Stepping into other organisations is a powerful way to sharpen focus on your own culture, organisational effectiveness and leadership. Not because the organisations visited on Best In Class are perfect but because they help illuminate what’s strong, precious and worth building on in your own organisation alongside those flaws, deficits and areas of underperformance that must be addressed. Moreover, the visits provide invaluable inspiration and ideas for how to tackle them.
So what of this year’s cohort of BIC organisations?
Here’s what stood out for us, organised around our Wavelength 10 framework
1. Clear and Compelling Purpose
You are unlikely as an organisation to make it onto a Wavelength BIC itinerary without a purpose that’s explicitly expressed, easily understood and lived to some extent across the business. This doesn’t mean it’s easy to achieve, there are plenty of organisations whose lofty words fail to translate into meaningful action, but it does mean if your organisation hasn’t got this it’s a good place to start.
But what makes a purpose compelling not commonplace?
If the organisations visited this year are our measure, the scale of ambition of that purpose is a factor. So Brompton Bikes’ focus is on enhancing city life while Tesla wants to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”, neither content with getting people from A to B. Harrop Fold School wants to“produce well-rounded young people who are prepared for an ever-changing world” not just help them get good grades, while youth agency Livity exists to help young people change the world. While the cynic in us might question if everyone we met fully signed up to these, it’s clear setting your organisational sights on something bold and big can help set you apart commercially as well as culturally from the competition.
Once you have your purpose it needs to be sustained as your organisation grows, as it goes through tougher stretches and as time passes. During this year’s BIC visits we were struck by the role visionary founders and leaders often play in achieving this. Whether it’s Richard Branson at Virgin, visionary founder Spedan Lewis in The John Lewis Partnership’s (JLP) past, Andrew Ritchie the founder of Brompton Bikes, Tesla’s Elon Musk or Apple’s Steve Jobs what is striking is how these individuals – even when no longer involved in the business or in some instances no longer alive – help keep the fire of purpose burning bright.
2. Authentic Personal Action
Ian Kellet, CEO of Pets at Home and Drew Povey, Executive Head Teacher at Harrop Fold School reminded us that everything a senior leader says and does matters, setting the tone for everyone else. So acting miserable because you feel miserable at the start of a meeting or the start of the day or when you bump into a colleague or kid in the corridor is not acceptable, because if this is what you do what can you expect from others? Which makes being authentic more about marshalling the best bits of you to fit the demands of context, than about dumping your whole self on the table at work each day.
Perhaps this helps explain why authentic personal action can be hard.
Sam Conniff co-founder of Livity became an entrepreneur aged 21. He co-founded “more than profit” youth marketing agency Livity in 2001 and remains as passionate 16 years later about the campaigns they co-create with young people and clients. During our visit Sam told us it’s time for him to step aside. That in the face of a large injection of investment, accompanying new governance and recent falling profits he will best serve the organisation he loves by redrawing his relationship with it. Tough to decide and then do, even if you are convinced it’s necessary.
Then there is Panos Mytaros, Executive Vice President of the ECCO Production Group, who is in a class of his own when it comes to authenticity in action.
Panos joined Danish shoe manufacturer ECCO in 1994 as a lowly tannery director, yet over the last 10 years while heading up leather production, he’s driven revolutionary change within ECCO and the leather industry. Central to this was transforming ECCO’s tanneries from a cost-centres supplying leather to the ‘real’ business to a stand-alone P&L contributor and global leading light for leather innovation. Today ECCO Leather co-creates with high-end designers like Alexander Wang, brands like Louis Vuitton, and is the only supplier Apple uses that it name-checks. Following this success, Panos was given the remit for innovation for the whole of ECCO.
Examples of what he did to unleash a “tsunami” of disruptive change on the“Mother Ship” include the following. Sacking every senior manager at ECCO Leather except himself – 25 people in total. Creating a blog reporting on extraordinary leather innovations from DANNA R+D – The Lunatic Fringe of Leather Technology that were entirely fictitious but got the world wondering what the hell ECCO Leather was up to. Keeping the opening of a new concept store W21 in Amsterdam so secret the first Denmark HQ knew of it was receiving an invite to the opening party.
Perhaps unsurprisingly Panos is Marmite. Members this year lauded him as “Panos The Great” in response to his own reference to “that other famous Greek” Alexander. Last year his audacity and attitude was less well received. It’s fair to assume that whatever his successes, he has this polarising impact within ECCO. A good reminder that authentic action is not about popularity particularly when, as Panos puts it, “the little shit became The Shit”.
3. Uncompromising on Cultural Fit
“When you hire someone it’s the biggest statement to your existing colleagues you can make about who you value and what you stand for”.
