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Blog : Purple Interview – Kim Gieske, HR Director of Planet Organic


Purple Interview – Kim Gieske, HR Director of Planet Organic

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Sitting in Westbourne Grove, the flagship store of the UK’s only fully certified organic supermarket, Planet Organic, it’s easy to see why the business is on a growth spurt. The aisles bustling; full of healthy produce fit for every dietary requirement. The restaurant buzzing; filled with professionals grabbing their lunch on the go. The employees; knowledgeable, friendly and perfecting every interaction. Emily Perry, Purple Cubed, was there to meet Kim Gieske, HR Director of the £24m turnover business, to find out more about the organisation and her take on leadership at all levels…


The Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends Survey has revealed that business leaders believe one of the most critical issues facing their organisations is the lack of leadership at all levels. What’s your take?

I agree and it’s been observable within Planet Organic. When I first joined here there was no leadership training in place; people were promoted into management roles yet not shown how to lead effectively. Though this is not unusual, other organisations I’ve worked for experienced the same. I’m also part of a circle of HR Directors and leadership is something we talk about all the time – sharing our frustrations and creating workarounds.

Here we created leadership training for our team leaders and duty managers. The one day session focuses on delegation, motivation and feedback whereas the three days leadership programme explores [psychologist] Daniel Goleman’s leadership styles, presence, credibility and basic coaching skills. There’s a lot which can be learnt from his theory on leadership.

We’ve also tried to eliminate promoting people because they do their role well. In many organisations you find people moving through the business because they are doing a technical skill well yet aren’t cut out for a leadership position. We’ve introduced a rigorous interview process which finds out if our potential leaders have the ability to be just that – delegating well, being tough when necessary. If they aren’t then perhaps it’s not the right role for them at this time.

My advice for anyone looking to build their leadership capability is basically don’t promote anybody without giving them the adequate training for their new role. Leadership is so complex so don’t try to cram it all in quickly. Spread the development out so it can be put into practice and people can reflect and be assessed on how they are doing.


Millennials have a very different perception of leadership. As such many want to avoid the race up the career ladder; instead opting to set up their own businesses. What can established businesses do to ensure they remain attractive to this younger generation?

It’s really interesting to see how millennials are transforming the work place. They have a lot to offer in terms of technological skills, good ideas and new ways of thinking. At Planet Organic we have a large number of millennials within our teams and as 25% are either promoted or move roles every year, we have a strong cohort of young people who want to develop and progress; so in our business it’s not really the case that they don’t want to advance and lead.

They join us because they like our values as a business in terms of understanding the efficacy of organic food, regard for the planet and animal welfare, as well as how we treat our suppliers and customers. We work hard to communicate these from day one. Our two-day induction focuses on the history of Planet Organic, what we stand for and our focus on treating customers and colleagues with dignity and respect. This is supported by our Planet Player awards; monthly recognition for those who are living our values. For the first time we held a Planet Player awards ceremony at our summer party where the winners were given trips abroad. This is now really recognised as a big part of our culture. Also Renée [Elliott – founder of Planet Organic) comes in once a quarter and runs a breakfast seminar where she talks about how she created Planet Organic and her values. For those who can’t attend, it’s covered in our newsletter so everyone gets to hear.

Millennials also gain great experience in our business. For example even if they don’t want to progress here, they learn about self-discipline, service excellence and develop a good product knowledge of healthy food. Those in head office, our buyers, have the opportunity to visit trade fairs and suppliers located in places ranging from California to Uzbekistan. Not only do they get to travel, but they can be ahead of the curve by finding new products and bringing them to market first which is an exciting journey to be on.


You have three clear values at Planet Organic – organic, natural and sustainable – how do these translate into leadership behaviours?

When we carry out our leadership training we talk a lot about presence and credibility; asking them to think about examples of people they have worked with before or admire who have had this. These behaviours tie into our values, so if you are a credible leader, deliver on your promises and act with integrity all the time then you’re delivering something which is really quite intrinsic to our values.

We also encourage our people to lead using a coaching style. Everyone has the answer within themselves and as it’s far more sustainable to come up with your own solution, all of our leaders first think is this an appropriate coaching discussion they are about to have. They use the really simple and straightforward STAR model – stop, think, ask, result – to have these conversations. Though in reality anyone in our business can use this; we see it on the front-line. Whilst they may not use the model exactly, they do speak to each other respectfully.  

We also allow a level of freedom for our leaders. It encourages creativity; particularly in our head office where it’s important our buyers have the freedom to spot opportunities and travel the world to make sure we’re ahead of the curve. In store, whilst our approach is structured because it has to be, our managers have a fair degree of freedom in how this is delivered.


What’s the greatest piece of leadership advice you’ve been given?

