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How To Respond To The Ultimate Poison Pen Letter

Posted: Monday, 27 March 2023 @ 15:20

Last Friday (24th April) the retail consultant and former Downing Street adviser Mary Portas wrote a brilliant and potentially dangerous open letter to the John Lewis Chairwoman, Dame Sharon White and incoming chief executive Nish Kankiwala which was posted on LinkedIn.

The context here is that things are not stable for John Lewis.

The Partnership has recorded losses of £234 million meaning no staff bonuses for the second year in three. John Lewis is considering a radical plan to raise up to £2 billion from outside investors which would dilute the 100% staff ownership and would alter the structure of the organisation.      

The open Ietter by Ms Portas can be viewed here which is on Linked In.

As Ms Postas said: “Your task isn’t to turn around just another mediocre retailer under threat of going under. You’re fighting to save part of our collective cultural identity.

But what’s worrying me is that you might think your fight is purely financial. It’s not.

The battle in hand is far more nuanced. It’s about what makes up the soul of your brand. The intangibles, the shared beliefs, the beautiful things that can’t be captured in financial projections but earn a little space in people’s hearts.

Somehow, in recent years, you’ve let go of the soul. We’ve all felt the subtle, but powerful, erasure of what John Lewis is, a severing of what’s always set your business apart.

At a time when we crave the constancy and comfort of brands we can actually trust, you’ve been chasing the new. New systems, new people, new owners. But here’s the thing: that’s not what we really want from John Lewis. And here’s the other thing: that’s not what younger generations want from you either.

What we want in this crooked, flighty, commoditised world of ours is unfailing quality, honest value, genuinely helpful service."

As a piece of correspondence it is absolutely brilliant namely it is succint, well written, uses justified points in support of its argument and clearly encapsulates why John Lewis has lost its way.

And the attacker has credibility and significant retail supporters namely the Linked In Post elicited support from the Chief Executive of Fortnum and Mason and the Managing Director of YO! Sushi UK.   

For a recipient of such correspondence it is dangerous and has a narrative that the Chairwoman of John Lewis is out of her depth.

From my point of view the most concerning pieces of correspondence I receive are not those written by those who we expect to oppose us but those whom we deal with who portray themselves as our friends. And this is one of those letters.

However, it is the response of Dame Sharon White which is perhaps of even more interest as there is so much wrong with her response.

Here is her response which is produced here in full which was posted on Linked In on the same day as the open letter.

Dear Mary,

It’s the biggest privilege of my life to be custodian of the Partnership. I am here to ensure that it not only survives, but thrives for generations. I became Chairman because we are a co-owned business. It is why Nish, who has been in the Partnership for two years, takes up the role of Chief Executive on Monday.

I love our brands. Their strength isn’t an accident of our being a Partnership. It is because we are a Partnership. Our Partners who own the business are our greatest asset and our ownership of the Partnership will remain.

100 million customers visited our John Lewis stores last year. That’s a third up on the previous year. We had half a billion customers visit our app and website.

We want our brands to continue to grow.  

We’ve always been open to new partnerships with investors or like minded companies to share in our growth.

I will not rest until the Partnership is restored to full health."

Sharon White Partner & Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership

Fundamentally when you receive a piece of potentially dangerous correspondence there are certain things you have to do.

1 You Do Not Have To Respond Quickly. Dame Sharon White responded on the same day to the Linked In post which given the quality of the incoming letter which has no doubt been grafted over days if not weeks(and possibly shown to other top executives) is not the best idea. The response is rushed and that is shown.

Turning to content, fundamentally there are two ways to go when you receive a piece of hostile correspondence and they both involve engagement and illustrate the writer has read the correspondence:

2 You Defend You/Your Company/Your Client. You thank the person for her comments but defend your/company's actions and explain what you are doing to protect the business. You address the correspondence. You explain that you know what you are doing and politely explain that in fact the business remains on a good path and has not lost its soul/its way which is the key allegation.

3 Or You Are Humble and Contrite. You thank Ms Portas for her comments, show you are willing to learn and above all show that you get the criticism and will do better but remain the best person/have the best team to help the business. You engage In a figurative embrace with the person you are writing to.  

Unfortunately Dame White does none these things and gives the impression she does not even understand the allegations. In terms of supporting her position she relies on the increase on her people visiting the stores/website which even a non retail person can work out is not the best criteria for determining financial success.  

It is little wonder that Ms Portas has simply posted the response on her Linked In feed and done nothing else. There is nothing else to say.