‘Cut the crap’ leadership: James Timpson

James Timpson, CEO of Timpson, is in the key-cutting business, with a chain of 2,000+ key-cutting and shoe repair shops. When it comes to leadership, he’s also in the crap-cutting business. His columns in the Sunday Times are full of the common sense so often absent from big companies. And his approach is effective. “Over the past five years, Timpson has opened 1,000 new shops, sales and profits have doubled and the company still has cash in the bank,” James explains (1).

In this post I explore what Timpson call “upside down management”, where priority is given to providing to nurturing great people to deliver great service. 

James Timpson leadership

1. Keep things simple 

James runs his company with two simple leadership rules. “First, put the money in the till. Second, look the part.” What I like is how he then explains these rules in down-to-earth language anyone can understand. “1. Dishonest colleagues get sacked, 2. Behave in a way that would make your grandparents proud: open the shop on time, look smart and don’t smoke in the shop.” (1)

2. Follow the money 

Some CEOs rise to the top job and lose touch with the day-to-day reality of the business. Not James. “Every week, I get a sales report for each of our 2,100 shops. I can quickly pick out shops where sales are brilliant and where they’re terrible,” he says. I love how he then still has the curiosity to find out why sales are up or down after 25 years as the boss. “Has a competitor closed in Worcester? Are we still having problems with the roller shutter in Victoria station (going on for 12 months now)?” (2)

3. Give people autonomy 

James has bought 16 companies in his 20 years as CEO, many for £1 from administrators. Most of the falling businesses shared one key trait: “an overly controlling head-office team strangling the company with red tape, incessant monitoring and crazy cost-control ideas.” (1)

In contrast, the James Timpson leadership approach is to give people as much autonomy as possible. Autonomy is one of three key drivers of motivation, along with purpose and mastery, summarised as MAP in this earlier post. “We trust our colleagues to order what stock they want, go to the loo when they choose, create displays they like, paint the shop a new colour, give discounts and do deals,” James explains. (1) 

4. Seek ideas from the frontline 

I was fascinated to read how Timpson became the UK’s biggest watch repairer by following up on a frontline colleague’s initiative. “Glen started repairing the odd watch and put sales through the till on the key-cutting button”, James Timpson explains. “He thought he’d get told off, but we saw his sales go up by 20% and thought it was a brilliant idea.” (2)

5. Care for your customers … 

James encourages colleagues to offer little touches of service that demonstrate care, including doing certain jobs for free. “About 4% of transactions are jobs we do free,” James reveals. “In my book, giving things away is the most profitable thing we do. Customers always remember kindness.” (1)

6. … and your colleagues 

James is clear on the importance of caring for his people. “I’m as commercial as you get, but if colleagues don’t come first, you won’t achieve your financial goals,” he says (2). But then every company says it cares for its people. What makes James’ approach different are the tangible actions he takes to walk the talk:

  • “Colleagues of Concern” report: a confidential monthly report for James covering mental health, physical health and money problems
  • Put you money where your mouth is: £8m a year invested in looking after colleagues
  • Full-time care team: to help support colleagues who want help in three areas i. a trained counsellor focusing on alcohol/drug problems, domestic issues and mental health; ii. financial health first-aid to sort out money problems, iii. a director of happiness to help colleagues in a crisis
  • “Happy index”: annual survey with only one question: “How happy are you with the support you get from your boss?
  • “Dreams Come True scheme”: any colleague can ask for their dream to be turned into reality e.g. reuniting a colleague with his birth family in Australia, funding IVF treatment and paying for a Timpson couple to get married in Las Vegas
  • Time off for special events: an extra day off for your kids’ first day at school; an extra week off when you get married, £100 towards flowers and a wedding car provided too
  • 19 Timpson holiday homes: where Timpson families can enjoy a free stay

7. Invest in people during bad times, not just good ones

How refreshing to hear a CEO putting people first even when times are hard. “Usually, when things go wrong, the first things to be taken away are the benefits that reward hard-working colleagues. In tough times, we should invest more in our people — to inspire them, thank them and encourage them to stay and help turn things round.” (2)

In conclusion, there’s a lot to learn from James’ common sense lessons on leadership. And his mantra is a good one to follow as lockdown eases and people return to work in offices and shops around the world: “Have more trust and fewer rules — and in doing so, have more fun and make more money.”

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(1) https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/rule-breakers-not-rule-takers-will-fire-our-recovery-tcv50nnnq

(2) https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/meet-my-secret-weapon-a-director-of-happiness-vqkspsj7x

(3) https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/call-it-cobblers-but-we-believe-in-making-our-people-happy-7xhvqvz8d