We share what Wavelength observed & learnt on Best in Class 2017

Stepping into other organisations is a powerful way to sharpen focus on your own culture, organisational effectiveness and leadership. Not because the organisations visited on Best In Class are perfect but because they help illuminate what’s strong, precious and worth building on in your own organisation alongside those flaws, deficits and areas of underperformance that must be addressed. Moreover, the visits provide invaluable inspiration and ideas for how to tackle them.

So what of this year’s cohort of BIC organisations?

Here’s what stood out for us, organised around our Wavelength 10 framework

1. Clear and Compelling Purpose

You are unlikely as an organisation to make it onto a Wavelength BIC itinerary without a purpose that’s explicitly expressed, easily understood and lived to some extent across the business. This doesn’t mean it’s easy to achieve, there are plenty of organisations whose lofty words fail to translate into meaningful action, but it does mean if your organisation hasn’t got this it’s a good place to start.

But what makes a purpose compelling not commonplace?

If the organisations visited this year are our measure, the scale of ambition of that purpose is a factor. So Brompton Bikes’ focus is on enhancing city life while Tesla wants to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”, neither content with getting people from A to B. Harrop Fold School wants to“produce well-rounded young people who are prepared for an ever-changing world” not just help them get good grades, while youth agency Livity exists to help young people change the world. While the cynic in us might question if everyone we met fully signed up to these, it’s clear setting your organisational sights on something bold and big can help set you apart commercially as well as culturally from the competition.

Once you have your purpose it needs to be sustained as your organisation grows, as it goes through tougher stretches and as time passes. During this year’s BIC visits we were struck by the role visionary founders and leaders often play in achieving this. Whether it’s Richard Branson at Virgin, visionary founder Spedan Lewis in The John Lewis Partnership’s (JLP) past, Andrew Ritchie the founder of Brompton Bikes, Tesla’s Elon Musk or Apple’s Steve Jobs what is striking is how these individuals – even when no longer involved in the business or in some instances no longer alive – help keep the fire of purpose burning bright.

2. Authentic Personal Action

Ian Kellet, CEO of Pets at Home and Drew Povey, Executive Head Teacher at Harrop Fold School reminded us that everything a senior leader says and does matters, setting the tone for everyone else. So acting miserable because you feel miserable at the start of a meeting or the start of the day or when you bump into a colleague or kid in the corridor is not acceptable, because if this is what you do what can you expect from others? Which makes being authentic more about marshalling the best bits of you to fit the demands of context, than about dumping your whole self on the table at work each day.

Perhaps this helps explain why authentic personal action can be hard.

Sam Conniff co-founder of Livity became an entrepreneur aged 21. He co-founded “more than profit” youth marketing agency Livity in 2001 and remains as passionate 16 years later about the campaigns they co-create with young people and clients. During our visit Sam told us it’s time for him to step aside. That in the face of a large injection of investment, accompanying new governance and recent falling profits he will best serve the organisation he loves by redrawing his relationship with it. Tough to decide and then do, even if you are convinced it’s necessary.

Then there is Panos Mytaros, Executive Vice President of the ECCO Production Group, who is in a class of his own when it comes to authenticity in action.

Panos joined Danish shoe manufacturer ECCO in 1994 as a lowly tannery director, yet over the last 10 years while heading up leather production, he’s driven revolutionary change within ECCO and the leather industry. Central to this was transforming ECCO’s tanneries from a cost-centres supplying leather to the ‘real’ business to a stand-alone P&L contributor and global leading light for leather innovation. Today ECCO Leather co-creates with high-end designers like Alexander Wang, brands like Louis Vuitton, and is the only supplier Apple uses that it name-checks. Following this success, Panos was given the remit for innovation for the whole of ECCO.

Examples of what he did to unleash a “tsunami” of disruptive change on the“Mother Ship” include the following. Sacking every senior manager at ECCO Leather except himself – 25 people in total. Creating a blog reporting on extraordinary leather innovations from DANNA R+D – The Lunatic Fringe of Leather Technology that were entirely fictitious but got the world wondering what the hell ECCO Leather was up to. Keeping the opening of a new concept store W21 in Amsterdam so secret the first Denmark HQ knew of it was receiving an invite to the opening party.

Perhaps unsurprisingly Panos is Marmite. Members this year lauded him as “Panos The Great” in response to his own reference to “that other famous Greek” Alexander. Last year his audacity and attitude was less well received. It’s fair to assume that whatever his successes, he has this polarising impact within ECCO. A good reminder that authentic action is not about popularity particularly when, as Panos puts it, “the little shit became The Shit”.

3. Uncompromising on Cultural Fit

“When you hire someone it’s the biggest statement to your existing colleagues you can make about who you value and what you stand for”.

Wise words from Pets at Home, just one of the BIC organisations living by the ‘hire slow, fire fast’ mantra. Apple gave us an extreme example of ‘hire slow’ with Mari the store manager at Covent Garden interviewed more than 15 times, including one interview at the Apple Campus in Cupertino. On the subject of firing, Ian Kellet reflected that Pets at Home has “an amazing ability to spit people out who are focused on the self”, highlighting one of Pets at Home’s cultural non-negotiables.

Which is fine but finding and keeping talent does not exist in a vacuum.

Take the hospitality industry in London where there is unbelievable competition among employers for good people, something due to intensify as the reality of Brexit unfolds. While both Pret A Manger and Four Seasons get the best candidates through the power of their brands, being phenomenal places to work and by offering opportunities to progress if you want them, it’s going to get tougher and will not only shrink but also fundamentally change the pool of available talent. Currently, as we know from recent media coverage, just one in fifty applicants for a job at a Pret A Manger store is British. Couple that with what we learned visiting a Pret A Manger store where everyone in the kitchen had a degree and anxiety around the future of staffing in stores is easy to understand.

