DS Smith Global Leadership Programme

A success story of partnership, experiments and design agility

DS Smith is an international recycling, paper and packaging business. Headquartered in London and member of the FTSE 100, it employs over 30,000 people and operates in 34 countries. It has partnered with Saïd Business School to develop two talent programmes, for both its senior and developing leaders.   

Growing business and evolving strategy

There are two main drivers for the talent programmes.

First, DS Smith has grown significantly since 2010, primarily through acquisition, resulting in a growing population of leaders across its global operations. Second, DS Smith’s strategy has evolved. It has shifted from supplying packaging products to helping customers consider how they use packaging throughout their supply chains; DS Smith is a champion of sustainability, advising customers on reducing waste and cost.

DS Smith’s purpose is to redefine packaging for a changing world and this supports it to help its customers respond to evolving shopping habits and supply chains with sustainable packaging solutions.

Miles Roberts, CEO, DS Smith
Miles Roberts, CEO, DS Smith

Miles Roberts, CEO, DS Smith comments:

'Our people are critical and the most important factor to implementing our strategy and achieving our vision of being the leading supplier of sustainable packaging solutions. We wanted to work with a business school that we can partner with – designing and developing a programme together that would be an integral part of our organisation and make a practical difference.'

DS Smith cohort outside Balliol College dining room steps
DS Smith cohort outside Balliol College dining room

Ann-Louise Hancock, Group Head of Learning and Development (pictured front row, far right) adds:

'We spoke to a number of business schools in the tender process. We were looking for a provider that was flexible, would develop the programme with us as our needs evolved and above all was collaborative. Oxford Saïd inspired confidence on all of these points and two years on has exceeded expectations.'



Designing the programme

From the very start, the programme directors from Oxford Saïd developed a team approach.

Aileen Thomson
Aileen Thomson, Client Director

Aileen Thomson, Client Director, Oxford Saïd comments:

'Designing the programme was very collaborative, with DS Smith and Oxford working as one team. We used Oxford expertise in conjunction with the expertise of senior leaders from DS Smith’s Global Operating Committee (GOC).

This ensured the design of the programme was mapped to the organisation’s most important leadership competencies and fully aligned to helping achieve the strategic ambitions of the organisation.'

Ann-Louise Hancock outlines the aims of the resulting Global Leadership Programme:

'It has two primary objectives. First, to encourage our leaders to open their minds to thought leadership and consider what can be applied for today whilst also growing and developing for the future.

Second, to help grow leaders across DS Smith to undertake broader, more senior roles, able to operate at a global level, creating business wide connections and driving our strategy engagement and achievement.'

Programme structure

The Global Leadership Programme was an 18 month journey of face-to-face modules, experiments and communities of practice.

The four three-day modules were split between DS Smith locations and Oxford. In 2018, 18 participants joined as the first cohort, having been nominated by divisional heads at DS Smith and in 2019 a further 21 senior leaders started the programme.

Module one

Leading DS Smith

  • Future scenarios and the personal and collective leadership required within DS Smith, now and in the future
  • Delivered in Oxford

Module two

Leading for competitive advantage

  • Customer needs, value-creation and change. How to meet today's expectations and remain flexible to address future needs
  • Delivered at the European Innovation Centre

Module three

Leading for growth

  • The strategic choices necessary for growth and DS Smith's future growth strategy. Leading a global organisation, understanding cultural difference and how to lead successfully in any location
  • Delivered at DS Smith's US offices

Module four

Leading for the future

  • Reputation and stakeholder engagement; purposeful leadership in a FTSE 100 company. Learning discussions with GOC members
  • Delivered in Oxford

A key aspect of the programme is that it is very practically focussed in addressing the live issues being experienced at DS Smith. It utilises both Oxford University faculty, subject experts from DS Smith and external guests. The aim is to make a tangible difference to the whole organisation and the individual participants. To achieve this:

  • Each of the modules is sponsored and attended by at least one member of the GOC.
  • Participants present to and engage with GOC members on live issues. For example
    • participants were asked to present their strategic ideas to the CEO, Miles Roberts and Head of Strategy, Alex Manisty
    • groups of participants were asked to generate viable, sustainable products to replace plastic products.
  • In between each module participants conduct ‘experiments’ trying out new ways of working, based on their learning. The experiments range from something personal such as exploring a new way of managing, to new ways of working with clients and suppliers, to instigating operational changes within DS Smith.

The experiments have been an intrinsic part of the programme and enabled the transfer of learning directly into the organisation, helping both individuals to grow and affect real change within DS Smith.

