Timpson: Business Success Through Humanistic Leadership

Allow me to introduce you to a little know business gem: Timpson. It is a family business operating 1000+ stores, annual turnover in the region of £200m, and annual profits of £10m+. Today, this organisation (and its leadership) is on my mind again. Why? Because of what I saw and read on LinkedIn.

This is the photo that captured my attention:

Timpson Free Outfit Cleaning

The last time I looked there were 240+ likes. Here are some of the comments that caught my attention:

  1. “Leadership at its best”;
  2. “Hats off to CEO James Timpson”;
  3. “Very thoughtful and caring”;
  4. “Pay it forward”;
  5. “Brilliant. More selfless acts needed”;
  6. “If another company did this it would probably seem like a publicity stunt, but Timson’s record speaks for itself..”; and
  7. “How many Advocates and how much good feeling does that create for Timpsons who are already an exceptionally socially responsible company…Great win win!”

Why did these comments catch my attention? Because these comments provider a pointer towards the following:

  1. The shape-look-feel-character of humanistic leadership: authentic as opposed to faking it in order to manipulate others (publicity stunt); thoughtful and caring as opposed to thoughtlessness and indifference to our shared humanity – where humanity is hidden under the labels of customer, employee, supplier; and selflessness leading to paying it forward as recognition of one’s good fortune and shared humanity as opposed to unlimited greed dressed up in fine sounding words like maximising revenues and profits.
  2. The impact human-centred leaders make on us: we tend to think of this kind of leadership as “leadership at its best”; and those who exercise this kind of leadership call forth respect – when we are authentic we take our hats off only to those whom we genuinely admire, esteem, respect in terms of their virtues and/or skills.

  3. The benefits that tend to show up as result of exercising humanistic leadership: the good feelingthat this kind of leadership calls forth in just about everyone except sociopaths and those professionally trained as economists and MBAs; and the advocacy-loyalty that is automatically brought into play as a result of evoking this good feeling.

I am clear that we (those of us living in the UK and USA) live in transactional, individualistic, non-humanistic, competitive cultures. So those of us, who are ‘smart’, are likely to be tempted to fake humanistic leadership to get the benefits (respect, status, increased profits, wealth) without paying the necessary ‘price’. So here’s the paradox. The exercise of humanistic leadership does generate advocacy, loyalty, revenues, and higher profits. However, this is not the case when humanistic leadership is exercised for the sake of harvesting these benefits. Why? Because, one can only fake it so long before true intentions leak out and are detected by those who are being manipulated.

Is Timpson faking it? Is this offer of free outfit cleaning for the unemployed merely a publicity stunt? This is what Justin Parkinson of the BBC says on this blogpost:

The problem is that getting suits dry cleaned usually costs in the vicinity of £10, which can be prohibitive for unemployed people looking to return to work.

The offer, in place since 1 January, has been taken up by hundreds of people, Timpson chief executive James Timpson says. “When people are going for interview it’s important to look and feel smart and getting their suit dry cleaned is part of that,” he adds. “It makes people more confident and gives them that 2% extra chance of getting a job. We just thought it was a really good idea.”

In my experience, one of the core challenges of taking a humanistic approach to doing business (including the exercise of human-centred leadership) is that we have a dim view of human nature. Our actions show that we are convinced that if we appear ‘soft’ then we will be taken. So how has this offer turned out for Timpson? Here is more from that BBC blog:

“We just trust customers,” says Timpson. “We had one lady who came in with a cocktail dress and we told her to hold on. But that’s the only instance of a customer taking advantage.”

What is going on here? How to make sense of this? It occurs to me that somewhere deep down in us, our human decency is intact. Put differently, for most of us, there is something deep in our being that makes us think twice and usually prevents us from taking advantage of those who show concern for us, our fellow human beings, and our shared humanity. Where we transgress and do take advantage of the kindness of others, guilt comes into play. That is the price we pay for not honouring the best of our humanity.

