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Using specific information and resources, most notably Graetz et al's 2nd edition of Managing Organisational Change, this paper seeks to investigate the key philosophies and subsequent actions applied by Roger Corbett during the 1990's, that helped shape the fundamental leadership approach and working practices of Woolworths Ltd for almost ten years.
Woolworths became Australia's largest supermarket chain by 2004 with over 150,000 employees and 1,500 stores. (Rowe and Guerrero, 2010:79)
Corbett's successful restructuring and operational changes as CEO saved the company billions of pounds, whilst raising the number of sales to new heights. In particular this can be attributed to his values and principles which became less about managing and more about leading Woolworths into a new economically and structurally sustainable organisation. He achieved this by exacting change and gaining the commitment, both emotional and intellectual of all the staff. (Graetz et al, 2006:245)
This paper defines leadership in contrast to management as an ongoing developmental process that requires a more holistic and united process involving shared goals and objectives, with leadership focusing more on interpersonal behaviour and the wider organisational context. (Senior and Swailes, 2010:228)
The methods by which Corbett delivered and demonstrated these attitudes in business can be defined as 'styles' and the following chapter will exemplify these styles in more detail as a means of determining how he evolved and led Woolworths successfully forward.
The paper concludes that the techniques adopted by Corbett were predominantly well addressed and delivered, but raises caution where adopting the same model for all organisations is concerned.
Leadership and leadership styles
The importance of measuring leadership alongside management is perhaps best summarised by Goleman (2003) who explores the way in which the levels of emotional intelligence of company heads can impact on the overall leadership of the organisation itself. He proposes that the ability to develop relationships and methods of communicating can generate a more lucrative business, compared to the traditionally venerated technical and academic skills once required for managing. The influence of senior company personnel in large corporations has a tendency to become diluted, which can result in those working at the grass roots level of operations to remain unaffected by attitudes and decision making concepts that are trying to be filtered down.
In an attempt to exact their influence many leaders apply their own style with which to manage different situations that emerge within the organisation generally. Six distinct styles can be defined:
Coercive - when leaders expect immediate compliance
Authoritative - when leaders have a specific vision that they drive forward across the organisation
Affiliative - where emotional bonds are forged
Democratic - leaders who build a consensus
Pacesetting - setting high standards that demand excellence
Coaching - leadership that develops people
(Longenecker et al, 2005:400)
It is evident from analysing some of the methods applied by Corbett within his overall leadership change programme applied to Woolworths, that often a combination of these same styles can produce the most dynamic results.
Woolworths and Roger Corbett
Roger Corbett embraced many of the strategic elements of the United States retail giant Wal-Mart and used this model to rejuvenate what was in 1999 and ailing business chain.
(Graetz et al, 2006:244); so despite his ability to remain respectful of his entire workforce and place integrity at the forefront of his philosophies,
'…probably the most important cultural contribution(s) a leader can make to the business.' (Rowe and Guerrero, 2010:79), Corbett also demonstrated many authoritative qualities by maintaining a vision that replicated that of Wal-Mart.
Despite remaining the undisputed food retailer in Australia up until the mid nineteen eighties, Woolworths began recording losses and conceded to its main competitor Coles Myer, until Corbett managed to turn the company around during the dawn of the twenty first century. (Encyclopaedia of Business, 2010) Evidently in the case of Corbett and the necessity to restore Woolworths as a competitive force; leadership needed to function as a producer of change, and in addition to set the specific direction of that change. (Gallos, 2008:598)
All organisational changes can be challenging; but as this paper divulges the various methodologies employed by Corbett to exact those transformations to Woolworths, it becomes apparent that by using tried and tested existing methods, combined with appropriate emotional and physiological responses large scale organisational change can be adaptable, flexible and sustainable.
If we are to believe the general consensus that change can only occur if the change leader shares knowledge and listens to their staff (Graetz et al, 2006, Stark, 2005, Anderson and Anderson, 2010) as a change leader Corbett appears to have gained the trust and commitment of his teams, which according to Graetz et al was encouraged through an egalitarian approach, eliminating rank and eradicating status differentiation.
By rolling out 'Project Refresh' Corbett effectively made Woolworths more cost effective and more efficient whilst raising staff morale and encouraging a reassurance that emerges with benchmarking alongside successful strategic models. (Pitt-Catsouphes et al, 2006:672)
By officially acknowledging Woolworths limitations and failings in comparison to Wal-Mart Corbett was able to both identify the areas that needed to be improved and how this could be achieved, whilst instilling momentum and therefore enthusiasm and trust amongst workers as a means of implementing the cultural changes he needed to make, in addition to maintaining widespread loyalty and confidence in his ideas.
Change leadership and emotional intelligence
Corbett began his career on the loading docks at Grace Brothers Department Store in Sydney where he learnt from the bottom of the company chain, steadily rising to a position of Director. (Encyclopaedia of Business, 2010) It is this rounded experience that may have helped Corbett relate to staff at all levels and therefore place him in a position where he was able to sympathise and communicate effectively with the entire workforce across the Woolworth enterprise.
