From shopping to politics – why a department store boss has what it takes to be mayor

King of shops: Andy Street. PA

If Britain is indeed a nation of shopkeepers, as Napoleon Bonaparte once claimed, the John Lewis department store is one of its icons. Popular, successful, apparently “never knowingly undersold”, it has a special place in the hearts of many of the country’s consumers. It is also the proud owner of a royal warrant from Her Majesty the Queen, and the well publicised go-to shop for British Members of Parliament and their (sometimes) controversial expense accounts.

And now the shop’s experienced boss, Andy Street, has stepped down after 31 years with the firm to swap the well lit shop floor for the slightly murkier world of politics. The 53-year-old is standing as the Conservative Party candidate in the fight to be mayor of the West Midlands. But does a history of winning over customers translate into a future winning votes?

Street’s success as a business leader is evident. Over the nine years that he has led the retail division of the John Lewis Partnership (JLP), he has launched a successful online business which runs in parallel with the actual stores. This was a significant transformation of the business which required him to lead the organisation’s employees – or “partners” as they are known – towards future financial sustainability.

While this period of transformation leaves his successor, Paula Nickolds, with some challenges around the future role and design of the stores, the transition to running a very successful online offering has been relatively seamless for both customers and employees.

I’ve met Andy Street on three occasions and while I am sure he won’t remember me, I remember him very well. Remembering a leader well means they have made an impact upon you, however short the encounter. And I am pleased to say that the impact Street made on me was entirely positive. He is an extremely able and competent leader and clearly not afraid to challenge – characteristics that are typical of most CEOs.

What is less typical and perhaps less well known is his benevolence and genuine concern for others. His efforts to support local communities in areas where the JLP stores are situated have been entirely within the John Lewis tradition. Quietly executed, hardly known. He also has integrity, having grown up to be an exemplar of the John Lewis values of trust and reliability in retailing, and the management of people.

Ability, competence, benevolence and integrity are all known to be the tests people apply to discern whether either an individual leader or an organisation is trustworthy.

Andy Street has worked for the same organisation since joining as a graduate, working his way up from the shop floor to boardroom. This means his ability and competence, his personal benevolence and his integrity have been the subjects of constant scrutiny throughout his career. The John Lewis retail stores’ entire workforce will have judged him continuously and, as an employee owned partnership, will have had the right and voice to air their opinions.

Plucking heart strings.

Indeed this right to voice their opinions extends to the right to oust him from the leadership role should they record deep dissatisfaction with his performance. They have chosen not to. But why does this leadership experience and employee endorsement make him a suitable candidate for mayor of Birmingham?

My own research on John Lewis (and 24 other companies) in the wake of the financial crisis focused on its trustworthiness and its distinctive leadership team. I know therefore that Street has been used to being accountable for his actions to a level that most CEOs will never experience. He is accustomed to being challenged by his own workforce, not because he has done anything wrong, but because the principles by which John Lewis was founded gives employee the right to challenge their leaders, a legitimacy in its governance structures that other organisations do not possess.

Leading the way

He is used to being held to account by employees at all levels. For instance, no senior manager in John Lewis is allowed to refuse to answer a question posed by anyone in the organisation. If they do not know the answer at the time of the question, they are expected to find the answer and report back to the employee. This is a leader who is used to a style of communication as two way dialogue – a conversation rather than a senior manager directive. This seems an ideal training for an individual who seeks to represent a community as mayor.

Joseph Chamberlain.

The competencies required to get into the senior ranks of John Lewis include having a strategic vision coupled with a disciplined execution. Individuals are also measured on their commitment to create an enduring legacy for the next generation of employees and leaders. In the course of my research, I was told by other senior leaders at JLP: “You’re here on behalf of the the people you lead.” A sense of service is therefore key to your success.

A former mayor of Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain, said of the key qualities required of a leader: “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities – because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

Luckily for the West Midlands, Andy Street has ability, benevolence and integrity in bucket loads. But he also has the courage and benevolence to now switch his career to one of public service in his home town.

I for one wish him every good fortune.