Bravery doesn’t always show itself as a knight with shining armour
'For us it’s Personal' Paula Nickolds, the first female Managing Director of John Lewis in 153 years, lives the John Lewis brand value at the 'Braver Conversation' series held at the Curzon Bloomsbury on Wednesday 13 February.
Society members were treated to a discussion that could have taken place in any living room around the UK in the intimacy of its style. Craig Inglis, Customer Director for John Lewis was hosting, and has worked with Paula for years. There was an easy, comfortable interchange between the two. Settled into their armchairs on the stage in chat show style, the content was wide ranging and deep in meaning. At times it was provocative with a freshness rarely seen.
The story of the birth of the John Lewis Partnership had its roots deep in a pioneering kind of bravery. John Spedan Lewis (the son of the founder) realized that senior management took more in salary than all of their staff at John Lewis Oxford Street and Peter Jones, Sloane Square, combined and hence pioneered the ‘partners’ approach.
Fast forward to 2019, and the retail environment is 'as disruptive as I have ever known it.' Paula is at the helm at a particularly challenging time and this keeps her awake at night. Luckily, she is guiding a brand with a clear North Star. She shared her modern interpretation of the John Lewis founders’ principals in the new era of retail.
So what was fresh and different?
Experimentation: Paula described how partners on the shop floor are encouraged to post on social media on behalf of the brand. 'Don’t worry whether the grammar or spelling could be improved, this creates human connection between staff and customers.'
Forget the marketing department: 'Nothing happens in a functional silo anymore.' Paula painted a wonderful picture of the “squad” formed around customers’ needs.
Customer experience: The way John Lewis will engage with customers will be transformed as there is a shift from product to service. A brand with the human touch has 50% of sales online. Paula believes 'We will never out-algorithm Google, but humans with computers can do more.'
Leadership style: The 'Roman General' role model is broken. But there are few new role models to replace this. We were fortunate enough to see one in Paula. Strength can present itself in vulnerability, in admitting doubts and fears. In short, in being human, in being you and bringing all your resources to the job.
As a woman in business and woman business owner, I was touched by Paula’s reaction to her own success. Initially she wanted to get on with the big job and not to attract tabloid headlines. But she soon realized that she had a responsibility to play her part and talk about diversity. With 60% of the top 200 business leaders being women at John Lewis, great strides have clearly been made but there is more to do on ethnicity.
When she spoke about mental health, her conversation was matter-of-fact and levelling. 'Every one of us has got something we are worried about. Being honest about what you’re going through is part of role modelling.'
Questions from the floor brought an added dimension. Sophie Morgan, Channel 4 presenter and journalist, also paraplegic, asked Paula about the experience John Lewis creates for customers with disabilities. Her answer revealed that John Lewis thinks beyond the basic physical requirements and is tackling the hidden biases and assumptions that may threaten to diminish the experience for certain customer groups.
Gemma Greaves closed the evening by remarking on Paula’s humility. I left thinking that words quietly spoken could take root and inspire radical reinvention. Bravery doesn’t always show itself as a knight with shining armour.
By Fiona Blades, President and Chief Experience Officer at MESH Experience and Founder of Ginny Valentine’s Badge of Courage Awards