“Up yours, Sephora!” This was one of the most memorable quotes from the Retail Week Live conference in London this week, courtesy of Boots UK & ROI MD Sebastian James.

His recollections of fending off a major rival next door held a particular resonance, coming on the day of Boots posting a bumper second quarter performance.

During the three months to 28 February, overall sales shot up 16% – marking its eighth consecutive quarter of market share gains. What’s more, premium beauty recorded its biggest-ever sales week in December.

So what’s the secret to its success as other high street stalwarts flounder? James set out his seven rules for getting through difficult times.

 1. Try not to go mad

“If things go badly, then all kinds of uncertainty, self-doubt and paranoia creep into our management styles and that has a huge impact on the businesses that we lead,” says James.

But there is an “even greater” risk when things go well, he says. In fact, the risk is perennial, since six years of success is the “maximum any leader can do without going crackers,” James suggests.

Crediting headhunting firm MWM as his source, he sets out five signs a CEO may be losing his or her grip. Five points are awarded for each sign, with a score of 20 or more meaning “you should get help”:

  • Constant concern over the trappings of office. “If you are worried about whether your office is bigger than somebody else’s in the business”, this applies to you.
  • Constantly speaking at conferences. “So that’s five for me,” says James.
  • Being unreasonably obsessed with tiny things.
  • Constantly whingeing you’re not paid enough. “You know who you are.”
  • Never wanting to see your whole team together. “When CEOs go mad, they never want to see their whole teams together because their paranoia has set in and they are worried they will plot against them, so they divide and conquer.”

 2. Try to set reasonable targets

“We all know that whether a team feels good or not depends entirely on whether they think they’re winning,” says James.

It’s entirely reasonable to set your team a challenging task that won’t be easy to win – but leaders must “listen to your teams” and “know when to back off”.

During the pandemic, Boots “reset targets” according to what could realistically be achieved, he reveals. “I think that has been a really big help in driving morale and retention,” says James.

“For me, good targets are those that have a plan behind them and not those that need every tiny thing to go right,” he adds.

3. Try to focus on a few things

James warns of an overwhelming proliferation of data and information in the modern world. The latest Boeing Dreamliner, on a single return flight to New York, “generates more capturable and operable data than existed in any form on the planet in 2010”, he tells the audience.

That’s more than was contained in “every book, every computer disk, every painting, all information” just 13 years ago.

The proliferation of information means “we have become embroiled in a priority overload. We now have loads of things to think about, all of which are inundating us. Sustainability, diversity, profits, market initiatives, public policy, etcetera etcetera.

“And the problem with that is that overload is the enemy of clarity and clarity is the one thing that makes people happy working,” he says. “We all come to work to do a great job and if we don’t know what a great job is we are dissatisfied.”

4. Try to benefit from competitor weakness

We live in a rapidly changing environment in which “whole business models are dying”, says James, such as department stores.

“We are also living in a time when at last the market’s patience with non-profit making business-to-consumer online players has finally disappeared, so we’re suddenly seeing a total change in the dynamic of how we compete against online players.”

Amid the turmoil, Boots has grown 200 basis points in market share in beauty in one year “by using one simple rule: in the nicest possible way, if your competitors are struggling, put the boot in”.

When a competitor recently opened near Boots in London’s Westfield shopping centre, “our whole team leant into the idea of making that launch a disaster”.

“As a result, a whole flock of new customers came to Boots. It was very exciting. We grew 85% on the day and the general message that was going around my store was ‘Up yours, Sephora!’”

5. Try to stay ahead with technology

Referencing Arthur C Clarke, James tells the audience the impact of new technology is always over-estimated in the short term and under-estimated in the long term.

From apps to influencers, developments in the digital sphere have “changed the conversation from being a broadcast from retailers to consumers to being a two-way conversation”.

It offers “incredible opportunities”. The Boots Advantage Card loyalty scheme, for example, has 75% of British women as active users. “We now have long-term data on those people.”

“These are huge numbers of people who have decided they’d like to interact with us and if we don’t listen, we will simply be left behind.”

6. Try to know what’s going on

James cannot possibly know all 62,000 people working for Boots, he says. He can’t know “how the team in Sunderland are treating our customers right now, how they’re feeling”.

However, during the pandemic he initiated 5.30pm meetings with his whole team every day. “In fact, during the pandemic it was twice a day, 8am and 5.30pm.

The 5.30 meetings continue “for a quick round-up, quick decision-making, every single day”.

“That means everyone on the team is up to speed with anything that’s happening out in the business that day, and I think that’s been an incredibly powerful thing.”

7. Try to enjoy it

James concludes: “My lovely wife Anna, who’s very sensible and very clever, whenever I get gloomy, she says: ‘There are two questions you need to ask yourself. Do enjoy leading Boots? And do you enjoy getting paid?’

“I’m pleased to say the answer to both those questions is yes.”