Why Paula Vennells’ profound Christian faith should have been a big red flag for the most senior roles at the Post Office

May 2024

Ahead of Paula Vennells joining the Post Office in 2007, I worked closely for her in two companies – Argos and Whitbread. In both cases, my role was to manage brand transformation projects which she had board responsibility for, plus other brand and marketing related work. This was over a roughly six year period, so it’s fair to say I got to know her very well. Indeed, as time progressed I came to consider her a good business friend, and not just because we got on really well but also because she was transformational in my career, having given me opportunities which I could only have dreamed of ahead of meeting her.

I was employed by Argos (and enjoyed 20 years there) but for Whitbread it was on a contract basis having set up my consultancy business when I left Argos – which by coincidence was the same week that Paula left. We kept in touch after she left, and it was not long after that she gave me an opportunity at Whitbread which then snowballed and the corporate giant became my principle client.  

At that time I also had a modest garden design business, so somewhat inevitably given our relationship, I found myself at Paula’s home where I took on the task to remodel part of the extensive garden around her beautiful Bedfordshire home. On that day she made us lunch which we had together (a modest offering of boiled eggs with toast), with the relaxed setting in the family kitchen allowing conversation about absolutely all sorts, and for once very little to do with work.

I want to say now that, despite the media and public vilification of her, I always found Paula to be a very decent and caring person. I also found her to be extremely intelligent and perceptive, and someone with an extraordinary ability to absorb information and learn as she worked. That said, in no way am I trying to defend her in the context of what has horrifically panned-out at the Post Office; I’m simply making observations about the very positive side of how I found her at the particular time I knew her well.

Having stated those positive observations, I’ll now move onto the less-than-positive. Almost right from the start of meeting and working for Paula at Argos (where she was appointed as marketing director), there was an obvious issue with inconsistent judgement. Indeed, it became the source of discussion and amusement within the department, and despite the general view that, overall, she was a really good egg and certainly a big step up from what we’d previously experienced. This judgment issue wasn’t about big picture stuff, because she was seriously good at recognising what needed to be done at a time of great change in the company, but more the day-to-day stuff such as design work that we needed to run past her. Underpinning this was here unwavering stance of always demonstrating quick thinking and decisiveness, and it became clear that this particular trait of her management style overruled what should have been a more rational approach of standing back and really considering the task in hand. At times the nature of her decision making could only be described as irrational, and not least as it was inconsistent and didn’t follow a set pattern – other than the massively confident way it was always delivered.

The above perhaps explains why fellow directors and including the MD she reported to, just didn’t seem to see this weakness because they were only exposed to the big strategic decisions she was making. There were though times when even her board colleagues must have seen there was a problem, and I’ll cite an example of an extreme piece of misjudgement on Paula’s part: She was giving a presentation to about 200 of us from head office, which would have been managers over a certain grade plus her fellow directors. Things were running a bit late in the afternoon, and once close to 5.00pm a number of us would have been thinking about the need to be getting off home (I was a single parent at the time so I certainly was). Having run through a very good presentation about aspects of the transformational change the business was and needed to go through (and she was always a great presenter), she finished off by saying that she needed to leave the meeting because, and I roughly quote, “I have two young boys to pick up, get home and feed”. The vast majority of us in the room sat there aghast, because not only did a good percentage of us also have similar family responsibilities, but none of us were going anywhere fast as she wasn’t the last speaker on. It was a shocking lack of judgement and no doubt not planned at all but instead stated in the spur of the moment, and, as ever, delivered with a degree of self-assurance that only she could display.

Moving onto Whitbread, it was much the same story but by this time I’d worked out how to better manage up – which often involved countering her overt confidence with my very own when I knew she was wrong. And in fairness, she did generally respect such a situation, and certainly wasn’t a person who would overrule you just for the sake of it. I also worked out that the very action of challenging Paula provided her with some brief and important thinking time to reappraise her initial judgement.

But now there was a whole new dimension to the judgement issue because she was training to become an Anglican priest. I’d known for some time about her Christian faith, but not to the point of recognising it to be so pious. I, along with others, struggled to see how she could balance her role of commercial director in a company where corporate greed was the order of the day, with the apparent required need to uphold the central tenets of Christianity. There was also the obvious question of how someone would have to recognise the total reality of the business world and make objectively-based decisions in order to survive in it, but at the same only have ‘faith’ in the total absurdities catalogued in the bible. So for the day job (these are just made up examples) “we need to invest 10 million pounds in our restaurant chains to stay competitive”, then in the evenings and weekends “let me tell you about a 900 year old man and how he brought two penguins all the way from Antarctica to the Middle East and loaded them onto a wooden boat he made”.  

I never did challenge her on this very obvious conflict (and I SO wish I had done) but when we did chat about her studies to become ordained, I was always struck how ‘matter of fact’ she was about it – she just seemed to see it as a totally normal thing to do.  And we did talk about it a fair bit, with an example being that she asked me if I would do some consultancy work for someone she was training with and who was the headmaster of a private Christian school in north London.  

I lost touch with Paula after she left Whitbread, and I only spoke with her once at her time with the PO, which was about 7 years ago (I called her for a catch-up and to do with something my daughter was potentially doing for the PO).

So to get to the crux of this piece, I’m questioning how Paula could have even been considered for the role of MD and then CEO at the PO, and this in the context of a profound Christian faith which had allowed her to reach such a senior position in the Anglican Church. I can see how it might not have been seen as a big issue in her initial appointment as network director, but for such huge and important leadership positions of MD and CEO, you should surely only be considering people who, along with a host of other requirements (many of which she clearly had), totally have their feet on the firm ground of reality – which most certainly doesn’t translate to a talking snake, a talking donkey and man that can walk on water – and therefore their judgement is logically going to be far more sound.  

In this respect, the ultimate blame for the unparalleled tragedy which has rightly been described as the greatest miscarriage of justice in British history, has to rest with those that appointed the lady as much as it does the lady herself.      

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