Interview with Kathryn Higgins, head of personnel and development at John Lewis

Kathryn Higgins, head of personnel and organisational development at John Lewis, says benefits will be key to recruiting key talent to fulfil current expansion plans

Having spent time in merchandising and buying, and store management with John Lewis, Kathryn Higgins had ample experience as a line manager before moving into her current role as head of personnel and organisational development (OD) at the department store’s head office in London.

As head of personnel for the department store’s 2,000 head office staff, Higgins’ remit includes driving change, as well as shaping and delivering major divisional personnel programmes. The organisational development side of her role, meanwhile, covers both head office and store-based staff, so, for example, she is responsible for ensuring the HR agenda is aligned with broader business needs. Although she is not directly responsible for the organisation’s benefits provision, Higgins plays a major role in shaping the strategy.

Higgins believes her 2005 move into HR was a natural progression from her previous roles. “While in the buying department, my role regarded shaping and delivering professional change in the company and I worked with the HR team, so it was quite an easy transition to heading up the HR team and ensuring corporate policies were being applied appropriately at head office. I am very future focused and commercially focused, but I am also open and honest. In a role like mine, you have to tune into a number of different areas and issues,” she explains.

Higgins’ biggest achievement as head of personnel was the creation of a performance management framework for head office staff that links performance to remuneration and reward.

John Lewis is, along with Waitrose and Greenbee, part of the John Lewis Partnership, which treats all staff as partners in the organisation and has strict rules about the sharing of profits, knowledge and power among its workforce.

In 2007, John Lewis Partnership spent £324m on benefits programmes, including £181m shared among staff in bonuses. It also retains a non-contributory final salary pension for all staff.”We are proud of the range of benefits we offer to everybody. We work within our parameters but as well as investment, we retain our profit for [staff]. We are focused on our staff and passionately engage people in what happens to the business now and in the future,” says Higgins.

But financial perks are not the only ones that are of value, says Higgins, who is an advocate of options such as the organisation’s flexible working arrangements. All staff are also eligible to spend up to six months working for a charity, during which time John Lewis Partnership will continue to pay their salary. All staff can take up this perk from day one of their employment at their line manager’s discretion. “It is really important for employees to balance work and home. I believe that if we are flexible with our employees’ needs, they will be more flexible with us,” she says.

Higgins’ role also involves recruitment and she acts as a link between the specialist teams within head office. An ongoing challenge is to prepare for a forthcoming recruitment drive as the organisation plans to double its selling space over the next ten years, which will require a big increase in staff. “We had to ask ourselves how benefits will fit in with these plans. We have carried out research and we have been asking employees what is important to them,” she says.

However, with the economic uncertainty hitting some retailers hard, Higgins is certain the credit crunch will have no impact on John Lewis’s benefits in the future. “It is unlikely we will reduce our benefits. We have made a public commitment to continue with our final salary pension and any short-term [economic] uncertainty will not hinder our provision,” she says.

Ensuring the organisation retains sufficient talent to be a success over the next few years and well into the future is a currently a priority. “The ongoing challenge for HR professionals is to ensure benefits are always relevant and appropriate,” she says.

Curriculum Vitae†

2005-present John Lewis: head of personnel and organisational development
2003-2005 John Lewis: project manager in merchandise department
2001-2003 John Lewis: central buyer
2001 John Lewis: merchandise manager at John Lewis Oxford Street
1999-2001 Peter Jones: merchandise manager
1997-1999 John Lewis: department manager, Cheadle, then Bluewater
1997 John Lewis: branch systems adviser, High Wycombe
1995-1997 Peter Jones: graduate trainee


What has been your biggest challenge?
I didn’t have a background in HR, so it was a new scenario to me. I had to be confident in asking questions when I didn’t understand something, although my broader business background did help.

• Is there anyone you have worked with who has inspired you?
I have worked in many parts of the business with an enormous range of people and I try to learn from everyone I work with.

• Is there any advice you would pass on?
Remember, staff are all customers of what we do. It is quite easy to get caught up in HR language, but really successful HR teams are the ones who are always challenging themselves by how benefits are received by employees and line managers.