Building the future on the past

Ask Laura Whyte, personnel director at John Lewis, what makes her employees tick, and she describes it very succinctly. “If you start with an engaged partner, they’ll deliver a great customer service, which delivers profit, which in turn goes back to the partner,” she explains. This virtuous circle of partners (as employees are called), customers and profit is what makes people want to work for John Lewis and stay there – staff turnover there is around half of what it is in the rest of the retail sector.

As partners, employees of John Lewis co-own the company, so they have a vested interest in making it succeed. And while each partner receives an annual profit-related bonus every March (this year it was 18 per cent of salary – equivalent to nine weeks’ pay), their engagement with the company is more than financial. The partnership boasts a unique structure of democratic bodies, where partners can air their views and influence how the company is run. The role of personnel director is a board-level position and any business development decisions are always taken with one eye on the impact on the partners.

To some, this highly democratic, co-operative approach may seem at odds with the fast-moving markets retailers operate in today. But Ms Whyte argues that the values set out in 1929 by John Spedan Lewis, son of the original John Lewis, contribute to rather than hamper its success. “We are probably more demanding now of ourselves in terms of customer service and our leaders, but our cultural DNA hasn’t changed,” she says. “The fact that our business model has been around since 1929 is a huge plus.”

That John Lewis has been working with respected management professor Lynda Gratton on her Future of Work programme suggests the retailer is working to future-proof its brand as an employer. Researchers from Gratton’s Hot Spots Movement have been working with the partnership to embed some of their findings in the John Lewis business strategy through to 2020. “One of the risks of a long cultural legacy is that you become insular and you look to your history rather than your future, so I’m very conscious of the need to challenge myself and my team to make sure we don’t do that,” says Ms Whyte.

The retailer is working to future-proof its brand as an employer

Low staff turnover compared with the rest of the sector means it is easier to justify investments in training and developing staff, she adds. “I don’t have to do a lot of arm twisting to get the board to invest in learning and development, based on the longevity of service here. While longevity of service is decreasing in terms of social trends, for us it’s a key part of our proposition.”

Investing in leadership, in particular, is a priority at John Lewis. The partnership runs an in-house, bespoke leadership development programme and even includes the leadership behaviours it expects in its formal appraisal process. One leadership path, known as Horizons, offers a formal route for someone on the shop floor to work their way up to a section manager to even run a store.

Added to this is a comprehensive list of rewards and benefits, which includes subsidised “leisure learning” – something Ms Whyte took advantage of “as a broke graduate” to learn horse-riding.

Ms Whyte will herself celebrate 30 years working for John Lewis next April. Whenever she attends a retirement party, the refrain is always the same: “Every single time they say ‘I will miss the people’,” she says. “Ask someone what the best thing about working here is and they’d say the people they work with and the leaders they work for. Ask them the first Thursday in March though, and they’d probably say their bonus.”