t-three + Sainsbury’s


Sainsbury’s vision is to be the most trusted retailer; where people love to work and shop. That means harnessing the talent, creativity and diversity of their colleagues to ensure that customers receive great service every time they shop with them. Due to ever increasing supermarket competition, they had recently undergone a Retail Management and HR restructure. In addition, they also needed to align Argos and Sainsbury’s talent approaches. For them, talent mobility is a must!

Every single one of their colleagues brings something different to the business and adds value in their own unique and exciting way. They love to celebrate diversity and champion individuality, so they needed a programme that achieved this aim. In a fast-moving retail environment, succession planning is a challenge, and they need their leaders to offer an environment where everyone can thrive. A culture where over 185,000 colleagues can become the best versions of themselves is all part of their journey to becoming the most inclusive retailer; and their culture is what differentiates them from other retailers.

Following the success of the Trainee Manager programme (Business Culture Award Winner at the end of 2019, Next Generation category) they decided to follow the same learning methodology but significantly widen this value-based programme across the different leadership levels. Their mission was to develop five targeted programmes, designed to create a pipeline of talent at every level of leadership. Starting with those first steps from colleague to leader, through to leading some of their largest and most complex stores.


This project needed to challenge individuals to raise the bar on leadership in their business; giving them opportunity to explore the behaviours needed as a leader. This tiered large-scale programme (see diagram) would help 3,500 colleagues across all leadership levels be prepared for their next leadership role. They undertook an initial diagnostics phase, which was essential considering the recent restructure and integration with Argos. A strategic review highlighted that to meet objectives they needed to create a new leadership development strategy that provided the required skills, knowledge and shifting mindset to enable true culture change within their leadership population.

Using the diagnostic data, for the design process, they engaged t-three to design this multi-layered blended learning leadership programme. This included a steering group comprising of Diversity & Inclusion, IT, Senior Talent Partners, Branding and current senior store managers to whom they piloted content. The programme was also sponsored by the Board, who invested their own time in launching/supporting the programme.

Due to their scale and complexity the project also had to deliver over 18 months:

  • t-three upskilled more than 160 internal Talent Managers to facilitate these programmes in-house.
  • Plan for 3,500 colleagues to participate in the programmes in the first 12 months.
  • t-three created the unique blended learning platform, with pre-assessments, bitesize micro-learning, goal setting and specific, Apply Challenges.
  • Have live participant evaluation dashboards providing real-time progression data.

For their approach they adopted t-three’s proven ‘Provoke, Plant, Practise’ methodology, as this allowed colleagues to engage with and sustain the learning fully. The range of interventions used were: Digital learning; Social learning platform; Facilitated workshops; 1:1 coaching; Peer-to-peer learning; On-the-job learning; Truth-Teller 360 and Facet5 Psychometric.

Promoting a self-directed approach, t-three created a bespoke online learning platform. They also created a concept called ‘Store Heroes’ who are individuals who role model the behaviours they’re looking for. Each Store Hero was filmed in-store to deliver some of the online content.

To ensure they attracted a more diverse selection of colleagues, they also moved away from the formal interview and created a new selection process that:

  • Supports their 50/50 gender split across all cohorts and that the cohorts were a true reflection of the local demographic across the 1400 stores.
  • Allows colleagues who have what it takes but may not always shout about their talents – so they asked Store Managers to approach them and invite them.
  • Was a process that would dig a little deeper when talent spotting, asking colleagues about their achievements in and outside work.
  • Offers support/guidance to female, disabled, BAME and LGBT colleagues.
  • Reduces unconscious bias, ensuring it is fair and transparent.


They are proud to say that after 18 months of delivering the programme the numbers of colleagues completing the programme are a TOTAL: 4030 colleagues.
Evaluation also showed a clear return of investment:

  • 98% NPS score
  • 95% of all online goals set were completed
  • On average goal mentors recorded a 92% improvement in the areas that goals were set
  • Overall recruitment spend for leadership roles in 2019 was down by 22%
  • 73% of participants were placed into the grade above or higher roles.
  • 6 months after completing the programme, 78% have flourished in their newly promoted roles and now have a ‘potential vs performance’ +1 rating which is outstanding when new to role
  • ‘We are listening’ colleague engagement survey: scores for Leading@Sainsbury’s leaders is +2% higher than the average engagement

Laura Whitworth, programme lead for t-three said ‘These figures have exceeded our expectations massively! The organisation has embraced behavioural change techniques and the blended learning approach, so much so that this innovative and successful learning approach is being adopted for the foreseeable future.’

Lisa Asbury, programme lead for Sainsbury’s said ‘It was key for us to design with t-three a values-led programme that was flexible and inclusive. Participating colleagues included a fair gender balance, colleagues with disabilities, single parents, colleagues who were part-time and from a wide range of backgrounds. The fact that they have successfully completed the programme and realised their own potential has surprised many of them but not us!’

Feedback includes:

‘We have colleagues who work night shifts and they often feel ‘forgotten’ and the access to leadership development is limited. We have delivered this programme during their shift hours and through the approach they’ve been able to access content, personal insights and much more. They are thriving!’ – STP Feedback

‘This programme has helped my Store Managers to really hunt out the ‘hidden gems’ in their stores. I can think of three colleagues who they pro-actively approached to go forward for this role (they never would have put themselves forward). The difference in them and how they have grown in confidence is immense. They are role modelling exceptional leadership behaviours day to day.’ – Zone MD.

‘I recommend this programme 110%. I think as store managers they have to take ownership of the culture within their stores. We touch the life of their colleagues, their families, customers and the wider community. This programme opened my eyes to how I want to behave as a leader’ – Participant

‘Still very surprised at myself for getting to 4s grade so quickly after being a 3s grade for so long. Now my challenge is to be a Food Manager which I’d love to do. I couldn’t have done this without the Leading@Sainsbury’s programme.’ – Participant

Not only is the company delighted to see the personal growth of each individual on this programme, but what they have consequently gone on to do culturally within their store environments. The Sainsbury’s culture is a unique one and they are very proud of it. Initiatives like this help to give them their competitive edge and means they can embrace change and confidently face new challenges in the future. As a 150 year-old organisation, it is crucial to them that the brand they portray externally is lived and demonstrated by colleagues on the inside. Having engaged and productive colleagues is key to their success! In 2020 their colleagues faced a huge challenge during the pandemic. To ensure they ‘fed the nation’, their colleagues’ leadership skills have never been more vital. Their corporate values have driven brilliant behaviours in supporting efforts, together with a strong unifying purpose. This programme has truly helped prepare over 4,000 leaders to generate a huge sense of pride and that has generated energy, enthusiasm, and engagement across their organisation.

Read t-three + Sainsbury’s Winning Next Generation case study focussed on Sainsbury’s Trainee Manager programme