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Strengths Partnership

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From collaboration to innovation – strengthening talent to thrive in retail


This article was contributed by James Brook and Dr Paul Brewerton, Co-Founders and Directors of Strengths Partnership.

Our work in the retail sector has crossed large, medium-sized and small retailers, as well as online and traditional. 

What we have found across all areas of the retail sector is the increasing need to retain a singular focus on customer service, as well as an ability to innovate and to move quickly in a rapidly evolving market, in order to protect market share and margins. The latter is crucial as new online retailers such as Amazon and Ocado enter and disrupt the market, changing not only the way customers purchase goods, but also the supply and delivery chains.  

This requires leaders to embody new ways of thinking and leading, role modelling appropriate innovative and customer-centric behaviours, as well as communicating and reinforcing these messages lower down the organisation, through middle management levels, to ensure that this focus is just as sharp in front-line, customer-facing roles.

For some of the more traditional retailers that we work with, the past few years have been particularly challenging, as the pace of change has increased from high to extreme, with revenues eroded by new market entrants and online competition. 

In some cases, this has led to round after round of reorganisation to reduce the cost base, resulting in greater demands due to increased workload for those who remain, as well as greater pressure on leaders to deliver results more efficiently at the same time as keeping people engaged.

Increasing productivity for a large supermarket

One of our large supermarket clients has chosen to meet these challenges by equipping its leaders, graduates and HR team with the capability to identify and channel people’s strengths as a means of increasing productivity (at the same time keeping the workplace positive and people engaged). This approach has been shown to increase staff engagement by up to 73%, with a knock on impact on customer service metrics, customer trust and loyalty. 

Strengths Partnership started by creating internal capability within the HR team, by training them in the strengths approach and profiling their strengths. This enabled the company to build its own delivery team with the knowledge and skills to provide one-to-one, team and leadership support as required.

A number of leaders and influencers within the business participated in workshops focused on challenging mindsets at work and adopting more positive work practices. Delegates were provided with practical models to better engage colleagues, manage difficult performance conversations, and drive up their own performance through a better understanding of their strengths and performance risk areas.

Assessors were trained up from line management roles to transfer skills internally from the outset.

The approach was then woven through induction, leadership and team development programmes, maximising the chance of employees experiencing the strengths approach at different stages of the employee development journey.

The graduate recruitment and induction processes were overhauled to combine a focus on key skills and competencies, with objective assessment of strengths and energy for the requirements of management roles in stores and in buying. Assessors were trained up from line management roles to transfer skills internally from the outset.

As a result of the programme, the talent pipeline for senior management was boosted, with new hires all retained and achieving promotion in record time. Estimated performance improvement from the leadership development workshops ranged from 23-29%.

Structural reorganisation for a major supermarket

Another major supermarket client of ours has had to significantly streamline their international operations to reduce costs, while investing in improving customer service in the UK.

We have supported the company through training its HR and training personnel to focus on strengths, solutions and possibilities during a significant period of difficult reorganisation and strategic shift.

This focus on strengths and solutions creates a positive ‘can do’ mindset

Leaders have been encouraged to strengthen cross-company collaboration and build strong teams where ideas and strengths are fully optimised to improve the customer experience and drive efficiencies. This focus on strengths and solutions creates a positive ‘can do’ mindset but doesn’t overlook problems and weaknesses.

In fact, through building diverse teams with complementary strengths and finding new, more effective ways of working together, managers and leaders in this retailer have reported significant improvements in motivation, teamwork and wellbeing, whilst reducing blockers and weaknesses.

Scaling operations for a digital retailer

Another digital retail client, a leader in online photo processing and personalised products, has faced different, albeit similar, challenges. It had developed a leading technology platform, however, faced challenges around how to quickly scale their operations and gain a completive edge in a highly competitive and fast-moving market. 

A large part of its challenge focused around how to build a collaborative, innovative and customer-focused culture, and an energised workforce to deliver its objectives. We have supported this shift by training leaders and managers at different levels of the company in how to positively lead, coach, delegate, performance manage and build strong teams.

Some participated in a ‘Dragons Den’ style event to pitch their ideas to top management

As well as the usual skill-building elements, managers have been encouraged to propose novel solutions to business challenges as part of the training and some participated in a ‘Dragons Den’ style event to pitch their ideas to top management. This resulted in a number of ideas being adopted by the company which led to improvements in both operational effectiveness and profitability.    

Disruptive forces will continue to bear down on the sector and these are only likely to intensify with the rapid rise of online retailers, growing customer demands and changes arising from Brexit.

The key for leaders is to ensure they deal positively with the changes by building workplaces where diverse strengths, skills and ideas are fully understood and optimised, company structures are adaptive and agile and people feel energised to work collaboratively and go the extra mile to delight customers and find innovative solutions for tough challenges.

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