Justin King, CEO Sainsbury’s 2004-2014

Justin King, in his ten-year role as CEO of Sainsbury’s, oversaw an increase in sales by a total of £9.5bn and nearly trebled underlying profits. He is a big advocate for the importance of employee engagement and the effect it has on improving performance. Early in his career he was given a very important piece of advice that he has always lived by – that a leader needs to be aware that ‘it’s hard to shine a bright light but very easy to cast a dark shadow’. He believes that as a leader you have to judge yourself and your own behaviour very critically – and ask yourself if you are truly living the values of your organisation.

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Justin’s top engagement tips

  • Colleagues, not staff: ‘We refer to the people in Sainsbury’s as colleagues, not staff. Everyone is an adult who deserves to understand the context in which they are undertaking their work, what the organisation is trying to achieve and why – and their part in it.’
  • Value your people: ‘At Sainsbury’s there are 161,000 colleagues – and if you get each of them to be a little bit more engaged, motivated and delivering that little bit better, you get that effort multiplied by 161,000 – that’s a really powerful force for change within the organisation.’
  • Motivate through a shared purpose: ‘Vision, goals and values are vitally important – people need something bigger to march towards than just financial targets. It’s important how you share the values – the ‘how we’re going to do this’ – and it’s important that the leaders of the organisation are prepared to be measured by them.’
  • Listen to your people: One in ten of the 65,000 ideas received from Sainsbury’s Tell Justin’ suggestion scheme has led to real change. There’s no financial incentive – people are motivated by the recognition on offer and receive a personal letter back from Justin. ‘Every single suggestion starts with colleagues identifying which of our values the suggestion underpins…. That’s an important part of making the values live and feel real.’
  • Immerse your leaders in your culture and hold them up to challenge: ‘If you’re trying to get an organisation to march to the same agenda, then you have to communicate it relentlessly and be prepared to be measured and challenged against it. Ultimately, culture grows from behaviour throughout the organisation reflecting the culture you want to create.’
  • Soft recognition is a key motivator: ‘Soft recognition is massively more powerful than people realise.’ Sainsbury’s give staff recognition awards called LOVE (Live our values everyday) points. ‘The value of getting an award and having somebody recognise your contribution is much greater than the financial value.’
  • Shine a bright light: ‘I had a boss once who used to say it’s really hard to shine a bright light and really easy to cast a dark shadow. I think as a leader in the organisation you have to judge yourself in that way.’
  • Take time to talk: ‘Every day that I’ve been at Sainsbury’s I’ve answered 2.8 letters from a colleague. Quite often I get a letter and it says, I’ve heard that you respond so I’m going to take the chance. If I hadn’t created this reputation and lived by it, that letter wouldn’t have come in. That colleague is saying I trust that it is worth my time and energy to speak to you.’
  • Be yourself, be visible: ‘I think when people come to work quite often they forget all the human skills that they have in their personal lives. You have to bring yourself to work as a leader. You can’t do your job as a leader if you don’t speak and engage with your people… If you’re a leader who’s got a lot of people working for you and they say I don’t know who you are, then you’re in real trouble. Finally – if in any business you could make the secret undercover boss television programme, if you can go into your business and people don’t recognise you, then you’re not doing your job properly. You should be visible, accessible and the human being that you are outside of work, in work.’