises and supports executives across the world. Anita Roddick was his first coaching client in 2002. He is a Predictive Index® expert consultant, Business NLP Practitioner and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts who brings 30 years of his successful C-level business career to the table.

As well as founding the Transformational Leadership Group, David and his team have recently restored Hurds Hill, the former home of Walter Bagehot, often regarded as one of the most influential writers on government, the constitution, banking and finance in the 19th century.

The 40-room manor house now hosts a Business School, a Conference Centre, and luxury accommodation…it’s also available for Meeting Room Hire!

Anita Roddick image licensed under Creative Commons from