The Blog


Retail giant Tesco has been in the media spotlight after a spectacular turnaround in fortunes in recent years.  The third largest retailer in the world is battling a changing retail landscape as well as a profit mis-reporting scandal that has seen its share price halve.

The media is having a morale-destroying heyday with the company. All the advice I have read about helping Tesco appears to ignore their key asset: 500,000 thousand employees.

New CEO, Dave Lewis, is reported to have emailed staff asking for their ideas on things the company can do to fix the troubled retailer. You may ask employees for advice, but the frontline also require some clear declarative statement of direction before the ship runs right onto the rocks.

Does Lewis know how to manage 500,000 employees?  Not many leaders do. Leadership is all about engaging and encouraging employees that the future will be better.  But management makes it happen. The employees of Tesco need their management team to clarify their work and integrate it, ensuring all divisions are well aligned and working seamlessly together to get today’s work done efficiently and effectively.

There is obviously the key step of steadying the ship at retail giant Tesco with the right strategy, but more immediately, now is the time to step in and lead and manage the situation.

First, right the ship: have immediate management reassure their employees and get on with engaging their shoppers. Plunging morale without strong counter arguments from all levels of management is a recipe for disaster. It won’t be enough. Energizing the workforce gives senior management time to develop the new strategy and then implement it.

Next, Dave Lewis needs to take a long hard look at the entire business: its structure, operations, defining key roles and accountabilities. Finally, he must identify the people he needs to implement it. A good way to test the resilience of a company is the health of the manager/subordinate relationship in the organization. This is the relationship that binds polyester together and gets stuff done through thick and thin. How good is the management team at Tesco? Only time will tell.

There is a lot of gas left in Tesco’s tank. It is a great company going through difficult times. Effective CEO management is the only way it will return to its former glory.

Nick Forrest

I recently came across a quote that deeply resonates with me.

“Repertoire is destiny”.

I did some investigative work and found out that it’s from the autobiography of Glenn Kurtz, Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music. Mr Kurtz used the phrase to express his feelings about his repertoire as a classical guitarist: he felt that because the world’s arguably best composers such as Beethoven had not written music for his instrument, he was relegated to a second class of artists.

But I’ve been thinking about that phrase from the point of view of a CEO. What is a senior executive’s repertoire? What makes you stand out from the jostling pack of young, bright, capable executives? It used to be an MBA – now not any more. MBAs are just another generic requirement to an executive’s career. Undergraduate degree: check. MBA: check. Progressive experience: check. Mentor who can ease my transition into a top tier position: check.

So what’s in your toolbox? What is your repertoire?

For me, repertoire all starts with attitude. Executives should ask themselves the question: why am I doing this work? Honest answers might include: for the money, for the power, for the prestige.

I do not denigrate the human desire for social advancement or financial success. But if a manager manages, he or she should understand from the very beginning that it’s all about the people being managed! That relationship between manager and direct reports is a sacred one, one that should be respected by everyone in the organization.

I often talk about the Craft of Management as an essential component of a CEO. Yes, you are expected to raise the performance of your company in order to satisfy the Board and the various shareholders. Practicing a craft, however, means much more than just achieving monetary success. It means constant lifelong improvement; it means aiming to be the best one can be … in the craft you have chosen to excel in your life.

Because of the impact a CEO has upon the organization, he or she affects the lives of potentially thousands of employees. The CEO also affects the environment beyond the company: communities feel the repercussions of corporate decisions.

Returning to Mr Kurtz and his wistful take on “repertoire is destiny”: a CEO’s repertoire encompasses the types of behaviour he or she exhibits. If a CEO sincerely approaches management as a craft, their destiny will be a rich and full one. Their legacy will be amazing. Their employees will be happy and productive. And their organization will sing.

Can you describe your repertoire?

Nick Forrest

Last week I was working with two client groups where the discussion turned to the manager-direct report relationship. The sustainability of a company flows directly from the protection and nurture of that interaction, which is why I call this the “sacred relationship of the organization.” Organizations thrive, plane or even die depending on the health of this relationship.  The chief reason employees leave a company is a dysfunctional relationship with their immediate manager.  Senior managers need to ensure that the manager-direct report relationship is highly functional.

In business (and in my book) I make a distinction between accountability and responsibility. I define the former as “a contract between managers and their direct reports” and the latter as “a feeling of obligation and caring, which, if it is not tied to accountability, can end at the level of feeling…and may or may not lead to action.”

Consider the number of these types of relationships in your organization, hundreds? Thousands? Each one is a costly investment by you. It is critically important for you to clarify the language that’s used in this relationship. Companies succeed when every employee is working on what their managers hold them accountable to do – not on what they choose to do.

Nick Forrest

Canadian Pacific Railway’s CEO Hunter Harrison just doesn’t get it. Or worse, he gets it – but is a master at deflecting blame.

Mr. Harrison is on record as stating that the Lac Mégantic tragedy occurred as the result of the actions of one person (i.e., the train operator). He’s in a lather about the recently released Canadian Transportation Safety Board’s report, saying that the new safety procedures are out of proportion and would not have prevented this accident.

That one employee has been singled out for blame is lamentable. Why are the CEO and the executive team not in the dock as well? This accident was not the fault of a lone employee.

A CEO is accountable for creating the environment, policies, processes and managing the behaviours of all their employees.

So maybe because of one person’s behaviour the accident was triggered. However, the CEO is accountable for this behaviour. It is his company, his strategy, his capital equipment (underserviced as evidenced by fires and brake failures), his employees who are trained to operate the trains at specified levels. If they fail, he fails. There is no such thing as “teflon management” for any manager. His employees’ mistakes are his mistakes.

Any incident, such as the terrible one that occurred at Lac Mégantic where 47 innocent people lost their lives, does not just occur as the result of the actions of one lone employee. Instead, it occurred because of a series of systemic failures in an organization headed by a full-steam-ahead CEO who failed to provide the required management and resources to enable employees to successfully carry out their work.

Mr. Harrison appears to miss this point.

Nick Forrest

This is an open letter to CEOs everywhere.

Dear CEO,

You have to dare to be the greatest CEO you can be, or you should not take the job.

You say that your employees are important… your “most valuable asset”. But when you make that statement, do you actually believe it to be true? What does that really mean to you?

For example, do all your employees feel useful at work? Are they fully engaged with their assigned tasks and with the organization as a whole? Are they paid fairly? Do they have the right benefits?

If you have answered “yes” to the above questions, you are in a position to build a great company. Great companies emerge when all employees believe they are contributing to producing something that is good and worthwhile. And employees must be properly compensated for their work.

You, the CEO, have an incredible impact on your organization. Just by your day-to-day presence and actions, you enable the work environment.

The question is: What sort of a work environment will it be? Are you going to deliberately and consciously put in place systems that provide conditions under which every employee can do their best work?

You have the power. Use it wisely.

Nick Forrest