How to Get the Most Out of Your People: Timpson’s shoe-mending and key-cutting

August 24, 2012

By Darryl Cooke

As you walk into Timpson House you very quickly realise that you are entering a very special company. The reception replicates a high street Timpson outlet and the administrative offices are like something from a film set or a Disney World hotel. You wonder if you were expected to bring a child with you.

Offices often reflect the leadership of a company. It becomes apparent very quickly that John Timpson is one of the most innovative leaders not only of his generation.

His style of always challenging the way things are done, of always seeking to improve, and of never accepting the status quo has been carved over generations at his family firm and, with his son James at the helm now under John’s tutelage, is probably achieving its greatest success.

“Whatever industry you operate in, it is all about your people, and catching them doing things right, and providing them with the confidence, the motivation, the freedom and desire to achieve their true potential.”

That continuity is evidently one of the keys to success. The “ah buts” were dealt with a long time ago, in the early stages of change, and my guess is that there is now in place a very efficient method of dealing with those that don’t grasp the forward momentum of the business.

The innovation and new ideas clearly make Timpson an exciting organisation to be part of but, in fact, the foundation of the company’s success is its lack of management. Timpson House is the head office but no one is allowed to refer to it as that because the sole aim of the “head” office is to provide administration services to the front line in the shops where all the money is earned.

No one from Timpson House is allowed to issue an order, not even John Timpson himself. There are only two rules: one is to look the part and the other is to put money in the till. Beyond that they can virtually do what they want including pricing, and the only rule then is to pass on what works and what doesn’t so everyone can benefit from it. They refer to it as upside-down management.

This hasn’t all happened by accident. It may seem a natural way to operate now but a lot of thinking, challenging and change has taken place to enable Timpson to be where it is today.

John does what he’s good at. He still can’t mend a shoe. But he has a mind that will always seek to improve and do things better.

He operates “on” the business and not “in” the business, and I suspect he always has. He has strong views on bureaucracy which he believes stifles a business and creativity and prefers to give his people authority. The attendant risks he believes to be minimal.

Timpson doesn’t operate salary scales. Everyone is treated individually and their pay is reviewed on the anniversary of the day they join. He has strong views on HR departments who, he believes, if allowed to do so remove the authority and skill of managing from the CEO.

Appraisals were tried at Timpson but soon abandoned. He couldn’t remember one appraisal that gave any benefit and, in fact, they probably did more harm than good. That doesn’t mean appraisals don’t take place but the formality has gone and good leaders find a way of doing it when it’s needed. Timpson doesn’t tie up the whole workforce in setting budgets, which is largely left to the finance department.

It doesn’t even have a marketing department. And health and safety – well, what do you think? They don’t take risks but will do what is necessary to create a safe environment and not an administrative exercise. Box ticking is bad for business.

And as for those innovations, well I’ve hardly started. How about a day off for your birthday, an alarm clock when you start work, great bonus schemes at branch level (which are cut at their peril), creative ways of celebrating success, very effective and wide-reaching corporate social responsibility programmes, training in pictures (John has introduced very clever training manuals in cartoon book form), an introduce a friend scheme for new recruits, awards events to coincide with special events, “dreams come true” for employees, hardship funds and chairman’s awards.

John loves to find a reason to praise people. Whatever industry you operate in, it is all about your people, and catching them doing things right, and providing them with the confidence, the motivation, the freedom and desire to achieve their true potential.

Of course that means having the right people on the bus and Timpson is not slow at dealing with “drongos” with a face-to-face chat and a policy it describes as “parting as friends”, irrespective of HR guidelines.

And what is the firm’s biggest challenge? One of them must be succession. There is no doubt that the business is in safe hands for a long time to come with James at the helm. They have launched a leadership course – you’ve guessed, not run by consultants but by James and John. As long as they are around the culture they have created will thrive.