Leadership at Morrison’s: Investigating a Differentiator into a Retail Industry Leader
Leadership was broadly defined by Yukl (1989) as “influencing task objectives and strategies, influencing commitment and compliance in task behaviour to achieve these objectives, influencing the culture of an organisation.” In simpler terms, leaders influence the actions and behaviours of their followers to obtain a shared vision or aim. According to Deming (1992), leadership must come from top management and leaders must possess profound knowledge. By profound knowledge, Deming meant that one must have knowledge of systems, variations (statistical thinking), theory, and psychology.
Leadership is quite different from management; leaders grow from mastering their own conflict which arises during their developing years using internal strength to survive. On the other hand, managers tend to perceive issues as positive progressions of events which must be planned, organised, scheduled, and controlled. In order to create the proper thinking perspective, leaders must aggressively investigate and act on the current market to create opportunities. Effective leaders are those that are capable of assisting their organisation/country manage change and steer it towards success.
The current paper assesses the leadership in Morrison’s, one of the top supermarkets in the UK.
Transformational Leadership at Morrison’s
Tichy and Devanna (1986) assert that managers engage in very little change but manage what is present and leave things much as they found them when they depart. Transformational leadership, they declared, focuses on change, innovation, and entrepreneurship. They assumed that transformational leaders begin with a social fabric, disrupt that environment, and then recreate the social fabric to better reflect the overall business climate (Bass, 1990). Looking at the history of Morrison’s one can see evidence of all these factors of change, innovation and entrepreneurship.
Morrison’s is the embodiment of innovation and entrepreneurship. It has, in fact, been pioneered by entrepreneur William Morrison – its phenomenal growth begun with a humble stall in Bradford market, now metamorphosed into the retail giant it is today. 1958 marked the opening of a small-town center shop. It marked another first in being the first entity in Bradford to introduce the concept of self-service and of price tagging its products. It continued its growth efforts and have announced being a public company by 1967. Over 80,000 investors wanted to buy shares! The next milestones in its history include the launch of a new produce depot in Bradford, the acquisition of Whelan Stores in Lancashire, the operation of a Farmers Boy which deals with fresh food production, the opening of a new purpose-built distribution centre, the establishment of a fresh food warehouse and distribution site, the opening of its 100th store in its centenary year, its inclusion in FTSE 100, and the recent merger of Safeway (Company history, 2006, http://www.morrisons.co.uk/42.asp).
In January 2000, Ken Morrison has been recognized with Knighthood in the 2000 New Year’s Honours list for his contributions to food retailing. Ken Morrison has exhibited the characteristics of a transformational leader: (a) dominance, (b) self-confidence, (c) need for influence, and (d) conviction of moral righteousness. Transformational leaders are expected to deal with the paradox of predicting the unknown and sometimes the unknowable. The courage and risk taking with which Morrison’s has undertaken its mergers and acquisitions are proof of such dominance, self-confidence, and influence. These leaders change and transform the organisation according to a vision of a preferred status. Leaders then are change makers and transformers, guiding the organisation to a new and more compelling vision, a demanding role expectation (Bass, 1990).
The trait of conviction of moral righteousness is best manifested in the company’s corporate social responsibility efforts. The power and influence of corporations, actual or perceived, and the impact of their economic, social, and political actions on society in general, have resulted in a broad societal expansion that corporations be accountable for their actions. Put in simpler terms, there is a growing public sentiment that organisations have a responsibility to weigh the impact that their decisions have on the parties involved – and eliminate, minimize or compensate for the harm they may inflict on society (Kahn, 1997). The justification for this expectation is partly derived from a moral position that corporations are and should behave like any other citizen in society, upholding ethical and moral responsibilities. The expectation that organisations should be responsible for their impact on society is also justified on the basis that power has corresponding responsibilities. As Dodd (1932 in Mallin, 2002) asserts, “power over the lives of others tends to create on the part of those most worthy to exercise it a sense of responsibility.”
