Case Study Action Learning and development at the Body Shop

“Working with other Directors gave me a strong sense of shared issues – I’m not alone”
Mark Davis, Director Community Fair Trade

Participants, both selected and self-selected for these programmes, are motivated and hungry to make an impact in a global business. The Body Shop operates in a dynamic retail market, has outlets in 63 countries and is a truly global marketing and distribution business. The retail market is exceptionally responsive to economic circumstances and change in the business is measured instantly with customer feedback, manufacturing data, supplier compliance etc. Successful employees in this situation will naturally look to have an impact on their part of the business and replicate their success elsewhere. The clear measurement mechanisms in retail drive performance transparently.

The context of the retail environment meant that action learning was especially counter to the culture. In retail, problems need to be solved immediately, especially when there is a customer in front of you or an issue with a product you are selling.

“ However uncomfortable you feel at the beginning of the process, embrace it. It works! ”
Deborah Thompson, Director International Logistics Support

The reflective slower pace of action learning provided the first learning challenge for participants. Rising to this new learning experience was valuable for participants.

“ Don’t judge, listen, people are not always looking for you to give them the right answer ”
Deborah Thompson, Director International Logistics Support

Repeatedly in action learning set meetings, we see leaders looking to change things in the business – both in the structure of parts of the organisation or the processes by which the business is done. It is often about looking to change how others work. Commonly these others are their own direct reports or managers or key stakeholders such as suppliers. Project teams and peers are often the focus of this drive for performance improvement.

“ It has given my manager confidence in how I have handled a recent situation. Without action learning I know I would have handled it differently and from a much more emotional standpoint ”
Kate Shelford, Senior Retail Academy Manager

A significant learning for the participants during the action learning sets is that the best leadership change starts with changing yourself. Presentations often started with an external “them” focus, exploring the challenges of working with others, inherent in the business, with the intention of changing the others to bring about performance improvement.

The nature of the action learning process is to get participants to pause and reflect. Set members reflect on their own assumptions about a given problem, they question what they believed they know and re-evaluate what that means. For many this takes them back to themselves and what they can personally change as developing leaders. The learning is often unexpected, with presentations generally stretching set members to think and reflect in a way they have never had the opportunity to do before. This emergent learning is owned by the participant. The actions taken in the workplace are often truly original with surprisingly effective outcomes.

“ Helped me to review situations from a number of different perspectives, considering points perhaps not fully understood previously. ”
Vicki Rayment, Artwork & CA Manager


“ Exploring situations using open questioning only. I am able to utilise this skill within my team to help them solve issues or think differently. Give it a go it actually works! ”
Neil Watson, Head of Technical services

“ Action learning has allowed me to think about and resolve some significant issues both in terms of team management and interaction with the rest of the business ”
Mark Davis, Director Community Fair Trade

The overall learning for the participants in action learning sets at The Body Shop is that true leadership development begins with looking at yourself. While this may not be easy learning, working in action learning sets provides the challenge and reflective space required.

“It makes you re-evaluate your way of dealing with things and how you move forward”.