Pressures on recruitment practise can come from closer to home too. Visiting an Apple store in London it feels like a business with extraordinary workforce diversity but among senior management it’s a different story. This has led Apple shareholders to insist the organisation take measures to increase diversity at the top.

4. Align relentlessly, using structures not wish-lists

Timpson – the high street retailer specialising in shoe repairs, key cutting and engraving – offers a stellar example of not leaving the things you want to chance.

Want your leaders to continuously develop? Then link bonuses to the amount of training undertaken. Want your store staff to delight customers? Give each store control of its P&L, the freedom to charge customers what it thinks best and permission to spend up to £500 solving customer’s problems without seeking management permission. Believe managers can only lead people if they know them? Test them on the lives of their staff – names of partners, children, and pets; where they go on holiday; what they like to eat and drink; how they spend their spare time – with hell to pay if you score below 80%. Believe in ‘upside down management’ with head office a support centre to stores? Make bonuses contingent on spending time working alongside colleagues in stores so you never lose touch with the beating heart of the business.

At Pret A Manger a similarly thought-through approach is applied to the humble sandwich, wrap, salad and fruit salad. Everything has a process, everything is written down; quality, continuity and efficiency are never a matter of choice or accident.

5. Brilliant basics, Magic touches

“Get it right. Get me right. Wow me if you can.”

This quote comes from the Four Seasons and is more than just words on paper as anyone who has stayed there knows and stands for: achieving the service step consistently; understanding the guest; pleasantly surprising the guest. In that order because they also know that the right to provide magic touches is earned through getting the basics brilliantly and relentlessly right because Four Seasons’ staff remembering your name won’t impress you if your room is dirty. Their obsessiveness around the basics is evident in the codification of almost everything. From the 10 guest room initial core standards (including no scuffs on the door and no stains, debris or wear on furniture) to culture standards the how of service delivery which includes the following seven steps – smile, make eye contact, give a sense of recognition, use a clear and natural voice, be informed, show you care through kindness and then, and only then, exceed the guests’ expectations.

The quote is equally relevant to Virgin Atlantic where it’s not so much a customer service ethos as the bedrock their offer is built on. Virgin like Four Seasons knows that this only happens through deep customer insight across every touch point where the brand lives, even those that are run by others on your behalf.

Tesla wants raving fans not customers. They also know that the handover of a new car is often a stress point customers, particularly when switching to an electric vehicle. The answer? Delivery Experience Specialists dedicated to making the process brilliantly simple and enjoyable. Tesla also offers a factory tour to all new owners and provides a Ranger Service for repairs if you don’t live near a service centre.

And Apple? Taking magic to the nth degree, the box of the iPhone 5 was designed with a magnetic fastener that prolongs opening to heighten anticipation of the product inside.

6. On first name terms with customers and their people

“You can’t lead from behind a desk”.

Drew at Harrop Fold School refers to what he does as Executive Head as,“leadership by wandering about”. It’s an approach that’s clearly paid off. Since he joined in 2005 and became Head in 2010, the work of “Team Harrop” has taken the school from special measures and being judged by some the worst school in the country, to an Ofsted rating of Good – all in an area with crushing deprivation.

Drew walks the corridors, talking to young people (addressing them each by name), setting the tone of positivity and curiosity he expects from others. He drops in on classes where the interaction follows a set pattern – Drew knocks, enters, everyone stands; he checks in with the teacher on an agreed set of performance standards; examples of excellence are praised; standards not being met picked up on; Drew leaves and the class resumes. At Harrop Fold these almost ritualised daily interactions ensure Drew knows his school, foster mutual respect, and provide clarity on what is expected from everyone.

We came across other examples of this out and about style of leading. James Timpson, MD, Timpson is in stores three days out of five each week engaging with employees, spotting and dealing with “drongos” and “Mr Grumpys”, and spreading best practice. Pret A Manger’s buddy days ensure those working at head office do shifts in store regularly enough to keep in touch with store-life. And Panos at ECCO Leather commented, “I’m always around, I am not so much in my office,” because “team building is for every single day”.

7. Take a bold stance on innovation

This year across the visits we experienced some radically different innovation philosophies. We’ve included seven here – Apple, Brompton Bikes, Pets at Home, Waitrose, Pret A Manger, Virgin Atlantic and ECCO Leather – which makes this section rather long but, we hope you’ll agree, reminds us there is no one right way to innovate.

Let’s start with Apple. As a member pointed out, an Apple store employee may work for one of the most extraordinarily innovative companies in human history but their job demands little in the way of creativity and they can forget innovation! Innovation happens elsewhere, in secret, among a high priesthood of innovators with store managers and staff almost as in the dark as consumers about what’s coming next and when. While it can make getting under the skin of Apple (no pun intended) difficult on a BIC visit, it’s hard not to be impressed by the scale and efficiency of the machine and the functionality and beauty of the products.

Brompton Bikes, the UK’s biggest bike manufacturer, could not be more different. The business remains very much a manufacturing culture with innovation a slow considered process where a dash of chaos is viewed as critical to creativity and partnerships are more serendipitous than strategic. While this let’s-see-who-knocks-on-our door approach is changing, it has clearly paid off with great collaborations with big brands like Williams (bikes with engines), Barbour (commuter clothing) and the Cambridge Satchel Company (bike luggage).