Our interviews with business leaders span a range of organisations and areas of focus. Mike Byford, former UK operations development director at Tesco recently spoke to Kyra Cordrey about his career journey, work- related stress and managing change in business. Starting off on the shop floor, he has worked in retail for over 20 years.
Mike has recently accepted a job at Whitbread Plc as central operations and change director of their restaurant business.
1.     Please tell us a bit about your career to date…
I’ve been very lucky to have such a breadth of experience within the retail sector. I started off on the shop floor and then joined the Sainsburys graduate trainee management scheme which led to a store manager position and then to head office at Sainsburys. Sainsburys sponsored me to do an MBA in Applied General Management and as a result I moved into various roles over the next few years including cost reduction/efficiencies, organisational design, programme management and central operations.
I then moved on to Tesco where I joined the operations development team. I led a change programme working for the board of Tesco’s Irish business and then spent 18 months in IT, leading IT service transformation. I ran Tesco’s cafe business for a short period (around 450 business units through three service providers) and finally I took on the role as operations development director in 2012.
2.     What are your career highlights? And why?
Achieving my MBA was a highlight for me because it was a real challenge. I did it part time while doing a senior job at Sainsburys as well as having a two year old and a newborn. I always say that my wife should have the letters after her name as well because it really was a shared burden! Leading the operations development team at Tesco has been another major highlight. In my view, we have the best team of programme and project managers in global retail and it’s been a privilege to go to work with them every morning.
3.     What is the one thing you do to have some work-life balance?
It’s really important for me to get exercise. It keeps my mental and physical energy levels up and I believe that being fit simply enhances my quality of life. I will therefore do everything I can to make sure I have time to exercise. If that means going to the gym at 10am when my colleagues are in meetings I will do it. I also encourage my team to exercise when they want to as well. We all work long enough hours so for me it really doesn’t matter when!
4.     What techniques do you use for dealing with work-related stress?
I think it’s really important to have some reference points that remind us about what’s important. I’ve always taken my work very seriously, however if I’m having a hard time and things start to feel really difficult, I always try to look at my glass as being half full. What I mean is that the majority of us who are fortunate enough to have a senior position in a top UK business have very easy, comfortable lives - relative to the majority of other people. If that doesn’t work, then watch the news - it won’t take long to find someone that’s a lot worse off than you. It’ll make your own situation feel like a holiday!
5.     What career ambitions are you still to achieve?
At some point, I want to take on a larger general management role possibly COO or MD to start with. I want to test my knowledge and skills gained from a career in retail - perhaps in a different industry.
6.     What’s the most important thing you have learned about managing conflicts in the workplace?
Two things. Firstly, always chase an outcome that is right for the business (not for yourself, the moment or an individual piece of work). Secondly, maintain an adult posture - never resort to aggression or playground tactics. It’s staggering how many senior people in business could do with coaching on both fronts!
7.     What’s the best advice you have can give about solving problems at work?
It’s very simple advice - a sense check. It can save so much time (and therefore money). The number of times I have encountered very senior people in business trying to solve the wrong problem! Always ask “What’s the problem we are trying to solve?”, “How will we know when we’ve solved it?”, “What will be different as a result?” If you can answer those questions then there’s a good chance you are on the right path…

About managing change 

8.     What are your top tips for reducing operational costs?
You need to really understand your entire cost base. When I say understand, I don’t just mean where your costs are sitting, but how they have moved over time and why, and how they are projected to move in the years ahead. Also understand the impact of potential extreme scenarios and what that could mean for your entire P&L. Then be absolutely clear on where costs are adding value and where they are not. With a cost size/movement/value- add picture clearly painted, priorities for cost reduction drop out pretty clearly!
9.     What is your advice for successfully implementing new systems/processes?
I’ve worked in two businesses with operators who are passionate about wanting to help any potential change to ways of working progress. I have often heard the words “we really want to make this work”. To which I always set them the same challenge; do everything you can to break it, to make it not work, to find problems. That’s the best way to ensure that what gets implemented is fit for purpose because hopefully all problems will have been solved by the time the change lands.
10.   How do you continue to meet the changing demands of a business?
Firstly, I think that if you want a career in change management then meeting the challenge of changing demands should be a joy! The best way to meet the changing demands is to anticipate them and be prepared. Best case scenario is you’re one step ahead and the one actually making the demands for change. The majority of change work in retail can be driven by scanning global retail and analogous industries to understand cutting edge trends. Agile businesses will be the trail blazers first to market in their own competitor set, and agility comes from having the best internal processes, planning and governance.
Mike Byford was talking to Kyra Cordrey, director at Michael Page Consultancy, Strategy & Change. Are you looking to take the next step in your career? Are you looking to hire talent? Or are you simply looking for some further advice on the market? Contact Kyra for a confidential discussion.
T: +44 20 7269 2433