Are you coming out of the downturn in better or worse shape than when you went into it? You may have fewer employees, a rationalised corporate structure and simplified product lines. But is your business healthier? And, by the way, how is morale?


The past two years have tested business leaders’ competence. Many managers had known only good times, the long 15-year period of almost uninterrupted growth that began in the early 1990s. But anyone can look good in a rising market. Tougher times find people out.


If you were looking for an example of hard-headed decision-making under pressure, not many observers would expect to find one at the John Lewis Partnership. The retailer has a long-standing reputation for paternalism. All its staff are partners with a stake in the business – a practice dating back to 1929 when John Spedan Lewis, its founder’s son, committed the organisation to work towards its “ultimate purpose”: “the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business”.

如果你想找出一个在压力下沉着决策的范例,不会有多少观察人士指望在John Lewis Partnership找得到。长久以来,该零售商一直以其家长式管理闻名。所有员工都是合伙人,拥有公司股份。该做法可追溯到1929年,当时公司创始人之子约翰•史派登•路易斯(John Spedan Lewis)要求公司为“终极目的”而努力:“为所有成员谋幸福——让他们有价值且令其满意地受雇于成功的本公司”。

But in October 2008, the monthly sales figures for the John Lewis department stores (the largest part of the business) were down by 14 per cent. Sales were “haemorrhaging”, according to managing director Andy Street. This was uncharted territory.

但2008年10月,John Lewis百货公司(集团最大一块业务)的月销售额下降14%。据集团董事总经理安迪•斯特里特(Andy Street)表示,销售情况“大出血”。这可是从未有过的情况。

What does a famously compassionate employer do when tough measures are necessary? For one thing, it worries. It finds that some of its core principles can come under strain. And it is forced to confront the fact that, however noble its aims, harsh business realities will intervene. “We found out how difficult it is for an organisation to be really honest with its people,” Mr Street says. “There is a natural human instinct to protect people from unpalatable things.” But that was not an option.


The company decided it had to get tough with its business model. A warehouse was closed with the loss of 250 jobs. Call centres were reorganised, which made many posts at the department stores redundant. This was all new and challenging, not the sort of thing its thousands of partners had come to expect.


To prepare managers for this programme of action, John Lewis brought in the London-based Sandler Lanz consultancy to advise them. Its co-founder, Catherine Sandler, says that leaders need to offer “psychological containment” at times of great turbulence and uncertainty.

为了帮助管理人员对这一行动计划做好准备,John Lewis请来了伦敦咨询公司Sandler Lanz为其提供顾问服务。后者的联合创始人凯瑟琳•桑德勒(Catherine Sandler)表示,领导者在形势极其动荡和不确定之时必须提供“心理遏制”。

“There has to be congruence between what employees are feeling and how leaders behave,” she explains. There are four related things to be done. First, leaders need to be on the front foot, taking “prompt, visible and considered action”. They have to communicate honestly, on the basis that people prefer to know the worst than fear the worst. If possible, they need to find a positive and even inspiring message amid the bad news. Last – and hardest of all – they need to convey empathy, “in a way that is authentic to them”.


Preparing for this new approach was not easy. Mr Street recalled the first time he suggested to a group of managers that they discuss “how this all feels”. The idea provoked groans of discomfort. Department store managers are active, task-focused people. They monitor sales by the hour. Under pressure, as many of them have admitted, it was hard to remember the bit about showing empathy.


But is John Lewis emerging from the downturn in good shape? It is. Sales are up 15 per cent for the first four months of the year, comfortably ahead of the competition. Mr Street feels the business is bolder and more confident for having come through the tough times. It has recently launched a highly acclaimed TV ad campaign. A BBC documentary series, filmed during the last year, has won John Lewis new fans. The company is investing heavily in its online presence, and developing a new homeware store format.

但是,John Lewis在摆脱衰退之际境况还好吗?是的。今年前4个月,该公司销售额增长15%,远远超出竞争对手。斯特里特感觉,在经历过艰难时期后,公司更加大胆、自信了。该公司最近投放了一则备受称赞的电视广告。英国广播公司(BBC)在过去一年拍摄的一部系列纪录片,也为John Lewis赢得了新的粉丝。该公司目前正重金投资在线业务,并开发一种新的家居用品零售形式。

But at its heart this organisation remains different. John Spedan Lewis launched his partnership in 1929, just as the world’s economy was heading for a giant fall. It was a stunning act of radicalism, which has lasted. Almost 30 years later, he reflected on the business scene in an interview with the BBC: “The present state of affairs is really a perversion of the proper working of capitalism. It is all wrong to have millionaires before you have ceased to have slums. Capitalism has done enormous good . . . But the perversion has given us too unstable a society. Differences of reward must be large enough to induce people to do their best, but the present differences are far too great.”


He said that in 1957. What would he be saying today?