Coles Myer chief shares retention tips

Secrets of a successful workplace

By Kate Southam

When John Fletcher took over Coles Myer in 2001 he vowed to double its size – profits and share price in five years.

He told a business lunch yesterday that Coles Myer had achieved that goal and it was time to set a new one. The group includes Cole’s supermarkets, Myer, Target, K Mart, Liquorland, Theo liquor stores, Vintage Cellars, Bi Lo amongst other brands.

Mr Fletcher said a crucial part of the ambitious plan was people management and that started with a survey filled in by its 167,000 employees – making it the largest climate survey "in the southern hemisphere".

The key note speaker at the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency’s annual business awards yesterday, Mr Fletcher recounted how the "culture was sick" at Coles Myer in 2001.

"When I arrived at Coles Myer it was out of favour with customers, it was out of favour with [investors] and it was out of favour with its employees," Mr Fletcher said.

The climate survey was the launching pad for Coles Myer to "become better on diversity, better on respecting differences and better on work/life balance."

"We conducted 200 focus groups involving 2,500 people representing all brands and we had 66 people spend two days with 150 pages of feedback so they could describe a set of values for us to live by," Mr Fletcher said.

The work of the 66 people was then presented to the senior management team "and not one word was changed". The Coles Myer values became "Integrity, Respect and Recognition, Passion for Excellence and Working Together."

Mr Fletcher said a lot of work had also been carried out to increase the number of women across the group. Of his own management, 25 per cent are women. Of the top 200 executives, 21 per cent are now women – up from 15 per cent in 2003. The goal is to raise female participation in the management team to 30 per cent. The company did not have its first female board member until 1995. Today, three of its nine board members are women.

His advice to other CEOs was to "link your diversity strategy to your team strategy and to link your diversity strategy to your customer strategy." Mr Fletcher chairs the Coles Myer Diversity Council himself.

All line managers receive diversity training and diversity training is relayed to all employees by being part of induction when people join the organisation. Diversity training covers gender, age, religion and disability.

Mr Fletcher said that all recruitment firms acting for Coles Myer are also well versed in its diversity goals. "If there are three candidates short listed for a management role, we expect one of them to be a woman," he said.

Coles Myer also has a leadership program for women, a women’s network and a parenting program to help employees of both genders. The organisation’s return to work rate amongst women taking maternity leave is 82 per cent and the goal is 90 per cent.

"Shifts in cultural norms in big companies take a lot of persistence," Mr Fletcher said. His recommended action is:

Step one: Recognise you have a problem.
Step two: Develop a diversity plan.
Step three: Develop a good communications strategy.
Step four: Develop goals to take you where you want the organisation to be in three to four years time.

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