Wise words from Pets at Home, just one of the BIC organisations living by the ‘hire slow, fire fast’ mantra. Apple gave us an extreme example of ‘hire slow’ with Mari the store manager at Covent Garden interviewed more than 15 times, including one interview at the Apple Campus in Cupertino. On the subject of firing, Ian Kellet reflected that Pets at Home has “an amazing ability to spit people out who are focused on the self”, highlighting one of Pets at Home’s cultural non-negotiables.
Which is fine but finding and keeping talent does not exist in a vacuum.
Take the hospitality industry in London where there is unbelievable competition among employers for good people, something due to intensify as the reality of Brexit unfolds. While both Pret A Manger and Four Seasons get the best candidates through the power of their brands, being phenomenal places to work and by offering opportunities to progress if you want them, it’s going to get tougher and will not only shrink but also fundamentally change the pool of available talent. Currently, as we know from recent media coverage, just one in fifty applicants for a job at a Pret A Manger store is British. Couple that with what we learned visiting a Pret A Manger store where everyone in the kitchen had a degree and anxiety around the future of staffing in stores is easy to understand.
Pressures on recruitment practise can come from closer to home too. Visiting an Apple store in London it feels like a business with extraordinary workforce diversity but among senior management it’s a different story. This has led Apple shareholders to insist the organisation take measures to increase diversity at the top.
4. Align relentlessly, using structures not wish-lists
Timpson – the high street retailer specialising in shoe repairs, key cutting and engraving – offers a stellar example of not leaving the things you want to chance.
Want your leaders to continuously develop? Then link bonuses to the amount of training undertaken. Want your store staff to delight customers? Give each store control of its P&L, the freedom to charge customers what it thinks best and permission to spend up to £500 solving customer’s problems without seeking management permission. Believe managers can only lead people if they know them? Test them on the lives of their staff – names of partners, children, and pets; where they go on holiday; what they like to eat and drink; how they spend their spare time – with hell to pay if you score below 80%. Believe in ‘upside down management’ with head office a support centre to stores? Make bonuses contingent on spending time working alongside colleagues in stores so you never lose touch with the beating heart of the business.
At Pret A Manger a similarly thought-through approach is applied to the humble sandwich, wrap, salad and fruit salad. Everything has a process, everything is written down; quality, continuity and efficiency are never a matter of choice or accident.
5. Brilliant basics, Magic touches
“Get it right. Get me right. Wow me if you can.”
This quote comes from the Four Seasons and is more than just words on paper as anyone who has stayed there knows and stands for: achieving the service step consistently; understanding the guest; pleasantly surprising the guest. In that order because they also know that the right to provide magic touches is earned through getting the basics brilliantly and relentlessly right because Four Seasons’ staff remembering your name won’t impress you if your room is dirty. Their obsessiveness around the basics is evident in the codification of almost everything. From the 10 guest room initial core standards (including no scuffs on the door and no stains, debris or wear on furniture) to culture standards the how of service delivery which includes the following seven steps – smile, make eye contact, give a sense of recognition, use a clear and natural voice, be informed, show you care through kindness and then, and only then, exceed the guests’ expectations.
The quote is equally relevant to Virgin Atlantic where it’s not so much a customer service ethos as the bedrock their offer is built on. Virgin like Four Seasons knows that this only happens through deep customer insight across every touch point where the brand lives, even those that are run by others on your behalf.
Tesla wants raving fans not customers. They also know that the handover of a new car is often a stress point customers, particularly when switching to an electric vehicle. The answer? Delivery Experience Specialists dedicated to making the process brilliantly simple and enjoyable. Tesla also offers a factory tour to all new owners and provides a Ranger Service for repairs if you don’t live near a service centre.
And Apple? Taking magic to the nth degree, the box of the iPhone 5 was designed with a magnetic fastener that prolongs opening to heighten anticipation of the product inside.
6. On first name terms with customers and their people
“You can’t lead from behind a desk”.
Drew at Harrop Fold School refers to what he does as Executive Head as,“leadership by wandering about”. It’s an approach that’s clearly paid off. Since he joined in 2005 and became Head in 2010, the work of “Team Harrop” has taken the school from special measures and being judged by some the worst school in the country, to an Ofsted rating of Good – all in an area with crushing deprivation.
Drew walks the corridors, talking to young people (addressing them each by name), setting the tone of positivity and curiosity he expects from others. He drops in on classes where the interaction follows a set pattern – Drew knocks, enters, everyone stands; he checks in with the teacher on an agreed set of performance standards; examples of excellence are praised; standards not being met picked up on; Drew leaves and the class resumes. At Harrop Fold these almost ritualised daily interactions ensure Drew knows his school, foster mutual respect, and provide clarity on what is expected from everyone.
