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Blog : Creating cultural magic


Creating cultural magic

By Sally Brand - Business Development Manager

I’m always interested to learn about organisations that are able to improve their bottom line by building a strong employer brand and a highly motivated workforce.  As such when David Smith’s ‘Asda Magic – the 7 principles of building a high performance culture’ was recommended to me for this reason, I was keen to find out more.

For those who know about Asda’s history, it’s fair to say that it has had its fair share of highs and lows over the years. In the late 1980s the business was literally on the financial cliff edge with a billion pound debt. Since then it has re-invented itself and is now the UK’s second largest supermarket group with a healthy turnover.

This is some achievement and, as Smith and his former Asda co-directors highlight, a key part of achieving this was cultivating and sustaining a robust people culture.

As a starting point Asda, led by Smith as People Director, created a core set of values which provided clarity, purpose and a framework in which people could perform to the best of their ability. Leading on from this, they established seven practical people principles to ensure a commercially successfully business, winning some prestigious awards along the way including the number one slot in The Sunday Times Best Companies to Work for in the UK in 2002.

This is how they did it:

1) Hiring for attitude training for skill

Smith describes hiring as ‘...your bedrock. Who you hire into your business is the biggest statement you ever make to your existing people about the kind of values and culture you hold dear, and where your culture is going’. Ultimately, getting this right is imperative. Good people, who get what you’re about, want to be there and will go the extra mile is what you need. Be wary of 'organisational terrorists' – those who will do more damage than good!

Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box either. Back in the 1990s, Asda went on a concerted drive to recruit people aged 50 plus.  This was a somewhat controversial initiative given the general perception of retail as ‘a young person’s game’. However, what Asda found (and many of their competitors missed!) was that these people were very loyal, less likely to take absence and had many life experiences enabling them to provide legendary customer experiences. They also proved themselves to be equally as productive as their younger colleagues. Win – win!

2) Communicate, communicate, communicate

Make simple, straightforward, two-way communication a way of life, every single day – don’t let key messages get lost in the ‘noise’ of day-to-day activities. Asda advocate using daily team huddles to cascade information and create a strong feedback culture. The more people know, the more they care!

3) Listening

Listening should happen systematically and at all levels. Understand the issues that are affecting your people and respond accordingly. Smith comments that if a ‘leader is armed with such closeness to how your people feel, it means that no one can ever surprise you’.

To listen consistently Asda delivers regular employee engagement surveys as well as quarterly “we’re listening forums” to examine emerging trends and take action on results. This has had a great effect on morale and enables the business to benchmark and make improvements.

4) Style of management and leadership

Asda encourages leaders at all levels to really get to know their people. By bringing the whole person into the workplace you are able to unlock potential and make the most of a diverse range of talents. Coach and develop everyone. And remember that people leave managers; not a business.

5) Remove your underperformers / push your talent

Managing underperformance is never easy and needs to be handled sensitively. Encourage tough love! Ensure that robust succession planning measures are in place and that talent is spotted and nurtured for a vibrant and fast-paced performance culture. Don’t be afraid to take risks on real stars to enable them to prove themselves.

6) Recognition

As our own research shows, recognition is more important than remuneration. Pay fairly and then take money out of the equation. Involve your managers (and customers where appropriate) and don’t overlook the small things.  A 'thank you', for instance, goes a very long way.

7) Creating "the buzz", fun and performance

Create a vibrant culture where people want to be. Remember: work made fun gets done. Extend this to the local community through CSR. People like to do the right thing for others and care that their employer is willing to go the extra mile.

Ultimately, it’s not just Asda’s financials that proves this approach really does work. There’s some fantastic word of mouth and anecdotal evidence. Just one example: “Customers love this [Asda] store, they comment on how knowledgeable and friendly the people are. Customers are saying we must be paying too much, because we are always smiling”.

Would your employees say similar? If not, are you willing to make a change? 

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