‘It can’t be this good!’ How DRPG helped John Lewis inspire its leaders

Birmingham’s NEC proved to be the perfect fit when the John Lewis Partnership wanted to stage a large scale event for 8,000 leaders from across the UK.

We caught up with the key players from John Lewis and DRPG to find out how in just a few weeks they managed to put together an inspirational event at the NEC that came to be a career highlight for those taking part.

Philip Reddall, proposition lead, learning, development & progression, John Lewis Partnership: “The Empowered Leadership Event is the first part of a much wider leadership offer to support people managers across the Partnership. The brief was all about creating belief and we felt we needed a partner that could help us create the emotional experience that would contribute to that.”

Kirsten Caress, manager, personnel solution development, John Lewis Partnership: “We were thinking about how to achieve this, and we decided we needed to engage with an agency to come up with ideas and think about how we could do things quickly.

The event was turned around in just a few weeks

The event was turned around in just a few weeks

“We had been having some conversations with the Penguins Group (DRPG’s sister agency) and we came to the offices in Windsor to talk about the things we were looking for. We only had a fairly short time, a few weeks to turn it around.

“We got to the point where we understood that we were going to go large, but then we were really restricted with availability. We leaned into DRPG and used all their expertise and resources. Based on logistics and availability, all those things led us to the NEC.”

Reddall: “We wanted to get value for money. We had 8,000 people coming from all over the country, we wanted to create an experience on a large scale. We explored the possibility of a roadshow but decided instead that we wanted to create a moment in time. We knew we had to create an inspirational event. We needed a big start and it was of value to get everybody together.

“In the end, choosing the NEC was a common-sense decision based on money, experience, location and sheer practicalities.

“In creating the event, we decided to have one room containing four separate activities. It was all built around a learning activity day where everyone came together. We had seven days, with around 1-1,300 people on each day.

“On arrival, they came together in a central communal space. The first space was in the round. We wanted people to feel they were a leader among thousands of leaders. We talked about the community they were part of, that was really important.

Caress: “We wanted to focus on our people and shift from operational leadership to empowered leadership. Previously they were called line managers. We don’t manage lines, we manage people. We wanted people to leave the event believing they had become specialists in people.

“It was about building relationships with Partners, investing in Partners and understanding the impact they have on their Partners in the way that they show up.

Reddall: “We had an amazing opportunity to do something on this scale”

Richard Hingley, creative director, DRPG: “We created an opening based around the idea of being specialists in people. Behind every Partner is a real person. There was an element of the opening piece where we said ‘tell us about who you are’. We created a powerful piece of music, along with images of people appearing across the whole Partnership. The person behind the badge. That ended up with all the Partners on stage, the ‘Specialists in People’.

“It was a Partner event, that was where the energy really began, and then they broke out into four immersive experiences based on Everyday Leadership, Leadership Learning, Leading as Me and Leading Culture. To help gain the greatest value, one of these experiences took place back in the main room that was transformed in less than 10 minutes. Each of those four spaces had to be different and accommodate 250 plus people. It wasn’t necessarily about training, but about the experience.

“When people entered the spaces you could immediately feel the energy building. For example, within the Leading Culture session, we created a black box opening experience to gain powerful levels of focus, that then lifted to reveal the Culture Lab that used digital tablets to capture the leaders’ views on the Partnership’s culture of today and tomorrow.

“Once the leaders had experienced each of the four spaces they then returned to the main room for a 30-minute closing session. What was powerful was when they came back together and talked to each other. They were leaving the experiences having these amazing conversations about themselves, their people and the future of the Partnership”

“The training partners facilitated the sessions four times a day over the seven days. It was amazing to see those Partners not just believe in the content but actively work on developing it. The John Lewis Partnership set out to give people ownership of those areas, so it really was a working partnership. That’s ultimately what enabled us to do what we did in a short period of time.”

Reddall: “Throughout the week we started to get more and more feedback on how it was landing. On any given day it was vastly overwhelming. I remember walking around saying ‘it can’t be this good!’. In terms of energising and helping people have the belief, it hit home more than anything else we’ve ever done.

“In the current economic climate people are having to pick and choose very carefully. We had an amazing opportunity to do something on this scale. We would definitely consider doing something like this again if you need to create that emotional connection.”

Caress: “It was about building relationships with partners”

Caress: “There was so much going on – the emotional reaction, the surprise element, the impact, all the small touches, the attention to detail in terms of design was phenomenal. It was really genuinely talked about for a long time after. It’s been really satisfying knowing that what we tried to do had landed.

“Working with DRPG was a good cultural fit. The team understood what we were trying to achieve and how we were trying to achieve it. They embraced a different way of doing things. One of the reasons for the event’s success was that we partnered so well together. It felt very unique, very special. Our Partners came out saying it was a highlight of their careers.”

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