James Davis

james davis

It was a pleasure to talk to James Davis who clearly is someone who embodies and walks the walk of leading values led businesses. It takes a lot of guts and integrity to do what he (and his Co-Directors) have done at REAL Fundraising and they have the admirable accolade of being awarded the second highest score at B-Corp in the country this year. 

A career that has spanned more than two decades he has raised millions of pounds for good causes and is now responsible for developing other business opportunities within the REAL Family of companies.


What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life? 

The Rules of Management by Richard Templar. I gave this book out to about 70 new managers through the years, when I was running training and leading operations. It’s easy to assume sometimes that people will naturally pick up the principles of management but it can be quite overwhelming to manage people for the first time. This book is very accessible and gives new Managers some useful insights and tips and a good initial orientation into the fundamental principles of management. . 

The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey written in 1986.  It’s all about how you can get into a state of flow and the impact of self-doubt on performance. It’s been integral to developing our management and culture.

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle  Definitely the best book I’ve come across for building a winning culture and understanding performance of teams.


What purchase of £100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)? (Brand and model, where you found it?)

A running plan. (and another would be Cryotherapy on a knee injury sustained through running). 

At the start of lockdown I was very unfit. I did a couch to 5k, which led on to more running, which I have now really got into. This year I’ve completed two 100 kilometre runs.

This wouldn’t have been possible without a decent training plan from an experienced trainer, which has improved my performance immeasurably, but has also helped me avoid injury.


How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure” of yours?

In 2012, after a few years of running the first of our businesses, we focussed too much on expansion and growth. We weren’t very good at turning down offers of work. At that time. We also made the mistake of  taking overly extravagant headquarters and other offices around the country too.

At this point, the cost structure was simply too high and it was forcing us to continue to grow to pay for it.  Financially it took us to the brink, it was far too close for comfort.

We were able to reduce down to only that which was necessary and since haven’t had large ostentatious offices and stay lean. It has meant we could focus on quality and has left us much more resilient. That way of operating even meant we had the stability and resources  to cope with the pandemic.


If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it —metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why? It could be a few words or a paragraph. (If helpful, it can be someone else’s quote: Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?)

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” 

(This is often attributed to Aristotle, but may be actually have been Will Durant) 

As a coach and leader, it can help to create a process that people can follow, that delivers the outcomes you want. The less people stress about the end result and instead focus on the process that creates success, the more they tend to trust themselves and therefore doubt is less prevalent. 


What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)

Time with my daughter. 

She’s now five. I’m very happy that I have found a work life balance, and see the positive influence that can have, because eight years ago, in the midst of running our businesses, I’m not convinced I would have been able to recognise that.  


What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?

This is embarrassing and I’ve never told anyone this.

I have an anonymous Twitter account which I use just for being silly, telling puns and jokes (nothing offensive). It’s a useful release once or twice a day.


In the last five years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life?

I became a vegetarian. Years ago now.  It was an ethically motivated decision. The side benefit is (now I’ve learned not just to eat lots of carbs) is that it’s also healthier for me.


What advice would you give to a smart, driven student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?”

You need to work out your values and live a life by them. Make decisions you’re proud of, don’t compromise your integrity.

We embedded our values from the start of our business. It’s the most important thing we’ve done. 

One example of how we helped bring our values into our  culture is that for several years we had a budget shared across our whole company, in which everyone had money they could attribute to anybody each week, every time they witnessed them demonstrating one of the company’s values in their behaviour in some way. This money, once received could be donated to charity, given to other people showing strong values or spent on ethical e-commerce brands. 

It meant we had a mechanism to share and celebrate our values and the outcome was  that those people given the highest status were also those who demonstrated closest alignment to our values. Putting our values front and centre in our recognition structures was a vital ingredient for us  in creating a values based culture.  


What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

This isn’t recommendations as such, but it is behaviour we see; You need to be brave to create a company where culture and values are the most important thing. To balance purpose with profit. We too often see company’s fail to do that, to be short-termist in their outlook.


What frustrates you the most about your industry and the way companies are run in it?

