Case study: Global mobility at Specsavers

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Specsavers may be a UK high street stalwart, but as a global brand staff can explore all corners of the business, and world

The organisation

Specsavers was established in 1984 by husband and wife Doug and Mary Perkins in Guernsey. It has always operated most stores under a joint or shared venture partnership. This is similar to a franchise agreement but the aim is for customer service at each branch to be consistent, and Specsavers owns shares in each business rather than just providing goods and services. Today the company boasts 25,000 staff working across 1,648 branches in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

The challenge

Debería haber ido a Specsavers is the Spanish translation of perhaps one of the most famous advertising catchphrases of recent times. Why Spanish? Because the brand now boasts a wide global presence, although that may come as a surprise to many in the UK.

As with any global expansion, this poses an important challenge: how to retain that corporate culture that has made the business such a success thus far. Specsavers’ answer: ensure and promote strong global mobility. “If you want Specsavers’ values and culture in that new territory it’s always great to have existing staff on hand to help the new team develop,” explains head of HR Laura Sharrott.

Enabling global moves wherever possible also ties nicely into another challenge faced by Specsavers (along with many other businesses). “There’s an important question around Generation Y and what they’re going to want from the workplace,” says Sharrott. “They won’t want a standard career path in a specific team; they want to be doing a bit of everything. I think it’s becoming increasingly the norm for people to say: ‘I love this company but I feel I’ve done all I can in this role, so what next?’”

The answer for Specsavers is making moving around globally, and indeed across different areas of the business, easy and widely encouraged.

The method

Indeed Sharrott herself has been the beneficiary of this approach, having enjoyed two secondments to Australia in her seven years with the company.

“I’d gotten to a point where I was ready for something slightly different. So I initiated a conversation,” she says, explaining such requests will always be welcomed.

But the business doesn’t just wait for colleagues to ask for a change, instead it actively promotes opportunities. “In some companies, a lot goes on that people don’t know about, so people might never hear about an opportunity,” feels Sharrott, explaining that use of technology is key to preventing this at Specsavers.

“We have a number of collaboration tools, and these are more important now as people are less and less in the office. You have to provide the technology for people to share information,” she says. “Social media is so much a part of our lives now that if you make it easy people will use it. So it’s about making it easy, accessible and intuitive.”

It’s also important that line managers have regular career conversations with teams so they can be the ones to suggest opportunities. “You have to accept that not everyone will be mobile even within the same country. So those conversations happen very regularly,” says Sharrott. “As HR business partners and line managers we have a really good view of our teams and who might be mobile.”

While Specsavers is open to everybody voicing their aspirations, it must also ensure the right people are chosen from a business point of view, explains Sharrott. “A global move is quite a significant investment in someone so you have to make sure it’s also for the right business reasons,” she says. “So our talent framework is key.”

All levels of the business are considered, and this doesn’t have to be a full-time placement, says Sharrott. “We have store partners who go and run stores in Australia, for example,” she says. “We have people not on full secondment but who work Monday to Thursday in the Danish office, say. That’s the best of both worlds for them: they get the stability of their home life but a great opportunity too.”

Over the years, the business has learned important lessons about supporting a move, reports Sharrott. “We’ve recognised in the past we haven’t quite got it right so we continually improve that support,” she says. “Each secondee now has a case manager assigned to them, so a single point of contact who is the conduit between all the different parties: the home country line manager, the HR line manager, the destination country and all the other third parties like relocation support. In other companies it can be quite confusing and the secondee doesn’t know who’s doing what; we try to make it as easy as possible.”

And Specsavers aims to be just as open-minded about moving people into new departments, like Mel Roberts, who started as financial controller for manufacturing, distribution and supply chain, and now works in operations.

“It’s about finding those opportunities,” says Sharrott. “It doesn’t even have to be a different job. It could be a project that just gives that person a different set of experiences and adds to their development. Then they feel like they’re growing and learning on a constant basis.”

The result

Sharrott identifies the key benefit: “That person also looks at the business through a different pair of eyes; it makes them a broader, more rounded person.”

Even just making the effort to cater for someone craving a fresh challenge, goes a long way in terms of retention, engagement and loyalty, she says. “Sometimes it might be that we can’t do anything in terms of a next role. But if they see you’ve done all you can do, yes they might leave, but they might then come back and bring all the positive experience they’ve had elsewhere back into the organisation,” she says. “It really means something to people that we’ve tried.”

Roberts is certainly a happy customer. “The company has been fantastic in supporting my long-term goal of moving out of a purely finance role into an operations role,” she enthuses. “Specsavers believed in me and gave me the opportunity to do that – they did not put me in a box as an accountant, as many other employers might. They recognised that the skills I had were relevant and transferable – they looked at me as an overall package.

“People don’t see me as an accountant anymore – they recognise me in the role I am doing.”

Another success story is Richard Owens, who, in less than 15 years, has risen from a junior retail support role to director of retail operations for Northern Europe, and has worked across Finland, Australia and New Zealand. “It’s a fantastic part of the business to be involved in, with five different cultures and languages, and all the fun and games that brings,” he relates.

In terms of the bigger picture, turnover rates back up these individual success stories. UK and Guernsey turnover is 19.2% – admirable for a retail context.

Sharrott hopes in future Specsavers can use more sophisticated metrics to concretely measure its mobility strategy’s success rate. “We track assignments but we’re not at the stage yet where we can measure their value, but that’s the future,” she says, adding: “I think more and more organisations are switching reporting from retention to talent growth. Rather than ‘who’s walking out the door?’ it’s ‘who’s moving and growing, who’s coming back?’ What a great measure that would be.”

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