A bit of ASDA Magic

(blog post from Andrew Thorp)

It always helps when you’re promoting your services if you’ve got a good case study to back you up. Speaker and consultant David Smith has a corker – the revitalisation of ASDA! In 1994 the supermarket chain was on its knees, ranking 4th as a food retailer. An autocratic ‘command-and-control’ culture predominated – absenteeism was high, productivity low.

David was brought into the business to help remedy its ailing reputation and became People Director in 2000. His belief was that without a positive, people-orientated culture any amount of strategy and process implementation was doomed.

In a captivating session yesterday (hosted by accountants Kay Johnson Gee), David told the ‘ASDA Magic’ story, a wonderful example of putting some ‘mojo’ back into a business. I want to touch upon a few key points he made and suggest why David is such an accomplished presenter.

How he delivered his message

Let’s look at David’s presenting style first of all. You’d expect someone of his stature to speak well and of course he does – fluent, articulate, nice projection and excellent timing. It just underlines how important it is to develop good speaking skills if you’re looking to progress. Great leaders are invariably great communicators.

I like the way he uses 7 key points to get across his message. It helps the audience to navigate its way through the journey he’s taking us on – and I like the way he lists them on the back of his business card!

There was a nice variety in the way he delivered his content – stories, audience Q&A, working in pairs, flip chart (no PowerPoint!). He threw in some management theory (not too much) but backed it up with memorable anecdotes.

What’s interesting is that I think I could make a decent stab of relating to others what David said – simply because he structured it so clearly, made it all seem so simple and obvious and used stories which stick in the memory (like ‘mental velcro’!). Making your message easy to pass on (forward-able) is a great strategy.

His Message

Empowering employees

David made an incredibly strong case for humanizing a business. He contrasted the old-style command-and-control leadership (where people are considered intrinsically lazy and need to be tightly managed) with a more modern, people-oriented approach where employees are empowered and energized.

Highlighting the problem of absenteeism, he related how he assembled the floor staff one day (not the managers) and asked them how he should tackle it. One woman admitted that when she phoned in sick it wasn’t always because she was unwell! She explained that if her child was ill in the night she couldn’t leave him, but that wasn’t considered a justifiable reason to be off work. She suggested a solution – if the floor staff could share each others’ phone numbers, they could help one another with child care and swap shifts between themselves. David liked the idea but the management resisted (“No, no, we can’t have other people allocating staff to shifts – that’s our job!”). But David insisted and it brought down absenteeism by a massive TWENTY per cent!

Don’t hire experience – hire character

Before David came on board ASDA tended to hire on the basis of experience. But that obviously wasn’t working! They changed their policy and started hiring characters – ‘gobby’ people who would actually have conversations with customers. One such gent was Len, an ex-docker who took a part-time job at ASDA to relieve the boredom of retirement. He was allocated one of the less glamorous duties – trolley porter – and he made the car park his domain, chatting freely to shoppers and generally loving every minute of it. He took a shine to a local hospice and decided to raise money for it by running marathons. He got permission from the store manager to enlist the support of shoppers in the car park, and over a number of months raised just short of £500,000. The hospice built a new wing with the proceeds, and named it after Len. He’s now progressed to managerial level within the company.

Say “Thank You”

Many companies offer substantial cash rewards to motivate their staff, but it often back-fires. It can be divisive and fundamentally misunderstands what motivates human beings (see Dan Pink’s TED talk). A simple thank you from the boss, delivered on a regular basis for even minor achievements is often far more powerful. David recalled meeting a 40-something who proudly showed him his Blue Peter Badge from 30 years ago. It probably cost pennies but it meant a lot to him. ASDA started its own Oscars ceremony, celebrating employees’ achievements and handing out some cheap trophies. One man got one for helping a colleague learn to read and he treasures it to this day, marking as a turning point in his life. It shows the power of symbolically recognising people’s achievements.

I recommend you check out David’s book (ASDA Magic) and listen to the video clips on his web-site. I’m also delighted he’s agreed to be interviewed for MojoLife TV.

Congratulations too to Kay Johnson Gee and organiser Catherine Mackenzie for pulling together a terrific event and sourcing an inspirational storyteller. Business needs a bit more soul, don’t you think?

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About Mojo Your Business

Mojo Your Business is an innovative training & consultancy company based in Manchester, UK. We're passionate about helping businesses and individuals perform better through effective communication. We specialise in corporate storytelling and how it applies to internal and external communication (employee relations, employability skills, leadership, relationship building, sales, marketing and public relations). More at http://mojoyourbusiness.com/
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