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Headshot of Mike Coupe

Breakfast with the boss: Thoughts on resilience and leadership with Mike Coupe

  • 10 March 2021

We recently held a roundtable with business leaders featuring guest speaker Mike Coupe. 

Mike has been at the heart of the dramatic events brought about by COVID-19. In early 2020, he was due to coast gently into much deserved retirement after stepping down as CEO of Sainsbury’s in May. But circumstances obviously changed his plans and also made a huge impact on his business. 

Since that time he has also been involved supporting test and trace and is now a Non-Executive Director at NHS England. It was fascinating and instructive to hear his take on the issues of resilience and leadership during a time of crisis.

The crisis begins

For Mike, the first inkling of trouble ahead was when a clothing order from China was stuck in a port in January. A few months later and the pandemic was changing how Sainsbury’s operated forever. Mike had to oversee a very significant reorientation of the business. 

That included having to deal with five consecutive trading days larger than the biggest day before Christmas, putting PPE and social distancing into all stores within 24 hours and seeing the online channel double in size in just five weeks. It was resilience and decisive leadership that made it happen

“Delegating downwards is hard to do, but it does increase your speed dramatically.” - Mike Coupe, former CEO of Sainsbury’s


Making decisions in a crisis

Mike told us that senior leaders rarely get the chance to make the easy decisions. They’re paid to deal with a very high level of ambiguity and that requires a lot of resilience. Having made the choices, you need to be prepared to stand by them and see them through to a logical conclusion.
Quite often leadership knows what needs to be done. But they procrastinate and look for more data to support their choices. So one of the reasons why businesses fail is a lack of decisive action to support their choices rather than wrong decisions.

He believes that values-led organisations are more likely to be successful in this regard. Mike made some quite dramatic choices during the crisis but all with the central tenet of ‘doing the right thing’. At one point, he was getting thousands of emails a day pleading with Sainsbury’s to expand online delivery - it really was a matter of life and death to some people. Mike had to make a big decision, make it quickly and orientate the business in that direction despite the cost. It was the right thing to do.

A catalyst for change

According to Mike, COVID accelerated many of the activities that were planned to happen anyway.  Businesses that were not financially resilient just got found out more quickly than they would have done. As did those with the inability or lack of will to invest in digital technologies. He believes that it’s vital to have systems and processes in place to enable you to react quickly to whatever comes your way. 
Tech has obviously accelerated dramatically for many businesses in the last year. Sainsbury's has stopped building big shops and a lot of its focus is now on making the customer journey better. Mike talked about the need to take legacy systems from the 1970s and move them to the Cloud. The business required the agility to go from tech programmes that lasted for years to a place where one week or even daily cycles were the norm. Tech-savvy staff were used to help others learn to deal with the new way of working.

A brighter future

Mike ended on a positive note. He believes that post-COVID things will get better. There are reasons for optimism and social dislocation can create opportunities. We have to be prepared to see cycles of the virus for the foreseeable future, but we will get used to managing its impact. Mike also suspects there will be a lot of money flowing into our economy and that there's a lot of pent up demand out there. 
After his talk, delegates discussed the issues of resilience and leadership and how it related to their own industries. It was an inspiring and enlightening morning.

If you want to look further into resilience then you can download The Kin + Carta Brand Resilience Index 2020. Using publicly available data from European companies combined with our expert analysis, we explore the factors that enable brands to survive, and thrive through these times of rapid change.

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