Being a partner is a big deal. It means you have joined the club and, despite not being paid perhaps as much as your competitors, it doesn’t matter.
It’s about belonging. That’s what I hear from the John Lewis Partnership workforce consistently – and I have asked a lot.
The organisation values people and that is not only extremely honourable, it is highly beneficial. People want to work in the Partnership.
All positive then, surely? If only retail was that simple.
Andy Street’s replacement as managing director was bound to be promoted from within and Paula Nickolds, as a John Lewis lifer, fits the bill.
“The remarkable aspect at John Lewis and the wider Partnership is the lack of external competition for such roles”
The internal competition for such a role will always have winners and losers, with the fallout often being disgruntled competitors moving on outside the group.
Outgoing retail director Mark Lewis may have already decided to join Moneysupermarket.com, or been helped to make that decision by Nickolds’ selection, we may never know.
None of this is a concern. It’s the natural order of things and most people would recognise it within retail organisations they have been in.
But the remarkable aspect at John Lewis and the wider Partnership is the lack of external competition for such roles.
Even more startling is the lack of external talent recruited and nurtured to senior positions.
When retailers filter through the strategies that would build a business and dismiss those that they have already tried, the hindsight can be useful and also dangerous.
The marketplace and customers’ needs change. What worked before may not in the future and what has failed in the past might be the right thing now.
“If I look at the real step-changes I have witnessed in organisations, they are almost always due to someone shaking the tree, getting people to realise other possibilities and challenge the internal view”
The objectivity that external people bring to any strategic decision can be the most beneficial impact – something that the business misses when merely looking to its own internal talent pool.
John Lewis is doing well and, under Street’s tenure, it has grown to be not only a much loved, but much healthier multichannel retailer. The future looks good.
You could argue that they do not need to do anything drastically different, but simply keep things as they are and reap the rewards.
Yet that is to forget the fickle nature of the UK consumer and the ever-changing marketplace – a marketplace that has seen once-great players become vulnerable to competition, specifically within the grocery and department store sectors.
Objective views of what the future could be like and how different it is allow companies to evaluate their part in it.
These step-changes almost always occur through the catalyst of outside recruitment or consultation.
If I look at the real step-changes I have witnessed in organisations, they are almost always due to someone shaking the tree, getting people to realise other possibilities and challenge the internal view.
It’s why I continue to worry about Marks & Spencer, but feel that Tesco is probably going to be alright.
The other big benefit that external recruitment brings is that it allows for an objective evaluation of the people within a team.
Histories are washed and new hires merely look at the meritocratic value of individuals without the baggage.
If you have been in an organisation for 23 years, the likelihood is that you will come across several people who you have already mentally dismissed and another group who you feel can do little wrong.
“I recognise the tremendous value that the John Lewis Partnership places in loyalty, I just wish that at times this was tempered with a healthy dose of external views”
Often within a team containing new hires, people once underutilised and perhaps “cruising” start to realise they have a chance to make a greater contribution.
I recognise the tremendous value that the John Lewis Partnership places in loyalty, I just wish that at times this was tempered with a healthy dose of external views.
All reports on Nickolds suggest she is focused, warm and a real team player. I am sure she is and I wish her well.
But maybe when she looks around her senior team, Nickolds might want to consider who is shaking the tree and bringing in real outside experience to challenge and develop her strategies.
- Phil Dorrell is partner at Retail Remedy
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