Poppy's CEO and Founder share their vision

Clare Montagu and Poppy Mardall outside Poppy's HQ in Lambeth cemetery

Six minute read

As they step into new roles, and gear up for growth, CEO Clare Montagu (left) and Founder and Chair Poppy Mardall (right) discuss their shared vision, the perils and opportunities of founder/CEO relationships, and why they are both in it for the long term.

Tell us about your change in roles. What will you each be focusing on at Poppy’s now?

Clare: When I came into Poppy’s last year as Chief Operating Officer, I had an internal focus on bringing in new systems to gear up the business for growth.

As a CEO, I’ll still be supporting the smooth running of the business, but with a more external focus. I’m looking forward to making new connections in the sector, and renewing old ones. I’m responsible, with Poppy, for setting and reviewing our strategy, and owning it as CEO.

Poppy: I’m moving away from being responsible for running the business. As Founder and Chair, I’ll be supporting Clare to thrive as CEO, making sure she has the time and energy to achieve all she is capable of. Poppy’s has in Clare a leader with ambition and drive, who knows what she’s doing.

I will also be spending time with the team, reinforcing the purpose of what we do, reminding people where we came from, as well as where we’re going.

As a founder, you hold this cultural understanding and history. And I’ll be looking outwards, creating opportunities for sharing Poppy’s approach to death care with a wide audience.

Why do you think now is the right time to make these changes?

Clare: We are coming out of a time of reacting and firefighting, after the pandemic, maybe a bit like the early stages of Poppy’s. There was little opportunity to look beyond the next funeral. It was a difficult state to be in and we had to focus on looking after our clients.

Now it’s time to gear up for the next phase. It’s the right time to grow, as everything is opening up again.

We want to be transforming death care across the sector. You can do this to an extent on Zoom, but nothing beats being able to invite groups in so that they can see firsthand how we care for the dead and for the living.

Poppy: Our ambitions are huge. We must have robust leadership to survive the pressures of growth and change.

I look back on myself in the early days with compassion. It was a roller coaster ride. Maybe there was no way around it at the start. But now we can bring in other skills and make the business sustainable.

What will you be doing to make the Founder / CEO relationship work smoothly?

Clare: To be frank, founder / successor relationships can be tricky. We talked about this before I even started as COO. It’s a difficult path to navigate. But if you do it well, it’s 1+1=3.

Poppy: As long as a founder is not causing trouble, it’s useful to have them around. CEOs need support. I have a sense of what Poppy’s is capable of, and it needs lots of people to make that real. I can’t do it on my own, but I do want to be a part of it.

Founders can struggle with facing their own limitations. It’s because we’ve spent so long hustling, trying to make something out of nothing, that we can worry — what if everything is revealed and there’s nothing there?

Clare: The crucial thing is that, while Poppy and I have similar values, we bring different skills and experiences. I’ve never grown a business from scratch. Poppy has not led a large organisation with established systems and processes.

We align on what really matters and, if we disagree, we’re confident enough to have a conversation about it.

Poppy: We’re here to watch and cheer for each other. That’s what a management team should be.

Tell us about your shared ideas about how to grow Poppy’s and extend our reach.

Clare: I don’t have a corporate background, but I know the model of techno-growth. That is, growing as fast as possible. The heroic entrepreneur story, where you can’t admit failure. But to grow, you don’t have to emulate that world view.

Poppy: That model isn’t working — it’s destructive to people and the planet. If you are so high-performing that no one else can keep up, either you burn out or you burn out all those around you.

Clare: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we are both women. I believe that female leaders can talk about their worries and still be successful. I’ve learnt that as a leader. When I started I thought you couldn’t share your vulnerabilities.

Poppy: We want to see sustainability across the board. There’s still a culture of ‘have an intense couple of years, then retire to the Bahamas’. That’s not what we are here to do. We’re not going to grow, strip out and sell on.

Clare: That’s right. People ask me, ‘what’s the exit strategy?’ But building up to sell is not what we're about. We want to create great things for the long term.

We wouldn’t be working towards becoming a B Corp otherwise. It’s costly, but it creates a fantastic business that does right by everyone — clients, staff and our community.

Poppy: There’s this idea that you either have a business that is outstanding, but tiny, or a corporate monster. The question for Poppy’s is — can we operate at scale in a way that’s worth doing? That’s the greatest interest for us both.

You talk about sustainability. What does that mean for your approach to work?

Poppy: I was 27 when I set up Poppy’s. I was in a stable relationship, but I didn’t have children. It was a classic founder / entrepreneur story — I was on call most of the time for the first year, ready to pick up the phone in the middle of the night when someone had died. I was back at work a couple of months after my first child was born. It worked, because it was what I wanted then.

But it hasn’t been working for the last few years. I have three small children now, and my life has changed dramatically. I am proud and amazed that my work and home life has coexisted all this time. But I don’t have to stay on this train forever. I’ve been burnt out twice and it’s a terrifying experience. I never want to return to that.

Clare: I’ve learnt that working all hours doesn’t do me any favours. When I get stressed, I can’t support others. I need sleep, exercise, other stuff to keep life worth living.

Poppy: If you don’t have that, then you stop loving your work. We need a robust sustainable infrastructure which includes our roles, but is more than them. We are both driven, ambitious and hard working, but there is a line we don’t want to cross.

Clare: We need to model this. People are committed, they do their best, but they don’t have to work all hours, at all costs, not if they are sick or have problems at home.

Our understanding of the home / life impacts of work has changed over a generation. I love my work, but I want a life outside it too.

What does the next few years hold for Poppy’s?

Clare: Now is a big opportunity for Poppy’s —whether it’s B Corp or our ambition to reach more people — it’s an exciting time.

Poppy: We have a joint hope and commitment that we are the right combination of people to support each other and propel Poppy’s forwards.

There’s nowhere else I want to be now. The opportunities ahead are huge and I’m strapped in for that ride.

Read more about Poppy’s story: Why I became a funeral director and about Clare’s first month at Poppy’s.

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