Now you may be wondering what this has to do with Customer. I say take a look at what has been done in the name of customer service. Take a look at CRM. Take a look at customer loyalty programmes. Take a look at Customer Experience. Take a look at all that has happened and all the money-effort that has been expended in the name of the Customer. Now ask yourself how it is that despite all of this customer loyalty and employee engagement are stagnant – at best. There is your answer: humanistic leadership (and management practices) are the access to calling forth the good feeling that in turn leads to engagement-loyalty-advocacy: from your people, from your suppliers/partners, and from your customers.

If you are interested in learning more about Timpson then check out this piece that I wrote some time ago as it continues to be relevant and instructive: Timpson: Shifting-Transforming Culture Through Language and Practices.

Note: At the invitation of Bob Thompson, I write the Human-Centred Leadership column on CustomerThink.com. This conversation was published there last month.

You may have noticed I have not been conversing much recently here on this Blog. I have been dealing with back pain for the last six weeks. This has limited by ability to do that which it takes to create-share conversations. I hope to back in action soon.  If you missed me then I thank you for your patience. If you didn’t, excellent: now you know that you are wasting your time-life listening to me, please go and do something that lights you up!

Taking A Deeper Look At Customer-Centricity: Is It All Goodness?

Today, let’s take a deeper look at customer-centricity. Why? To get a better appreciation of what this term signifies. And importantly what it does not signify.  How best to go about this? Allow me to share a personal story or two with you and lets see what is unconcealed.

My Father Is Centred On Me

Up to the age of 5 (or so) nobody was centred upon me. As a result I lived a life that showed up as free – I pretty much got to do what I wanted to do for the whole day; my father was living in a different country for most of the time and my mother was too busy working the farm to keep a close eye on me.

Everything changed shortly after my fifth birthday. I found myself living in the UK, living an indoor life in a city (rather than an outdoor life in the countryside) and under the careful gaze of both my mother and father.  This is where life became interesting. Why? Because my father became maz-centred: he centred his attention on me.  What did this look like?

My father planned and dictated pretty much every day of my life. So when I got back from school, I was fed by my mother then marched upstairs to my bedroom to study. And not let out until the studying was done. Homework from school was not enough. My father got together with his more educated friends and gave me extra homework.  Each night there would be test.  If I did not pass the test there were unpleasant consequences.  Further, I had to watch the six o’clock news and the nine o’clock news. And I had to translate for my father. I remember that one night I forgot to inform him that the Egyptian army had been decimated by the Israeli army. The next day he found out from his friends and I got punished.

This level of maz-centricity was not enough for my father. Some weekends he would arrange for my cousin who was several years older to come over. And then he would pose questions to us both.  If I did not surpass my cousin – who was and is clever – I got punished.  To avoid the punishment I studied a lot in the evenings and even at the weekends.

As I excelled in school my fathers maz-centricity broadened to include Islam. Now I come home to school, was fed by my mother, did some homework, then had to go the mosque and study there for 2-3 hours, then return home and complete my homework.

When it came to choosing which subjects I was going to study at school for my O’levels. My father chose the subjects for example overriding my preference for Physics with his choice of biology. Why? My father was totally centred on me. Why? My father was clear that I was his passport to status (standing in the community) and money. Therefore, he was clear and determined that I was to become a doctor – at least a doctor, more likely a surgeon.

What has been unconcealed here?  My father centred his resources (time, money) on me in order to serve his needs – for status, for wealth.

I Centre On My Children

I remember coming home very late one evening – around about 11pm. It had been a hard day at work. Opening the door, I found my son (who was around 3 at the time) rushing towards me with big eyes, big smile, and open arms. As I picked him up the following thought occurred: “My son loves me just as I am. All he asks is that I be here and spend time with him. Whereas at work, I am only as good as the last project. And my utilisation rate.”  I also realised that I had been prioritising work over my son!  I made a choice. I chose to stop climbing the ladder at a Top 5 management consultancy – work less, spend more time with my son.

