Business class

Asda’s
head of people development Paul McKinlay doesn’t want to be a training
specialist. He tells Stephanie Sparrow why

Paul
McKinlay’s career became the stuff of legend when a television appearance
catapulted him into the Asda firmament in 
true A Star is Born manner.

"The
story goes that in 1995 Asda’s then chief executive Archie Norman saw me in a
BBC television documentary called Situation Vacant, recruiting potential new
store managers for Toys R Us and said, ‘We must get him working for us’,"
McKinlay smiles.

Norman
gave him a job as general store manager designate, one of the youngest ever,
and monitored his prot‚g‚’s progress.

McKinlay
has now been with the food and clothing superstore for six years, notching up
considerable success along the way. Since last September, he has been head of
people development. Now his superstar status is such that he ranks in  the Personnel Today Top 40 this year and led
his team to scoop the overall winners’ award as well as the training award for
that magazines’ "Oscars" last year. He sits on Asda’s people board,
reporting to executive board member and people director David Smith.

These
are hefty HR achievements for a 33- year-old, but particularly for someone who
doesn’t think himself cast in that mould. "I never saw myself as an HR
person and still don’t," he says. "I am an operator spending some
time in training and I’m sure that I’ll take on a more operational role in the
future."

He
is wary of defining himself partly because he doesn’t want to divorce people
development from the rest of the business, but McKinlay’s success and that of
Asda’s approach as a whole is precisely because it doesn’t differentiate
between training initiatives and business.

His
vocabulary is peppered with phrases such as "accountability" and
"business objectives" and he sees the teams of people who report to
him as a profit centre, which makes things happen, "not a drain on
resources".

"I
don’t profess to be some sort of 
training guru," he says. "But I understand how our shops work,
how our distribution works, how Asda House works and can use that to produce
stuff line managers can use to move their business and people forward."

The
people development team is accountable to Asda’s 100,000 employees, known as
"colleagues", who comment on their performance via the monthly
grass-roots survey known as "We’re Listening".

McKinlay’s
performance contract and those of his team expect that  80 per cent of  colleagues will answer the question: "I know what training
is available" and next year that percentage will be increased.

He
sees the team’s role as working as "the oil between two cogs". The
cogs are Asda House and the stores and it is up to those in people development
to translate business plans into what stores can do.

This
works through to the smallest detail. McKinlay has five teams of people,
including graduate recruitment (known as the Talent Store scheme), the Asda
House people development team focusing on head office, logistics, food trading,
the Asda Academy schemes and general merchandise.

In
addition to the five team leaders heading up these areas, McKinlay has two
field-based people who are direct reports. They divide the country into north
and south and carry out the day-to-day communication within the stores.

It
seems that daily contact with the stores and feeding them the right tools is
the lifeblood of the people development department. Under the banner of food
trading, for example, is someone whose job is to work closely with the bakery
business unit.

"It
is their job to understand its business plan and then translate the strategic
objectives into stuff the stores can do. It’s about translating what we can do
as a business into how can we make that happen in every store," says
McKinlay.

McKinlay’s
own background is totally store-based, from a degree in retail marketing to
five years with Toys R Us, and the latest six with Asda. Until May 1999, his
remit included tasks such as store openings, renewals and cultural
acclimatisation for colleagues and customers after buying stores from other
groups such as the Co-op.

That
month, he was asked to take on the project of Asda’s seven Stores of Learning.
These were launched with a £3m investment in a programme that aims to bring all
management trainees into these stores and turn them into outstanding exponents
of shop-keeping standards. It has so far trained more than 1,200 new managers
in 25 different disciplines.

He
was asked to keep up the project’s "credibility" and momentum, which
he did with regular reports to the chief executive to maintain its profile.

Last
September, he was asked to take on the full training role. "So I brought
Stores of Learning with me to the mainstream training and development function
and picked up responsibility for the whole of our training and development
strategy, from exec development of our main board to whether our checkout
operators recognise the right type of apple, which was great."

McKinlay
has plenty to keep him busy in this still fairly new role.

