The Gatehouse Blog

Empowering employees to take ownership of DS Smith’s values

Since a change in leadership in 2010, DS Smith has grown substantially, organically and through acquisitions. Though these were positive advancements for the business, it was becoming increasingly difficult to align growing numbers of colleagues across growing numbers of sites to a single DS Smith way of doing things. In this article, Group Head of Engagement and Culture, Louisa Mellor, explains how the business set up and evolved an employee engagement programme to create one common DS Smith culture.

DS Smith is a leading supplier of sustainable packaging solutions operating globally, but with a core presence across Europe. The business, made up of 26,000 colleagues, has grown organically and through acquisition since its formation in the 1940s, but growth has increased significantly since 2010 and the arrival of current CEO, Miles Roberts.

Along with a boom in acquisition activity, Roberts’ arrival in 2010 marked an increased focus on harnessing the collective power of the group which had previously operated as a federation of production sites serving local customers and excelling in their local markets. Global customers wanted global partners and a guarantee of the same service and quality wherever they operate. Similarly, the business was aware that ideas, knowledge and problem-solving were happening in silos which risked the duplication of effort and impeded innovation. There was a clear need to unite the business around a common purpose, to inspire the contribution of all colleagues and to build a culture that promoted the desired behaviours across national or cultural boundaries.

“There was a clear need to unite the business around a common purpose, to inspire the contribution of all colleagues and to build a culture that promoted the desired behaviours across national or cultural boundaries.”

Gathering an evidence base

In 2010, DS Smith ran its first group-wide employee survey to better understand the current state and back up the “gut feel” of what the obstacles to success were for the group. The results gave a clear message that employees had little understanding of who DS Smith was, where the company was going and what was expected of them.

60% of colleagues said that the vision for the future and values of the company had been clearly communicated.

The survey also reinforced what had been instinctively believed for some time – that frontline managers with sparse people management training were generally paternalistic in their management style, resulting in a general good feeling towards them but a retained sense of “command and control” and little empowerment of individual contributors.

Only 44% reported feeling sufficient effort was made to obtain the views and opinions of colleagues when making decisions.

Building the foundations

Passionate about the potential of the business and with clear feedback from colleagues, the senior leadership team faced a significant challenge – how could they build a high-performing culture and engaged workforce from this starting point?

From early 2011, the team began designing a programme to introduce DS Smith anew to the workforce (at that time c. 10,000 strong) and to do so in a way that equipped and empowered line managers to be the channel for two-way communication about the strategy and culture.

By May, it was ready to launch and the OWN IT! programme was introduced. The building blocks were a strategic narrative that captured the past, present and future for DS Smith and a set of corporate values that reflected the ways of working where DS Smith was at its innovative and driven best. These building blocks were launched through a series of management conferences and followed up with toolkits for managers to take away and run localised events on-site with all colleagues. The story took hold and the concept of “OWN IT!” began to be recognised throughout the company as a call to action for colleagues.

Inspiring and empowering line managers

Early feedback was encouraging but the question of management skills continued to be raised as a concern, as toolkits and materials provided were still reliant on the strength of local delivery. As a key driver of engagement, the line manager was central to the success of the programme and the team decided to address these concerns head-on through an in-house learning and development initiative, Engaging Managers. The course has helped leaders and managers throughout the business to develop self-awareness, emotional intelligence, communication skills and most importantly a connection between their own values and the DS Smith values.

Where this course has been thoroughly implemented to all managers the employee survey results have shown significant improvements on the topic of line management empathy, empowerment of teams and communication.

OWN IT! for integrating businesses

The OWN IT! programme proved an invaluable tool through the integration of SCA Packaging in 2012 (which doubled the size of DS Smith overnight), whereby there was a ready set of materials to spark conversation about strategy, priorities and the values of DS Smith – also enabling the acquired business to share their heritage, ideas and knowledge that they are bringing with them.

The model of introducing OWN IT! as a central part of integration has continued since with new businesses joining in south east Europe, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, the USA, the UK, Greece and Turkey.

Enhancing for accelerated progress

As with many programmes, and especially following a period of major business transformation, the momentum of OWN IT! began to slow. An in-depth review of the programme in 2015 identified the first thing that needed to change – it was no longer a programme, OWN IT! was our reference for “the way we do things in DS Smith”.

The team now sought to reinvigorate and refocus OWN IT! to accelerate progress towards its objectives. As a first step, stakeholder focus groups, including participation from CEO Miles Roberts, clarified the mission of OWN IT!

To enable the delivery of DS Smith’s strategy through the engagement of their people, by

● Engaging employees in the strategy;

● Engaging employees in the values;

● Having engaging managers; and

● Sharing ideas and good practice.

Next, the 2015 Leadership Conference was taken as an opportunity for over 160 senior managers to review the strategic narrative which resulted in a co-created story that resonates across the group and with the buy-in of that senior management cadre.

In addition to the updated content, modernised visuals were created for the story. A hand-drawn, blueprint style was selected as a way of indicating to colleagues that the strategy is something they can all contribute to through their efforts, skills and ideas – not just a finished document dictated by the business leaders.

Updated toolkits were produced including posters, z-cards, powerpoint decks and an animation as well as supporting tools for managers to use in strategy deployment and problem solving with their team, all in DS Smith’s 28 languages.

In addition, a framework was introduced based on the four objectives of OWN IT! It was designed as a self-assessment tool, and inspired by the familiar continuous improvement and health and safety tools managers already use. The focus is on understanding current performance, setting realistic goals and knowing what steps to take next. In particular, there is encouragement to use the best practices already in place throughout the group to inspire and support other businesses within DS Smith.

Finally, and most importantly, a team of dedicated OWN IT! Champions have been appointed to drive culture change throughout the business. Primarily selected for their passion and belief in employee engagement, the team come from a range of backgrounds and experience levels. They spend their time visiting businesses within their region, working with leadership teams, employee representatives and all colleagues to identify obstacles to engagement and how to address them, follow up on employee survey findings, share good practice, collect qualitative feedback or generally bring OWN IT! to life where they work.

“Finally, and most importantly, a team of dedicated OWN IT! Champions have been appointed to drive culture change throughout the business.”

Next steps

Nearly a year in since the relaunch, OWN IT! is thriving. The new tools and approach have put ownership back on local teams and allowed them the flexibility to address their specific priorities. The next opportunity will be to bring individual efforts and energy together in a large-scale activation to celebrate and recognise the work that teams have been doing and present the very best practices internal and external to DS Smith.


BIOGRAPHY – Louisa Mellor 

Louisa qualified with an MSc in Human Resource Management and Organisational Analysis from King’s College London, specialising in work engagement and commitment. Since then Louisa has continued to pursue this area of interest through a variety of HR and internal communications roles in the UK and abroad.

Since joining DS Smith in 2010, she has built and run their global employee engagement and communications function, equipping the business to create a working environment that enables all employees to thrive and to perform against aligned goals.