The Waitrose way a career for life: Interview with Helen Hyde, personnel director at Waitrose

Written by
Changeboard Team

22 May 2014

22 May 2014 • by Changeboard Team


Leader of Waitrose’s 150-strong HR team and 59,000 Partners – 40% of whom are aged under 24 – Helen Hyde says her job is one she “loves to wake up to each day”. Hyde began her 25-year career with the John Lewis Partnership as a graduate trainee in its Peter Jones branch. She was promoted through several operational roles and moved to JLP’s Registry function, before joining the Waitrose management board in 2008. Four years later, she took up her current position.

Co-ownership business model

With plans to open 38 new Waitrose shops in 2015, creating 3,000 jobs, a heavy recruitment drive is under way. Of the hundreds of applicants for each role, many are the children of customers. They typically start as weekend staff while they are students, some moving to graduate schemes.

“This way, we get the pick of the bunch,” says Hyde. For each role, there are “hundreds of applicants”. Hyde attributes the high demand to the JLP business model, where all employees are called Partners and co-own the business. They earn an annual bonus from its profits – this year the percentage entitlement stood at a headline-making 15%. Hyde struggles to describe the energy that surrounds the opening of the envelope revealing the year’s bonus figure. “Every Partner has earned their bonus and gets to jointly celebrate in the success of the business – so there’s real excitement and joy,” she shares.

“In our culture, there’s no room for individuals with large egos,” she states. “It’s about supporting each other and working together.”

Local young talent

Hyde speaks proudly of the supermarket chain’s efforts to attract young talent from diverse backgrounds. It has initiatives that help school and college leavers, as well as graduates and NEETS (people who are not in education, employment, or training), to secure jobs via work experience placements, apprenticeships and graduate schemes.

Waitrose works closely with Jobcentre Plus to take in a steady stream of NEETs, many of whom lack numeracy, literacy and other basic life skills – as well as people who have been out of work for a while, explains Hyde.

She sees it as an employer’s duty of care to provide opportunities locally to young people, including those who may not have had an easy start in life. “We don’t need someone who can write essays or read complex charts and tables. We’re looking for young people who can communicate well and who we can train up by developing their practical skills, for example, in customer service,” says Hyde.

“These young people need careful nurturing, not to be thrown in at the deep end. When it comes to training, Waitrose is not a sausage machine,” she adds.

Personal touchpoints

Hyde explains that every new young Partner starting their career at the organisation through a work experience placement or apprenticeship is provided with a buddy and a mentor. They are given a workbook containing a series of modules to work through, including exercises on dress code, keeping time and customer service.

“If a young person, especially one who is NEET, knows they ‘haven’t got the skills’ when coming into a new environment, it can be daunting,” she acknowledges. “We want to provide the right sort of encouragement. We make sure young people have time to sit down one-to-one with their manager for constructive feedback, learning and processing. It can be time-consuming but it’s also about demonstrating a core value: ‘We believe in you’.”

She mentions a case in point where a Waitrose apprentice who stopped turning up to work had a complete turnaround when his manager refused to give up on him. “The manager literally scooped him up,” she says, adding that this apprentice is now a “star”.

Apprenticeships - new policy

From February 2014, each new branch of the supermarket will take on at least two new apprentices within retail, while every one of its new convenience stores will have a minimum of one new apprentice.

“Part of our retail challenge is that most of our roles are part-time,” she admits. “The government only recognises full-time apprenticeship schemes and we need to make sure the hours our apprentices work fit within our own trading times, so we’re a bit limited.

“Opening new shops means we have to achieve a lot within a short space of time, and as we need to train our apprentices on the job, we also need to ensure they receive the highest levels of support,” she says.

However, Hyde is delighted to announce new apprenticeships as part of Waitrose’s commitment to championing young talent and reveals it is looking into introducing apprenticeships in its head office. Waitrose also makes career provision for graduate students by offering 12 to 15 industrial placements as part of a degree course. Typically, three of these students will be taken on as employees.

Graduate Leadership programme participants learn about all parts of the business through a structured three-year programme that includes placements in branch and head office. They are given live roles with increasing levels of seniority as they move through the scheme, while being mentored by members of the Waitrose board.

Work experience

Waitrose offers a large number of work experience placements throughout the year aimed at different groups of young people, including NEETs (through work with the Prince’s Trust, Business in the Community and other charities), school children (as part of the school curriculum), and college students.

Placements are offered in branches, head office and warehouses. Branches have the autonomy to arrange their own work experience, choosing which groups they want to work with and supporting a charity or group from their local community. A work experience placement usually includes on the job and employability skills training, CV or application form writing and interview role play.

Existing talent

Development and learning programmes are designed to meet the individual needs of each Partner. Waitrose uses a ‘70:20:10’ model in terms of its focus on experience, exposure and education.

‘Learn and earn’ is also a term used within the Partnership – it refers to the organisation’s holistic approach to training staff inside and outside of the business. Any Partner that has an interest or hobby outside their role – for example, they might want to be a car mechanic, take a pottery course or learn a language – can apply to receive £250 towards the cost of their training.

Hyde describes this ‘leisure learning grant’ as a worthwhile investment. She believes offering Partners opportunities to pursue a passion in their own time creates genuine engagement in their day jobs, builds loyalty and creates work satisfaction.

This is just one of the many benefits open to Partners, says Hyde. There is also scope to change department – someone might start in retail but if they want to move into finance, IT or supply chain, they can.

Every Partner has a personal development plan that sits underneath their performance appraisal. Regular informal conversations take place between line managers and their individual team members around career options and opportunities to progress within JLP.

“We used to have two-year schemes to grow our talent,” says Hyde. “Now, learning and training is decided between the line manager and Partner, so it’s all personalised. Due to the size of our business and the speed at which we need to operate, this is the best way of developing our talent.”

Managers have access to all the courses and training programmes, including course materials from Ashridge Business School, made available through the intranet.

Partners can also request permission from their line manager to go on a work experience placement elsewhere in the business, or apply for roles advertised on the intranet or through the organisation’s two weekly in-house corporate magazines.

In June 2014, a Partner development microsite will be launched, where users can map out the skills and experience they need to work their way up and find out about the training courses available if they want to switch roles. There are also 100 internal accredited coaches on hand to provide guidance and mentoring.

Future talent capability

“I’ve been given so many opportunities and worked for some outstanding leaders. Since I joined, the business has changed rapidly. Gone are the days when a Partner stayed for 40 years in the same job. Today, we’re looking ahead to future talent capability,” says Hyde.

“Consumers are becoming more demanding in their shopping habits and technology is at the root of this. The e-commerce side of this business barely existed 10 years ago – now, it’s a major part, with 40% of John Lewis’s trade coming this way and the business growing prolifically,” she continues.

“Technology is dramatically changing every couple of years. We have to build up a future talent pipeline for jobs that don’t exist right now. That’s a challenge.”

In line with this, all branch managers and leaders are trained around four leadership skills and behaviours –strategic vision, execution, enduring legacy and transformational change. Board meetings are held twice a year to discuss the skills needed to keep the Partnership at the cutting edge of retail and technology.

‘Table-talk’ is a real life concept where all Partners can feed in ideas through committees and councils. “This is what keeps the Partnership energised,” says Hyde. She concludes by saying: “Our people work hard for the rewards of being a co-owner of the business. Everyone contributes in a proactive way.

“Whether the young people we recruit stay with us or not, we show them that they can have a career at JLP for the rest of their lives and be empowered to make their own career choices.”