We came across other examples of this out and about style of leading. James Timpson, MD, Timpson is in stores three days out of five each week engaging with employees, spotting and dealing with “drongos” and “Mr Grumpys”, and spreading best practice. Pret A Manger’s buddy days ensure those working at head office do shifts in store regularly enough to keep in touch with store-life. And Panos at ECCO Leather commented, “I’m always around, I am not so much in my office,” because “team building is for every single day”.
7. Take a bold stance on innovation
This year across the visits we experienced some radically different innovation philosophies. We’ve included seven here – Apple, Brompton Bikes, Pets at Home, Waitrose, Pret A Manger, Virgin Atlantic and ECCO Leather – which makes this section rather long but, we hope you’ll agree, reminds us there is no one right way to innovate.
Let’s start with Apple. As a member pointed out, an Apple store employee may work for one of the most extraordinarily innovative companies in human history but their job demands little in the way of creativity and they can forget innovation! Innovation happens elsewhere, in secret, among a high priesthood of innovators with store managers and staff almost as in the dark as consumers about what’s coming next and when. While it can make getting under the skin of Apple (no pun intended) difficult on a BIC visit, it’s hard not to be impressed by the scale and efficiency of the machine and the functionality and beauty of the products.
Brompton Bikes, the UK’s biggest bike manufacturer, could not be more different. The business remains very much a manufacturing culture with innovation a slow considered process where a dash of chaos is viewed as critical to creativity and partnerships are more serendipitous than strategic. While this let’s-see-who-knocks-on-our door approach is changing, it has clearly paid off with great collaborations with big brands like Williams (bikes with engines), Barbour (commuter clothing) and the Cambridge Satchel Company (bike luggage).
The innovation philosophy of Pets at Home befits an organisation staffed by pet owners that puts pets before profit to the extent that their guinea pigs and hamsters now only drink mineral water. An example of ‘action toys’ for cats illustrates their insight rich obsessive innovation approach. As any cat owner knows cats don’t all like playing in the same ways – some like to hide and pounce, others to stalk, yet others to jump in the air. From a cat psychology point of view attitudes to play are all about attitudes to prey which means to buy the right toy for Smudge you must first identify her prey-profile or your wasting your money.
Both Waitrose and Pret A Manger use concept stores to try out new ideas in real time underpinned by detailed understanding of food, retail and shopping trends around the globe. At Waitrose the benefits of not being first to innovate were called. They’ve been able to leapfrog early adopters of automated till technologies, learn from their experiences and invest in next generation technology – no “unidentified item in the bagging area!” here!
This highlights the role of timing in innovation. At Virgin Atlantic innovation took a back seat during a recent turnaround period where taking costs out of the business and re-evaluating routes was the priority. Now they have a big innovation on the way but once its unveiled they know that within six months to a year it will have been copied by the competition. In their sector innovation isn’t something they can stand still on for long.
Finally, the work of Panos and his team at ECCO Leather – perhaps the boldest example of innovation we’ve seen in a while. His philosophy?
Reject conventional wisdom. Panos saw what no one else did, that ECCO Leather could be a multi-million euro business and an engine for change. Similarly where his predecessors had seen waste Panos saw opportunity and now ECCO Leather is a major producer of halal gelatine. It can do this because the high standards it demands for leather hides means its by products are certified suitable for the halal market.
Ignore trends. As Panos put it there are around 300 trends out there right now, which means there might as well be none. So, instead of pursuing what’s soon-to-be-hot, their design lab creates leathers no-one knows they want or are even possible: metallic leather, fully water proof leather, transparent leather, leather from cow hide that looks like crocodile or snakeskin. Leathers so out there ECCO Leather has high-end designers queuing up to work with them.
Face the world not the business. The rest of ECCO was not ready for what Panos wanted to do so he looked out into the world. Like Brompton partnering is central to ECCO Leather’s innovation approach and they see themselves as “an extended arm to our customers not a supplier”.
Remember that “impossible is something until it’s not” and to “make it better even if it does not exist yet”. Which is the driving force behind what goes on at the Innovation Lab Panos and Patrizio Carlucci (Head of Innovation Lab) set up – a place so secret it has it’s own separate IT system and Panos claims ECCO HQ don’t even know where it is, let alone what’s being done at any given moment to push leather innovation to the limit and beyond.
8. Use environment consciously and productively
There were a small number of organisations we felt had put exceptional consideration into what the physical environment can do and is for, including the following.
The aim of The Clink Charity is to reduce reoffending rates among ex-offenders; it does this in partnership with Her Majesty’s Prison Service through training and skills development. When you are eating in a Clink restaurant it feels just like a fancy restaurant should helping you quickly forget you’ve had to pass through prison security to enter and that everyone working there is an inmate. While punters might fancy a more prison-themed environment this simulation of real world fine dining is an important part of the rehabilitation equation allowing staff to experience and become proficient within the world of work they’ll be helped to enter by the charity on their release.
