John Timpson, chairman of the eponymous high street shoe repair chain, has never played by the rules. Nineteen years ago he turned accepted management thinking on its head; today, he couldn’t be running a happier, more successful ship

I often wonder whether the development of our employment laws and HR departments have done much to help employees enjoy their work. A people policy founded on a caring culture is more likely to look after individual colleagues than processes driven by a company rule book that ticks all the legal boxes.

I was lucky to be born into a family business and was always brought up to visit all the shops, talk to the colleagues and congratulate star performers. I was taught that contented colleagues were more likely to give good customer service, but everything stepped up a gear about 19 years ago when we introduced what we call Upside Down Management.

Initially, this different management style was introduced to improve our customer care. We discovered the way to provide truly great service is to trust the person serving the customer with the freedom to do their job in the way they know best. You can’t create exceptional customer care by issuing a set of rules.

Hiring good people

It took us five years to turn our management upside down and we learnt a lot of lessons along the way. First, we discovered it only works if you have the right people. Previously, we had been recruiting cobblers and key cutters; now we realise that we should have been looking for people with the right personality for our business.

We also found out that freedom to work the way you want shouldn’t just apply to the colleagues who serve our customers; it can work for everybody, as long as they respect that everyone else has the same freedom. This is best illustrated by our area managers.

They can run their area in whatever way they wish, but they can’t issue orders. They create success by picking the right people and looking after them, which often means solving problems at home, as well as clearing away obstacles at work. That is why our area managers are all briefed on how to advise colleagues facing problems associated with debt, divorce, gambling, alcohol and drug addiction, and housing.

Why it’s important to say thank you to your people

We have lots of ways to say ‘thank you’ and ‘well done’ to our colleagues. We have eight holiday homes where they can stay for free; we make a fuss of anyone who gets married; and everyone gets their birthday off with a special gift on the big birthdays. Every month we make at least one colleague’s dream come true, be it meeting a long-lost relative on the other side of the world or having an expensive but much-needed dental treatment.

The area managers’ number one job is to pick people who rate nine or 10 out of 10. In doing so they help to make Timpson a better place to work. Everyone prefers to be teamed up with positive personalities who are keen to do well.

Consequently, the second most important job is to say goodbye to the colleagues who don’t come up to our standards. These are the people who irritate their workmates and soak up a good 80% of management’s time. Whenever possible we avoid the classic series of oral and written warnings. We prefer to deal with people problems as quickly, nicely and as generously as possible in what we call a ‘part as friends’ conversation.

We break a lot of the rules that other companies slavishly follow. We don’t allow an HR department to rule the roost, while silly health and safety ideas are rejected in the cause of common sense. But by avoiding appraisals, ignoring many of the employment directives and discriminating in favour of talented colleagues who are good at their job, we have created a much happier workplace.

Giving your people trust and freedom

People who are trusted to use their initiative and are free from petty regulations and process are happier in their job. Upside Down Management is good for your colleagues’ wellbeing.

I’m beginning to realise how lucky I was to be brought up in a family business and many people ask me: “Why don’t other companies run things in the same way?” It will only happen in places where the chief executive has the courage and conviction to give it a go.

Bosses must realise that Upside Down Management also applies to them. They can’t issue orders but nor can anyone else tell them what to do. The secret to great management is to use common sense and do what you think is best for your colleagues and best for the business.

Illustration: David Mahoney