The recession demands change from all organisations, but how do you galvanise your employees at one of the biggest businesses on the high street? Marks & Spencer’s group HR director Tanith Dodge speaks to Neil Davey about the secrets to her success.
Marks & Spencer is a high street behemoth with a remarkable heritage, having recently celebrated its 125th anniversary. It has survived two world wars, a depression and several recessions during this time – yet even a company such as this is not impervious to the present prevailing challenges.
Speaking at The Economist’s recent Talent Management Conference
, Marks & Spencer’s group HR director Tanith Dodge conceded that the period of change facing the company is unprecedented. And Dodge herself will be playing an integral role in the organisation’s response to the global economic upheaval.
"We recently announced a big change project within M&S called Project 2020, which is all about how we move towards the future," she explains. "And the big challenge for us is how to galvanise all the employees behind that. We employ 80,000 people worldwide, so we have to find creative ways to engage, motivate and align them so they really want to follow that vision and aspire to it."
Project 2020 is indeed an ambitious vision. A transformation programme designed to deliver a step change in how the company services customer needs and operates, it will put particular focus on its multichannel operations and brand communication with customers. It represents a major project for Marks & Spencer – not least of all because the galvanisation of its employees behind it is happening in the wake of job losses and store closures. Just like many other organisations in these troubled times, M&S has found itself working to ensure employees remain engaged and motivated through tough trading conditions.
"Communication is a key area," Dodge emphasises. "Employees invariably know what is going on, so you have to be honest and straight with people and explain what is happening and why. Organisations can’t get employee engagement – in the sense of ‘we’ together – if people don’t understand the ‘why’. If you explain the ‘why’, they are a lot more understanding."
In Marks & Spencer’s case, it has implemented numerous programmes and processes to upscale communication, including listening groups and focus groups, as well as quarterly conferences with store managers to explain the latest developments and allow them to cascade the information down. But it is not only the customer-facing staff that have needed to be galvanised behind Project 2020. Having identified the vision, and where the company needed to get to, the initiative has had to start at the top, and get the coalition of leaders behind it. This has presented its own particular brand of challenges.
"For many individuals in quite senior positions, they probably haven’t experienced the environment that we’re in today – it is unprecedented. The ways of doing things in the past are not necessarily the ways that will make you successful going forward," Dodge explains. "We are doing quite a bit of work on how senior leaders take reorganisation through a period of change, and making understanding how to lead change and make change happen a part of their toolkit is absolutely key."
Lead to succeed
Reflecting this, Marks & Spencer devotes significant time and resources to developing its leaders and nurturing its talent. “Continuing to invest in your talent for now is absolutely key,” Dodge emphasises. “Organisations that stop that investment risk cutting the Achilles heel. You have to keep these people and do it in ways that aren’t ridiculously expensive.”
The company’s flagship development programme is Lead to Succeed, a key component in its future people strategy. Launched last year, the programme targets the development of the 300 most senior M&S employees, and is designed to identify and develop people for succession.
“We have quite a thorough, robust succession process,” says Dodge. “Rather than a process that we look at once a year and it goes away, we use it to have ongoing conversations and we look at individuals’ capabilities against specific indicators about what we mean by ‘high potential’. We do it at all levels from our senior people through to store managers, who have got the potential to develop into another role going forward. We also look at what roles are critical for us going forward and whether we have got enough pipeline of talent coming through for those critical jobs.
“Lead to Succeed is designed around our business strategy going forwards; what we need to deliver over the next couple of years,” she continues. “We have taken a lot of the research that was done around the core attributes of leader – head, hearts and guts – and that underpins the programme. But then we’re looked at what is it that M&S really needs in terms of its leadership attributes going forwards, so our core values around trust, value service, quality and innovation. The programme also looks at you as an individual – are you leveraging your own strengths as a leader, how do you then galvanise your team, how do you take the leadership and create that coalition across the organisation and as leaders how do you influence shareholder value? And then it is underpinned by coaching and also a business simulation which is designed around some of the challenges we are having as an organisation, so it is very practical.”
Early reports suggest that the programme is a huge success, with the company witnessing significant change in the way that people behave as a result of the training, and the way that they challenge problems within the organisation.
Revitalising the HR department
But of all the changes that Dodge has been involved in since she made the journey from group HR and communications director at WH Smith to M&S last year, the one that has been closest to home has been the reorganisation of the HR department itself. With little centralised policy, HR duties used to be executed on a store-by-store basis, resulting in duplication of effort and little shared learning.
Dodge has since worked to revitalise the human resources function, creating dedicated HR hubs to deal with all responsibilities relating to management and case law. HR managers are now able to field such queries simply by picking up the phone, whilst case law examples are now accessible so that it can be established whether a similar problem has been encountered before in M&S.
“It has provided clarity and accountability in what the role of HR is,” Dodge suggests. “In the past our HR managers would do a number of things and we didn’t have consistency of approach, so we didn’t have one best way on how we dealt with some of the issues that we were facing, whereas now we are much more focused and streamlined and it is very clear who does what and we have got massive learning synergy from it across the business.
“I would like to believe that whoever you were talking to in HR would now know what their priorities are.”
For now, the priorities at Marks & Spencer are focused firmly around change. Even with the reorganisation of the human resources function, the new leadership programme and the efforts to improve communication, there is still plenty of work still lying ahead for Dodge and the rest of the organisation. Nonetheless, its commitment to change suggests that following its 125-year anniversary, there are plenty more milestones to be reached.
“M&S has survived world wars and recessions and one of the things it has got good at is how to manage change and adapt,” concludes Dodge.