Or is it?
Back in 1986, I was 16 and faced several choices as most Comprehensively educated males also did in the British Midlands at that time.
The choices were simple. Continue in education, work within the declining motor industry or find a placement on a Youth Training Scheme (YTS), which was a government backed form of slavery and abuse. There of course was a further option of ‘The Dole’, and whilst in 1986 money was easy to find this way, I’d always had a low threshold for boredom, so couldn’t imagine not actually doing anything all day!
So, after a series of interviews and aptitude tests, in June 1986, I walked through the ‘staff only’ doors of Lewis’s Limited which was a mid-market UK department store chain owned at that time, by the Sears conglomerate from the US.
I felt really grown up, wore a new Burton’s grey suit with pink flecks and shoulder pads and entered the world of work with my first placement being in a department called ‘cleaning aids’. Selling buckets, bowls and ironing boards was not a choice I made purposefully, but I loved it. I found that by engaging customers in conversations about their purchases led to increased sales, as did polishing the shelves, ensuring all the stock was visible, ticketed and priced.
At the end of my first week, I went to the cash office and retrieved a brown envelope with £27.13 inside. 16 years old, 39 hours worked and £27.13 in my pocket. By the time I’d paid for my bus pass (£5.00) and my Mom ‘board and lodgings’ of £10, I’d got just over a tenner to spend on canteen tea, subsidised lunches and a new beverage I found called ‘lager’, supped in a pub called ‘The Brown Derby’ in a dingy subway in Birmingham. There’ll be more of The Brown Derby in a ‘weekend’ blog in the future!
Now then, Dear reader, I am sorry to have put you through that intro, but I want you to feel the sense of pride, achievement and honour I had at the time to work in such an institution as Lewis’s. I had walked away from further education, disobeyed my father’s wishes and become a retailer!
Week 2 was very much the same as week 1. Hard work, conversation, plenty of tea and £27.13 reward.
And so on.
Immediately after Christmas, (January 1987), I was introduced to the store manager who not only gave me a ‘customer service comendation‘ (with the word commendation incorrectly spelled), but also handed a more formal letter on Lewis’s letterhead which he made me read out loud to my colleagues on the department.
“Your efforts on the YTS scheme have been recognised and with effect from 1st February, I am pleased to formerly (sic) offer you a full time position as Sales Consultant on the Menswear department. Your pay will be £66.66 per week, paid into your bank account. You will also be entitled to staff discount at 15% and uniform”. Obviously, the secretaries at Lewis’s didn’t check their spelling, but I didn’t care – I’d got a full time job with a massive jump in pay!
I was so happy! My colleagues cheered and clapped, my manager put his arm around my shoulder and I was even allowed to use the company telephone to phone Mom, who was elated.
The following month, I started to measure inside legs, learn about differing types of wool (there are at least 20 types used in mens suits) and was introduced to brands such as Pierre Cardin, Dash and Ton sur Ton – all very trendy for this fat kid from Walsall!
But all that was about to change.
Later in 1987, a ‘change‘ announcement was given to all staff in various locations across the store. We knew that takings were down and that Lewis’s was losing market share to competitors such as House of Fraser. Those of us that travelled outside of Birmingham also knew that new towns and cities such as Redditch and Milton Keynes had shiny new shopping centres where there was no soot, rain or traffic. We knew Birmingham was dying. Later that day, some of us speculated Lewis’s was dying too.
The announcement was delivered in the canteen, with the usual Lewis’s aplomb. In short, Lewis’s was to undergo a re-brand (to be called The New Lewis’s). Some stores would close and all larger stores would be reformatted and refitted to save money. The new format would mean ‘mothballing’ the top three or four floors of each store (which would in turn save rent, rates, heating and lighting costs) and the famous Lewis’s cradle to grave offer, would be reduced and refocused on fashion, gifts and electricals.
Cleaning Aids were axed, but I survived because I was part of the future! I was young, flexible, malleable and cheap!
Despite my naivety, it was quite obvious there were glaring gaps in the announcement. With the closure of all these stores and departments, where will all the staff go, Lewis’s had 1200 on it’s role at the time. If the store was going to focus on fashion, where would the elderly stalwarts of the DIY department and Foodmarket go? Were they The New Lewis’s?
At close hand, I saw Loretta’s tears, Malcolm’s grey complexion and Harry’s look of amazement. This was the first time I’d seen real shock on people’s faces.
After a particularly wet journey home, with my grey polyester uniform splattered with slush from the snowy roads, I felt largely unaffected by the earlier proceedings, but felt uncomfortable about the emotion I saw unravelling around me. I’d noted two weird things in the staff locker room that evening, one side was quiet, upset, worried. The other was angry, frustrated, flustered. Despite this, that evening, I felt that nothing would or could affect me. I was invincible! (or was I in denial?)
My next week at work was much the same. I was surrounded by emotion, speculation, worry and concern. My colleagues simply knew nothing about ‘next steps’, what was involved, what happens next and what this meant to them. They were angry and fought out at ‘younger’ colleagues, my YTS predecessors, their managers and even the customers. It really felt that we were rats on a rapidly sinking ship.
At the end of the week, I drank lager in the pub with a great mate called Grace. We laughed, speculated and watched the Lewis’s ‘old timers’ cry into their pints in the corner.
That evening, slightly tipsy, I spoke to Dad about how I felt about what I’d seen in the previous week. I told him that I felt useless because I was unable to “get through” to people and that I “felt guilty” as I had no real commitments, but some of my friends could lose their jobs, their houses, their livelihoods.
Whilst Dad was no psychologist, he knew that what I was describing was something called the ‘change cycle’ and that “people needed to work through this”, like when “he lost his Dad a few years ago”. He also was remarkably resolute and stated “the most important thing is that you are always a step ahead of the bosses and never get yourself in the position that change is a bad thing”.
He told me to cheer up, clean my teeth (as I clearly smelled of stale ale!) and get a good nights sleep.
Over 25 years later, I’ll never forget his words or the scenarios that led to that conversation. I’ll also never forget the actions I took to understand the psychology of change and how I helped others understand it too.
In part two of this three part blog, you’ll understand why I made it my business to understand the importance of well delivered change from a people perspective and later, why change will always be an inevitable part of commerce in the 21st Century.
None of us will ever be too far from change, but with change comes considerable opportunity. As individuals, if we are to be successful and hold our lives together we need to make it our business to understand effective change – and not just in a business context.