Comment: Retail success requires employee engagement in big vision

This article is part of a series of four from Boxwood, tackling the issue of how to impress customers and deliver results – "Execution Excellence" for short.

The critical leadership challenge is to get the right people galvanised around a clear, compelling vision. Customer needs are more complex, employees are more demanding, consumer trust and loyalty has to be won against intense competition, and to round it all off, recent years of tough trading conditions have left many employees exhausted and with limited capacity for new initiatives. It’s no longer enough to have a vision in this climate, you need to empower your people to take accountability for executing that vision.

Old truths – visionary

Steve Jobs was a visionary. He took Apple from an idea, to a quirky alternative to a desktop PC, to an ecosystem of devices and services which have literally changed the world. On a retreat with his team in 1982, he famously pulled out a device that was about the size of a desk diary and asked, 'Do you want to see something neat?’ It turned out to be a mock-up of a computer that could fit on your lap, with a keyboard and screen hinged together like a notebook. ‘This is my dream of what we will be making in the mid-to-late eighties.’

These days, having a vision and expecting people to follow you, because you know best, won’t get you very far.

“Speeches alone will not change behaviour. You must involve the employees.” (Prof. Manfred Maus, founder and former chairman of OBI DIY)

Even more true – engaging

It has always been true that every great leader needs a clear, compelling vision and the natural progression from that, is engaging your people to execute that vision. Engagement has been around as a leadership buzzword for a while, but it’s not something that’s easy to achieve. A 2013 Gallup poll found that only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work.

Nobel prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, who specialises in research into human judgement and decision-making under uncertainty, claims that people who buy in to an idea are 3-4 times more likely to implement it. Our own work within organisations reinforces this viewpoint. It is often said that organisations don’t change, people change. Leaders need to focus not only on WHAT needs to be done, but also on the WHO.

"Sometimes the enemy is not outside the business, it’s inside the business." (Andrew Jennings, global retail advisor and board member, formerly CEO of Karstadt, Woolworths RSA, Holt Renfrew, House of Fraser).

"Retailers today require a big vision that contemplates far more than 'what are you here to sell me today?'" (Henry Stupp, CEO of Cherokee).

New truths – empowering

If engagement is about getting your people to care about the vision, empowerment is about sharing accountability with your people to implement the vision. The only way to deal with the complexity and demands of the modern consumer is to empower your people to take ownership for the execution of your customer proposition.

Empowerment is not just about sharing accountability for the skillful execution of your vision. You must also underpin that accountability by providing the tools and the support to enable a consistent and excellent execution of your customer proposition across the business.

Alex Gourlay, executive VP, Walgreens Boots Alliance, compares an engaged and high performing workforce today to a football team, saying: "You are competing on a global stage now with extraordinary capable people.

"It’s not just about winning the Premiership, you are competing in the Champions League, playing against the AC Milans and Real Madrids of the world – you must be one fantastic team, playing total football."

Leaders need to care passionately about their business and dare to empower their people to help them to achieve their vision. We call these ‘care and dare’ leaders. They are passionate about their business, the people who work in it and the customers they serve. They demonstrate that passion every day in how they act, what they do and the impact they have on everyone they touch. Their passion means they are also prepared to dare: they dare to challenge old, accepted ways of doing things, to set stretching targets, to hold people to account and to take a few carefully calculated risks to achieve their vision for the business whilst setting the direction and empowering many to do he implementing.

"You need consistency, you can’t have everyone doing their own thing." (David Tyler, Chairman of Sainsbury’s)

To achieve consistency, capability development and performance management is critical: people need to know what to do, when they are meeting expectations and, more importantly, when they are not. A clear set of values will help to guide decisions and actions. An empowering leader will live, breathe and guard the values through their own actions and motivate others to do the same.

As Senator Feargal Quinn, founder of SuperQuinn, says: "Make them feel good about their job. Make a hero of them. Give them accountability."

Paul Martin is managing director of Boxwood Insights at management consulting firm Boxwood. His series of articles on "Execution Excellence" will be serialised on Essential Retail over the coming months.

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