Charlie Mayfield

Charlie Mayfield, Chair of John Lewis

“At the last Board meeting, out of five hours only 20 minutes was spent on the numbers. The rest was spent discussing leadership and people development.”

I often ask groups where they have found the best customer service. Two companies stand out and always come up: Apple and John Lewis. And when lists are published of the UK’s most admired businesses you can be sure that John Lewis is at or near the top. So I felt greatly honoured yesterday to be speaking alongside Charlie Mayfield, Chair of John Lewis (at Tomorrow’s Company “Tomorrow’s Value” event).

The Ultimate Purpose

And he did not disappoint, speaking about “Employment Ownership, Happiness and Business Success” he was clear that “what matters most to us at John Lewis is the happiness of our people.” Indeed this belief is enshrined in the founding principles of the company:

“Our ultimate purpose is the happiness of partners through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in successful business”

At John Lewis all 80,000 staff are partners. The company seeks to ensure that every role has the potential to provide fulfilment. Charlie explained that they don’t guarantee jobs for life but do seek to create “careers for life”, ensuring “every partner has the opportunity to develop in the business”.

In my speeches I like to ask people to raise their hand if, in their organisation, the focus of management is on making people feel good. As usual last night only two or three raised their hands but one of them was Charlie.

If focusing on making people happy works for John Lewis, would it work for your organisation?

Trust and Fairness

Charlie emphasised that, even in today’s high tech world good business – for both customers and staff – is about relationships. Trust and fairness is central to happiness at work, he argued. Absolutely. What people dislike is being micro-managed and told what to do. What most want is to be given clear guidelines and then trusted and given freedom to do their best within them.

Is your workplace based on trust and fairness?


John Lewis is famously owned by its employees and so includes many democratic structures. Charlie meets quarterly with an elected group of 70 partners. They question him on the business and then vote on whether he is still the right man for the job. “It certainly concentrates the mind”, he commented.

But Charlie also emphasised that a company didn’t need to be employee owned to have democratic elements. “Democracy is all about the voice of the people being heard by the leadership”. And a core belief is that “success is not down to the brilliance of one individual but to the effort of the many”.

How good is your leadership at hearing the voice of your people?

At Happy we have participated in the Worldblu list of the the world’s most democratic workplaces. The list includes many inspiring businesses and shows how listening to that voice of your people makes a lot of sense, and can be introduced to any organisation.

Charlie gave the example of the John Lewis board, where five of the members are selected by the workforce. ¬†As a result it focuses on the important things, he explained: “At the last Board meeting, out of five hours only 20 minutes was spent on the numbers. The rest was spent discussing leadership and people development.”

The focus at John Lewis is clearly the well-being of its people. And this approach has produced a truly great business. What can we learn from their example for our own companies?

%d bloggers like this: