Monday June 22, 2015
Jo Harley, Managing Director for Purple Cubed, on what HR can learn from John Lewis
For years, HR directors have mused on whether they have the smarts to be strategic enough, whether they have the commercial acumen to thrive on a corporate board or whether they have the ambition and – let’s face it - the guts to take the top spot in business.
Academics and commentators alike have debated whether HR directors are able (and in a lot of cases even willing) to step up to the plate as MD or CEO of a business. And in the midst of this conversation, one man has proven a point.
Andy Street, MD of John Lewis is the keynote speaker at Management Today’s MT Live Conference this week, fresh from being voted Britain’s most admired leader. What you probably didn’t know is that he came from HR.
Street, who stole the crown of Most Admired Leader from former Sainsbury’s boss Justin King, is a John Lewis ‘lifer’ having joined the company straight from university in 1985 (see bio below).
When people think of John Lewis, the first image that is often conjured up might be an animated bear with an alarm clock, a cuddly penguin or a small boy proudly handing his parents a crumpled but lovingly wrapped Christmas present. And that’s exactly what they want us to think.
John Lewis’ turnover overtook rival M&S's UK sales last year, hitting £9bn, and Street’s £7m spend on a Christmas ad featuring a little boy called Sam and his best friend Monty the Penguin, has also proved a smash hit with shoppers. Within a month of its launch, the ad had received 18 million views on YouTube.
And in a business sense, that merits admiration in its own right. Street has proved that his HR and business acumen have enabled him to thrive in a viciously competitive retail environment.
Back in 2012, just weeks after John Lewis launched its £6 million ‘little-boy-gives-crumpled-Christmas-present-to-parents’ commercial, Tracey Killen, the director of personnel for the company (called so because John Lewis doesn’t like to objectify its employees by calling them ‘human resources’) told HR Magazine: “Our ads make our brand more accessible. They touch on the zeitgeist and make our company more humane. This year we have had more graduate [job] applications than ever.”
Humane is the word. And this is what Street has been able to take from the HR (or as John Lewis say, personnel) department to the shop floor and to the nation. John Lewis is a place where we, as consumers want to work, want to be and want to buy into.
At John Lewis, the partnership is held by a trust for the benefit of all the people that work there. All employees are called ‘partners’ and the company’s entire mission is based on its people sharing in the company’s success and being put first. Eighty partners form a council, which acts like a board; they have the right to hold the chairman to account.
The ultimate purpose of John Lewis is the happiness of its people and the company is based on a holistic circle whereby if it treats its partners well, the business will be successful.
The company is not quoted, so it has more ability than some to take a long-term view of what it plans to achieve. This long-term employee-centric approach is a great example of people engagement working effectively, and it makes sense that the MD has a background in people. It’s a powerful lesson to others in HR and more than a few MDs…
Andy Street: Biography
As MD, Andy Street is responsible for all activities within John Lewis.
Street has spent his career at the John Lewis Partnership, joining after graduating from Oxford with a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics in 1985. Andy became Managing Director of the John Lewis Division in 2007 and has led the business through times of significant change in both the economy and the retail industry at large.
During this time, John Lewis's gross sales have increased in excess of 50% to over £4bn. It has opened 18 new shops, and the johnlewis.com business has seen annual sales of over £1bn making the department store one of the UK's most respected and successful retailers. This year marks the opening of John Lewis Birmingham, a regional flagship shop and the most innovative store to date.
After initial roles in department stores, head office and manufacturing units, Andy became Managing Director of John Lewis Milton Keynes in 1993, followed by the same role at Bluewater in 1998. In 2000 he became Supply Chain Director, followed by his appointment to the Partnership Board as Director of Personnel in 2002.
Andy is Chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), the body tasked with driving economic growth in the region. He is also Vice Chairman of Performances Birmingham Limited, which is responsible for running the city's Symphony and Town Halls and he was a member of the Prime Minister's Business Advisory Group.