Christopher Pietroni: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Leadership Exchange podcast. With me, your host, Christopher Pietroni. This podcast is brought to you by the University of Birmingham, where I am Professor of Leadership Practice and Director of the Birmingham Leadership Institute. In this podcast we ask whether the kinds of challenges that we're facing have the right kinds of leadership or whether we need to exchange them for something new.
Yeah, I'm absolutely delighted today that I'm joined by Andy Street, the West Midlands Metro mayor, and also a Brummie born and bred. So we're even happier to have him on this podcast. Andy was first elected as the Metro mayor in 2017, again in 2021, but before that was already very well known and prominent as the enormously successful managing director of John Lewis.
John Lewis's sales 50% up, no doubt. Just one reason why he was named by management today as one of the most successful leaders in business. Andy, thank you for being with us.
Andy Street: Well, Christopher, it's lovely to be here and to take part in your wonderful institute.
Christopher Pietroni: Thank you. So I thought we might start. Well, actually, when you ran last as a mayor, I don't know if you remember this, but you said that not only did you wish to be judged on your record, but also how I've demonstrated my values. And I thought we might begin there and to explore, you know, what those values are and what you think the significance of them are for your leadership.
Andy Street: I'm very willing to. And just let me explain why I said that back in 2021. And you part of say politicians say all those things on the, on the campaign trail. But the reason I said it is that this role, as elected mayor for the whole of the West Midlands, 3 million people, it is a representative role. It's not a whipped role within a party. It's about - overused word, one I expect we will use a lot in the next 40 minutes or so - It's about being a leader for people. And I wanted people sitting at home watching me on the telly, whatever, thinking, Yeah, I can relate to that guy. I'm happy that he's the one who's representing me in London or in New York on a business trip or something, or with another community in India, as I was just last year. People need to feel his value set reflects mine, it is appropriate. And what do I think those values are? The big piece for me is about inclusivity, being able to genuinely spread across this very, very diverse community. I can't possibly to understand every community like members do, but I hope people say at least he's made an effort. At least he understands the importance of this. I hope something as well about modesty, about, about honesty, integrity. And so even if people don't agree with me, they'll say he's absolutely straightforward, he's honest, he says it as it is. And I know, I believe that he will do his very best for us.
Christopher Pietroni: Well, why do you think that is? When were those findings formed? I mean, do they go a long way back for you? Is this sort of, you know, formative experiences?
Andy Street: Oh, I'm a huge believer. I am going to say two conflicting things now. I am a huge believer that those values go right back to your upbringing. But I'm also a believer that you never stop learning. And gosh, I've learned a lot in this job. So it's not that sort of something set in stone by the time you're five years old or something but things that were sort of imprinted upon in me very early on, and if I think of that sort of notion, those notions of honesty, integrity, all of those things, which sounds so banal, but so many people in politics have been found not to have those things, aren't they? So it's perhaps worth reflecting, it doesn't always happen if I think of the way in which the business I led for ten years, what were the hallmarks of John Lewis's? Hopefully they were those things. I remember when we recruited an advertising agency. John Lewis hadn't really done much advertising before I became the boss, and then we became famous for it. The brief to the advertising agency was ‘Sell the Public Trust’, a word that is a hugely values driven word. And the agency sort of looked at me, blinking a bit, saying, Well, that's not something you can advertise, I said ‘hat's what we want to do’. Because I understood our USP with the public was to get to a value space that others couldn't get to. And I hope there's a guy who led that business, embodied it was the spokesman for it. My personal behaviour would have transmitted that as well. And I hope even some people will never agree with me politically. I hope how I go about doing this job, the same thing is there.
Christopher Pietroni: And, and I mean, I think people would recognize that in John Lewis. And, you know, the institution of the John Lewis Christmas Ad clearly kind of draws on that. Obviously, your role now is very different.
Andy Street: But the values can be the same.
Christopher Pietroni: So what is it that you do? What is the leadership activity that communicates those values in the way that you seek to lead now?
