Organised around eight characteristics we see in high performing organisations, this is a selection of the stories we heard that gave us pause for thought. We share here organisations that…
1. Create clear and compelling purpose
The John Lewis Partnership (JLP) has a purpose that speaks truth to what the organisation stands for, is more than about just making money and which is genuinely lived across the business.
‘The Partnership’s ultimate purpose is the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business. Because the Partnership is owned in trust for its members, they share the responsibilities of ownership as well as its rewards – profit, knowledge and power.’
This notion of ‘profit, knowledge and power’ came from the pen of John Spedan Lewis, the founder of JLP, in 1929. It forms part of its constitution and part of ‘an experiment in industrial democracy’ which saw Spedan Lewis create the employee-ownership model that exists today and which ensures employees – known as ‘partners’ – profit from the business’ success instead of shareholders. Visiting JLP’s food arm Waitrose, it is clear that the founder’s words remain central to everything the organisation does including how it’s seeking to respond to the shifting, splintering, disrupted reality that is retail.
Indeed, rather than turn away from its heritage at a challenging time, it’s using it to face competitors like Amazon Fresh and Deliveroo, competitors with a very different commercial ethos and attitude to employees. One example of this is the JLP Voyager leadership program, which deliberately reconnects leaders with John Spedan Lewis’ beliefs. As Helen Hyde, Divisional Registrar, Partnership Registrar Group at Waitrose put it, “Our Partners are our future”, reflecting the belief that what made the brand unique and successful until now is what will make it unique and successful into the future, not least as it’s the one thing the competition cannot copy.
While JLP’s purpose is rooted in economic democracy, Airbnb’s is rooted in one of the most fundamental of human needs, the desire to belong, and this notion of belonging is embedded in everything it does. For employees this includes its offices which: offer flexibility so employees can work in ways that allow work and life to exist in harmony; celebrate what’s going on in the world (e.g. Pride or a new Airbnb country launch); what’s going on in the lives of those who work there (e.g. birthdays, new babies, anniversaries); and creates inspiring and social physical environments driven by the belief that work is often our second home.
While it’s unlikely an organisation would have made it as a Behind the Brand host without a clear and compelling purpose, what the visits reminded us is that ensuring a purpose lives in an organisation is a never-ending task.
The Eden Project is a unique eco-tourism attraction constructed in disused china clay pits in North Cornwall which wants to, ‘promote the understanding and responsible management of the vital relationship between plants, people and resources leading to a sustainable future for all’. This mission was brought poetically and poignantly to life when we were shown the Rosy Periwinkle. This small flowering plant from Madagascar provides two important cancer-fighting medicines, one of which has helped increase the chance of surviving childhood leukaemia from 10% to 95%. The plant was in an area earmarked for development and could have disappeared without trace if locals insistence on the importance of its healing properties had been ignored. Dan James, Eden’s Development Director and a Connect alumnus, admitted, however that it’s a struggle to ensure the purpose of the organisation is both understood by and resonates with all those who work there. One contributing factor is the move of its charismatic Co-Founder Tim Smit away from the day-to-day running of the business. Another is a pressing need over recent years, to tackle huge debts and falling visitor numbers.
This potential for purpose to get side lined during tough economic times was evident in the words of Craig Kreeger, CEO, Virgin Atlantic, who described the purpose of his appointment as, “fixing the financials without screwing up the magic”.
Perhaps this is why UK pet specialists Pets at Home have made where money sits in the equation explicit. Within their strategy they talk about ‘Pets Before Profit’ as one of the ways they will become ‘the world’s best pet care business’. At a time where the business is struggling, like many big out of town retailers, this helps keep priorities in check, protecting initiatives done for the love of pets not the love of money. These include making no profit on the small variety of animals they sell in their stores and helping to re-home over 80,000 pets a year – irrespective of where they were purchased – done for a donation of your choice to their charity foundation and in conjunction with the RSPCA. Additionally Pet at Home take rabbits off sale in the two weeks running up to and over Easter. Why? Because rabbits are much more difficult to look after then our love of Peter Rabbit would suggest – they are prone to biting, kicking and scratching their owners! The in-store colleagues will discuss this with potential purchasers and guide families – especially those with young children – to a more appropriate pet, such as a guinea pig, to ensure rabbits go to a suitable home. After Easter.
