It would be heartening to regard the recession as only a harsh phase in the macroeconomic cycle, and one from which we will duly emerge.

It would be heartening to regard the recession as only a harsh phase in the macroeconomic cycle, and one from which we will duly emerge.

Alas, the reverse seems more likely. No longer can we depend on low interest rates, inexhaustible supplies of capital, a booming housing market or a pliant workforce. Instead, structural unemployment, intensifying global competition and enduring consumer angst may represent the prevailing retail conditions.

Retailers must deliver current success, even in today’s frantically competitive environment. Yet we also have to plan for progress against an outlook of continuing uncertainty.

To sustain momentum, clear company values are important. Every blue chip company’s website promotes its core values. The question is: are these simply abstract ideas to embellish in-house newsletters, or do they communicate embedded beliefs to echo ‘the way we do things around here’? Let’s consider two core values - customer focus and empowerment.

In the 21st century, traditional expertise will no longer suffice to steer business decisions. Customers are ever more promiscuous in their choice of retailer. A principal attraction of the internet is the ability to shop around. Therefore, retailers must tap into the customer mindset and gather information and ideas.

Useful customer information is generated through desk research, planned reading or from market surveys. Such activities should be complemented by continuous feedback. Our field colleagues talk every day with customers. Thus, our sales teams can spot early indicators of changes in customer attitudes.

In this way, successful retailers inculcate a sense of urgency throughout their organisation. Frequent and wide-ranging feedback facilitates a dynamic and coherent understanding of the market. Potential gaps are identified and explored. A further benefit is that colleagues across the business learn too. They are often inspired by having influence over the company’s customer focus strategies.

In the pantheon of company values, empowerment is a much trumpeted attribute. What does it mean in practice? It should underpin a pursuit of excellence and an intolerance of mediocrity. This is particularly relevant to the way in which we manage our workforce, that vital yet volatile resource.

Successful 21st century entrepreneurs should seek to employ commercially agile yet team-oriented achievers in key roles. To attract and retain such go-getters, our behaviour as business leaders may be even more important.

Any successful business has to have clear policies and standards. Nevertheless, are we prepared to empower individuals to assume ownership of their areas of responsibility? Will our own behaviour reflect a responsiveness to ideas from a diversity of sources? And, therefore, will we be receptive to internal challenges which question the status quo?

Effective core values have a timeless quality. A practical adherence to the twin mantra of customer focus and of empowerment offers a healthy route to sustaining business success, even in uncertain times.

Leo McKee chief executive, BrightHouse