Andy Street: There’s the point about being the front man first, because that's where a lot of the members of the public see those values coming through. And I'm sure there'll be some who say, no, he doesn't do this, he's deluding himself. But what I would try to do, I mean, the obvious point is you're interviewed by journalists all the time. I always try to be incredibly straightforward and how I answer the question. People always say, my team often say, you're too you're too honest frankly. You haven’t got the politicians ability to swerve. But people I hope people are sitting at home watching the telly when they see me doing that, thinking, yeah, that he tells it as it is, it is straight. And actually, to step forward and admit something when you're wrong as well is also very important. Perhaps politicians don't do it. So when things go wrong we're asked to do a media interview. It would be very easy to say ‘No, I don't really want to appear today’. No, you step forward, you take the rough with the smooth and I think the sort of the ex-CEO in me, what you learn in business, I hope I've carried that forward into how I would go forward into that comms piece. But then there are other sort of values, who you choose to recruit in your team, is very, very important, because in a leadership role you are represented by your teams. The assessment of people around you is very, very important. The way when – and I'm sure will come on to this - the way you develop those people, give them rope, all of that. But I'm very conscious that you are represented by other people. You have to choose the right people.
Christopher Pietroni: Is service a word you feel comfortable with?
Andy Street: Yes
Christopher Pietroni: I mean, one of the reasons I ask that is that I think as a young man, you did a lot of work with organisations like Birmingham Youth.
Andy Street: Yeah
Christopher Pietroni: I mean, it's that. So it seems to have been there a long way back?
Andy Street: So that's why I say these things are instiled. This might be stretching too far, but my family's upbringing was Quakerish. I was, my own upbringing was fairly irreligious, actually. But, you know, but I think what I look back on my upbringing was, although it was irreligious, the people around, a lot of them were from that background. And I think they did instil that notion of service in me as a very young person. So actually I am very, very happy with the concept now, that I am here to serve the citizens of the West Midlands. And that is exactly as I see it All of our efforts can only be about one thing. Is there a better outcome for them?
Christopher Pietroni: Lovely. Thank you. So you were mentioning a moment ago about, you know, the team that you pick. And so on
Andy Street: Yeah.
Christopher Pietroni: And when you first became mayor.
Andy Street: Yes.
Christopher Pietroni: One of the very first thing you did, was to set up the West Midlands Leadership Commission, which was focused on trying to look at why leadership in the in the region really didn't look like the region. And t was a in some ways a pretty bold and rather unusual early priority to have. So why was that so important?
Andy Street: Well, a number of the early priorities, people say, well, strange thing to do in the first days. The very first day we spent a time with the person who ended up leading a homelessness Taskforce so effectively for six years. So what was the priority for the incoming elected as a conservative mayor? Look at you structure to homelessness. Probably not what people think is the natural place to go first, but it's actually the same answer behind that as there is behind the leadership question.
There was something in here which said to me, there's something not right about this. And I said, right at the beginning, this notion of justice, this notion of a sort of integrity, that it just wasn't right. And that's why we put people -- to use your words, not mine, because I thought it was absolutely natural but what many people said to me it’s surprising one, do these things forward, earlier on.
Christopher Pietroni: You use the word ‘justice’ as a motivator for addressing these questions of kind of inclusion and representation. And a lot of people will be really attracted to that. But it's also been a feature of, you know, the last several years that some of the issues around this issue have got highly polarized, politicized even. The England team taking the knee, the role that, you know, Gareth Southgate played in kind of putting that out there. And I'm curious about how you engage with sort of both sides of that. You're deep in the you know, one of the most prominent Conservative politicians in the country, has it become harder?
Andy Street: No. It's a really interesting question, actually. But for me personally, it hasn't become harder because I sort of reject all extreme symbolism. Okay. And so I very much try to take a a pragmatic line down the middle, if I think it’s right and has to be done, that's it. So I personally support the taking the knee. And then when people get excited about those doing it, I just thought, what on earth is all this about? It's a relatively innocuous statement that's meant to mean something very, very deep. And I find that absolutely sensible. So my answer to it is not to be sucked in to the extreme versions of this, to have a sort of pragmatic, moderate, tolerant, inclusive approach to it. I always said on that first electionthis was going to be about a moderate, tolerant, inclusive form of conservatism, and I've not wavered in that in my own mind. And I think having that one of the things I've learned in this job, you have to be confident of your own mind in your own judgments and not be buffeted really by all these things going on. And what your question is really about is, is don't allow yourself to be buffeted. And I don't.
Christopher Pietroni: The pressure must come though?
Andy Street: Of course, but in a job like this where, as I said from the beginning, three million people judging whether I'm an appropriate leader, ultimately the thing that you have to be clear about is whether you've done the right thing by your own standards. And sometimes, sometimes
I know I've probably done something that’s politically expedient, but you look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘have you done the right thing?’. That's okay.
Christopher Pietroni: And going back to the commission and its purpose, yeah. I mean, what progress do you think has been made?
