How retail giant Marks and Spencer engages and develops a winning work force

By Karuna Kumar

It was a peculiar building and in a casual glance, seemed to me, to be under construction. That was my first impression of the Headquarters of Marks & Spencer at North Wharf Road. Inside, it was anything but that. A towering glass building with yellow coloured pillars and a huge entrance with blue-collared men and women running in and out.

As I waited patiently to meet Tanith Dodge – the woman behind the company’s laudable employee engagement statistics – I noticed how every nook and corner of the office conveyed a sense of belonging. Seated beside a group of Marks & Spencer employees chatting about the sunny weather and their weekend plans, the environment seemed quite relaxed.

A huge LED scroller explaining a new initiative introduced in the organisation was an appropriate prelude to my interview with Dodge. She greeted me with the company’s progress report in hand ready to discuss the inner workings of the legendary organization – 126 years old and a true benchmark in the retail sector.

It was through a partnership between Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer, a cashier in Yorkshire, that Marks & Spencer was born. A policy of selling only British made goods made M&S stand out in its reputation in the 20th century. Today, it has over 21 million people visiting their stores each week.

Core to an organisation that has survived two world wars, a depression and several recessions including braving the recent credit crunch are the employees who carry the organisation on their shoulders. As Director of Human Resources at M&S, Dodge oversees 76,000 employees in multiple regions and has worked with the company for 2 years.

“Ever since I started working in HR, the role of HR has evolved. In the 70s it was more about welfare and industrial relations. HR now plays a much more strategic role for the business and is focused on the people agenda”, Dodge explained.

Challenges and key tools

Internally, challenges are common given the size and scale of M&S. Some of the most significant ones, according to Dodge, are maintaining customer focus and employee engagement.

“Responsible leadership has always guided us to ensure that our employees are fully engaged in their place of work. We are genuinely interested in our employees well being. We employ extensive research tools to understand our employees and learn about who they are and what they want. We earn the trust of our employees and do not take it for granted. That is the DNA of our organisation,” Dodge pointed out.

Looking at the numbers, the admirable work ethic appears to be paying off. In 2009, the retailer’s employee survey, ‘Your M&S, Your Say’, revealed its highest scores in staff attitudes towards the company, their managers and their jobs. Almost three-quarters (74 per cent) of the scores were positive despite the announcement of job losses, 27 store closures and the capping of the company pension scheme at the beginning of 2009.

M&S has been collecting and acting on staff opinions via the survey since 2006. “The survey is now also used to collect specific feedback on managers, to ensure that they are provided with feedback from their direct reports, as well as their departments, on what is key to increasing employee engagement,” said Dodge.

Plan A

In January 2007, M&S launched ‘Plan A’ – setting out 100 commitments on the most important social, environmental and ethical challenges facing its business. These commitments extend across 5 pillars of Plan A, namely: climate change, waste, sustainable raw materials, fair partnership, and health. A current report on the implementation of Plan A states ,“Plan A, three years hence, has been able to develop new products and services to help our customers live more environmentally friendly lives, has made a bigger contribution to local communities, engaged our employees and saved £50m this year.”

The commitments outlined under the Fair Partner pillar of Plan A suggest how new ways of engaging employees have been put into place by M&S. Encouraging staff to volunteer in the community and offering them free home insulation have been two such initiatives. “This is a step undertaken by the company with an aim to raise the morale of the employees and increase their motivation in implementing Plan A,” remarked Dodge.

In addition, M&S has launched an employee well-being portal to help people make beneficial lifestyle changes.

Reorganisation of the HR Department

Perhaps one of the most profound internal achievements Dodge has overseen has been the creation of centralised People Policy Support Teams – a system that efficiently manages employee relations across hundreds of stores. “Duplication of effort was what we wanted to work against. From administration to training to addressing employee grievances, there is a lot that HR manages on a store-to-store basis. There was a lack of centralised policy so I wanted to encourage shared learning and a platform for best practice.”

That platform included a database for HR managers identifying key solutions to common problems encountered at stores as well as a centralized HR hub, resulting in the reduction of time spent on certain issues. “Managers can now call dedicated HR hubs and file queries, whilst referring to case law examples where the same problems have been encountered,” Dodge explained. In total, there are 10 hubs, linking 65 HR professionals and 47 business partners.

The result of Dodge’s efforts has been a consistency of approach which has enabled line managers to take greater responsibility and have performance-related conversations with the staff.

‘People Thursday’ is one of the innovative transformation projects brought about, where managers in all stores set aside time to deal with ‘people issues’.

Lead to succeed/Lead to manage

Investing in good people is something Dodge considers central to the M&S business. One of the talent initiatives she has introduced has been ‘Lead to succeed’ aimed at developing leaders. It is targeted at 350 most senior managers.

“The program focuses on developing their core attributes and helping them to internalise M&S’ values as a leader. We have designed it with the challenges being faced by M&S in mind and we’re supporting it with essential coaching,” Dodge explained.

She added, “Since launching in 2009 the program has been a huge success. We have witnessed development of our senior managers and the way they challenge problems within the organization.” So how does one assess the leadership skills of managers at lower levels? “For the other levels of management, we have ‘Managing for change’ and have initiated leadership programs at all levels. We have developed a holistic approach on talent investment,’” Dodge pointed out.

With the most recent employee opinion survey receiving a response rate of 94%, M&S’ initiatives seem to be working. “The score on positivity was 74% and this is the highest employee response we have had to date,” Dodge revealed.

Looking ahead: Project 2020

“Project 2020 is a big project for Marks & Spencer. It is an initiative that is designed to bring about improved change in the way we operate. We have reviewed our strategic priorities and have set long-term aspirational goals,” Dodge explained.

The focus of Project 2020 is to restructure M&S’ supply chain, implement new information systems and improve operational execution. Particular focus has been given on its multichannel operations and brand communication with customers.

As a recent report suggests, M&S has been implementing numerous programs with the purpose of ‘upscaling’ communication. Focus groups and conferences are conducted on a quarterly basis. “This initiative will be working from top to bottom-down through the hierarchy chain. Work needs to be done in the area of change management and how senior leaders make change happen as a part of their leadership strategy,” Dodge explained.

Meanwhile, Dodge continues to look at the bigger picture. ”We are looking at ways of making our HR function more consistent internationally, whilst schemes such as performance management and Lead to Succeed have already been rolled out globally there is still more work to do. It is important to anticipate future demands and prepare ourselves for the challenges that lie ahead.”

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