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Lessons from Tesco

Ray Evans has recently read a book by the man who used to lead retail giant Tesco. So, what has he learnt? In all our talk about leadership, we can never forget what being a church leader is all about.

Lessons from Tesco primary image

Truth, loyalty, courage, values, act, balance, simple, lean, compete, trust. Just ten words.

These form the chapter headings of former Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy’s Management in 10 Words. The title clearly reflects his awareness, from his Roman Catholic upbringing, of God’s 10 Commandments.

In the book, he summarises his approach to leading Tesco, when he took it from being very much the number three food store on the British high street, to a global giant six times larger than either Marks & Spencer or Sainsbury’s, and the third largest retailer in the world.

The blurb on the back says: “He draws on his experience and expertise to pinpoint 10 vital attributes that make successful managers and underlie great organisations.”

To be honest, there is perhaps little crossover to the world of church leadership. Nevertheless, some stories were eye-opening.

For example, in his day, all Tesco managers had to spend a week on the shop-floor. It led to a great cameo when he, the boss of the whole organisation, did a stint on the till at a Tesco in Royston. One customer was heard to say to him: “You’re not very good, but you tried hard and I think you’ll go far in Tesco.”

A vital focus

Two aspects stood out to me. One came in his opening chapter on Truth.

He stresses how important it is to confront reality and then focus on the core purpose of the organisation. He summed it up like this: “I concluded our core purpose was to create value for customers to earn their lifetime loyalty. Nothing about what we sell. No mention of profit. No sense that we deserve anyone’s custom. Instead a vital focus on customers.” (emphasis added).

He went on to stress how important it was that senior leaders embody and exemplify this in all the decisions they made.

It got me thinking – Tesco is first and foremost about people. If they are, how much more should we be? “People matter to God” is what we say as our number one value at Grace Community Church. So people should matter to us, and we must deeply feel that they do. The question is: do they?

In a short devotional at a Word Alive prayer time, Hugh Palmer, Rector of All Souls Church in London drew our attention to these words: “For now we really live since you are standing firm in the faith” (1 Thess 3:8). Hugh stressed the intensity of the bond between the Apostle Paul and these converts, created in a relatively short time.

In fact, the whole chapter resonates with the closeness of that relationship, and the significance of God’s work in real people’s lives. I confess that I have too often missed the significance of that particular chapter. It made me think. Have I got side-tracked by all the leading I have to do, forgetting the very people that I’m meant to be caring for?

It is a question leaders need to ponder.

In all our discussions of strategy, tactics, values, plans, goals, and even expository sermons, let’s not lose the central truth that God cares for people. If Tesco, according to Leahy, took their corporate eye off that ball for a time, let’s make sure we don’t.

Let’s not forget that we can confuse means and ends. It’s dangerously easy. Preaching and teaching, leading and organising are means. The end is God and people restored back into a relationship based on the finished work of Christ on the cross. The goal is lives that honour, love, and enjoy him.

Speaking the truth

The second big challenge came in the conclusion. In it he laments the moral relativism of modern life which corrodes so much of what he believes in. I was surprised by how outspoken he was about this. It was refreshing to hear.

But it was his returning to the concept of truth which struck me. He signals this as the most significant issue – you must speak the truth about reality. If Tesco executives aspire to that, how much more we should speak faithfully for the God who speaks only the truth? What a spur to keep on speaking the truth.

Finally, let’s reflect on how wonderful it is that Christ came full of truth and grace. What a combination! Now that’s something we should seek to embody ourselves.