The culture of an organisation is very dependent on the behaviour of its leader. By creating environments that consistently evaluate staff and business outcomes through positive thinking and problem solving and the integration of ideas, this is more likely to promote a holistic vision that is empowering to all. (Diggins, 1997:422-424)
Reflecting on Longenecker et al's leadership style definitions these techniques are reminiscent of affiliative and democratic methods that revolve around individuals and their emotions as well as using consultative collective decision making opposed to coercive approaches to management. (Ahlstrom and Bruton, 2009:252) Whilst these methods can instil commitment and respect from employees they may also prove to be more time consuming and bureaucratic with their necessity to generate more meetings and frustrations over making consensual decisions. When making work environments more informal and emphasising the positive elements of performance there is also a danger of overlooking poor or ineffectual working practices as well as stifling individual attainment as a consequence of shared knowledge and agreed compromising. Similarly just as Corbett's democratic leadership methodology can assist with increasing morale and commitment to the organisation it could equally generate an apathetic attitude that fails to concentrate on the important decision-making aspects of the job. (Morrison and Morrison, 2002:80)
Nonetheless returning to Goleman's theories relating to emotional intelligence; such as self-knowledge attained through self-awareness and the ability to appreciate one's own emotional self-management, as well as having the ability to be self-motivated and empathetic are all fundamental to managing relationships with others, and therefore exacting a more effective leadership. (Beerel, 2009:71)
It is this combination together with Corbett's insistence on embedding continual evolvement and development of the business model that Woolworths found itself in a position where it was able to transform into a new economic force. On a similar vein a nationwide survey conducted by Kouzes and Posner throughout the 1980's demonstrated a clear indication that both personal and organisational values do make a significant difference to the lives of employees, in addition to the actual performance of the organisation itself. (Posner and Kouzes, 1985:293-309)
Corbett's overall change leadership framework was born out of a realisation that Woolworths needed to reduce their costs; improve their products and services whilst increasing productivity, which are all fundamental to enhancing competitive standing. (Kotter, 1996:3) Predominantly within this framework he appears to have built an inspirational scale of change; which meant re-structuring the organisation, whilst ensuring the process remained fair and positive for all members of staff, who were provided with an opportunity and time to 'work into other jobs' (Graetz et al, 2006:245), this he combined with a developmental approach which reinforced change whilst remaining empathetic to and empowering for all staff. Ensuring that personnel had the right skills, training and relevant pay allocation would have been significant to Corbett's restructuring process in addition to maintaining a minimum retrenchment of staff; by allowing staff options within the workplace changes, he eliminated any threats of redundancy or forced resignation. Removing barriers to the change and enforcing minimal personal disruption is extremely important to the success of the transition. (McLagan, 2002:4-5)
This is perhaps best exemplified in a speech Roger Corbett was recorded delivering on a visit to one of his stores in 2006.
'I wonder if our customers would excuse me for a minute, it's Roger Corbett speaking and I am visiting the store today and I just want my colleagues to know how proud I am of the store and how excellently it's presented, and you're just doing a great job and I want to thank you and ask you to keep up the good work. And customers thank you for shopping at Woollies. We greatly appreciate your custom.'
It is a speech that embodies many of the qualities and objectives associated with inspirational and developmental change and demonstrates Corbett's commitment to sustainability of this change right up until his point of departure from the company. (Sunday Profile, 2006)
It is important to contextualise change management and leadership in relation to how it is delivered. Just as change can prove productive it can be equally damaging to an organisation. If taken forward in such a way that the change threatens staff morale through re-structuring and redundancy and even worse if the strategic way forward is not clear enough. (Beerel, 2009:16) From the perspective of Roger Corbett he essentially employed positive change by acknowledging the existing opportunities and potential within the company, while having a clear and proven business model with which to benchmark alongside. History teaches us that bad leaders have consistently involved those who have been incapable of adapting to new ideas, or lack self-control, are corrupt and selfish, lack vision or who are simply unpredictable. (Adeniyi, M, A, 2007:187-188)
On reflection there must be a degree of understanding that not all personalities are suited to leadership, but that Roger Corbett's traits appear to be integral to the successful delivery of leadership change and that his retail upbringing also had the potential to influence his effective strategies whilst at Woolworths.
When he gained control of Woolworth's Roger Corbett found himself in a position which involved transforming the once successful and now flailing organisation, into one which responded to the new competitive market that had begun to outperform the company. He made his main objective that of benchmarking the renowned Wal-Mart model as a framework for organisational change.
Corbett was a well educated man, who also benefited from receiving a varied employment history. This provided him with a broad insight into working life and management something which may not be applicable to all leaders. Immediately he demonstrated two fundamental elements for successful leadership change provision.
Interestingly Many of Corbett's leadership styles are characteristic of best practice in managing education and learning establishments, rather than commercial enterprises. (Morrison and Morrison, 2002 Diggins, 1997) As a sector traditionally associated with emotional based management and human relationships it is interesting to consider how these same approaches can transcend into the more enterprising world of business.
This paper has explored the notion of the extent to which effective leadership can emerge from the adoption of emotional intelligence.
However it also raises the question of whether the leadership change model can be applied to all organisations or whether it is equally dependent on other issues such as those that are sector specific, related to size of the company or the existing morale of the staff themselves. Woolworths had already proved itself to be a highly successful venture in the past, which may have helped with implementing Corbett's objectives.
Evidently these aspects also need to be combined with the right personality, and a firm vision along with a consensual organisational agreement which needs to be sustained and reiterated. Corbett continuously demonstrated this commitment right up until his departure in 2006.