Shopping for skills

Convenience stores are booming on the back of changing lifestyles. As people spend less time on daily shopping, buying groceries from a store close to home or work is proving increasingly attractive.

The big supermarket chains are developing their own convenience store formats to take advantage of this boom. Tesco had developed the Tesco Express chain before acquiring 862 outlets run by T&S Group in January last year.

Most of the T&S outlets trade under the One Stop brand, and about half of these are being converted to Tesco Express. The remainder, which are unsuited to this format because of location or size, continue to be run by T&S from its head office in the West Midlands.

Profit

Although it made an annual profit of 46m before the takeover, T&S is not being left to its own devices. Tesco has initiated a leadership development programme for everyone in One Stop ,from store managers upwards.

Selling a cross-section of goods from dawn to late evening in a confined space may seem akin to running a corner shop, but convenience store managers have to demonstrate the professionalism and competitiveness needed to run a large supermarket.

Head of leadership development Erica Stocks says the impact of the programme is becoming evident. “I love this job because I am watching people change and learn more about themselves almost in front of my eyes,” she says.

“Before, there was no formal structured programme to develop leadership, even though it was a successful business with some good managers and leaders. Now, we’re going to become even more successful, because we have a balance between the operation and the development of our people.

“If they understand why T&S is successful, they will know how to continue that success in the future.”

Another reason for the programme has been to help with succession planning. If a store manager is showing potential, they are now sent to an assessment centre to identify what their particular development needs are, so that a development plan can be drawn up to provide the necessary support over an extended period.

Stocks says improving labour stability provides more justification for the investment. “We are doing a lot of work to improve turnover among the management population,” she says. “If staff feel they have been invested in, they are much more likely to stay and contribute to the business.”

Labour turnover has fallen by 10 per cent over the past 12 months, and nearly half of this reduction occurred between March and July. But it is too early to attribute it directly to the leadership development programme, which started in May.

T&S’s eight regional managers and directors have been the first group to attend the leadership courses. “They are designed to teach people about themselves,” Stocks says.

“Once they do that, they can learn about other people, and if they learn about other people, then they can lead other people. They are given a number of command tasks that test their ability to think laterally, to communicate with one another and work as a team.”

An example of this would be the ‘spider’s web’ exercise, where teams have to get each member through a variety of shapes created out of ropes without touching them.

Feedback

Stocks says feedback has been very positive. “They are saying it is the best course they have ever been on and that they can see changes in people’s behaviour on a day-to-day basis.”

She attributes this enthusiasm to providing a mix of classroom and outdoor activities. “We talk about the theory of teams and the need to have the right people doing the right job. We then do the outdoor activity that demonstrates this.”

The second phase of the programme tests team and leadership skills even further. Managers will be put on an imaginary sinking ship, and challenged to bring all the crew off board alive.

“They will get a sense of being in a high-performing team,” Stocks says. “It will put them outside their comfort zone and make them realise what they are really capable of.”

Residential courses for the com-pany’s head office managers and 50 area managers, who are each responsible for between 12 and 15 store managers, will be a mix of classroom and outdoor activities.

The courses will be based around Blanchard’s situational leadership model, which shows the different ways people learn as they develop in a job, and John Adair’s functional leadership model, which highlights the need to strike a balance between understanding how a team works, the individuals in it, and the tasks they need to perform.

“As well as understanding themselves, they will be looking at the key elements of a high-performing team ,and the skills required to lead and communicate with their team,” Stocks says. “They need to be able to coach their managers on how to deliver high standards and control their costs.”

Second phase

The second phase of the course will attempt to build on what was learned earlier. “We have drawn a line in the sand and said these are the leadership skills we would like you to demonstrate as a bare minimum,” Stocks says. “Next year, we will be asking them to look at how they build on the skills they have already acquired.”

Although there is no residential course for store managers, Stocks says their ability to lead and develop staff as a team is still vital. “Having staff who are reliable and take pride in their store comes from having good leadership from their store manager.”

Trainee store managers attend off-site workshops at one of T&S’s five off-site training centres where they learn about coaching and what it means to be a leader. “We had not done this with store managers before; it puts them in a much stronger position,” Stocks says.

Basic skills needed to run a store, such as health and safety, food hygiene, security and licensing, are partly covered by a CD-Rom training package, launched in stores in May.

Stocks says the number of store managers meeting all their initial induction requirements in the first six-weeks has been steadily rising since the package was introduced. “People are getting the right amount of skills in the right amount of time, ready to take on their own stores,” says Stocks.

Core values

The leadership courses are designed to complement Tesco’s core values, which include trying harder than anyone else to please customers. But as one of several far-reaching changes made to the business since the take-over, they could easily have been resented as outside interference in a company that was already very successful.

Tesco has filled the T&S board with its own appointees, including HR director Corrine Abdo. But Stocks says the big cultural shift resulting from the takeover has been well handled and communicated.

“One Stop had a lot to offer Tesco, as well as Tesco having a lot to offer us,” Stocks says. “There’s been a lot of listening and communicating about that. Our vision for One Stop is to be everyone’s favourite, everyday shop. Investment in our people is going to contribute to achieving that goal.”

The budget

Stocks has considerable resources to achieve her objectives. Although her 300,000-a-year budget also covers corporate development of training throughout the group, the bulk is going on leadership development. By the end of this financial year, more than 100 area, regional and head office managers and directors will have been on at least one three-day residential course. Each course is tailored to the different needs of each group.

T&S is also providing two-and-half day residential courses to promote team working between area and regional managers, and between directors and support staff. “It’s to encourage understanding of teams, understanding the roles they take on as teams and the roles they take on as leaders with the rest of the business,” Stocks says.

Her progress is being monitored by the board: “Three of us from HR meet with the board every fortnight and I meet the HR director once a week.”
She says that investment in leadership development needs to be high over the next couple of years because so little has been provided until now. “But in three to five years, we would need to look closely at what we want to do with the core development opportunities for our managers.”

CV: ERICA STOCKS



  • 2004 Head of leadership development, One Stop
  • 2002 Group training manager, One Stop
  • 2000 Training and development manager, Leisure Link
  • 1996 Training and development co-ordinator, Boots the Chemist
  • 1990 Employment development officer, Nottinghamshire Deaf Society
  • 1985 Clerical officer, The Employment Service


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