Looking into the corporate social responsibility (CSR) portfolio of Morrison’s, we see that envisions CSR as engaged in the profound comprehension and management of its relationships with all its stakeholders. This includes its contribution to national growth, environmental sustainability, and concern for community. The following is its CSR vision: “To be recognised as a business that balances social, environmental and economic priorities with long term national brand development and commercial success.” (Corporate Social Responsibility, 2006, http://www.morrisons.co.uk/61.asp). To carry this out, it intends to manage the various issues that may influence its enterprise performance. A core value that will permit them to do so is continuous improvement, through which they aim to achieve cost-efficiency, reasonable risk management, and improvement of operations. Its CSR priorities thus include product integrity,
supply chain management and labour standards, operational environmental management, community investment, and employment policies (Corporate Social Responsibility, 2006, http://www.morrisons.co.uk/61.asp).
New Leadership Challenge: The Merger with Safeway
While management has been very effective at leading the organisation with its day-to-day operations, a recent change has posed a new challenge to Morrison’s leadership. March 2004 has been another Milestone for Morrison’s when it has finally realised a merger with top competitor safeway after 14 tedious months of negotiations. Rebecca Ivers, the HR Director of Safeway, asserts that this has presented new leadership challenges for the novel entity. She says: “Maintaining leadership was crucial and we recognised our leadership was failing. We had to retain our people because without them there was no business, and realised that the role of leadership had changed and that demands on managers would increase tenfold in the next 14 months.” (Supermarket giant checks out, 2004, http://www.personneltoday.com/Articles/2004/03/16/22885/ Supermarket+giant+checks+out.htm).
To address this new challenge, Ivers has developed a training programme which focuses a new leadership model at its center. The intent of the programme is to create a clear awareness of the circumstances they are now operating in and coping mechanisms through which they could adapt to the changes. This aims to boost the morale of the current workforce, and to give clear strategic directions for new management. Their leaders were equipped with skills on organisational sensitivity and were taught to anticipate employees’ affect at certain phases of the change process. Teaching them about mental toughness and stress management were also featured in the programme. Close to 1,200 employees underwent the programme within a span of 10 months (Supermarket giant checks out, 2004, http://www.personneltoday.com/Articles/2004/03/16/22885/ Supermarket+giant+checks+out.htm).
To reward exemplary leadership behavior, Safeway has modified its rewards philosophy to reinforce positive leadership. To carry this out, an assessment of leadership is conducted each quarter – there were coaching programs made available for those who needed to improve. According to Ivers, “Leadership development has been hugely important to us. We even changed the bonus structure to make sure it was effective. It was crucial because we needed it to push the rest of our framework for managing transition” (Supermarket giant checks out, 2004, http://www.personneltoday.com/Articles/2004/03/16/22885/ Supermarket+giant+checks+out.htm).
The way such change was handled shows how Morrison’s puts a premium not only on the task but on its people as well. The fact that they have launched such a leadership programme which focuses not only on cognition, but on affect as well, is a manifestation of the importance they place on how people feel about the change. This is an important facet of transformational leadership. Studies have been carried out in many different countries, and research in this area also shows that transformational leadership is closer to perceptions of ideal leadership than transactional leadership. As Hartog et al (1999) note, being perceived as a leader is a prerequisite for being able to go beyond a formal role in influencing others. They hold that leadership perceptions can be based on two alternative processes. First, leadership can be inferred from outcomes of salient events, and attribution is crucial in these inference-based processes. For example, a successful business ‘turnaround’ is often quickly attributed to the high quality ‘leadership’ of top executives or the CEO. Leadership can also be recognized based on the fit between an observed person’s characteristics with the perceivers’ implicit ideas of what ‘leaders’ are (Hartog et al., 1999). This again points to the fact that an effective manager is not only focused on delivering tasks, but on handling his people well.