Workers rights need to be given more prominence. The charity sector should lead the way in paying the living wage, in not accepting zero hours contracts and in not paying commission only to self employed contractors.


In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to (distractions, invitations, etc.)? What new realisations and/or approaches helped? Any other tips?

We are going back more than 5 years now but gatherings and celebrations that were too frequently centred around alcohol, both for me personally but also for our staff. It’s too easy to make the relationship building time based around alcohol and that isn’t always a healthy thing to promote (nor the most inclusive), so we have made an effort to find alternatives. We don’t want to ever be in a situation where someone may feel compelled to drink in order to ‘fit  in’. Sadly this can be all too common in our society.

The other is a competitive culture. I’ve had to introspect with this. I’m naturally competitive and competitiveness has its benefits in a company too, but is that really an inclusive environment in which people work together and for each other? 


What does a balanced life look like to you? Has work or a project you have been focused on caused you to neglect other areas of your life?

During lockdown I became a mental health first-aider. I was taught the stress bucket model.

The idea is that we all have a bucket with some water in it, and that water is stress. Some of the things we do in our life add water to the bucket, but we also have a tap at the bottom of the bucket and some things we can choose to do let some of that water out.

When the bucket overflows, that’s when we see stress affecting our lives. So our aim becomes reducing the things that add water to the bucket and increasing the number of things that drain it out. It’s a simple model, but because of that I find it really works for me, it’s how I find balance.

Most companies would benefit from somebody being trained in this area.


When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?) 

I have a very occupied and busy mind. Meditation hasn’t worked for me for example. Running does though, it helps me switch off (it helps that I have access to lovely countryside and the seaside where I live).


What does leadership mean to you?

It’s different from management. Management is more about administering processes and ensuring day to day responsibilities are met. We see this as laying the foundations to success. Leadership is inspiration and creates excellence on top of the foundations.

The model we employed to ensure this principle was understood by everyone was during our academy training every attendee built a structure during the day’s course using large blocks. Each block represented a training area on the course.

The cornerstone blocks were our values. The foundation blocks were the core management areas and built on top of this were the areas of leadership. 

The idea over the course of the training was that the delegates created their own ‘palace’ as they learned the subject of each ‘block’ and added it to their structure.

You could only build the perfect ‘palace’ with the right balance of management and leadership areas being mastered and added to the ‘palace’ in the right order. Our values supported the whole structure. We saw this as a good metaphor for running successful, ethical teams 

Progression wise, we set up a system in which people are first promoted to management roles and then if they have the right attributes (and not everyone does) they move on to be a leader.


Which people have most inspired you in your life and why?

My parents. Both were teachers. Both were principled people, hugely generous, and happy to help others.

Also my brother. He survived stage three cancer. His attitude throughout inspired me. He ran the London Marathon this year.

Finally my daughter, she’s five and reminds me to keep life simple, to have fun. 


What do the words principles and values mean to you?

They are fundamental.

Principles are guides for making decisions.

In regards to values, if you want to develop a consistent culture based on your values, you need to follow through on them throughout your organisation. You have to create systems that reward the staff that embody them, with high status, rather than those simply getting high performance. 

Our values are central to why we run our businesses. Success isn’t success if you aren’t operating in a way that is consistent with your values.


If you had a forum to speak to 50 leaders, what question would you pose to them, to get them thinking about and being better leaders?

Are the people within your organisation with the highest status, the same people who embody your values?


What one thing could you do that you aren’t doing now, that if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?  What one thing in your business or professional life would bring similar results?

In my personal life it would be keeping in touch with and having more contact with my friends around the country. It’s not something that comes naturally to me, so I have to make the effort. That brings me on to my professional life, as that is true of this also, which would be networking. I value the power of mutual partnership and also the opportunities it brings.


Have you ever engaged with self-help, mentoring or coaching? If so, how?

It’s good to be open to improving and learning and growing. I have read a lot of books on related subjects and these days I listen to a lot of podcasts/audiobooks too. And we have of course been very focused on coaching our staff in our companies. For me personally, from external people, no, I never have. It’s not that I’m against the idea of it, it’s just never really come up.


Topic: 50 in 50