When James Bailey left Sainsbury’s in October it’s unlikely he would have imagined his next role to be leading a rival grocer’s response to the biggest public health crisis in a century. That’s the position Bailey now finds himself in, however, on joining John Lewis Partnership (JLP) as Waitrose’s new executive director this week.
Thankfully, Bailey – who has 18 years’ experience at Sainsbury’s to his name mostly in senior commercial roles – is the kind of level-headed character you want in a crisis. Senior traders can often be intense, ostentatious characters. This is not necessarily a bad thing when you are managing vast revenues and driving your team on to hit aggressive targets. Bailey, by contrast, exudes a sense of calm and control which should stand him in good stead as he faces the greatest challenge of his career to-date.
Bailey will join JLP’s new single executive team which will, in the words of chairman Sharon White, “allow us to get the best of both worlds. We’ll have all the benefits of bringing together activities that are best-organised pan-Partnership and reducing duplication while still recognising that there are important differences in the way you run a department store and a supermarket.”
White’s words ring even more true at this extraordinary time when John Lewis stores remain shuttered (with reports suggesting some will remain permanently closed once the lockdown is eased) while Waitrose is operating at full capacity to provide essential grocery supplies both in-store and online.
Bailey will have little time or opportunity, to observe the usual ‘get to know me’ protocol that new bosses tend to follow. Face-to-face time with key executives such as trading director Rupert Thomas will mostly take place remotely while ‘all colleague’ introductions at head office will have to put on ice.
On the flip side, throwing yourself into a full-blown crisis can be the making of a leader. Decisions that would normally be deliberated over at length must be made on the spot. Small mistakes are more easily forgiven while successes are more readily remembered.
Looking further ahead, it was notable how White said that Bailey, with his varied background, would be “a great cultural fit” for JLP. Certainly, his experience advising start-ups such as healthy snacks brand Well&Truly and last-mile tech provider Localz fits well with the role JLP fulfils as an incubator for innovative ideas. His early career as an NHS management trainee and on Barclays finance strategy team, meanwhile, offers a breadth of industry and public-sector experience that is increasingly the norm among JLP’s leadership team.
The immediate task facing Bailey is to make sure Waitrose’s operational model endures the next few months of disruption. But as we move beyond the challenge of coronavirus he’ll have the chance to help shape the future of an organisation that will be facing a new normal. I’m confident he’ll prove to be an asset in both regards.