Steve Clarke, the self-admitted “publicity phobic” CEO of WHSmith, has sat down with The Telegraph in a rare interview to discuss a raft of issues surrounding the world’s oldest retail chain as it celebrates its 225th anniversary.
He says the upcoming anniversary makes “staff feel good about the business”, which recently posted its first positive high street sales for 16 years. This was partly due to the craze for adult colouring books that swept the nation.
The boss has also launched an initiative with Mental Health First Aid, the company ploughing a quarter of a million pounds into training a thousand store managers on mental health.
Clarke says he made the decision after a colleague discussed the difficulties of bringing up the issue in the workplace. He recalls: “She didn’t know, but she was pushing at an open door with me because I have mental health issues in my family: my mum and my husband.
“You can also make a business case for it when you look at the number of days that are lost for mental health issues. But once you have personal experience of mental health issues, you are aware that it is a lot more common than you might think. You wouldn’t know that my husband has mental health issues but you would definitely know my mother does for sure.”
Part of the stigma, he believes, is because colleagues don’t like to think mental health reasons justifies an absence.
“Everyone else then reacts by thinking: 'Well I’m stressed, so how come they are taking time off?’ Helping people make that distinction and enabling people to say I have depression, or bipolar disorder, which is what my husband has, can help.”
Clarke, one of the few openly gay FTSE CEOs, said of WHSmith’s image: “People think Smiths is fuddy duddy, but I was one of the first openly-gay CEOs and Kate Swann was one of the first women to be a FTSE CEO. For a company with such longevity, we are very meritocratic.”
“When I think about promoting diversity - I have to weigh up my dislike for publicity with whether I want to be banging the drum.”
He revealed that he had come out before to colleagues at Dixons in the 90s, but they did not believe him: “I was in a pub with them in Ealing, near the head office, and it was weird. People thought I was having them on so I was trying to name all the gay bars in London.
“After that I had a short stint working at Ladbrokes and I thought as [coming out] didn’t go particularly well at Dixons I wouldn’t bother. But my next job was in Australia and I made a point of telling the person who interviewed me so I wouldn’t feel it was a problem.”
“The most effective way I’ve found, and what I recommend, is to tell some people and give them permission to tell lots of other people. So everyone just knows and you don’t have to have 'the conversation’ or undo conversations. That can be the most difficult type of conversation to have. Tell a few people that you like and trust and then it doesn’t have to be a big deal.”