The power of upside-down management

If you work for high-street retailer Timpson, you can do as you like. There are just two rules, while the vast chasm in between is occupied with self-styled bohemianism. So, does letting employees run the show work?
HR Grapevine
HR Grapevine | Executive Grapevine International Ltd
The power of upside-down management
Timpson colleagues operate with just two rules

If you work for high-street retailer, Timpson – you can do as you like, there are just two rules, while the vast chasm in between is occupied with self-styled bohemianism. So, does letting employees run the show work?

There’s an entire ecosystem of upside-down animals in the Antarctic, which humans can view for themselves, but only once the lens of each eye (which projects a flipped image onto the retina), is interpreted the ‘right way’ up by our brains. It’s a topsy-turvy world that refuses to play by the correct way around rules, yet it works, and well. It’s exactly the view that’s been taken by Timpson’s, the retailer which offers high-street services from key cutting to shoe repairs and in which upside-down management not only plays a part, but rules.

The business was founded in 1865, equating to a ripe old-age, enviable for any company, particularly one that hands over the reins to over 10% of ex-convicts and 100% to what it refers to as ‘colleagues’ rather than employees, that do just as they like, not what they are told. The firm reported a £332.2 million turnover in 2023 up from £297.5 million – it’s a philosophy that’s proving fruitful. These ‘colleagues’ that are catapulting the shoe repair and locksmithing business sky-high have the freedom to set prices, arrange displays the way they’d like them and do whatever deals they want. If it sounds too good to be true, it’s not.

Talking on a podcast to BBC presenter Evan Davis, James Timpson, CEO of Timpson Group said: “One way to compete is to be fantastically good at doing the job and looking after customers. The next thing I realised was that the way to do that was to give the freedom to the people that serve the customers to do it their way. It’s been a crusade ever since then to turn the business upside down.”

Better conversations embeds trust

Timpson is a self-confessed ‘emotional’ person that admits to being sensitive to how people feel. High emotional intelligence has taught him the importance of building strong relationships through trust.

The power of the ‘pow-wow’ is an essential element, it forges great personal relationships, empowered by the daily dialogue. It’s not much more complicated than that.

One way to compete is to be fantastically good at doing the job and looking after customers. The next thing I realised was that the way to do that was to give the freedom to the people that serve the customers to do it their way. It’s been a crusade ever since then to turn the business upside down

James Timpson | CEO of Timpson Group

Jennifer Liston-Smith, Head of Thought Leadership at Bright Horizons UK has a good insight on the importance of this from the work the employee solutions and childcare provider does with over 400 of the UK’s leading employers. She believes that not only is dialogue crucial but that the right supports are in place to enable employees to feel they can perform each and every day.

“There’s a sense of trust. Why is this? I think it’s partly about having good leadership programmes in place and it’s also that when the culture includes practical supports, managers and staff (or ‘colleagues’ in Timpson’s terms) just have better conversations and find ways through because the organisation is committed to removing barriers that get in the way of performance (such as supporting with an alternative when care arrangements break down on a given day). When these supports are in place, people report being more motivated to perform and deliver as they feel the employer ‘gets it.’”

Rules are made to be broken

'Getting it' is in Timpson's case displayed by giving employees the freedom to run the show. In a further podcast Timpson says, simplifying the rules down to just a pigeon pair has made it transparent and workable: “We have two rules. You put the money in the till, and you look the part: You open up the shop on time, you are nice to people, you don’t smoke or eat there but apart from that, do what you want.”

Management is characterised as the mastery of the levers of control over resources. James Timpson chooses to use levers like trust, autonomy, voice, and practical organisational support to ensure the colleagues feel ownership and loyalty to the firm and to their other colleagues

Wilson Wong | Strategist, futurist, and data scientist

You've read 39% of the article so far, subscribe to continue reading - plus lots more!


Subscribe now to myGrapevine+ and get access to our comprehensive knowledge portal.


Already a subscriber?Sign in

Welcome Back


Timpson to cover menopause prescription costs - here's why that's good

Up Next:

'Support our colleagues' | Timpson to cover menopause prescription costs - here's why that's good


You might also like