When Rohan (eldest son) was around 4 years old I made the decision to put him into a private school: a Montessori School. Many people advised me not do so. Their argument, private school is costly. And I could not put Rohan into Montessori School without, later, putting both Rohan and Marco (second eldest son) into Montessori School. And then later a third child; my wife and I had planned to have three to four children.

After some consideration, I chose to walk down this path – of putting Rohan into Montessori School and keeping there at least until the age of eleven. And likewise for the other children – born and unborn. Why did I make this choice? I noticed that Rohan was an unusual child: bright, risk taking, inquisitive, creative yet struggling to read or put a sentence together. Later it turned out that Rohan has the gifts and constraints that go with being Dyslexic. Noticing, what was so, I was convinced that Rohan would suffer in traditional school where the classroom size is 30+. And the work if focussed on reading and writing.  Montessori School offers a much broader curriculum and importantly uses all five sense – not just sight and sound.

When I was not working away from home, I spent some time every evening with each of my children. If nothing else I would go and lie in bed with each of them for 10 – 20 minutes. And I would ask them the same questions. How are you feeling? What was good about your day? What was not good about your day? Is there anything else that you want to tell Papa?  I would give each of them a hug and tell each of “I love you and I am so proud of you.” That was the truth and continues to be the truth.

It occurs to me that I was also centred on my children. Ask my wife and she will tell you that I continue to be centred on my children even though Rohan is nearly twenty, Marco is eighteen, and Clea is fourteen.  The question is, why have I been and continue to be centred on my children?

My answer: to give these children the best start in life. What kind of start is that? One where they are encouraged and taught to think for themselves. One where they are encouraged and taught to stand up for themselves. One where they are encouraged to be leaders not just followers. One where they are encouraged and taught to consider and care for others. One where they are encouraged to take risks, explore, create, challenge rather then merely follow instructions and execute…..  My desired outcomes for my children have been and continue to be:

  • each child knows and values his gift/s;
  • each child has strong self-esteem (sense of inner worth) and strong self-confidence (way of being in the world and handling that which shows up in the world); and
  • each child values others as fellow human beings worthy of respect-consideration and naturally gets on well with others without sacrificing his/her core values and aspirations.

Summing Up

My father centred his time-effort-resources on me from the age of five until I broke away at the age of eighteen; I had been planning to break away from about the age of fourteen.

I have centred my time-effort-money on my children since 1998-1999.  All three of my children are still living with me. None of them has any intention of moving out any time soon even though the boys are both employed.

What is the difference?  My father was centred on me in order to attain his desired outcomes and at no time considered what I wanted for my life. What mattered was my father maximising his ROI in me. I was his vehicle for status, respectability, wealth…. I have been centred on my children too – throughout the wellbeing of my children has been and continues to be my concern and my commitment.

Imagine a hunter has his attention and rifle centred on your head right now.  He is about to take that shot. How are you left feeling?  Does the fact that this hunter is centred on you mean that he has your wellbeing at the centre of his concern?  You are not that stupid, right?  No you are not, which is why you would prefer it if this hunter centred his attention and rifle on someone/thing else – just not you or your loved ones.

So why is it that so many folks go stupid when it comes to business and the use of the term customer-centricity? Why is it that folks talk about customer-centricity as good thing implying that it is good for the company and it’s customers.  It may be good for the company, it is highly unlikely to be good for the customers. And I get that there are some companies which are exceptions.

Remember:

  1. Customer-centricity is merely a set of people and practices that constitute a powerful tool;
  2. What matters is what this tool will be used for the sake of (purpose/motive);

  3. What this tool is used for will be determined by the person/s who are using this tool;

  4. Therefore, take a good-detailed look at the person/dept/organisation which is using that tool.  Look at how these folks ‘feed and breed’ and you will have a good insight into what they will be using the tool for.

  5. Whatever you do don’t listen to the words, remember the Greek legends -in particular the Sirens with their seductive music and and voices.

And finally, from my own experience I have never found anyone to be as customer-centric as a salesman who needs to make his quota. Or a direct marketers keen to get the max revenue-profits from their direct marketing efforts.