It’s best to hire managers who know the business

Author

John Timpson

October 6, 2014

Straight-talking, common sense from the front line of management

Q Several of the recent press reports on the problems at Tesco have commented on the lack of retail experience within the main board. This seems to be part of the current trend that managers do not need relevant experience of the industry that they manage, i.e. a good manager can manage anything. Would you employ a manager who did not have relevant experience of the business area that he was due to manage?

A The growing emphasis on governance and the demands of institutional shareholders have filled board rooms with non-executive directors who tick all the boxes and make the company compliant but often have little experience of the day-to-day business.

Perhaps the City watchdogs have gone too far. Part time non-executive directors, many of whom are on the boards of several companies, are bound to be guided by management accounts and board papers. Few have the time to tour round the business regularly and talk to the colleagues who meet the customers.

I’m not knocking the benefits bankers and experienced captains of industry can bring to the boardroom but you don’t need too many of them and those that are there need to know the business well enough to support the executive team and ask pertinent questions about the company’s culture and strategy.

There’s a danger that powerful non-execs who flit from boardroom to boardroom will put too much faith in process and best practice.

We promote all our managers from within the business. All members of the retail management team started as an apprentice and have gained a thorough experience of how every job is done and how to look after our customers. Even if we recruit qualified cobblers and key cutters they still have to pass our skill tests and get to know our culture before they are given a management role.

We want people who will do things our way, because we reckon we run our chain of service shops in a way that works. But I don’t think this means that we have the ability to run any other business. It’s important to understand what you can do well. Managing a shoe repair chain doesn’t qualify us to run a brewery or a chain of chip shops. The key role of every manager, and non-executive director, is to support their team, something they can only do if they really understand the business.

Q How do you teach staff to respect the line between a friendly manner and over familiarity? I overheard an employee telling a customer in the shop that she “looked knackered”. The woman was clearly offended. When I told the staff member that he had crossed a line, he said: “You told us to be informal”. Are there any Timpson rules for interacting with customers?

A We don’t have any rules. Our colleagues are free to serve customers the way they want. We’ve found that picking the right personalities and trusting them to do their best is the only way to give a proper personal service.

I’m particularly keen to encourage our colleagues to talk. Too much shopping is done without the hint of a conversation. Many cashiers and check-out clerks simply say the bare minimum to take your money. Obviously, I expect our colleagues to use some common sense by starting a conversation on neutral ground with questions like, “Is it still raining out there?” or “Have you much more shopping to do?” I certainly hope we would avoid your “knackered” comment or impertinent queries such as “Are you trying to lose weight?” or “Is it a Saga holiday this year?”

The right approach will differ from Dundee to Doncaster and Dulwich and from Guildford to Grantham and Glasgow. There is no golden rule of conversation. One man might want to be called “sir”, the next may prefer “mate”. Some expect “madam” others like “luv”.

Strict customer care rules, designed to avoid giving offence, can kill natural conversation and take the fun out of shopping. I don’t want to deliver service by order, using a fixed set of phrases. I’d rather trust our colleagues to be true to themselves and hopefully have a proper conversation with their customers.

Q I am almost 75-years-old and have been a trustee director of a private company’s pension scheme for many years. I enjoy the job very much and I believe the quite onerous responsibilities are still within my capabilities. I understand there is no legal age limit but when do you think I should retire?

A It all depends on how you feel and how others feel about you. Many good people are wrongly cast aside on the basis of age while others hang on long beyond the day they should have gone on permanent gardening leave.

At 71, I’m bound to be biased and think old age comes with a few special attributes. Our children may appear quicker, brighter and more familiar with the latest technology but we have the benefit of experience.

Those who looked after pension funds 20 years ago remember a time when trustees focused on the long-term interests of the fund rather than the short-term requirements of the regulator. In my experience the older you get, the easier it is to look far into the future. Perhaps it is simpler to make long-term forecasts when you are no longer involved in the rough and tumble of day to day management.

If you are happy to carry on, don’t offer to step down. Wait until you are tapped on the shoulder and told it is time to go.

Today, 75 is the new 60, so keep going, they are lucky to have you on board.

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