2. Have leaders as true role models
“You have your character, your values and your reputation and you only have to focus on the first one.” Craig Kreeger, CEO, Virgin Atlantic.
The Clink in Cheshire and Harrop Fold School in Salford provided two thought-provoking examples of role models at the top of organisations who act as a rudder for the individuals their organisations serve not just for employees.
The Clink operates prisoner-training schemes in partnership with Her Majesty’s Prison Service to prepare prisoners for employment on release, helping reduce recidivism and its cost to individuals, families and society. The core work of the charity is in it’s four training restaurants situated in prison grounds but open to the public. Chris Moore has been the CEO there since 2010 when he joined from Fenwick where he led their restaurants business. At The Clink he is using his commercial skills to make the charity financially self-sustaining through new ventures such as Clink Events, which provides fine dining to top UK venues for corporate events. Many of the prisoners The Clink helps have had few or no positive consistent role models in their own lives and Chris explained how his relationship with these men and women extends way beyond their involvement in the program, with most remaining in touch as their lives unfold beyond and the prison.
Drew Povey is Executive Head at Harrop Fold, a school made famous by Channel Four’s documentary series, Educating Greater Manchester. Drew was part of the team that helped turn around what Ofsted described in 2003 as, “the worst school in the country” from being in special measures, the lowest rating a school can have, to its current Ofsted rating of Good with Outstanding features. Drew’s style is direct, disciplined yet always human – caring, often playful, and endlessly positive. In fact positivity is something Drew has spent time researching and is central to all interactions between staff and students in the school. Whatever a student does, however hard their behaviour is to deal with, the job of the staff at Harrop Fold is to remain positive helping counter the negative social messages the young people often receive outside school.
Like Chris at The Clink, Drew sees his responsibility for the young people carrying on beyond the organisation he is part of. Indeed we learnt how he and his team have defused situations in Little Halton involving pupils or ex-pupils, after being called in by the police. He’s a positive role model for the young people, many of whom have complex sets of needs. Drew also animates the purpose of the organisation, never missing an opportunity to remind those he meets that Harrop Fold is all about ‘making the difference’ to the lives of the students who go there.
When you meet Drew he is at pains to stress that getting the school functioning was the work of Team Harrop not him as an individual. However, during our visit we heard how behaviour among the students can slip on days when he’s not there and there was a palpable sense of anxiety about him stepping away from the day to day, leading Connect members to ponder the possible pitfalls of the strong, charismatic individual leader.
Finally on the subject of leaders and role modelling, our view that organisations should have high expectations of its leaders was challenged at Pets at Home by its belief that there are no Leadership Behaviours – only the right behaviours that everyone should display.
3. Are uncompromising on cultural ‘fit’
“Culture needs to be pervasive, immersive, consistent and aligned.” Danielle Harmer, Chief People Officer, Metro Bank.
It’s not uncommon these days for companies to say they have an attitude first, skills second approach to talent and many of the organisations we visited talked about taking this approach. At the Four Seasons, Trinity Square, London we heard how during interviews candidates are asked for real examples from their lives of the values-based behaviours the luxury hotel chain wants its employees to demonstrate. At IKEA we experienced the brand’s “no superstars” culture first hand reflecting a clear alignment between its people function’s purpose ‘to give down to earth, straight forward people the possibility to grow both as individuals and in their professional lives so we grow together’ and the organisation’s vision, ‘to create a better everyday life for the many people’. At Metro Bank recruiting for attitude means helping people relax during the interview process so you see them at their best, even if this means doing the conga around the office. It also means moving on people who don’t fit swiftly because employees who are miserable can become “victims or terrorists” in the organisation.
Learning how to fit into the disciplined and exacting culture of a high functioning kitchen is a life skill at Fifteen Cornwall. The charity’s Apprentice Program takes a small intake of disadvantaged youngsters each year offering a mix of formal education at a local FE college, high quality chef training in its kitchen and pastoral care. The result is highly employable individuals with the right skills and attitude because, as Fifteen Founder Jamie Oliver puts it, “there’s no point in being a great chef if you’re a crap person”. Training and Development Chef, Karl Jones pointed out, however, that the cultural impact are two-way as each intake of young people brings buzz and energy to the business.
