John Timpson on Servant Leadership

I recently came across this great episode of Peter Day’s “In Business” podcast for BBC Radio 4.


It’s the story of John Timpson and his family’s shoe repair and key cutting business. From what he describes in this interview he sounds like he’s practicing a great example of servant leadership.

Here are some quotes from John Timpson:

On the danger of the business falling into the hands of a business school trained manager: “I think they could screw it up in probably less then 12 months… They’d take all the power away from the people who actually serve the customers. They’d look at the very significant support structure I’ve got in the field. They’d chop that down. I could take £1M out of that overhead and put that straight to the bottom line for one year. I spend over £3M on training, that could be cut. Probably £2M saved there and in the first year profit would soar and within 3 years the business would be completely screwed up.”

“If I talk about the way we run our business… the first thing people do is come up with reasons why it’s alright for you: It’ll work in your business because… because you’re smaller than us, because you’re a family business, because you’re a cobbler. … I think it’d work in any business.”

”…the general idea of giving people who actually know what they’re doing the power to get on with and feed back the way to run the business - it has got to be the right thing to do.”

On the way most people run organizations: “…they’re not even interested in results. They’re interested in making sure people go about it in the prescribed way. I mean the results don’t seem to matter as much, so long as you tick the right box.”

Transforming the business

“It took me 20 years of being a chief executive to discover the most important way you can offer good customer service and that is very simply to trust your people and give them the freedom to get on and do it the way they think best… really good customer service is dealing with the awkward problems, the difficult problems the individual problems… You can’t give individual service through a set of rules …”

”… people can only deal with the unexpected if they have the freedom to do it their way…”

“It was quite difficult to get our people to believe we meant what we said”

Apparently the company used to be run in a very militaristic fashion using “standing orders”. A way that gave individuals very little freedom.

John Timpson says he has very few rules:

“I picked the two most dramatic things I could to demonstrate how strongly I felt that they should be set free.”

“we had to convince them of that which is why we said you can spend up to £500 to settle a complaint without telling anyone else and you can set your own prices.”

”… it saves you an awful lot of money… it saves you a fortune in complaints departments… we let the people in the shops settle complaints.”

The Importance of People

”…it made us pay more attention to the people themselves. Because our way of running a business only works if you’ve got the right people. you need people with the right personality. If somebody is not interested we don’t want them - nor does anyone else working with them…. we quite positively discriminate against what we call ‘drongos’ - which are the people who aren’t going to fit into our organization.”

“We do everything against last year we don’t bother with budgets, we don’t have targets. Last year is good enough for us.”

“visiting the shops … makes one hell of a difference - you can influence a culture so much better by meeting people face to face - and so know what’s happening in the business…. “

”…If you’ve got a week when you’re 15% down on against last year. The danger if you’re stuck at head office is that you cut a few jobs or cut a bit.. Don’t do that… Go out into the high street and find out what the mood’s like. Are you doing anything wrong? … or should you say ‘I’m fine. What I’m getting is what’s available. I’m going to batten down the hatches and wait until things get better.’”

”… We don’t go ‘round [the shops] to check up on them. I’m there to find out where the good ideas are, … to get a feel of what’s going on and also to listen…”

”… The most difficult part of getting the ‘upside-down management’ to work was to persuade the area managers of 10 years ago to change into the area managers of today… they’d been promoted, they got their company car, they saw themselves as the suit and the briefcase going ‘round their job is to tell people what to do like they were told when they were managers. I turn around and say “no, you can’t issue any orders” your job is to help support and look after the people who work for you….”

”… however many times we catch people pinching money I will still trust everybody. ‘Cos As soon as you stop trusting people you start putting in a whole load of systems which get in the way of looking after the customers…”

”…they will always find ways to do it [pinching money]. In fact, in one of our training manuals we have written the 20 easiest ways of pinching money from us so they know we know how they go about it. In the end it’s about picking the right people…”

They encourage staff to invent their own deals and initiatives and rather than blocking innovation encourage staff to try out new initiatives, tracking and reporting progress.

“it’s scary at first, but it’s good” - one of the employees being interviewed in a Timpson’s shop. That’s exactly how I felt in my first few weeks of practicing extreme programming.

Bonuses are calculated for an entire shop using a completely standardized formula. Bonuses are paid weekly although there’s a different share for different team members according to their skills the team running a shop are working together to get a bonus rather than against each other.

Timpsons apparently have an “open book” policy on their financial figures and they encourage shop staff to know where their shop stands financially.

Electronic Point of Sale System says “No!”

“We got rid of all our EPOS tills. The problem there is that once you’ve got those … they tell the managers loads of information…. The way to make it successful is to allow the people who meet the customers to decide how each individual shop should be run. They order their own stock. They’ve got a till which is not much more than an adding machine which doesn’t tell them they’ve got to charge this price and they can’t do multiple sales…”

John Timpson mentioned the story of an establishment that ran happy hours in a bar. One of the problems with EPOS systems is that you end up having to tell your customers something like: “I’m very sorry the computer won’t let me give you the other pint”.

“I don’t want EPOS devices telling my people what to do… and the other problem … they do give all the information to head office. So head office are then the people who run the business. I don’t want them to run the business because they don’t know about the business.”

Timpson’s criticism is quite similar to the criticism I have of supposedly “agile” software development planning tools. It’s far too easy for people to end up with such a restrictive system that it becomes a micromanagement tool which is the exact opposite of what we need for motivated, self-organizing teams.

Using simple language and being open

James Timpson: “we talk in what we call ‘shoe repair language’ so we talk very much in the way colleagues in the shops will speak. We don’t use mumbo-jumbo, processes, funny words anything like that. We’re dead straight slightly northern type management structure, style in some ways… we believe that if you just be sensible, be honest be straight and get good people - then you’ll be okay.”

On “open book management”: “…we have a weekly newsletter that goes out to every shop. It’s 24 pages. We tell everybody everything: how we’re doing, how much money we’re making, how much money we have in the bank, who’s joining, who’s leaving, what’s going well, what’s going badly…”

”…The more open you are, the less opportunity people have to suspect things are going awry or plotting or rumor mongering. Just tell everybody everything. We don’t have any secrets…”

”…We go round the shops 3-4 days a week. The business isn’t about what happens at head office. The business is about what happens where the money is taken and that’s were we need to be…”

“You’ve got to have the courage to ignore what other people do and do it the way you’ve discovered works.”- John Timpson

Here’s the link:

A Question

Okay, so how do I propose John Timpson as a keynote speaker for XPDays or for BCS SPA?

Photograph acknowledgement: Thanks to the user wwphotos at flickr for the creative commons licensed picture found here: