Tuesday, 8 November 2016

John Lewis and Marks & Spencer Executives working up from the ranks - "Lifers Benefit or Hindrance" ?

Linked had one of those congratulating posts last week in reference to the promotion of Nicholds Paula Nicholds to the position of first female MD in John Lewis. 

The theme of the post was "look a women has worked to the top isn't that great" and to be fair I suppose to some that's good. Mind you in some ways it degrades her achievement because if the appointment was to a male than the post wouldn't have been made. So "she got their despite being a women",  which really I'm sure isn't the message and is probably if you think about it a little insulting to her undoubtedly excellent achievement. Good on her or him whoever they are and whatever their gender. John Lewis is a great organisation and persists in a rapidly changing retail environment a bastion of historic retail business models some argue the only  remaining multi site department store in the UK "Are you being served" mold - " Bless you Young Mr. Grace".

One point I saw which I didn't comment on, because I didn't want to be seen to be diminishing the achievement, or to be negative, was the fact that she has worked in John Lewis 22 years working her way up from a lowly start in the haberdashery department, which incidentally is reported she has decided to close. I did start to consider whether having an MD, a strategic role no less, who had worked her way up women and girl to this latest role was such a good idea?

Today, I noticed the announcement of the closure of many Marks and Spencer stores and again saw a senior manager CEO I believe, a Steve Rowe who had worked in the business since he was 15 having spent a year break form M&S elsewhere (Top Shop) at the tender age of 18 before settling into a man and boy career at M&S ; if the maths are correct that means a service of 30-31 years. Some would argue that is great- it shows loyalty, inspires others that anything is possible. It demonstrates an organisation with a career path  and a future.

If you study business change and cultural aspects in particular, then some concerns start to come into play. Corporate change requires an understanding of culture and whether that culture is right for the strategy. The longer you work for an organisation the less culturally aware you become; you see little else and can assume that everywhere else is the same. Seeing what is wrong and challenging the status-quo is pretty difficult when you know little else than that your own organisation. 

I find in workshops in general, long service people have great difficulty in understanding their own corporate culture and whether it is positive or not positive. If an organisation  is set in its ways and cannot change in response to external drivers then there is a big issue. Topics such as strategic drift, death spirals and cultural gravity come to mind in this discussion.

If senior people have not worked anywhere else and have not experienced anything different - are they perhaps part of the problem? Are they going to come up with strategically exciting ideas or is it going to be more of the same. In retail which is in its biggest shake up in its history presently surely walking in the same old footsteps is not going to provide the innovation needed. 

Change leadership is going to be a real challenge for individuals with such introspective background unless they are really talented and have capacity for self-analysis and high levels of reflection.  Not commenting on these two names specifically, most senior people with egos and hubris that goes with the rank are not well known for those qualities!

The reverse we often see too, Executives jumping from one organisation to another, re-engineering slashing and burning, restructuring and leading change. Whatever their lowly status in their early careers the experience is not in the business using the operational processes of the business that they now lead. 

Many see these individuals as not knowing their business, inexperienced in the detail and the mechanics of the operating model. So, too much service or too little what is the answer. 

Probably a mix is the answer; neither too much service nor too little, or a mix at the senior level with some long service people and some newbies balanced in the organisational power structure. 

Some suggest you appoint a solid BAU (business as usual)  character in times of stability and a mover and shaker in times of transformation and hand back to a "Steady Eddie" career long timer after the change. Today though, are we now in continual change; the old Lewin theory of unfreeze - change - refreeze seems a bit "out of touch".

Is retail currently in BAU territory or transformational change? It has to be the latter.

I still think appointing someone to the most senior strategical role having worked virtually nowhere else, with no experience of any other industry too to give you different perspectives is a risky appointment in such a turbulent time in retail. 

Of course these two may well be the exception and I do sincerely wish them both luck and my respect; time will tell.