Shirley’s take on Asda Magic: The 7 Principles of Building a High Performance Culture by David Smith

July 17, 2017 12:33 pm Published byAzesta

Hits: 222 Having recently read this book and seen David speak on the topic last week, I thought people might be interested in an overview of the principles and a little bit of my take on them having worked to improve the engagement of many companies. David’s book tells the story of Asda in the early 1990’s when it almost went bankrupt and how it went from losing a billion to making a billion profit within 18 months. It’s also the story of how Asda managed to make it to the top of the Times Best Companies list.

1. Hire for attitude

This chapter is actually about more than just this. It’s more about having a really robust assessment of potential candidates for a job and realising that a short interview (Asda used to spend 5 minutes for shelf stacking roles!) just doesn’t cut it. See my article at It’s so important not to compromise on who you are willing to employ and the hoops you put them through to really ensure that they’re going to be able to do the job.

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate!

David recommends repeating important messages multiple times as the title of his chapter may suggest. He talks a lot about information overload and recommends using pictures and catchy headlines for importanrt e-mails to get them noticed. He also emphasises the massive impact that keeping people informed has on how they feel about an organisation and recommends Asda’s daily huddles as a means of communicating frequently enough to keep everybody focused.

3. Listening

It is well known in staff engagement circles that a really important part of it is ’employee voice’, the ability as an employee, to put forward opinions and ideas and have them listened to and more importantly responded to and acted upon. David talks about the practice that Asda introduced of managers listening to their team for 1 hour per week and gives some great examples of staff suggestions that saved them a lot of money, like the ‘shift-swap’ idea and selling the discarded black plastic flower buckets. (You’ll have to buy the book to get the details!).

4. Choose the right leadership style

David says a lot about the style of leadership prevalent in Asda in the early 90s; basically a command and control sort of style which the army have long since moved away from. He goes on to advocate a directive yet warm style which he refers to as ‘challenge and involve’ maximising discretionary effort. The chapter contains some very interesting historical information about the life of Churchill and emphasises the importance of being inspiring by working on and preparing stories.

5. Deal with underperformance and push talent

This chapter argues for the importance of having rigour around performance managing the people you employ; all of them. He reminds us about the importance of dealing effectively with underperformance in order to prevent losing the motivation and engagement of our ‘stars’; those that demonstrate the right behaviour at the same time as achieving great results. He strongly advocates a ‘shape up or ship out’ no nonsense kind of approach.

6. Recognition

David recommends focusing on those things that are the most enduring when looking at recogition, those things that last in the mind of the individual and therefore promote loyalty and have a long term motivational effect. Not pay or stock options, but saying thank you and giving employees gifts that mean something to them as individuals. He also stresses the need to constantly re-invent ways to recognise as they very quickly get stale.

7. Fun

Having fun, not after work by forcing people to the pub, but on the job itself is emphasised by David. He writes and speaks about people bringing their whole selves to work and allowing them to promote charities they’re involved in and use skills they have developed outside of work. For this to happen, it’s essential that managers really know their people.

So 7 principles that are not so ground-breaking and very much in line with the 2009 government white paper on engagement, but a useful reminder and I really enjoyed the stories about Asda, an organisation that we can all relate to and probably have some experience of. A useful checklist for managers and leaders considering what they need to do to increase engagement and have a higher performance culture.

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