Andy Street: Well, I don’t think we've made enough progress. I'm going to be very straight with you there. I really don’t, the work was brilliant work, absolute shone a light on it and there's lots of individual examples of brilliant outcomes as a result of it. One thing I'm so proud of in it, actually, because it talks to the sort of long burn and you've got to be you've got to be consistent. We identified - we needed to bring more young, diverse people into different forms of leadership
so that we set up our own young combined authority, something we could do deliberately ourselves, didn't need to influence any other organization. And we had a whole group of people came forward to represent the region, reflecting the gender balance, the ethnic balance, the LGBT balance, the sort of disability balance and I was really pleased with what we did. If I look around the total leadership, political leadership of the region, have we made the difference? I would hope the answer is ‘no’. But do I think that every private sector organization in the West Midlands is now absolutely alert to it and indeed, some public sector organizations have made vast progress. Health service particularly good as some of the other public sector organisations, less good, but do we keep battling on we’ve got it onto the agenda, we’ve got clear examples of cut through. Yes.
Christopher Pietroni: And I was curious about your foregrounding the Young Combined Authority
because you know, in your obvious pride in the fact that there were young people who were growing in confidence and leaning into their own leadership and that that seems to be something also, you know, I've picked up is important to you, that sense of how you bring people on, how you develop people and I was just curious to hear a little bit about your own experiences of your leadership development. I mean, the John Lewis graduate development program is sort of famous and famous for making you go right to the front line. And of course, you ended up at the top of the shop. But was that so?
Andy Street: My first leadership development of real value was nothing to do John Lewis, it was before John Lewis. And you mentioned earlier on, we didn't -- I didn't pick it up, but it was actually in a charitable organization, I was part of here. We used to run holiday camps for children from the city who perhaps wouldn't have got a break otherwise. And I was very young. I was only, I think I was less than 20 and I was in charge of one of these things, a group of 60 people for a week. And I look back, what have been the defining moments on my trip, I know being responsible for those people for a week and what a challenge it was to me as a young learner. I learnt more and developed more through that than any other single thing I've done in my life.
So the sort of message is put yourself into an uncomfortable leadership position as early as you can because you are likely to rise to it. And, you know, I look back and I feel very lucky to be given the chance to do that. So that was the single biggest formative experience for me.
Christopher Pietroni: And what was it about that? I mean, was it the responsibility, the trust, you know, needing to mobilizing others?
Andy Street: It was the sense of responsibility. Well, I mean, I don't want to exaggerate and overplay it, but some of the youngsters were quite challenging and it wasn't necessarily going to be a safe, peaceful week. And I knew that the book stopped with me, how everybody and coexisted for the week, really. You know, we got even some of the most basic safety stuff in place. And you did feel a - yeah, it’s an overused word, it’s an enormous challenge, a stretch. And I am a huge believer that people overall will respond positively to that situation.
Christopher Pietroni: So did you did you get anything from the John Lewis training?
Andy Street: Not at all. No, of course I did. As you say, those formal graduate training schemes are very good at what they do, of course. But I think the thing from John Lewis that I would pull out is the power of role models. Yes, the formal training was there, but the thing that really probably gave me the personal breakthrough was a couple of role models who were very, very different, actually as characters and an interesting point there about how you can learn a lot from lots of different experiences. But I was like I was put with them to learn as a youngster coming through and hopefully somebody recognized I might have some potential and I was put with them and it was very much that role model. Learning from the role model. And again, I feel very lucky to have been given those opportunities. You sense that someone was planning that for you.
Christopher Pietroni: Tell us a bit about them. What was it that they were role modelling that was so impactful on you?
Andy Street: Two different people, very, very different characters. The first person -- I need to tell you, tell you a little about the situation. This guy ran our shop in Nottingham at the time. It was our most successful shop and I was there as his assistant. I was very young, very formative, and he was an absolute sod to anyone who was not in his team in Nottingham. So I learned something. It's probably quite a bad lesson when taken to extremity by how you draw teams together to a real sort of sense of endeavour for that team in a positive sense of competition. He was an absolute master at it because he made it by a country mile, the most successful business John Lewis had. Some of his tactics probably would be a bit questionable in the light of 30 years experience. But what he taught me about how you galvanize teams in friendly competition was brilliant. And the second person, very, very different character. And he told me something completely different the importance of standards, professionalism, discipline in a team. People might think they're old fashioned words, but I happen to think myself that they are actually really important in leadership.
Christopher Pietroni: It's fascinating - that first example about, you know, forming of a team and actually, you know that's one thing things we know about how teams form isn't it that that unless people feel a sense of camaraderie us, which of course implies of them.