This comment from Karl reflects just one of the benefits of bringing diversity to culture, something recognised by a number of the companies we visited. At IKEA it is the responsibility of Sari Brody, Global Equality and Leadership Manager for IKEA Group and a team of 78 individuals she leads across the globe. One of the targets it is working to within the workforce is to have 50:50 gender equality in every position in every country it operates in in the world by 2020. Impressive. But its responsibility to diversity and inclusion extends much further, to its dealings with the wider world. In Saudi Arabia they have succeeded in lobbying the government so they do not have separate male and female doors. Additionally, in stores staff have permission to respond to racist and sexist behaviour by explaining IKEA’s position on equality and encouraging those out of step with the company’s democratic values to shop elsewhere. In India they offer both men and women six months paternity leave – although getting Indian men to take up this offer is trickier – and are creating an LBGTQ+ environment at odds with norms in the Indian subcontinent.
4. Align relentlessly, using structures not wish lists
At On Your Marks we heard from Sue Stephenson that at The Ritz Carlton Hotel Company training was designed to ensure that during “unsupervised moments” service remained outstanding. Which means leaving nothing to chance.
While it was no surprise to see the same level of rigour and discipline at the Four Seasons one thing that struck us was the interplay between data and culture in driving excellence day after day after day. At every Four Seasons across the globe, gathering and sharing data is a daily habit through both formal feedback mechanisms and more informally through stories. One type of story that’s shared at the daily morning meetings is the previous day’s “glitches”. The world “glitch” signals something that didn’t go according to plan but expressed as an opportunity to learn not an opportunity to apportion blame. As a backdrop to this obsession with service the organisation does not own its properties – it’s a service company not a real estate company – and perhaps this decision has helped it to focus on what matters: the customer experience.
Members who visited Airbnb in London, heard about alignment of a different kind.
Airbnb hosts have been central to Airbnb’s business model since day one, providing the homes for guests to stay in and the physical service that wraps around each stay. Within this, Airbnb’s focus is less about product features and more about the value of the interaction between hosts and customers. This is the same whether it’s in Airbnb’s “first album” business, home stays, their “second album” business aimed at those travelling for work or the newer Airbnb Experiences which offers insider activities in cities across the world. There are a variety of ways Airbnb invests in making these interactions meaningful. One is the ‘gatherings’ it organises for hosts in the nearly 200 countries where Airbnb operates: 5,000 hosts turned up to a gathering in Berlin last year. While these events offer hosts access to speakers, workshops, and masterclasses all designed to help them host better they also help create a sense of community taking us back to the notion of belonging at the heart of the brand.
At Pret A Manger, a company that describes itself as a “billion dollar start up”, structures for cultural alignment were in evidence. These include every potential recruit to the organisation having to work a three hour shift in store as part of the recruitment process with a vote at the end by store staff to say “yes” or “no” to their being employed and all head office staff having a buddy store where they have to work for at least two days a year so they’re in touch with the reality of the front line. From a sustainability and social impact point of view, Pret also leaves little to chance with an impressive array of corporate behaviours and initiatives in place. For example, via its Apprentice Scheme the company helps homeless people and ex-offenders back into the work place. While the numbers may seem small, 50-70 people each year, for an organisation with around 10,000 employees worldwide it’s a clear demonstration of an organisation unwilling to leave its social impact to chance.
5. Drive brilliant basics and magic moments
‘Get it right, get me right, wow me if you can.’ Four Seasons
At the Four Seasons we got to understand the execution of brilliant basics and experience magic moments first hand. The former getting to help staff undertake everyday tasks like turning around bedrooms with the many service standards applied to this seemingly simple activity quite mind-blowing. The latter when one Connect member used the text-based concierge to request a pair of running shorts at midnight. The text was answered within the one-minute response time and the challenge met with a pair of new shorts ready for an early morning run AND no charge on the bill at check out.
