John Lewis and high performance

I had the privilege of meeting Sir Stuart Hampson, ex-chairman of John Lewis talk about their famed level of employee engagement and customer satisfaction.

Much of what he said reinforces a lot of what we regularly point out to the organisations that we work with and it was good to hear that his direct experience supports that approach – it’s nice to know we’re not alone!

There were also some really important insights that were important new things to understand so I thought I’d share them with you.

Reading time: 5 minutes
Add To Calendar

It starts with a fundamental and simple belief

In any contest, people who are engaged with a cause will prevail over those who are just there for the money or personal gain.

Sir Stuart referenced Charles Handy, the Irish author and philosopher who specialises in organisational behaviour and management who writes that when we look back at the history of different wars, engaged citizens almost always prevail over any band of mercenaries.

They will simply fight longer and harder because of how they feel and what they are protecting.

Our view:

We know that your beliefs will, in the end, create your reality. What do you truly believe about engagement?

Key Questions

  • Engagement is an ever more fashionable concept, though are your actions demonstrating that you truly believe that it’s vital for performance?
  • Do you put as much effort and put as much emphasis into creating a high performance motivational climate as you do into financial reward?
  • Do your actions and behaviours show that you value mercenaries at least as equally as you do engaged citizens?
  • Is engagement an event that surrounds periodic measurement or is it a way of being?

It is based on a clear purpose

You need to know what your organisation stands for beyond making a profit for shareholders.

John Lewis has a clear purpose, first crafted and led by John Spedan Lewis, the son of the founder:

“To ensure the happiness of members through worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business”

It’s fascinating to see that in an organisation famed for its customer service and the loyalty of those customers – “John Lewis doesn’t have customers, it has a congregation” – that the customer doesn’t even get a mention in this purpose. It’s implicit in “a successful business” though it’s all about the happiness of the people who work there, based on the simple belief that when people are happiest in their work, they do their best work.

Our view

We’re back to the “Why” of Why, What and How. If you don’t know this, then you’re choosing to hope that all the energies you’re expending are focused in one direction. Without a higher purpose, you’re just doing things and losing the opportunity to have everyone connect to that purpose – a key determinant in high quality motivation.

Key Questions

  • What does your organisation stand for beyond making money and how many leaders, let alone employees, could tell you what that is?
  • How much time effort and energy do you put into ensuring that the people who work in your business are happy?
  • How would it feel to measure happiness rather than engagement?
  • Are you worried that this all sounds very “soft”? – if so, read on…

Values and behaviours that live, breathe and have teeth

The John Lewis values and behaviours were created by the people in the business – not by consultants, not by the board and not by HR. They simply asked the people in the business what values and behaviours they wanted to see in the business and be mutually accountable for reinforcing. They then adopted these.

John Lewis doesn’t shirk from hierarchy – they’re very clear that for decisions to be made, there needs to be a hierarchy as some decisions simply cannot be made effectively at a micro level. However, when it comes to values and behaviours, there is no hierarchy – everyone is equally responsible for demonstrating them.

They have teeth – you don’t get promoted, even if you are making a lot of money for John Lewis, if you are not great at role modeling and leading on these values. Individuals, some very senior, have been exited from the business because they could not show the values in the way in which they chose to work. They were given feedback and opportunities, but not endlessly and then the tough decision was made.

Our view:

This approach reflects our direct experience in working with teams and individuals over the years and is totally supported by all the evidence into another key determinant of high quality motivation – a sense of autonomy.

Our work with AXA Insurance has shown that when teams decide the behaviours they want, then they are committed to them, reinforce them and hold each other accountable for them. When they are presented with Corporate designed behaviours, there is a far lower sense of ownership.

The hierarchy element is one where many organisations are not yet brave enough to be authentic. Too many leaders never get asked by someone two or three organisational levels “down”, to think about whether what they are doing, or whether the decisions they have made, are congruent with the agreed values of the organisation.

Key Questions

  • How clear are the behaviours you want in your organisation?
  • Who decided on them?
  • Do you choose to breed cynicism by rewarding results much more than behavior, frequently rewarding people who don’t demonstrate your values?
  • If you’re a leader, how often do you get challenged on whether you’re demonstrating your values and when was the last time that happened?

It starts with recruitment and means tough performance reviews

John Lewis recruits for attitude and train for skills – because they believe that the first is far more important. They brought this to life by abolishing Job Application forms. You don’t apply for a job at John Lewis, you apply to be a member of the team – so your application is focused on your attitude, not what you know.

Performance reviews are tough – again not on skills but on attitude – and individuals are tough on each other because they own the values. If individuals are underperforming, the attitude of their peers or team members is that “we don’t want that person in our business”.

It was clear that if you’re serious about engagement, you can’t afford to ignore those people who don’t get it, or don’t want to get it. Sir Stuart was clear – “the minute you condone ‘anti-behaviours’, you’re dead in the water”.

Our view

The principle of “our” business is more obvious in John Lewis because it’s actually owned by its staff, though it applies equally well in businesses which do have shareholders – we’ve seen that clearly once again in AXA where as a result of team members holding each other accountable for behaviours they chose, the behaviours have stuck and team members are frequently recognised within the team and held accountable by the team for living them.

The behavioural element of performance reviews also takes on a very different dimension – because the focus is on the behaviours chosen by the team or the business and not dictated to the team or individual by the business. So it’s less ‘did you keep your promise to the business” and more “did you keep your promise to yourself and your team mates?”

Finally, in Good to Great, Jim Collins wrote about getting the right people on the bus before deciding which seat they’ll occupy. Sir Stuart is saying the same thing – recruit for attitude.

Key Questions

  • What do you recruit for?
  • Are your partners (recruitment agencies etc) briefed on skills or attitudes?
  • How many individuals do you have in your organisation right now who you know regularly fail to demonstrate desired behaviours and role model your values?
  • Why do you choose to tolerate it and risk being “dead in the water”?

Finally – some important things to think about…

  • John Lewis supports people to do what makes them happy – Surf clubs (the type that happens in the water not in the ether), Singing clubs and many other non work activities are all encouraged and supported because they make people happy.
  • The pursuit of happiness influences how they work with suppliers and serve their customers – it informs everything they do.
  • Clearly some decisions that need to be taken in order to ensure the business is successful will make some people unhappy – store closures or the above mentioned exiting of people who don’t have the attitude. Sir Stuart told me that the conversation is all about the “greater good” – the maximum happiness for the most people.
  • Engagement, if you’re serious about it, can’t be owned by HR. In Sir Stuart’s words, if your FD isn’t passionate about engagement, forget it.