"Since
September, we’ve adopted all of the store targets as our targets, so we need to
make sure that we demonstrate impact and we need to take our Stores of Learning
to the next level," he says.

Another
initiative, which other retailers will watch closely, is the extension of the
National Training Award-winning Asda Academy. The Academy is currently a formal
scheme offering product knowledge and skills training with accreditation in key
craft areas. This means,  for example,
that any one of Asda’s 571 butchers can be accredited by the Meat and Livestock
Commission to the equivalent NVQ level.

"We
use external accreditation to get people to really want to drive their skills
in order to serve our customers better," he says, convinced that the
Academy is a great motivational tool throughout.

McKinlay
is hoping that by January 2002 he will have launched a General Store Manager
Academy, which will extend the scheme all the way through store management
positions. Although yet to be finalised, the bare bones of it are that entry
will be by application only.

"Further
development training should be earned by people who have clearly demonstrated
the ability to learn and apply previous investment, previous training. We want
tough programmes for quality people," he says.

Successful
alumni of the GSM Academy will receive an as yet undisclosed management
qualification and attend a posh dinner.

Elsewhere
in his remit, he has just relaunched the graduate scheme and tied it even
further into the business by giving each first year recruit an adopter on the operations
board.

"Now
some of our most senior managers and most junior managers speak to each other
on a regular basis," he says. "The graduate goes to board meetings
with them to give them greater exposure."

The
Asda Academy concept will be extended to take "colleagues" (everyone
of Asda’s 100,000 employees in the UK is referred to as a
"colleague") from across disciplines to share and emphasise their
selling skills. McKinlay is looking at an Active Selling Academy for those
colleagues, whether a greeter or from produce, who excel at selling in stores.

"It’s
the first thing we’ve done that’s not from within a discipline," he says.

And
like his peers in all industries, McKinlay is getting his teeth into e-learning
and building a transition from computer-based learning. He admits that this has
been facilitated by the 1999 acquisition by Wal-Mart.

"We
wrote our own content and used the template for our CBL and PCs from Wal-Mart
and we could never have done that without the acquisition," he says.
"What we want to do now is enrich it with video and do all the ‘wow’
things that will drive usage. It’s a real challenge."

The
Wal-Mart influence is seen in other initiatives such as head office-based
"Shrink Schools", where managers receive top-up training on minimising
stock loss, through to a link with the Walton Institute at the world’s biggest
retailer’s homely-sounding base of Bentonville, Arkansas.

"I
went over to Bentonville for a conference last September with the training
managers of all the international countries.

"I
was new in role and really wary, but by the end of the week I didn’t want to
come back. It was just awesome," he says.

"One
of the most impressive things was how we had nearly every senior board member
come to us that week to tell us how important training was to the future of the
business.

"They
all arrived at the appointed time and delivered fantastic input. This was
planned a month or two in advance, and none of them cancelled," he says,
obviously still in awe.

"For
me, it was a real piece of respect for the individual. And how important did
that make us feel? Did it send us away fired up to go and deliver around the
world? Yes it did."

Wal-Mart
is nothing short of a global super-power in retail terms. Including the
acquisition, it has more than 1 million employees, and 4,000 stores worldwide,
so what is it really like to work for such a giant? Has it swamped Asda with
its culture?

He
says the irony is that when Wal-Mart bought Asda it saw it as more
"Wal-Mart than Wal-Mart", because the cultural fit was already there.

This
harks back a decade to when Archie Norman and Alan Leighton visited the US
looking for ideas to revive the then-flagging business.

"They
spent a lot of time with Wal-Mart, begging and borrowing anything that would
drive the culture because people were seen to be the key to driving the
business. So we had, ‘We’re all colleagues, one team’ and Wal-Mart has ‘respect
for the individual’," he says.

And
Wal-Mart is open to trying Asda’s ideas. "Stores of Learning is rolling
out around the world. Wal-Mart has picked that up and, had it been the right
time, I would like to have gone and implemented that – especially if it had
been in Cancun," he says, relishing the international career opportunities
ahead.

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