A few weeks ago a flock of Canada geese flew over my garden. I imagined them to be identical – looking the same, doing the same things at the same time and thinking in the same way. Maybe the geese were looking down on us thinking we too are like peas in a pod. If so, they are wrong. What makes us human is our differing personalities, mainly shaped by the people around us.
I’m blessed with nine grandchildren. The youngest, less than two years old, is full of smiles, blissfully ignorant of the challenges that lie ahead. She is one of the lucky ones; with loving parents, she grows up trusting the world around her, developing confidence and self-esteem. Others are less fortunate. In the 31 years that I was a foster carer with my late wife Alex (who did nearly all the work), several of the 90 children found it tricky to form friendships; they constantly pushed the boundaries to test whether we were truly on their side. This distressed behaviour was caused by a lack of loving adult support in their early years. We all need to form a strong attachment to people we can trust.
Studying Industrial Economics at Nottingham University, I learnt about supply and demand, the balance of payments and return on investment. They taught me about budgets, cost control and critical path analysis, but the vital bit was missing.
It was another 32 years before I discovered the secret. The best way to run a business is to trust your colleagues with the freedom to do their job in the way they know best. Our bosses at Timpson don’t tell anyone what to do; they do their job by helping every team member become the very best they can possibly be. Not only through work-based training, but by helping colleagues to cope with personal problems – debt, divorce, drugs and bereavement – all of which prevent people being on top form.
Business leaders are in a privileged position. They influence more people’s lives than priests, politicians, teachers and social workers. Rightly, we talk about corporate social responsibility, helping charities in the community, but the priority is, in fact, to support your own colleagues, through understanding, appreciation and providing an environment that feels like home. The need for an attachment, first established in childhood (usually by mum and dad), continues through life. It is provided, if you are lucky, by your family, friends and neighbours – and also, importantly, by your job.
As an independent family-owned business, we can take a long-term view – not just on strategy and investment but also in creating our culture. Our upside-down management way of doing things isn’t for everyone. It only works with the right people; we need positive personalities who like to use their initiative and work alongside likeminded colleagues who love the job as much as they do.
Apart from a short spell as a shop assistant, just before we got married, Alex never worked for Timpson, but her experience as a foster carer helped to give the business a social conscience. She never talked about turnover or profit – it was always about people. She taught us the importance of kindness, passionately claiming that a company can be kind and make plenty of money at the same time.
I now know she was right. Often, when visiting our outlets, colleagues tell me “I love being trusted to run my own shop”. Empowerment is very good for individual well-being. It gives a sense that you are valued, helps to strengthen the bonds of attachment, and develops the individuality that makes us all human.