Clearly, Morrison places emphasis on the acquisition of both technical and soft skills to be able to cope with the change. This is very critical in maintaining the effective leadership of the organisation, which has made it successful as an entrepreneurial effort. Skill acquisition acknowledges that proficiency and expertise are a function of the exposure to a variety of situations. These circumstances become experiences for the learner to elicit apt responses. Bandura (1997) emphasized that most learning transpires by observing and modeling behaviors. Information is then stored and coded cognitively and utilized as guide for action. He further noted that the development of a realistic learning setting incorporating environment, behavior, and thought promotes the acquisition of complex skills (Bandura, 1997). In the case of the merger, the skills which they need to cope with the change has been provided by the organisation – which has made the merger successful.
The following soft competencies have been recommended areas for leadership development by the Development Dimensions International website (2005): master at managing through ambiguity; inspires confidence and belief in the future; have a passion for results; are marked by unwavering integrity; set others up for success; have strong rather than big egos; and have the courage to make big decisions. These have all been exemplified by Morrison’s leadership.
Mastery at managing through ambiguity. Build a culture that embraces change; constantly set clear goals and expectations; are able to manage across boundaries (and lead others to do the same); show connections between individual accountabilities, team goals, and organisational vision and strategies; sets out a clear course even though it may change frequently. Even as their executives and key managers were uncertain of their futures in the newly merged entity, they still persevered to carry out their respective functions as effectively as before.
Inspires confidence and belief in the future. Are able to articulate a vision depicting what they want their organisation; exudes calm and projects optimism in the face of uncertainty; can engage and inspire employees in their work connecting their needs and values with those of the institution. The training programme which has been carried out after the merger has addressed the low morale generally felt by majority of employees. It has kept them on track again, and believed that there is a bright future ahead of them despite the change.
Passion for results. Set clear accountabilities and high expectations for themselves and for others; hire, promote and reward high performers; keep themselves and their employees focused on the top two or three customer-driven priorities; take action on those who do not fit or who are consistently not performing; establish critical measures of success and make sure they are visible to others. There is an emphasis on continuing to deliver results despite the recent change. This is attested to by the positive financial results that have come right after the merger.
Marked by unwavering integrity. Serve as a “moral compass” for others; keeps promises and commitments; “walks the talk”; gives straight, honest feedback; leads through values; acts promptly when their own or the integrity of their organisation is compromised. In part, this is supported by its corporate social responsibility and corporate governance efforts, which aim to add value for all its stakeholders – society, the environment, customers, and employees.
Set others up for success. Coaches others to succeed before they have the opportunity to fail; truly enjoys seeing people learn and grow; rewards and recognizes success; views failures as learning opportunities; shares (rather than hordes) talent for the good of the organisation. There is a strong emphasis on training people and on skills acquisition, which is critical for long term sustainability.
Have strong rather than big egos. Humbly shares credit with others; never shoots the messenger – they encourage the sharing of bad news; are always asking “how can we do things better?”; blame themselves before pointing a finger at others; knows themselves and are guided by strong personal values; listens to understand; recognizes that they, more often than not, are not the ones with the right answers. The environment at Morisson’s is conducive to employee empowerment, and expressing views on issues that affect employees directly.
Have the courage to make big decisions. Addresses issues or problems quickly; takes actions that are right, even when they are unpopular – they act on conviction; stands by their decisions once they make them – even if circumstances cause them to change course later; takes a longer term view consistent with a future vision (www.ddiworld.com, 2005). This is definitely seen in the drastic, and yet successful business decisions that the company’s management have undertaken ever since its establishment as an entrepreneurial venture.
In summary, the management of Morrison’s exhibit exceptional transformational leadership, which emphasizes innovation, change, entrepreneurship and self-confidence. Amidst turbulent change, it has managed to teach its key leaders to cope and to positively influence the change – a solid hallmark of true transformational leadership.
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