2003 Leader of the Year Alfred Josefsen was the man behind the Danish supermarket chain Irma’s sensational turnaround. In his book Dear Irma, Alfred writes about the process. It is an applicable management story about commitment as a shortcut to success, victories and great results. Recently, we spoke to Alfred about his book and his experiences.

 

Alfred:

Most companies make the mistake of focusing primarily on customers in a strategic market perspective. It’s all about sales and bottom lines. However, from a management perspective, the focus should not be on customers, but purely on employees. It’s easy to see the connection with our role as a supermarket. I could, for example, ask myself how many products I’ve sold. I haven’t sold any! In the 13 years I’ve been working for Irma, I have managed to avoid selling anything. Meanwhile, however, I have had employees who have sold roughly 6.7 billion euro’s worth of products during those 13 years. I think this is worth thinking about. In order to succeed with customers, you only need one thought, one strategy: get your employees to succeed.

 

Relationwise:

How can we communicate this message to companies that have a one-sided focus on creating good experiences for their customers but forget their employees in the process?

 

Alfred:

For many people, customer experiences and customer relations become very event-based and staged through campaigns, events, etc. I believe that we need to start somewhere else. We need to start by creating a good workplace. By doing this, you’ll get more confident employees with a higher self-esteem. I believe this is the basis for creating good customer relations.

 

Relationwise:

On page 74 in your book, you mention strategies and values. You write that we need to focus more on values. Can you elaborate on this?

 

Alfred:

Anyone can come up with basic strategies based on current plans. However, values come from within. They are the common understanding that we build together based on what we’re fighting for, why we’re here and what we want to achieve. There are fix points that go even deeper than strategies. Strategies are there to direct you, but they can also end up becoming a mantra.

If we’re too busy focusing on achieving strategies no matter what the cost, they may become rigid and inflexible. We live in a time when we need flexibility and agility. It’s difficult to programme the world into very defined strategies – especially in the long run. I believe it’s more a matter of awareness and having the resources to be able to spot the recurring market opportunities.

Getting strategies to work is the easy part; the tricky part is getting values to work. Getting values to work requires relations focused on conviction and communication, as well as relationships between people who are dedicated to making it work in the long run. It’s a task that you can never fully complete.

 

Relationwise:

Where should a company start if they want to create a good work place?

 

Alfred:

You start by not focusing on being an organisation and by acting without too many roles, games and staging. By doing so, you create an authentic life at the workplace. After all, we’re all just normal people who go to work during the part of our lives we refer to as our ‘working life’.

We need to break down the power patterns and mechanisms that have nothing to do with work but end up taking up a significant amount of time. One of the things you spend time on is controlling your own comfort zone and your own safety. Do I look alright? Am I on the right team? Is my career going well? This is what I call ‘the organisation game’. I believe this is something we need to minimise. If you succeed in eliminating this, then we all become the natural and normal people we are when we’re not at work.

This is a good place to start, but it also means that management needs to be able to bring itself down to eye level and just be ordinary people with special reasonability. They’re basically just healthy, good, sensible, natural, proper people who can respect that there are employees who are willing to spend their lives working with them. If you decide to get rid of all the nonsense and start living life like we do when we’re not at work, I think you’ll be in a position to create a natural and authentic workplace. When you do so, you remove yourself from the business ‘role play’ and simply view each other as colleagues with different tasks.

In a good workplace, you always trust and respect the owners and management. These are all fundamental values that mean you can relax, be yourself and do what’s right and natural in relation to customers.

 

Relationwise:

You didn’t replace any members of your staff when you went through your turnaround, but you managed to get them to move from delivering mediocre performance to delivering an amazing performance. Maybe it’s not all about the employees, but about the people who manage them.

 

Alfred:

During our turnaround, only one person was replaced. There is always a lot of talk about ‘setting the right team’, but that in itself can be a massive task. Hiring and firing takes time, and you create a sense of insecurity among your employees. They tend to perform worse if they feel insecure in their work. People are generally more controlled by uncertainty and pressure than by performing well.

If you look at the world of sports, for example, there are some amazing players. If their manager is terrible, however, then the whole team will quickly fall apart within a month’s time.

 

Relationwise:

In your book, you write something interesting about how you wanted to reach 100 stores but that there was no set time frame to do so. You say that it’s more a question of timing. Many managing directors would probably be more focused on numbers when it comes to future plans.

 

Alfred:

This is based on the fact that we’re not very good at making strategies as such. We have done well because we weren’t pressured. In doing so, we were then able to take advantage of the possibilities that arose.

This is more difficult if your approach to these things is more random. It was more of an ambition to reach 100 shops than anything. We didn’t just want to become big and earn a lot of money; we wanted to be big because we felt that it did something good. We would like to offer our products to more customers. We had an obligation to fulfil. The heart of the matter was to avoid discount supermarkets.

 

Relationwise:

Is the focus on becoming the best rather than the biggest?

 

Alfred:

Yes. It’s not just about being the best in the world, but about being the best for the world – there’s a huge difference between the two.

 

Relationwise:

Why do you believe more people don’t think like this?

 

Alfred:

It’s because there’s so much power, dominance, position and prestige involved in these organisational diagrams. The core of the organisational system is the whole hierarchical way of thinking. It ruins life for so many people. I believe that one of the strongest reasons why things don’t change is really a touch of Darwinism. Many people who are in top jobs are there because they’ve been good at the whole organisational game. They’ve been good at both playing fair as well as using dirty tricks. Therefore they’re inclined to not want to fundamentally change the management style when they themselves have been so successful in getting to the top thanks to this company culture.

I give a lot of talks in which we discuss these topics. Not many people fundamentally disagree with what I say. That’s why I’m also surprised as to why so little is happening. All I can say is that it’s all about the mechanisms we’ve talked about.

 

Relationwise:

How can we change this?

 

Alfred:

Luckily, a counter-mechanism is underway. Young people today will not put up with this management style. People under 35 who are used to focusing on themselves are both clever and incredibly ambitious. I think this generation will quickly remove the worst type of management.

There may be a light at the end of the tunnel. I think the fact that MÆRSK has appointed Jim Hagemann Snabe as their new Chairman is very positive. He’s a modern leader and not afraid to say these things out loud. The employees are the resources. And obviously, what comes from the Mærsk headquarters is important to Danish businesses.

 

Get in touch with Alfred here: alfred@alfred.as 

Alfred Josefsen