Nicky Little from Cirrus suggests some leadership priorities for the new CEO.

When Sainsbury’s announced back in January that Simon Roberts would succeed Mike Coupe as CEO from 1 June, nobody could have predicted the seismic changes ahead. Roberts took the helm on Monday, commenting that as the lives of Sainsbury’s customers have changed in recent months, the organisation has listened and adapted.

Retail is one of the sectors most affected by the coronavirus crisis. The industry is facing a watershed moment. As lockdown eases in the UK and we emerge from this period of intense transformation towards a ‘new normal’, what are Simon Roberts’ biggest challenges?

Connecting with customers

Roberts, previously head of Sainsbury’s retail and operations, has said he is proud of how Sainsbury’s has adapted to changing customer habits and needs.

He spent part of his first day as CEO in customer focus groups and announced that Sainsbury’s would be bringing together its retail and digital teams to “create a business that shows up in the same way for customers wherever they shop with us”.

Although grocery sales are strong, industry analysts predict that a decline in discretionary spending is likely to have a long-term impact on the less essential items sold by Sainsbury’s, such as fashion clothing. We have also witnessed an accelerated shift to online shopping. Although Sainsbury’s stores have remained open with social distancing measures in place and increased use of its SmartShop app to avoid conventional checkouts, online sales have soared. 

Demand for home delivery is high and like many retailers, Sainsbury’s has shifted resources to where they are most needed. As customer needs continue to evolve, the ability to respond with agility will become a fundamental part of day-to-day working life. Roberts, like all retail leaders, needs to create the environment for innovation and agility to thrive.

In order to create more customer-focused innovation, Roberts needs to build a culture where colleagues have the freedom to experiment and use their initiative to develop new solutions that will meet customers’ changing needs.

Connecting with colleagues

Keeping colleagues on board during periods of intense transformation is tough for any leader. It’s especially tough when you have to communicate news that many don’t want to hear. For example, in April it was announced that no bonuses would be paid to Sainsbury’s senior managers, resulting in an effective 13 per cent pay cut (it is also worth noting that Sainsbury’s awarded a 10 per cent thank you payment to 157,000 colleagues and front line managers earlier that month).

During times of crisis, employees appreciate very clear and open communication. The toughest decisions are easiest to accept when everyone feels involved and well informed. Roberts has already articulated a vision for a Sainsbury’s that will meet customer needs through a range of channels, offering a seamless shopping experience. If he can communicate this vision with real passion and help colleagues to understand their role in making it a reality, those people are more likely to feel engaged and motivated to make it happen.

Build a sustainable future

The current crisis has highlighted a society-wide imperative for more responsible retail. Leaders need to demonstrate this responsibility to customers, to employees, to suppliers, other stakeholders and the wider community. During the crisis, Sainsbury’s has done many of these things. It has prioritised vulnerable customers, put in place immediate payment terms for small suppliers, and donated millions of pounds to charity. If Roberts can continue to build these relationships of responsibility, he is likely to win respect and loyalty both inside and outside the organisation at a time when trust is paramount.

© Management Today 2020.

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