While you’d be forgiven for thinking getting both the basics and the magic right might be easy to deliver in a 5* hotel, other organisations catering for more everyday needs impressed us too. When it was launched by Vernon Hill in 2010, Metro Bank was the first new high street bank in the UK in 150 years and from the start it set out to do different, determined to be ‘all about you’ something it felt the competition were not and Metro Bank’s attentiveness to how they live their lives is impressive. Metro Bank’s attentiveness to how its customers live their lives was impressive. Its insistence on having ‘stores’ not ‘branches’ is part of this, their reference point is not the financial sector competition but the places and spaces that their customers like to spend their time. At Metro Bank business customers can visit their branch on a Sunday because this is when they are free, any customer can walk unannounced into a branch and replace a lost bankcard within minutes, and if your dog is with you and a bit thirsty, there’s always a water bowl too.
Clearly there’s a strong connection in all of this back to the values and personality of the organisation. A small but powerful example of this was given at Virgin Atlantic which, like other sub-brands from the Virgin stable, is all about ‘providing heartfelt service, being delightfully surprising, red hot, and straight up while maintaining an insatiable curiosity and creating smart disruption.’ At Virgin Atlantic we were told that “we never design a product where our frontline staff have to differentiate our service” because there’s a belief that everyone should be treated equally.
Virgin Airlines was also interesting on the economics of delivering brilliant basics and magic moments: they ask where they need to be good and where they need to be brilliant, allocating budget accordingly.
6. Take a bold stance on innovation
The boldest stance on innovation among all the organisations visited during Behind the Brand this year (and last) was at the Danish shoe manufacturer and retailer Ecco. As one Connect member put it, “This has totally redefined my understanding of what innovation is – we’ve been playing!”
Ecco’s Executive Vice President, Panos Mytaros believes that to create step-change innovation it’s necessary for it to be led by an insider, someone who understands the brand and business and won’t be rejected by it. While there were mixed views across the organisations we visited regarding the merits of old hands versus new brooms to create disruptive innovation within organisations, given what Panos has achieved it’s hard to argue with him. Since starting as a humble Tannery Director in Indonesia in 1994, it’s hard to argue with him. In that time ECCO Leather has gone from being an undifferentiated leather provider to a business that co-creates with the world’s leading fashion designers – inventing leathers with previously unimagined properties – and to wanting today to use in-shoe digital connectivity as a platform for innovation. As well as genuine talent for reimagining the possible, Panos’ has a “f**k it and do it” attitude to leadership which (to be fair) may not have made him many friends along the way. He and his team have also created a set of core structures to help them go beyond the incremental in their innovating. These include: regular co-creation hot shops with top designers from around the world; an Innovation Lab so secret some Board members don’t even know where it is; and a retail store W-21 that enables them to test and learn rapidly while observing consumer interactions with products from every angle.
Like many of the organisations visited this year, innovating around the experience is a big future focus for Ecco. For example, both Waitrose and Pret A Manger shared how they live-test concepts in their stores. Veggie Pret began as a pop-up offer in central London and has not only become part of the brand’s core offer but has also helped drive product innovation across the board. Waitrose is continually experimenting with store formats and functions, including a Jazz night at the Kings Cross branch some of our Guardian Connect members had been to. Unlike some of these organisations, Ecco is a current sector disruptor rather than a former disruptor struggling to work out how to recapture some of their earlier sector-smashing invent-the-future talents.
7. Create a system of relentless communication
At Wavelength we believe effective communication is all about tapping into all available channels, formal and informal; creating dialogue that’s genuinely two-way; and about ensuring core messages are heard, understood, and acted upon through the use of compelling language and through repartition. During Behind the Brand this year, three examples stood out for us.
At Harrop Fold School, Drew refers to what he does as, “leadership by wandering about” inspired by the 1980’s concept of MBWA (Management by Wandering About). One structure is the walk he takes around the school each day visiting classrooms. As well as getting a feel for what’s going on in the school Drew’s ‘wandering’ provides a communication channel through which to reinforce the core weekly messages. Classroom visits and interactions follow the same pattern each time – Drew enters, the class stands and say good morning, Drew asks how its going and comments on what he sees happening in the classroom, and what he observes about the students. He always uses a four positive comments to one negative formula, reinforcing the school’s belief that positivity is a tool for change.
