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An evening with Tesco CEO Dave Lewis

Our Marketing Society CEO Conversation events are always Chatham House rules so I won’t report in detail about Craig Inglis’ chat with Dave, but I can tell you what I felt after listening and watching most interestedly for an hour or so.

First impressions? Well it’s definitely “Dave” so that says quite a lot doesn’t it? His PR people had picked an action shot of Dave dynamically captured mid-sentence proudly wearing his Remembrance Day poppy. And he likes to make eye contact with people (he apologised when he couldn’t during the Q&A because the spotlights were in his eyes).

He didn’t come across as the stereotypical alpha male leader, in fact when speaking about his team at Tesco, with one notable exception he only mentioned women.  The only Tesco bloke he talked about specifically was his COO who has worked at Tesco since he was 15.

Having said that Dave certainly doesn’t shy away from a challenge and he had an interesting exchange with Craig about the concept of bravery – our Marketing Society theme - not quite dismissing it but suggesting what some consider bravery was just getting on with stuff, and that we should never be afraid to put ourselves in difficult situations. He certainly felt he’d learned more about himself by doing that, like earlier in his career agreeing to go and work in Argentina knowing no Spanish and nothing about the Argentinian market.

He spoke a lot about using research and insight – the customer - to inform his strategic planning, which it sounds like was something he was taught at Unilever. He later admitted that about 85% of his big Tesco decisions we were driven by gut and personal values.

That insight quickly showed the problem he’d inherited: Tesco had great penetration with 60 million customers coming through their doors every week and a store in every postcode, but basket size and frequency had declined.

He also used that C word a lot: customer. In fact, Dave told us at Tesco they don’t call marketing “marketing”, they call it “customer”.  And Dave used the B word – brand – quite early on in his chat too.

He became most passionate when talking about sustainability and the UK’s long-term food strategy, and was proud of the ground-breaking work Tesco was doing with plant-based alternatives.

He was asked about Amazon and he told us what he tells his Tesco colleagues, that they have a unique and powerful competitive advantage. And yet this was the one answer I felt less convinced by. A more compelling consideration came when he was talking about rebuilding trust. He often pops into stores unannounced on his way home late at night. He doesn’t look at the numbers before he gets to a shop and he doesn’t ask colleagues “How’s trade.” Instead he first asks “What are your customers saying?”. Dave says his kind of retailing is “real” and it’s not difficult to get to the truth.

In summarising his leadership style I’d say it was understanding complexity, and then simplify it for consistent and rigorous delivery company-wide: listening to his colleagues, and playing back to them a strong and universally understandable purpose about customer-centricity; then listening to his customers and predicting their future needs. And a great leadership tip: turn up early.