This is not just leadership, it's M&S leadership

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11th Aug 2009
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Group HR director for Marks & Spencer, Tanith Dodge talks leadership development in testing times. Verity Gough reports.

It has been a busy start for Tanith Dodge, who only took up her new position running the HR department at Marks and Spencer HQ a year ago. The last 12 months or so have witnessed the announcement of 1,200 job losses, 27 store closures and a hefty slump in profits. But despite the recent turbulence, Dodge has lived up to her name, and been swift to deal with the issues affecting the organisation, quickly cementing herself into the M & S family.

But then, this is not surprising for a woman of Dodge’s pedigree. Her list of credentials includes a graduate traineeship at British Aerospace, an employee relations consultant at Prudential and a five year stint as HRD at WH Smith. And while HR is her background, it is in leadership development that Dodge is carving a name for herself. Indeed, her passion for transforming people in the organisation has been effectively channelled into her latest venture: Lead to Succeed which is being heralded as the company’s flagship development programme and is considered to be a key component in its future people strategy.

"We are doing quite a bit of work on how senior leaders take reorganisation through a period of change, and making understanding how to lead change and make change happen a part of their toolkit is absolutely key."

Launched last year, the programme targets the development of the 300 most senior M&S employees, and is designed to identify and train the next generation of leaders. “Lead to Succeed is designed around our business strategy going forwards; what we need to deliver over the next couple of years,” says Dodge. “We have taken a lot of the research that was done around the core attributes of leader – head, hearts and guts – and that underpins the programme. But then we’ve looked at what is it that M&S really needs in terms of its leadership attributes going forwards, so our core values around trust, value service, quality and innovation.”

Dodge has ensured that the programme is both robust and practical by looking at potential leaders as individuals rather than simply names on a list. This is then underpinned by coaching and business simulation which is designed around some of the challenges M&S experiences as an organisation: “We ask things like: are you leveraging your own strengths as a leader, how do you then galvanise your team, how do you take the leadership and create that coalition across the organisation and as leaders how do you influence shareholder value? So it is very practical,” she adds.

And for Dodge, a focus on practice rather than theory is particularly pertinent at the moment, mainly as many of the senior staff have never before experienced any kind of economic turbulence. “It is unprecedented,” she says. “The ways of doing things in the past are not necessarily the ways that will make you successful going forward. We are doing quite a bit of work on how senior leaders take reorganisation through a period of change, and making understanding how to lead change and make change happen a part of their toolkit is absolutely key.”

Reflecting this, Marks & Spencer devotes significant time and resources to developing its leaders and nurturing its talent. “Continuing to invest in your talent for now is absolutely key,” Dodge emphasises. “Organisations that stop that investment risk cutting the Achilles heel. You have to keep these people and do it in ways that aren’t ridiculously expensive.” To this end, Dodge has developed a thorough, robust succession process which has done away with annual reviews and instead focuses ongoing conversations which enables her and her team to look at individuals’ capabilities against specific indicators which demarcate them as ‘high potential’.

"Continuing to invest in your talent for now is absolutely key. Organisations that stop that investment risk cutting the Achilles heel."

“We do it at all levels from our senior people through to store managers, who have got the potential to develop into another role going forward. We also look at what roles are critical for us going forward and whether we have got enough pipeline of talent coming through for those critical jobs.” In addition, she runs the annual staff survey – ‘Your Say’ which gives employees the opportunity to voice their views on a range of issues including training and development.

Early reports suggest that the programme is a huge success, with the company witnessing significant change in the way that people behave as a result of the training, and the way that they challenge problems within the organisation. Dodge believes that the success of such schemes are very much dependent on those that facilitate them: not only does it show employees how their leaders behave but it sets a precedent so when they themselves reach the higher echelons of the organisation, they too can lead by example.

“It is very much about you as an individual leader, your impact on your style with your team and then your impact on your style with your organisation," she concludes. "So it builds on the whole ‘Your M&S' message – yourself, your team, your organisation.”

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