Timpson and Brompton Bikes use physical environment to keep the organisation true to what matters. The reception at Timpson’s HQ is a Timpson store, reminding everyone everyday that they are there to support the staff who serve customers, not the other way around. Brompton Bikes’ headquarters is also the factory where the bikes are produced and the boardroom window onto the factory floor ensures senior management never forget what lies of the heart of their success – design, quality and innovation.
9. Relentless communication connected to purpose
“[Because] we live in a negative culture this is a positive place”. At Harrop Fold positivity is the fuel that powers the school’s purpose and it’s relentlessly communicated.
Communicated through the choice of language – Drew refers to himself as CPO, the Chief Positivity Officer. Communicated in interactions with parents and the community. Communicated through modelling behaviour, perhaps the most powerful means of organisational communication available. For example at Harrop Fold there is a 100-zero policy whereby even if a member of staff gets nothing positive back from a child they must remain 100% positive. This does not mean shying away from feedback on what’s not working or not acceptable, rather the positive to negative ratio is tipped toward the former and feedback always within a context of positivity.
While this focus at Harrop Fold was not the only example of ‘relentless communication connected to purpose’ we noticed what we found interesting about it was how, like almost everything Drew and his two brothers – who are also involved in the running of the school – do it’s underpinned by behavioural science. In this instance the work of John Gottman and the Gottman Institute’s research-based approach to strengthening relationships.
Finally on communication, something we noticed in almost all of our BIC organisations was an ability to reduce things down to what most matters so they are expressed clearly and concisely. Or as Panos from ECCO Leather put it when talking about business cases, “If you can’t say it in a page it’s way to complicated, bro”.
10. Resilience & Wellbeing
“No-one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”Theodore Roosevelt.
The importance of care and of kindness was mentioned in a number of the businesses.
At Timpson almost 15% of employees are ex-offenders. This is due to the work of the Timpson Family Foundation training and recruiting for its stores inside prisons (no, not key cutting in case you’re wondering), then offering new employees support on release, a vulnerable time. The Foundation has also adopted and adapted Jamie Oliver’s 15 model, setting up a multi-million pound chef’s training academy on the Isle of Anglesey. When we asked the head of the Foundation about this work one of the most striking things he said was how knowing that many of your colleagues are people who’ve made a mistake and been given a second chance makes the organisation “a kinder place to work”.
Employees at the Four Seasons and Pret A Manger talked about the feeling of being part of a family. One young Pret employee summed it up in this way, “For me it’s all about happiness. If I’m happy I’ll stay. It’s like a family here so I stay.” Given these are neither the best-paid jobs nor the most glamorous and it’s easy to move on and find another retail or hospitality industry job in a city like London, this shows how this aspect of their culture is a necessity not a nice to have.
But isn’t it obvious that kindness and care matter in the workplace like they do or should do everywhere in life? Sadly most of us can probably remember organisations where these basic tenets of humanity were missing. Perhaps speaking from personal experience during his 25 years in the retail sector, Peter Pritchard CEO of Pets at Home’s Retail Division put it like this, “Here, I don’t have to look over my shoulder for someone sticking a knife in my back”.
The Wavelength Ten:
These leaders create and sustain a clear and compelling purpose to inspire and motivate people.
They talk AND walk – bringing purpose to life through authentic personal action.
They are uncompromising on cultural ‘fit’ and the deal with colleagues is explicit.
They align relentlessly, using structures not wish-lists.
They pursue operational excellence ruthlessly. Brilliant basics and magic touches.
They are on first name terms – with customers and their people.
They take a bold stance on innovation.
They use environment consciously and productively to communicate and reinforce behaviour.
They create a system of relentless communication taking every opportunity to remind people of what’s important, connecting them to the purpose:
Plugged into all channels
Deliberate use of language
10. They are mindful of their resilience and well being and they look after the people around them.
Written by Helen Trevaskis from interviews with Wavelength Directors Jessica Stack, Adrian Simpson, Liam Black and Graham Hodgkin.
We could not have written this article without the support, generosity and honesty of our host companies, for which we are enormously grateful. Huge thanks go to our hosts: Four Seasons, Trinity Square, Apple, Pret A Manger, Harrop Fold School, The Clink, Timpson, Pets at Home, Livity, Virgin Atlantic, Brompton Bikes, Tesla, ECCO Leather, and Waitrose.
Some of the people mentioned in this article are part of the Wavelength SpeakersHub. To view full biographies and to book them to speak at your own event please click on the links below:
Drew Povey, Executive Headteacher, Harrop Fold School
Sam Conniff, Co-Founder & Chief Purpose Officer, Livity
John Timpson, Chair, Timpsons
James Timpson, MD, Timpsons
Best in Class is part of Connect – our 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 90-100 top leaders to learn alongside and from each other.
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