How do you define leadership? There are thousands of books, resources, classes and experts, together forming what might be described as a leadership industry. So it’s not surprising that leadership definitions abound.
Most definitions of leadership are likely to combine a number of words or ideas, such as: vision; belief; action; motivation; inspiration; intuition; or charisma. But how many would use the words legacy or loyalty?
Thinking about leadership in these terms implies an upside-down interpretation of what it means to lead.
Two UK businesses that have turned the meaning of leadership upside-down
So in this article we’ll consider two businesses that did just that. One well-known UK business turned the meaning of leadership upside-down, through its focus on leaving a legacy. Then, we examine a surprising truth about loyalty, which demonstrates another upside-down approach to doing business.
These examples come from two contrasting businesses, which offer differing perspectives on upside-down leadership. But what they have in common is that each interprets leadership as a form of service. One focuses on legacy and how good leadership is about serving the organisation’s employees. Whereas the other has more of a focus on loyalty, in which good leadership is about serving customers.
The legacy of upside-down leadership
The John Lewis Partnership is celebrating 150 years of business – and what a business it is!
Often feted as a great place to work, John Lewis is also a business with high levels of customer satisfaction. And the very fact that it’s celebrating 150 years of success would suggest that it has done more.
It has been able to create a legacy. Of course John Lewis is not the only business able to make this claim but what is strikingly different is how they’ve done it. Firstly, John Lewis is owned by its employees, which it refers to as partners, although again, this does not make the business unique.
The real difference in the John Lewis approach can be seen in its mission. Because, how many businesses can you think of that put the happiness of their employees at the heart of their mission? The John Lewis Partnership does.
This upside-down approach to leadership is epitomised in their statement that its purpose is; “the happiness of all our members, through their worthwhile, satisfying employment in a successful business”.
Putting employees first can give you a competitive advantage
Whatever you choose to call the people who work with or for you – staff, employees, colleagues, or anything else, genuinely putting them first is one of the most powerful ways to grow your business.
Sir Stuart Hampson, a former John Lewis chairman, contrasts this approach with other prevailing business views: ‘If more businesses could act longer-term, we would have a stronger British economy’.
A more recent chairman, Charlie Mayfield, referred to one of the other key features of the partnership model – its resilience. ‘We’re not vulnerable to short-term thinking. Our model means we are absolutely committed to long-term plans. Probably the key element of our resilience long-term is the continuity we establish with our people.’
Advice which is equally valuable to all organisations, from start-ups to growing SMEs, to established corporations. In building a great organisation, for the long-term, John Lewis is both creating a legacy for its employees and demonstrating its loyalty to them.
Legacy and loyalty are closely related and often go hand-in-hand, but not just in relation to employees. Showing loyalty to your customers can be just as important, though not necessarily in the conventional sense of the word.
Loyalty and upside-down leadership
Currently billing themselves as “the world’s leading customer science company” Dunnhumby started life as a very small business – a husband and wife team operating from their home.
Their original work was as a data mining company, analysing pre-existing databases to generate new information for businesses. But now the company would position itself more as a key player in the growing trend to exploit technology in business and society, often called ‘big data’.
The success and growth of their business has been remarkable, in many ways hinging on an uncommon insight, and one that all businesses could learn from.
The analysis Dunnhumby provided to Tesco, their first major client, was pivotal to the success of Tesco’s loyalty card by providing information about the shopping habits of its customers. But there was something else about the Dunnhumby approach which Tesco also applied – an uncommon view of loyalty.
Turning the notion of loyalty on its head
When organisations talk about building loyalty they are usually referring to building customer loyalty. Dunnhumby turned this notion on its head, suggesting that businesses should do the opposite and think about how they show loyalty to their customers.
This was not a simple twist on an ordinary phrase. The increased value Tesco experienced from its loyalty card was dramatic, something the company accredited to this upside-down thinking on loyalty.
Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco’s former CEO, described the loyalty card as a way of saying a simple thank-you to its customers. Such cards or schemes may not be appropriate or relevant to many businesses, but showing loyalty to your customers certainly is. And this simple insight, turning the notion of loyalty upside-down, paved the way for spectacular growth for both Dunnhumby and Tesco alike.
This article has highlighted the importance of upside-down thinking. To build loyalty you need to be loyal. To build a business with a legacy, try turning around the purpose of the business – from profits for the owners to employee happiness.
Upside down leadership is about serving your colleagues and your customers and is an example of uncommon leadership – a different way to think about leadership. This is one that looks for the sense before it becomes common sense, to give you an uncommon advantage.
Creating organisations with happy employees and loyal customers is important for all businesses, small or large, but doing so might just require some upside down leadership.
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About the author
This article was written for ByteStart by Phil Higson and Anthony Sturgess. Their new book, Uncommon Leadership – How to Build Competitive Advantage by Thinking Differently, is published by Kogan Page (£19.99). For more information including, helpful tools and resources, visit www.uncommonleadership.co.uk.