Andy Street: Yes absolutely right.
Christopher Pietroni: but, but as you say, that's a fine line because if it's not porous and if it goes too, far, it can be enormously exclusive.
Andy Street: Exactly. Exactly so, but I think he was the master of doing it really, really well because he was part of something bigger. He understood that. But his contribution was to get the best out of that immediate team there. And that did mean to them as well. And he played that extremely well.
Christopher Pietroni: Well, in one of the interviews that I read, you were asked about what you found most helpful and you talked about coaching. And the coaching that you receive. And, you know, I often -- working with a lot of senior leaders trying to convince them that coaching might be a good idea, can often be a trial, but clearly you don't see it that way.
Andy Street: No, I don't. So my story, I've had the same, she calls herself Executive Coach for this, let me get this right -- for 19 years. And I'd probably say there is nothing about me she doesn't know or hasn't worked out. And she can probably assess my psychology perfectly. But there’s there’s two things that need to be said about it. So I've personally found it very helpful. I've seen other people really thrive with a coach, but it's not ‘appoint a coach and all will be forgiven’. You have to work really, really hard in a coaching relationship. So I was HR director of John Lewis before I was the CEO and we used to set people up with their coaches and you sort of would know this is going to be a successful relationship. It's really going to make a difference. And others weren't. And often it was about the coached person's willingness to really throw themselves in. And you know what? That means talking about your vulnerabilities, your weaknesses.
I don't mind saying I'm here, but the issues for me was my sexuality and how that worked in a business community. And she was incredibly helpful for me to talk that through. I had no problem being honest about it. But it's - but you always just have this thought in your mind about how people are assessing that. So you do have and it's perhaps a good example of to get the most out of a coaching relationship. You've got to be all in and you've got to accept your vulnerabilities.
Christopher Pietroni: And it's so important. And it also illustrates that point that, the idea that there isn't every part of ourselves that we bring into our workplaces …
Andy Street: But it's all part of it with you. It's all part of you, and it's influencing the decisions that you're making.
Christopher Pietroni: Yeah, right. And how do you -- you said earlier that that you that continuing to learn is important. How do you stay sort of inquisitive in that way? Because particularly, I think in politics where, you know, learning is sometimes characterized as a U-turn let’s say, you know, that changing your mind somehow is kind of not allowed. So but we know that actually, of course, we're going to learn and think inquisitive is so important. How do you manage that?
Andy Street: I actually don't know. It's the first question you've asked me, I thought I don't know the answer too. I think it's - well, first thing just to pick up on what you said, it's it is a sign of huge strength to admit you don't know the answer and to admit that you might have got something wrong. And think again. And it's a very, very stupid person who believes that's not going to happen every now and again. And I actually look back at one of my most formative learning experiences was when I got a commercial decision very badly wrong in John Lewis. And my boss then basically said to me ‘it’s OK, Andy, to screw it up once, as long as you learn from it.’ And I again, mistakes are the most -- best opportunity for learning, but that doesn't – think it's good point to draw out. It doesn't necessarily answer your question head on.
I think it's about an attitude of mind, which is partly about a constant. What's the word? Inquisitiveness. The word I tend to use is restlessness. And, and, you know, the biggest sin is a complacency, a satisfaction with what you've got. And again, it's a John Lewis story. But we used to talk a lot about this around our board table in John Lewis and says quite a lot about my psychology.
I used to say to the team in the years where we were doing really well, we must be paranoid on the upswing. That was the phrase, i.e. however it looks that things are going your way, you should always be looking for the things that are going wrong, be paranoid about them because they will in time catch up with you. And so I hope I somewhat embody that restlessness that I was trying to get the team to think about.
Christopher Pietroni: I guess moving from, you know, from business to politics is another way of, I suppose, a way of being a bit restless. And so it was my certainly take on new challenges. People often think, you know, these business people are going to make great politicians and it doesn't always work out. I mean, it tends not to. What have you had to learn?
Andy Street: Well the first thing that should be said is this is a very different political job to many. So as I say I led John Lewis for nearly ten years. And people kept saying to me, ‘Oh, surely you want to go and be an MP?’ No, I do not. And I don't actually believe the skills I learned in a commercial organization were going to be relevant to being an MP. But this job, which is about a leadership job across a large space where you are the front man and you’ve got to do all the things we've been talking about, assemble a team, sell a strategy, listen to what's going on around you. And it's an executive job, I’m not whipped by the Conservative Party. I'm the boss as to what's going on here. And so this political job was more suitable. So I think the most important learning point to come out of that whole experience is thinking about which political job lent itself to using the skills that you've learned in business.
