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The Ultimate Recipe for The Perfect Christmas Work Culture – an Interview with Helen Hyde, John Lewi

‘Tis the season to be merry and nowhere is this truer than the John Lewis Partnership (owners of high street stalwarts John Lewis and Partners and Waitrose and Partners). This is a business that is simply synonymous with the festive spirit, from iconic advertising to in store experiences. The company is on everyone’s Christmas list!

So, Wavelength had a great opportunity to talk to Helen Hyde, who leads the Registry Directorate for the John Lewis Partnership, the largest co-owned business in Europe with 85,000 Partners. She plays a critical role in leading the charge when it comes to culture, representing the Partners at an organisational level and ensuring everyone’s voice gets heard.

Christmas, while magical in so many ways, is not without stress for retailers. With increased pressure from online giants and a backdrop of economic uncertainty, creating (and maintaining) a festive, fun and committed work force is no mean feat.

Helen shares with us her insights on creating the ultimate Christmas culture and leading through this demanding (and let’s face it often exhausting!) time of year.

How important are ‘people’ when it comes to delivering the ultimate Christmas experience for shoppers? Essential is the short answer. We’re a business comprised of Partners, which means that everyone who works here owns a stake and everyone is working towards the same goal. For us that’s about making the customer experience a very personal one and taking the opportunities to talk to people as individuals, taking a real interest to help them find exactly what they are looking for. Our people – or Partners – are the ones driving this. It’s the warm and authentic interaction that shoppers know and love us for, and it’s so important through the Christmas season.

Christmas is a hugely important period for John Lewis and Waitrose – how do you prepare your teams to deliver for customers at this critical time? We make two thirds of our profit through Christmas and much of that goes back to our Partners through our annual bonus and benefits. It’s a critical time but one we want to ensure is amazing for our customers. For example, we have designated ‘food ambassadors’ in Waitrose where Partners (who are generally passionate about food) are able to share tips and advice on products and recipes. Only last week I was in store and gave a customer my grandmother’s recipe for mulled wine. It can’t be formulaic, it must be genuine. It’s about empowering Partners to share their ideas and inspiration.

We also love looking after our Partners through this period. We have just hosted our annual Christmas lunch, complete with fizz and crackers. We hold a concert in The Royal Festival Hall, where Partners sing and perform as well as a beautiful service in Westminster Cathedral. These events are always very well attended and tap into the talent across the business.

Are there any specific initiatives that motivate staff through the festive (but also very busy and demanding!) period? Aside from all the above, one fun idea that everyone loves is an advent calendar of leisure benefits. Partners will receive an email every day through advent with a different offer, discount or competition. It’s a great way to keep the team motivated and reminds them how valued they are.

What is the company doing to stay relevant on the high street this Christmas (with increased competition and elevated noise from online and other retailers)? It comes down to a combination of product and service. John Lewis and Partners offers a range of quality products that are never knowingly undersold, always accompanied with great service. As a shopper you can browse, talk to Partners, get help and advice, get your choices sent to you or arrange to click and collect.

We offer experience desks and special events. From a talk on festive table styling to a complimentary calligraphy event with Jo Malone. From a floristry event to a Sipsmith masterclass. We want customers to make a day out of shopping and give them experiences as well as products to cherish. This allows us to build deeper relationships with them.

Building relationships is very important. Fashion shoppers can come and spend a few hours with one of our advisors, who will get to know them and even contact them when other things come in the store that they think they will like.

How do you carry through that service culture online and through social channels during the festive period?

It is hard! We always try to make sure the websites are very engaging and easy to navigate. Great photography is important when customers can’t touch and feel items, especially for social media such as Instagram. One fun idea we had was to reveal the Christmas ad to our Partners early to share on social media (ahead of any official media platforms). This gave them ownership of one of most exciting and creative aspects of our communications and #WeArePartners was a top trending hashtag that day.

What advice would you give other retailers and businesses in terms of leading teams through this period?

Be very clear about what you want to achieve and how to motivate your teams. When I used to be on the shop floor, each morning we would have a huddle and discuss our aims for the day and week. We would also run friendly competitions, share great feedback and give spot awards. For anyone in a retail business get on the shop floor and put in the miles for your team! Give them praise, encouragement and thanks.

What are the pitfalls and risks?

Operational excellence is paramount at this time of year, and a lack of it could create huge problems. Products must always be in the right place at the right time. Continually maintaining a slick operation isn’t always easy through such a busy time but it’s extremely important.

Economic uncertainty remains a risk for everyone, both Partners and shoppers. We are all alive to this right now.

The weather can sometimes throw a curved ball! We’ve had incidents of turkeys being stuck up north and our having to work out how to get them around the country. So, it’s important to prepare logistics carefully and always have contingency plans.



Helen Hyde is part of SpeakersHub and one of our most sought after speakers on culture, service excellence, purpose and leadership. To view her full biography to book her to speak at your own event please click here.

Helen is also a regular speaker on our Connect leadership programme that inspires, develops and connects leaders whose professional paths would not normally cross. With clients from large corporates, social enterprises, charities and the public sector, we bring together a diverse community of 90 top leaders to learn alongside and from each other.

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