Inside The Revolution: A Retail Giant's Workplace Reform

Bram van der Lecq
Written by Bram van der Lecq May 03, 2018

Decathlon was founded in France in 1976. Forty years later it is the largest sporting goods retailer in the world: 1100 stores, 40 countries and 70,000+ employees.

Employees call themselves “Decathletes” or “Sport-Friends”. All share a love for sport and outdoor activities. Together, they do their best to fulfill Decathlon’s mission: “Make sport accessible for as many people as we can!”

From the beginning, they have worked traditionally, with a hierarchy of many layers, fixed job descriptions, and top-down decision-making. Recently, they changed radically, which for us was a good reason to visit their Dutch headquarters in Amsterdam. At the headquarters we met Decathlete Freek Dierkes.

Freek joined Decathlon in 2015 when he decided he needed a real job. “When I started at one of the Decathlon stores, the old managerial hierarchy was still in place. This changed quickly when new Decathlon CEO, Michel Aballea, was appointed.”

A radical change

Michel felt that the stores were becoming fat elephants that moved very slowly. He soon realized the traditional hierarchy was not the way forward. He felt they had to become more flexible and to react more quickly to local markets.

After workshops with the leaders in different countries, Michel concluded the organization needed to change drastically—to be more decentralized and flexible. “In the old ways of working we constantly needed authority from higher up. Not efficient at all. Instead, we wanted to make more decisions locally.”

To counter the overgrown hierarchy, Michel introduced two new core values: vitality & responsibility. So, about three years ago, Decathlon started to remove unnecessary management layers. They drew inspiration from organizations like Zappos, Harley Davidson, and Buurtzorg.

This approach radically changed the structure of the organization. They focused on radical decentralization, and ended up with four less layers of management:

  • The worldwide CEO (Michel Aballea),
  • The local CEO,
  • The store leader,
  • The sport leader.

Change at your own pace

After this top-down initiative, Michel didn’t tell the local CEOs what to do, or when to do it. He didn’t even set a timeline for completing the transformation. He felt it was best if local CEOs figured it out themselves, based on what they thought was realistic for their local situation.

We were told: “That’s why countries, and even stores in the same country, are in different stages of the change process. Some changed radically, some divided the process into stages that gave their employees more time to get used to a new way of working.”

For Decathlon all this was necessary to fulfill another aspect of the change; a customer focused approach. They figured that in order to help their customers as best they can, they needed to stimulate employees and to give them more responsibility.

They gave them room to experiment, to learn, to grow and to develop themselves. As one of the Decathletes said: “They would rather see us try something and fail, than see us not trying at all.”

Facilitating the revolution

To facilitate change, Decathlon asked employees three simple but essential questions;

  • What do you like to do?
  • What are you good at?
  • What do you want to develop?

Using the answers, they matched tasks (even those that previously belonged to managers) to the right Decathlete. The reasoning was common sense; “Why shouldn’t you let someone who’s good with numbers and puzzles to design the schedules? If he’s good at it, and he likes it, let him do it!”

By giving each employee their own responsibilities, they allowed room for initiative. As well, their work became more fun. Beyond the daily tasks, Decathlon implemented three different roles: the coach, the leader, and the expert.


For personal development, a Decathlete can ask any colleague (except the one in charge of his contract) to be his or her coach. The coach asks open questions, but doesn’t provide answers or solutions. Their task is simply to help the other to grow.


The expert person is the one who knows everything there is to know about a specific sport or topic. “This role isn’t appointed. If you work in the store, it is perfectly clear to everyone who knows most about a certain product or topic.”


In Decathlon’s ideal scenario, every Decathlete leads a project or sport of their choice. They hope this will engage people with extra levels of responsibility. These could be to focus on one sport, to organize events, or any other project they find interesting.

Anyone can initiate a project—simply by drawing up a plan and then doing it. This resembles with one of the Decathlon motto's: “I say, I do.” The freedom to experiment, and even more important, the freedom to fail and then figure out why, seems to be in Decathlon’s DNA.

The current state of affairs

Although change is occurring all over the world, the Dutch arm of Decathlon is the perfect size for experimenting. “Here we experiment a lot, and measure the impact on the organization. We test what works, and what doesn’t, before we share best practice with the rest of the organization. Since we are a relatively small part of the organization, a mistake made here is not a big issue. It will not raise too many eyebrows.”

They experience the change more as evolution than radical change. “It doesn’t go by itself, but feels organic. There are about 20% that support it, and 20% that don’t support it. The rest would rather see which way the wind blows. We don’t want to force anyone. We will never pretend that this is the only and best way to work. And the fact that some people might leave is part of the deal.”

Across the organization, things are changing at different speeds. It is going rather well, but they remain realistic. “We’re not there yet, but we have made good progress already.”

Written by Bram van der Lecq
Bram van der Lecq
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