Ann-Louise Hancock

Group Head of Learning and Development, DS Smith

  • Three Oxford tutors work with the participants throughout the programmes, providing support during the modules and to virtual communities of practice that meet between the modules to share progress on experiments.
  • The programme is also designed to be very flexible, so it can be adapted and refined based on the needs of participants. It also provided many opportunities for the participants to work with their new network on challenges which they are facing. For example, a General Manager engaged fellow participants to provide an independent evaluation of a new venture from the perspective of employees and this was subsequently shared with a team in the USA who were working on a establishing a greenfield site. 'The creation of an environment for sharing of ideas, challenge and support has been one of defining results of bringing groups of senior leaders together,' reports Ann-Louise Hancock.

Aileen Thomson reflects: 'A key aspect of the programme has been its continual development based on the experience of the tutors and conversations with participants and the GOC. As a programme director it is important to develop a programme continually, since participants are unique, and we can evolve our design once we know more about them. The needs of participants and the organisation also vary between modules and programmes, so we do not finalise the design of each module until the previous one has been run. Evolving new and relevant learning is at heart of the programme philosophy.'

Evolution of the Aspire Programme

With the success of the Global Leadership Programme, it was recognised that a broader talent pipeline within DS Smith needed to be developed. DS Smith and Oxford Saïd designed and developed a programme for next level talent, called Aspire. Cohort one was run in November 2019, with three further cohorts scheduled for 2021. Sixty high potentials are now fully engaged with the programme. 

The objectives of Aspire, which comprises two four-day modules in Oxford, are to:

  • Help participants to succeed in future roles that will be wider and more challenging
  • Develop people skills not technical knowledge
  • Focus on application and provide a safe space to practice new skills

Aspire has a stronger focus on developing individuals. The programme has an innovative design that includes five tutors who work with small groups of participants during the face-to-face modules and through one-to-one support between the face-to-face elements.

During the programme, participants are divided into small ‘experiment’ teams. This enables the Oxford tutors to illustrate the theory of building high-performing teams through practical exercises designed to ‘build’ the experiment teams during the week. In doing this, participants understand the dynamics required, while also working on individual experiments, and challenging and supporting each other.

In addition to the face-to-face and learning groups, a digital learning pathway was created to support and deepen the face-to-face learning throughout the programme.

Ann-Louise Hancock said: 'The Aspire programme is focussed on developing a strong leadership pipeline for DS Smith. We need to ensure we have a good leadership capability in place across DS Smith, for our challenges now, but also as we grow, evolve and develop in the future.'

Adapting Aspire in face of Covid-19

participant watching webinar

Covid-19 has clearly impacted the way we are approaching our development programmes, and DS Smith and the Oxford team have developed a ‘bridging phase’ between the face-to-face deliveries.

Working with the current participants to understand the shifting context, via live webinars and a dedicated virtual environment, sessions have been developed based on the topics which are most useful during this time. The first set of webinars ran in July 2020 creating an engaging and participative afternoon of learning. Further monthly webinars – supported by the virtual environment – are planned until the groups can meet again in person.

As the bridging phase has progressed, DS Smith has seen additional benefits from the virtual sessions. Participants liked having ‘chunks’ of learning each month, with time to reflect and experiment in between, and so the revised design for cohorts 3 and 4 incorporates two face-to-face modules with virtual delivery in between. Tutors have also found that quieter participants are contributing more in the virtual space.

In addition, the cohorts work in tight-knit learning sets and meet virtually on a regular basis and are also individually supported by Oxford tutors who provide one-to-one support calls every six weeks.


Return on investment and ensuring that objectives are achieved is of course a key requirement when providing this level of learning.

Both the Global Leadership Programme and Aspire Programme are constantly evaluated across four main criteria:

Impact evaluations

Both participants and line managers are asked about the impact of the programme. Feedback has included broadening the mindsets and business awareness of senior leaders, increased interaction and sharing of best practice across the organisation and leaders being better prepared for future challenges.

Programme delivery

The programme has been rated highly by participants, scoring an average of 4.4 out of 5 in programme feedback. Using both experts from DS Smith and Oxford faculty, it has given participants access to the latest academic content combined with real business issues to better understand the challenges and opportunities for the organisation.

Return on investment

There has been significant ROI from the programme. This has included the development of a global network of leaders and greater innovation within DS Smith. This has resulted in generating more new business and the evolution of services with some current clients.

Individual talent measures

The programme has resulted in expanded roles and transfers across DS Smith’s divisions. To date, there have been ten internal promotions from the Global Leadership Programme. This has brought a significant saving in recruitment fees and ensured that the leadership pipeline continues to grow with succession plans becoming more robust.

Ann-Louise Hancock concludes: 'It is a hugely positive experience working with Oxford Saïd and there is immense pride throughout DS Smith for the programmes.'

Importantly the partnership with Oxford Saïd is making a real difference to the business, realising our development of potential with DS Smith and helping us in achieving our long-term strategy.

Ann-Louise Hancock

Group Head of Learning and Development, DS Smith