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Can you turn a business around with team building?

Falling sales, slipping standards and low staff morale. How do you take on the challenges of a business operating in turbulent times whilst inspiring your staff like never before? IIP Northern Ireland Practitioner John Mulholland tells the story of how one store turned things around in less than a year…

Ian Elliott is a man of few words. Modest and forthright, ask him about his achievements and he’ll always divert the conversation back to his staff. But Ian stands out as an exemplary modern leader and it’s worth delving deeper to discover the secrets of his success. As one of his employees, Marlene Martin, puts it, “If every business had an Ian, they’d be awesome too!”

Starting from scratch

As a manager at SuperValu, part of the Musgrave retail group in Northern Ireland, Ian has led six stores through successful change processes over the last 10 years. But his most recent has been the biggest challenge, with arguably the most impressive result. When Ian took on the role of Store Manager at SuperValu Ballymoney, its sales were more than 10% below the group average, wastage and shrinkage figures were high and people weren’t working as a team.

In his first week, Ian had one-to-one meetings with every single member of staff to understand their skills, motivations and values. As a result he was able to agree a plan with the storeowner and area manager, setting out a vision for the store and its development. Above all, it focused on training.

The importance of shared values

“The staff needed to be trained to do their jobs, that was the bottom line,” says Ian. “It was the start of being able to hold them accountable and give them responsibility for their departments.” As Ian rolled out his plan – assessing everyone’s skills, spotting talent, making the relevant changes to rotas and training everyone to understand exactly what the figures meant for them – things began to change. Marlene Martin, now head of the fruit & veg department recalls, “Nobody had ever got any feedback here before, about how departments were doing or what your margins or your KPIs should be. It was like Double Dutch at the start.”

And for many of the existing staff, it was just too much of a culture change. There was an 80% staff turnover in total, all but two of whom left of their own accord. “People were used to things the way they’d always been done,” says Ian. “The members of staff who left couldn’t see the benefits of the way we were changing. They didn’t get on board because their values were totally different.” Faced with such a huge upheaval, morale amongst the remaining staff could easily have floundered. But by launching a new motivational programme, Ian harnessed the momentum of their clear commitment to the store.

A STEP towards continuous improvement

Geoff Johnston, SuperValu Regional Manager, explains, “Ian chose the positive approach – launching the STEP programme to drive sales, improve staff morale and ultimately test the change by reviewing progress – all while using Investors in People as a sounding board.”

STEP stands for Speak To Every Person, Sell To Every Person. It’s a customer-focused way to encourage everyone to play their part in the store’s improvement, with targets and bonuses for each department on display in the staff areas for everyone to see and feel inspired by. By linking STEP with the values of the business and where it was going, Ian made it clear that there was a connection between every single person’s efforts and the success of the store. He didn’t shy away from the fact that if they didn’t pull together to turn a major corner, there would have to be cutbacks or redundancies.

Communication is key

Ian’s approach confirms what most business leaders already know, but rarely put into practice: “It’s all about communication, explaining and involving everybody. We put everyone on crash courses so they could understand things like margins, waste and shrinkage. Then we shared all the facts about the business, we don’t hide any figure from anyone.”

Department heads also get daily update emails detailing their sales figures for the week to date and how the store is doing as a whole. “We have 15 departments in this store,” Ian explains, “and they’re all run like separate businesses, but under one roof. We can do that because each supervisor has the knowledge and confidence to run their department to make money.”

Keeping up the momentum

Around a year on and the difference is immense. Sales have increased by nearly 15%. Weekly wastage has halved and shrinkage is down from 3% to 0.3%.

Customer service satisfaction levels are at over 96%. In March, SuperValu Ballymoney was named Musgrave Store of the Year, in May they won the Excellence Ireland Q Mark award for hygiene and in July they achieved Investors in People Bronze level. The store is also used as an example for other managers and they’ve had 19 official visits in the past 10 months. But one of the most impressive indicators of the store’s success is the remarkable difference in its people.

Marlene, who was moved from the checkout to become head of the fruit & veg department, is just one example of how staff have grasped the opportunity to put previously underutilised skills to better use. “I’ve just turned 40 and I feel the way I did in high school,” Marlene says. “That excitement about what’s coming next and all the things that are possible. And that’s totally down to Ian giving me that extra confidence. I never could’ve seen myself understanding all those figures, let alone putting them into practice. Now I’m so proud to be part of this team.”

Special qualities

“Driving positive change requires a special skill set – and Ian’s got it,” says Geoff, Ian’s regional manager. “He’s known as a fair but firm manager and he leads the team successfully not only by ensuring everyone understands the goals and targets, but also by actively guiding them to unlock their true potential.”

In my role as an IIP Practitioner, I’ve seen first-hand that great leadership isn’t just about good intentions, it sometimes requires hard decisions to be made and followed through. And Ian is one of the best examples I know of a leader personally committing time and energy to ensure the business succeeds. By being visible, approachable and supportive Ian won and maintained his team’s trust.  As the aspects he was focusing on started to improve, Ian constantly reinforced the message that it was directly because of the things his staff were doing.