Former chief executive of Sainsbury's, Justin King. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After Justin King, Satya Nadella and Tim Cook, business needs leaders who will embrace risk, and welcome change

Whether through regulation, market consolidation or new technology, businesses are being forced into rapid change, in order to keep or grow their market position.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve had news of a lot of changes within the leadership of some major brands. At the end of January, it was announced that Justin King, the chief executive of Sainsbury’s will be stepping down in July, after 10 years as head of the company. This month Microsoft announced Satya Nadella, a veteran insider and previous head of the company's cloud computing division and enterprise business, will take over from CEO Steve Ballmer. It isn’t unexpected that in a time when companies have to contend with a very real and immediate sense of market disruption, that these management changes receive intense scrutiny as businesses look to safeguard their future.

Even the leadership of the mighty Apple continues to be under the microscope. Tim Cook, despite presiding over some spectacularly successful sales since he took the reins from Steve Jobs, continues to be subject to criticism as the market expects more from the business and looks to the leadership to facilitate further innovation. So much so that Forbes published a column last month, asking if he would be the next "Steve Ballmer."

Whether through regulation, market consolidation and/or new technology, businesses are being forced to undergo substantial change in order to keep or grow their market position and often new leaders are pushed to the helm to help overcome these disruptions and deliver profitability and growth.

Leaders have a key role in enabling and informing the strategy of innovation. Unless a business can innovate then it risks becoming obsolete. Just look at BlackBerry’s swift decline, which was reportedly down to infighting at its executive level that ultimately prevented it from being competitive.

Microsoft has placed a bet on the cloud and mobile markets, explaining that conquering them remains critical to its future success. The company will now need to try and find its identity and manage wholesale change as the markets it dominated historically, such as the personal computing market, decline or vanish. Microsoft is only just beginning to tackle this challenge in its consumer business, with limited reports of its success.

Similarly, when his time comes, Mike Coupe, who is set to take over from Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King in July, has a tough market to battle in. In his 10 years, King has delivered unprecedented growth through a period of intensifying and aggressive competition in the retail sector. As one of the most vocal proponents of big data and analytics, King credits the Nectar programme with delivering much of Sainsbury’s competitive edge and in delivering sustained margins in an industry famous for discounting.

Although well placed to do so, Coupe will need to build on this in the years ahead as he takes the top job. As I outlined in my joint paper with Joe Peppard of the Cranfield School of Management, all CEOs need to harness the potential of data to drive their decision-making and spearhead a path for growth. And, in equal measure, Sainsbury’s will need to continue to invest in its customer experience online and in-store, drawing on the wealth of insight available to it via the Nectar programme and beyond.

Facing change in established markets can take significant courage: as technologies like smartphones start to redefine human behaviour around everyday things, from shopping to routefinding, businesses may find themselves needing to completely redefine their operating model. As part of a report I authored recently, called EMC Leader 2020, I commissioned research to explore the attitudes of UK business leaders to change, risk, technology and innovation. It found that some two thirds of CxOs at large companies in the UK say they are experiencing disruption in their markets right now. 85 per cent are ready to embrace change but, somewhat worryingly, over half of them find change difficult to handle. In the UK, we’ll need to get better at this if we are to maintain our global competitiveness.

So how can we discover these next great innovations? And how do you capitalise on it? Well, my first prescription would be decisiveness. Almost all of CxOs surveyed for my report said their teams were sometimes unable to take decisions due to information overload and a focus on consensus. Cutting through this syndrome, often referred to as analysis paralysis, is a crucial first step to delivering innovation.

Secondly, I believe the CEOs role should be that of a sponsor and champion of innovation, rather than necessarily being the innovator-in-chief. That means fostering an adaptive culture that is open to change, and persuading all staff that experimentation should be part of their role, then exercising good judgement when picking which ideas to develop. It’s an approach that requires driving, nurturing and encouraging innovation across all levels of the business.

In the UK, it’s crucial that we do everything we can to achieve this. PwC’s recent Breakthrough Innovation and Growth paper showed that British companies think innovation is much less important than most countries in the world, in particular China and Germany. The same paper showed that the most innovative 20 per cent of companies grow an average of 50 per cent faster that the least innovative – which does a lot to illustrate the impact that an innovative culture can have on the bottom line.

James Petter is vice president and managing director of  internet services company EMC UK&I.

A protest in 2016. Getty
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Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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