5 pearls of wisdom from Dave Lewis

Dave Lewis has spent the last five years leading a dramatic turnaround for Tesco. As CEO, he’s steered the company away from the financial crisis they were facing in 2014 and rebuilt their reputation after a significant scandal. On Thursday 20th February, he took the time to share some wisdom with us.

Take people by surprise

Dave Lewis joined Tesco after 27 years at Unilever. By his own admission, he’s not a retailer – so it’s not a step many would have expected him to take. But that was one of his strengths: he came to the job incurably curious about every part of the business, and listening to the wisdom of expert retailers.

Similarly, Lewis walked through the door a month earlier than planned. His entrance certainly took the company by surprise – and with no office prepared or even a laptop ready, he got to see what the company was really like. If you can, join a company early. You’ll see it in a raw and real state. Then you’ll really know where you are.

Be brutally honest

The first step of turnaround is brutal honesty. All too often, and particularly when you’re in a leadership position, people around you will tell you what they think you want to hear. But that’s not conducive for creating change.  So if you’re trying to change a situation, ask yourself: Do I really understand what is happening? Are we being honest about where we are?

If you don’t know the answers, don’t assume – ask. Seek objectivity. Face it head on. Be brutal. Only then can you make a difference.

Find your magnetic north

What pulls everyone together? When Lewis joined Tesco, their purpose was “We make what matters better together”. It was a sentiment no one understood, and colleagues struggled to put into practice – both on the shop floor and in the head office. Now, it’s “Serving Britain’s shoppers a little better every day”. It’s a purpose, a magnetic north, that rings true to everyone in the business.

Because a purpose only works if it helps you make decisions. If you’re in a room on your own, with no opportunity for counsel or advice from anyone else, does your purpose help you make a decision? If not, then it’s not good enough.

Stay curious

Ask questions. Find out what’s happening. Visit every part of the business, and be open to learning. Allow yourself to be in places that are new and unexplored for you. Lewis says he learned more about himself in business by putting himself in difficult places rather than easy places.

Use your newly gleaned knowledge to innovate. Always follow innovation, even when it doesn’t work. It’s okay to get it wrong if it was for the right reason.

Be humble

Everyone has different strengths. Be humble enough to find out about them and take guidance. Listen to the experts in your team – the things Lewis is most proud of are the things he had nothing to do with: absorbing the price of the tampon tax, creating a lanyard for customers with ‘hidden’ disabilities, and creating larger nappies for children with disabilities.

In Lewis’s words, “We don’t need to know everything, we just need to know we’re making the right decisions for our customers”.


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