I’ve modelled my leadership style on some of the great leaders who I have worked for. However it is a book called Why should anyone want to be led by you?  by Rob Goffey and Gareth Jones which really resonated with me. I was particularly struck by the case study of Greg Dyke’s leadership at the BBC. The fact the he got rid of the executive limousines, that he was very visible and listened were all excellent qualities.

At Planet, Peter [Marsh, CEO], the Directors and HR team are always in the stores talking to the team. It’s important to be out and about speaking to people and it’s powerful that the senior team here know the majority of our people by name. It’s so important and has a positive impact on engagement – 92% of our people think highly of the leadership team. We don’t have limousines though, we use our travel cards!


How do you identify leadership potential with Planet Organic? What happens once it’s spotted?

All of our managers know that spotting potential within their teams is key. We can spot people really quickly through their positive interactions with their peers and customers – treating people with dignity and respect – as well as our Planet Player awards. Those who exhibit our values and behaviours are nominated by their colleagues. It tends to be these individuals who have the potential to progress and want to do well at Planet.

Once someone demonstrates this potential, they are moved into another department, for example produce, chilled or grocery, where they will have responsibility for a small area to develop their planning and organisational skills. From here they can move into a team leader role and are given training so then can either move upwards again or into a sideways promotion. We like to promote from within; one of our Store Manager started as a Goods in Receiver for example.

We’re lucky we’ve not had an issue with the competition attempting to attract our leaders too severely. We find that our people really want to work with us for the lifestyle aspects. They see us as a positive brand. A large proportion of our people experience dietary issues which our foods are obviously aimed at so they come to be a part of this.

One challenge is resource / budget. However we have thought creatively in terms of developing our leaders and high-potentials. We obviously use a lot of peer to peer learning and create the majority of our training in-house, though really promote the importance of low-cost / no-cost learning. We have a reading group, encourage people to work in different departments and stores and to visit the competition to experience how they deliver their product and service. 


In the last edition of Edge Magazine, ILM research suggested that experienced managers are lacking the soft skills require to motivate and influence teams. Add this to the 64% of millennial leaders who don’t feel ready for the job and it suggests there’s a serious gap in leadership development. What can businesses do to combat?

Our expectation is that our managers are good leaders and can communicate well and so we measure this through our employee attitude survey as well as store performance and mystery shopper feedback. We also encourage feedback and this is given either by line managers or the HR team who spend a lot of their time in stores helping to coach and develop people. These approaches have really helped us develop the softer skills of our leaders.

You need to be really clear what soft skills are important for your organisation. The soft skills we need at Planet may not work for another business. So figure out what you are looking for and then use a coaching style to develop it. It may need a cultural change however it’s not impossible.

I do think more can and needs to be done at school and university however. We still receive candidates who turn up in tracksuits, look disinterested and arrive late. Employers need to help young people understand the right attitude for work and what it’s like to be employed. I don’t think these things are taught specifically, and the teachers aren’t always the right people to offer this insight, so the links between employment and school need to be better.


There’s a new school of thought that leaders must now be more human and show their flaws in order to be more successful. How easy is it for this to happen?

I don’t believe authentic leadership is for everyone. It’s important to show your personality, admit when you have made a mistake and be sympathetic when someone is clearly upset; however there is a line that isn’t appropriate to cross at work. Business is still professional and, as a leader, you have a responsibility to inspire, lead credibly and have a good presence. Sometimes that can be impacted if you allow yourself to become too emotional.

Again millennials are changing this; they want to work for people who are human. However they also want to look up to someone as a role model so it’s important to find the balance.


Quick fire questions

Tell us about Planet Organic and your role: Planet Organic is a fantastic one stop shop for the very best in organic and natural food, beauty products and supplements. We have in-store cafés where you can get great coffee, juices, hot food and salads. We have 250 people, £24m turnover and exciting growth plans.

I am one of four Directors who run the business and we work as a tight team so I am involved in all the business decisions as well as overseeing the strategic direction of HR. As we’re small I also do other areas not normally associated with HR e.g. Health and Safety and Security. I also take a lead on customer satisfaction and service as we see the link between the customer and employee as critical.


What do you do outside of work which makes you more successful inside of work?

I started running a couple of years ago and am in training for the Great North Run. Running in the park in the morning with my dog helps me clear my head and practice mindfulness!

I’ve just started an Executive MBA which I am really enjoying. I’m only four weeks in and it is improving my commercial acumen; helping me to support the business further with its growth plans.


What’s the one thing you can’t live without?

My amazing husband.


Greatest achievement?

I worked as a head-hunter for half of my career and after 9/11, the bottom fell out of the market. I then started a new career in HR and worked my way up to HR Director, got my Masters in Strategic HRM and my FCIPD.


Biggest regret?

None - bad times and experiences make you stronger.


In 10 years, HR will be…considered a really credible profession, up there with Finance and the Law as it attracts increasingly higher calibre individuals who know that they can impact the bottom line through excellent people initiatives.


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