Christopher Pietroni: And one of the other characteristics of this job is there you are the metro mayor but as we know, it's combined authority. Yes, you have both Conservative and Labour also. These always have done throughout your tenure varied a bit, but always a mix. And you know, what's the leadership, particular leadership that you have to offer?
Andy Street: I think it's important question it's -- so let's just be clear. We have seven local authorities in our constituent members, three conservative authorities, four Labour authorities, Conservative mayor. So, you can all see the immediate situation. So and this is so different to the conventional political model in London, where it is assumed that the Prime Minister has an overall majority in the House of Commons and has a team of MPs, who are doing his bidding, and he will get his way come what may. We are not in that situation. So it's all about collaboration, mutual respect and compromise. And one of the things that is often said around our board table by the very wise leaders of the councils, one of them I'm thinking of in particular is the leader of Walsall who's been - he wouldn't mind me saying he's been around a long time and occasionally he reminds us that the principle here is we don't all get everything we want at the same time. You don't win every argument, but you have to stand back and see the bigger picture and accept that over time we will all thrive together. And that is absolutely the right attitude to this and it takes compromise, collaboration, sense of overall outcome to actually make that work.
Christopher Pietroni: I don't want to stretch this point, but it strikes me that there is some kind of connection between that description and the sort of mutualism that's at the heart of John Lewis I mean, do you see that?
Andy Street: Yes, it is often the question is, how come your transition from business to politics has been okay when actually we got quite a lot of examples in Britain where it hasn't been particularly good, we certainly don't have lots of examples of people moving out of business into leading political roles. I personally wish there were many, many more. So part of the answer is the type of business that John Lewis was. It too is a democracy. I was accountable to the partners, not to the shareholders, to the partners. Its purpose is, quote unquote, “the happiness” of all of its members. So the way we did it was actually almost like a parliamentary democracy, actually. So I was aware that my business experience quite different to if you'd been running a private equity backed company or you'd been running a family owned company, totally different. I was there as a servant of the partners and you always had to remember that, and they could ultimately get rid of you exactly the same as the political model here. I'm only there so long as the voters, the West Midlands, tolerate it. So there is a huge similarity and I genuinely think that's what's helped in my own story.
Christopher Pietroni: Fascinating. And the final question, which we ask all of our guests on this podcast, which is, whose leadership inspires you?
Andy Street: I'm not going to give you a name of somebody, but I'm going to give you a, I will give you a theme that we've not talked about. It is those people who have kept, kept loyally saying the climate change agenda, the net zero agenda as we are now calling it, has actually got to be the primary issue because it would have been and we can all think of some of the characters who have led that. it would have been very, very easy to step aside from that. But I really feel genuinely that that is the defining issue and I'm grateful to those who over the years have not faltered in that. And I actually feel that the UK has done a very good job internationally. COP26 up in Glasgow made me quite proud to be British because we were saying to the rest of the world this is a no compromise issue and I certainly intend to continue to fight within government that that issue is given the prominence it needs.
Christopher Pietroni: Andy thank you so much for joining us today. It's been absolutely fascinating to explore the full breadth of your leadership experience. One thing that strikes me about the way that you've described your leadership is, on the one hand, these rather sort of old fashioned words like discipline and trust and service that you combine with a real focus on some very contemporary ideas around inclusion, but also something which perhaps we need more of around compromise. And it leaves me wondering whether, you know, as we see this kind of leadership play out, maybe the West Midlands is going to have something to offer the rest of the country. As we think about what kind of leadership we really need right now.
So thank you for that.
And to our listeners, thank you for listening, as always.
All the details discussed today will be in our show notes. If you've enjoyed this episode and you would like to support the podcast, please subscribe or leave us a review and rating now and you can find out more information about the Leadership Exchanged podcast at
Before being elected as the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands in 2017, Andy had an extremely successful career at John Lewis, starting as a graduate and ending at the top of the shop as Managing Director. Andy now applies his previous experience in leadership, training and learning from role models to his service to the three million citizens of the West Midlands.
In this episode, Andy delves into his personal experiences and learnings, his value set including inclusivity, modesty and honesty and how this now shapes his role as a representative ‘leader for people’.
The Leadership Exchanged podcast asks if the world's biggest and most complex problems could be solved if the right leadership approach was applied? Do we need to exchange current approaches to leadership for something new? In each episode, Leadership expert Professor Christopher Pietroni discusses with guests what kind of leadership is needed if you want to make real, lasting change.