How long does it take to become an outstanding retail leader? John Lewis Partnership desperately needs one. The clock is already ticking for Sharon White, JLP’s incoming Executive Chair, and following yesterday’s news it is ticking much faster.
Yesterday was dramatic to say the least. Poor Christmas trading came as no surprise. JLP announces its weekly sales figures and it was clear where they would be. Warnings on profits and the bonus were inevitable.
Of more significance is the departure of Paula Nickolds, what it symbolises, and the way it was handled. This was all about the new structure. Sir Charlie Mayfield indicated that it had been an iterative process and that he had the support of the senior team. He may well have at the outset. But somewhere along the road of those iterations, Rob Collins (at the time they were announced) and Paula Nickolds (I suspect gradually over the past two months or so) have both voted with feet and resigned. The ambiguity around her departure reflects badly on the business.
Losing your two top leaders in normal times would be bad enough. But with a new Executive Chair about start, it is much more so. Then magnifying the significance many times further is the fact that the incoming leader (by definition the senior executive in the company) has no commercial background at all, let alone a retail one. She would and should have relied on those two leaders to accelerate her learning about the business and the industry.
JLP faces the most challenging moment in its history. Fundamental structural and cultural issues will fill what will be a huge agenda. The new leadership structure she will inherit will make addressing these issues far more difficult. With seven direct reports, it has essentially fragmented the responsibility of the executive directors and magnified responsibility of the Executive Chair, the person with the least retail experience. At the very time the Partnership desperately needs to be far more commercial, more focused and to greatly increase the speed and tempo of everything it does, this structure almost seems designed to go in the opposite direction.
Meanwhile, that clock is ticking. It is clear that in 2020 the market will get tighter and trading economics will be further squeezed. It will not wait for JLP to bed in a new way of working. Far reaching decisions need to be made now and they must be right. Retail is unforgiving. No brand is owed a living. The Partnership needs to up its game, and quick.
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