At Waitrose any partner can write a letter to the CEO and the CEO must answer publicly, it’s written into their constitution. Many of these interactions are then printed in their monthly magazine and a quick flick through reveals a refreshing level of directness in both the questions asked and answers given.
Finally, Airbnb introduced us to Blind – ‘an anonymous community app for the workplace’ – whose vision is to ‘break down professional barriers and hierarchy’. Blind allows you access to a community linked to your workplace by inputting your work email and is 100% anonymous so anyone from an organisation can say anything they want without fear of comeback. As a means of seeing what people really think is going on – including who needs sacking – what gets said on Blind is sobering.
The careful way many organisations use language is also worth a mention as even insisting on one word not another – “glitches” not mistakes at the Four Seasons; “Partners” not employees at JLP; and “the” difference not “a” difference at Harrop Fold – can hold huge cultural significance.
8. Take responsibility for their peoples’ balance and resilience
While data suggests that while feeling some sense of control over what you do is critical to work-related health outcomes, social support is equally important. There was lots of evidence during Behind the Brand that fostering this is something organisations take seriously.
Harrop Fold for example and in particular its no exclusions policy.
As we said, the school is current rated Good with some Outstanding features by Ofsted which is remarkable given where it’s come from and the disadvantage faced by young people in its catchment area. It’s just possible, however, it could have a higher rating if it did what some other schools do: exclude challenging students. But Drew and his team instigated a zero exclusions policy. Why? Because in their view sending a young person out of school – someone who probably doesn’t want to be there but who definitely needs help – is at best passing the buck and at worst abandoning them. It’s something Drew is passionate about never doing, rooted in his own difficult school days. Sometimes the school will find another place for a child to be educated, using its own resource and budget, but only if they feel that’s the best solution for that child. Mostly they invest energy in working out why difficult behaviours and attitudes exist and working with the child on those. Creating resilient human beings not educational failures.
Clearly this level of care is extraordinary and more likely (one would imagine) to happen in a school than a bank or retail outlet. However, a sense that the company really cared about you existed elsewhere, including at Pret A Manger where the Head Office is reimagined as the Service Centre, helping create a culture where the frontline store staff feel what they do matters. Employees at Pret A Manger talked about the feeling of being part of a family, in line with Airbnb’s notion of work as a home from home, as did staff at the Four Seasons. Given that we are not talking about the best-paid jobs or 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.
Finally, fun deserves a mention. It may seem frivolous as a cultural characteristic but fun at work or outside work with work colleagues can make dull, difficult or pressured jobs more manageable and help foster a sense of camaraderie. At Pret A Manger staff in high pressure busy kitchens play pounding music to keep energy levels high, there’s money behind the bar in a pub for employees once a week on a Friday night, and big budget parties are organised twice a year where staff can let their hair down again at the company’s expense. Training and Development Chef, Karl Jones from Fifteen Cornwall talked about the importance of creating a fun environment for the apprentices to learning in and as a way to help diffuse tension in what is an exacting and disciplined profession. He also revealed that fun is regarded as so important at Fifteen Cornwall it’s written into his job description. Pets at Home take this one step further with Fun written into the company’s Vision and Values reminding us all that fun is a serious business:
We make it Fun
We want to make sure that all our colleagues enjoy coming into work, and our teams are excellent at creating a fun, friendly workplace for everybody. With such a varied workload, no day is ever the same, whilst our social events allow colleagues to meet people from all parts of the business – making us one of the most interesting companies to work for!
Eight Characteristics of High Performing Organisations
- Create clear and compelling purpose;
- Have leaders as true role models;
- Are uncompromising on cultural ‘fit’;
- Align relentlessly, using structures not wish lists;
- Drive brilliant basics and magic moments;
- Take a bold stance on innovation;
- Create a system of relentless communication;
- Take responsibility for their peoples’ balance and resilience.
Written by Helen Trevaskis from interviews with Wavelength Directors Jessica Stack, Adrian Simpson, and Associates Liam Black and Matt White.
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: Fifteen Cornwall, Eden Project, Airbnb, ECCO Leather, IKEA, Virgin Atlantic, Waitrose, Four Seasons, Trinity Square, Metro Bank, The Clink, Harrop Fold School, Pets at Home and Pret A Manger.
Behind the Brand 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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