Tuesday 19 May 2009
Happy Business: How to create a happy workplace
Lewis Media Centre, London
Henry Stewart looks like a man you’d want to work for; with a big grin, bright shirt and a friendly demeanour you’d be forgiven for thinking him too nice to run one of the UK’s most successful companies. However, that’s exactly what he does; with his training company, Happy, having recently been rated as the second best company to work for in the UK. He was here to share insights into how he cultivated this positive work environment, and what other companies can do to emulate his success.
Stewart began by challenging his audience to call out suggestions on “What makes a good manager?” Answers ranged from “being firm,” to “being a good communicator,” and “setting goals”. Once these had been scribbled onto one side of a flip chart, he then posed a different question; “When did you last work at your best? Was it a time characterised by great communication?"; tellingly only a quarter of the audience raised their hands. Next he asked if it was a time they were given freedom; 90% concurred. And finally he asked if it was a time they felt particularly challenged; virtually the entire audience showed their agreement. “This is interesting” claimed Henry. “I’m effectively asking the same question in two different ways. What makes a great manager should also tie in with when people work at their best.” However, he suggested that this is rarely the case; what we consider to be indicative of great management (communication and goal setting) is rarely what works in practice (challenging employees and giving them autonomy).
The next vital ingredient in getting people to perform at their peak, claimed Stewart, is to make them feel free to be themselves and to enjoy their work. Facilitating this should be the primary focus of management. So, how can you do this? The key, claimed Stewart, is to create a no-blame culture in which people feel free to express their natural talents. Whilst many companies claim to do this, Stewart questioned how many follow through to the necessary degree. He challenged us to go further and to actively reward employees for their mistakes – a policy he has implemented at Happy to great success.
To illustrate the positive impact a new management approach can have, Stewart drew on the case study of Nando’s. Having noticed that certain restaurants were significantly underperforming when compared to others, they undertook a detailed study into what might account for this discrepancy. The finding? That staff satisfaction was far and away the best predictor of restaurant success and growth. In line with this, they overhauled their bonus policy, rewarding managers with the happiest staff. They soon noticed a marked upturn in growth in these restaurants.
Now that the audience had a clear understanding of the key characteristics of good management, Stewart focussed on how you can ensure that the right managers are in the right roles. Managers should not, he claimed, be chosen on the basis of length of service or technical ability, as these are not indicators of their people management skills. According to Stewart there are two sides to management: Role A is about strategy; whilst role B is about keeping people happy. People are often promoted on the basis of A but Henry believes B is where you’ll find your best managers. Therefore, to get successful managers and teams you need to implement two promotion tracks – the first that promotes people on the basis of their technical ability, but not necessarily to positions of management. The second is a promotion track for those who will make excellent managers. Employees in both tracks should be equally well rewarded, encouraging people to follow career paths that consistently utilise their natural skills.
Stewart’s final area of focus was recruitment. Counter to the traditional model, Happy places no weight on academic qualifications. “In fact” claimed Stewart “we don’t event ask if people have a degree”. Instead, their focus is exclusively on attitude and aptitude. To this end, when they interview for positions they give interviewees tasks directly related to the role they wish to undertake. “If they are applying for a phone-based role, we get them to take calls for a day. If they are applying to be a trainer we sit in on a session”. The results of this policy have been highly successful if sometimes suprising. For example their current Finance Director originally failed his maths GCSE. It seems you could do much worse than follow Stewart’s recruitment mantras of “Hire nice people and treat them well” and “recruit for attitude, train for skill.”