Tesco’s brand boss admits retail was an ‘alien planet’ when she joined

Michelle McEttrick had never worked in retail before she joined Tesco and admits to feeling out of depth when she first started but says the key to building a great team is having a range of people with complementary skills and experience.

Tesco brand boss

Michelle McEttrick had never worked in retail before she joined Tesco as group brand director in early 2015. She had run brands in financial services, telecoms, FMCG, food and drink and worked agency-side, but admits retail was an “alien planet”.

“Unless you count the summer after graduating from high school working in a mall as relevant to leading the Tesco brand in every market and business unit, I had [no] retail experience,” she said, speaking at The Marketing Society’s Braver Conference in London yesterday (15 November) on a panel about bringing the human side to leadership.

Yet that lack of experience in retail was exactly why Tesco and its CEO Dave Lewis wanted to bring McEttrick on board. It wasn’t looking for someone with retail expertise but brand expertise.

However, that didn’t stop McEttrick initially feeling out of her depth. She admits she didn’t think about how different retail would be to her previous jobs, in particular the language spoken and the depth of industry knowledge her colleagues held.

She points to an array of new terms that few outside retail would understand from like-for-like to IRI to colleague hours, and front baskets and back baskets. The business also didn’t use a normal calendar, referring instead to “Tesco weeks” where week 37 would mean the 22 October, for example.

We often focus on what our job is and what those skills and experiences are. It’s equally important to understand the complementary role you play in an organisation.

Michelle McEttrick, Tesco

“What I didn’t clock when I first came in was that I was going to need to deliver [brand] expertise into what was in fact an alien planet to anything I had experienced before and in an environment where retail was the only language spoken,” she admitted. “It was a major shift for me.”

That led McEttrick to firstly try to immerse herself in retail and secondly to “hesitate” when it came to contributing because she often didn’t feel she had anything to offer.

She admitted this was a mistake because she had not been brought in to amass retail experience but instead to “bring the customer and brand into every room, not just the conversations that pertained to marketing”. Once she realised this, she “dove right in”.

“This is how we are leading the turnaround at Tesco, combining complementary people who have deep experience and knowledge of Tesco with people brought in from the outside to bring new perspectives,” she said.

She advises others that find themselves in a similar position to think about what they can bring to a team that is unique, rather than the skills or experience they may not have.

“We often focus on what our job is and what those skills and experiences are. It’s equally important to understand the complementary role you play in an organisation. It’s not always the obvious thing but once you can unlock that it brings tremendous success.

“I like to think, what is it that only I can do, whether it’s a skill, an experience, a way of communicating or something else. Once I’ve figured out what that is for every situation, I make sure I do that first.”

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