A conversation between two brave leaders

A conversation between two brave leaders

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Push boundaries, be yourself and learn from your mistakes

Last night’s Braver Conversation brought us an inspiring and honest discussion between two leaders – John Lewis and Partners’ Managing Director, Paula Nickolds and Customer Director and Marketing Society Chairman, Craig Inglis. The evening was introduced by our Chief Executive Gemma Greaves then Craig led the conversation interviewing his boss Paula.


The conversation started with Paula opening up about the struggles of working in the retail industry, with the rise in digital capabilities and online outlets causing uncertainty for the high-street. ‘Anyone who says they know precisely what retail is going to look like in ten years’ time is either lying or misguided.’ According to Craig, the service element of the company is becoming increasingly important, ‘The future of most industries is not going to be about what the marketing team do but rather, what do the squad on the customer-facing side need to do?’

Although companies are having to adapt their strategies, Paula stressed the importance of organisations staying true to core values that make them special, even during the toughest of times. ‘You have to stay true to your principles and ride them out. Burying your head in the sand doesn’t give you success.’

John Lewis can often be viewed as anachronistic and middle-aged but ‘millennials would be prepared to give up so much to work for a company that shares their values’ – which shows they must be doing something right, but the way in which they engage customers will be transformed in order to remain a key competitor in the industry – ‘Having those values that define who you are, become really important, when how you do things is changing.’ 


In line with the Society’s Brave Agenda, the conversation turned to mental health and wellbeing. Paula admitted that although she doesn’t lead the ‘perfect healthy lifestyle’, she recognises the importance in looking after herself to be there for the people that need her, whether that be at work or home.

John Lewis currently work with Unmind to tackle mental health challenges in the workplace and have introduced a 'Bring Yourself to Work' policy. As Paula put it, ‘everyone has something going on in their lives and being able to talk about it in an honest way is part of role modelling.’ It’s important that companies mean what they say and encourage their employees to be themselves, otherwise it’s easy to spend all day thinking about what you aren’t.


Paula revealed that there’s this idea that we’ve all been taught what a great leader is – someone who tells you what to do and knows the answers to everything. She believes there aren’t enough role models who lead differently and it’s okay to have frailties and to show your human side.

She addressed the topic of failure in an authentic way, saying it should be celebrated and learnt from as ‘the mistakes you make and the regrets you have are the way you learn’. Being successful doesn’t mean you always get it right. ‘When you get something wrong, as long as you’ve got humility and good people around you that keep it real, you make a decision to put things right’.

Role models

The conversation between Craig and Paula showcased their authentic selves. ‘It’s a big, scary job. Sometimes the intense and irritated me shows up to work, but that’s the real me’.

When Paula found out she got the role as Managing Director in 2017, headlines focused on the fact she was the first woman to hold the position in the company's 153-year history. ‘We will know progress has been made when a woman being hired in my role doesn’t make news. I didn’t want my story to be because I was a woman - I got the role because I was the best person for the job’.

We return to the Curzon in April for a CEO Conversation with Peter Duffy - book your place today

By Zoe Tate, Marketing Assistant at The Marketing Society

Author: The Marketing Society
Posted: 14 Feb 2019
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