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Interview

The fast-food sector has had to work harder than most to change perceptions, its corporate and social responsibility scrutinised under the harshest of light, in terms of carbon footprint and animal welfare, but what about the employer
brand? News that KFC features in the Top 50 Great Places to Work and Britain’s Top Employer was a compelling reason for Jason Spiller to bang on the door of James Watts, Vice-President of Human Resources, KFC UK and Ireland – part of Yum Brands.

James, give us an idea of why you decided on a career in HR.  

Like a lot of people in the profession, I fell into it by chance, and thought it was great! It goes all the way back to my first summer job working at Thorpe Park in Surrey, part of The Tussaud’s Group (now Merlin Entertainments). I worked as a ride operator, enjoyed the teamwork aspect of the job and progressed into a supervisory role and was sent on an in-house management development program. I really enjoyed the program, seeing people learn and develop, and thought it looked really interesting being involved in the process of training and developing people, so I started nagging the HR department to let me help them. They took a risk on me and gave me a job as Training and Development Advisor and funded my CIPD studies, and then later moved me into a HR Manager role at Madame Tussaud’s in London. This was a fantastic opportunity and I loved the work. It was great to help people develop, learn and build a career, Tussaud’s was a really good company to work for, and opened my mind to how businesses can bring the best out of people.

In 2002 I moved to The Walt Disney Company. It was big risk as it was a temporary maternity leave cover role, and I was doing very well at Tussaud’s. But I really wanted to work for Disney as I was a huge fan of the brand, so I took the risk and it worked out really well. I started working in Training and Development for Disney Store Europe and then they took me on permanently in a generalist HR manager position at the end of the maternity period I was covering. It was a fantastic learning experience and taught me a huge amount about building relationships and aligning good HR practice with operational needs. Because I was working across several of Disney’s Lines of Business I had to understand retail, licensing, shared services, the internet business and all the cultures in each area. It taught me that you have to be able to adapt your style to different stakeholders and I had to be able to speak, in business terms, to very senior business leaders.

I was with Disney for about three years, I was promoted, enjoying my time there, but then was approached about an opportunity to work for Yum Brands, the owners of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. I went for the interview and was genuinely blown away by the passion everyone had for the brands, the unique culture and most of all, the pivotal role that HR played in the business. So I joined Pizza Hut UK in August 2004 as Organisation Development Manager and spent two and a half years in that role before moving to KFC UK as Director of Operations, HR. This role was focussed on providing a broad HR service to the Operations teams running our restaurants and I got to work closely with our Chief Operations Officer as his Business Partner. My previous roles had been more head office-focused, and so the difference here was the field work, going out and spending time in individual restaurants, getting to know Restaurant Managers, Area Coaches and Team Members. It really helped me build good commercial and operational understanding. Then in late 2008 I moved to Dallas, Texas in the US to become the Director of Training and Development for Yum Restaurants International, or YRI, the division within Yum, that supports the rest of the world outside of the US and China.

Again, you must have had to hit the boards running and learnt a great deal very quickly.  

Yes, there was a lot to get used to and get to grips with and it really was a wonderful learning experience, both personally and professionally. Yum is a very decentralised business, our international head office or ‘Restaurant Support Centre’ as we call it, is in Dallas, but our business is run from our 15 Business Units around the world. Each Business Unit is independent, with a General Manager that has the freedom to set the agenda that’s right for that business. The role of YRI in the centre is to set the broad strategy around our global brand positioning, and to provide leadership on certain big, impactful global initiatives, but it’s down to the individual Business Units to bring it to life in the way that’s right for them. So learning how to be successful working in the YRI team was a real challenge for me, because the things that had worked well for me so far in my career weren’t going to be the same things that would work in this new central role in Dallas.

It completely turned my previous experience on its head, what I had always believed good leadership was about. I hadn’t fully comprehended this culture of decentralisation and how to work within it. The majority of my role was about implementing two or three global training and development initiatives in all our markets around the world, and to do it I needed to get a lot better than I was at the time in certain ‘soft skills’. To be successful I would need to build really strong relationship and influencing skills, as the task focus that is often prominent in Western businesses doesn’t work when you’re in places like the Middle East, Asia or Latin America, where cultures and ways of doing business are different. In Eastern cultures in particular, things like relationships, social connections and personal trust and respect are even more important than in the West, so I focused a lot more on building personal connections or ‘ching’ as we call it at Yum, to help earn people’s trust.

When you’re so involved with the development of others is there a chance that you can put your own development on hold?  

It can happen, but I think it’s really important to take ownership of your own development. After a year in my first role in Dallas, I begged my boss to let me gain experience in areas I didn’t know much about like, Talent Management and Executive Recruitment, so that I could continue to grow. The personal learning I got from three and a half years living in the US, and spending a lot of time working with markets all around the world was amazing. I learnt a lot about myself that will stay with me forever. I got married, our daughter was born, and my perspective on life changed, and this whole time period really helped me broaden, develop my interpersonal skills more and understand and appreciate different styles of leadership. It really was a very important time in my own personal journey.

And how did your return to the UK come about?  

After three and a half years in the US the opportunity came up to become the VP of HR for our UK business. It really was a dream job, not because the role was in the UK, but because of the role itself. It was the chance to lead an HR function in a big and mature business that had a reputation for really good innovation around people, products and systems, and had a well?established, progressive CSR agenda, so the chance to be part of that was really exciting.

It’s been a tough couple of years economically around the world, what have you focused on to keep the operation in good shape and has HR, its various tools and capabilities, been up to task?  

We have three big, multi-year goals that form the basis of our HR strategy. First, we want to be the best company in the UK for training and education. Secondly we want to become famous as the great place to work, and finally we want to be Yum’s biggest source of talent. These three things provide the focus for what we do. On the third of these goals, we do a good job of hiring and developing talent that we can then offer international opportunities within Yum. This year we’ll ‘export’ eight people from the UK into leadership roles elsewhere around the Yum world, and next year we aim to export ten, and gradually build it up from there. We’re also innovators in operations and systems and we have a strong HR team that’s really skilled from top to bottom and knows how to make a difference – I’m very fortunate to be part of it, and work for and with some great HR people throughout my career, and I’ve learnt a huge amount from them. Plus the businesses I worked for have all been progressive in HR so I was trained in the right way. I try my best to pass on what I’ve learnt to the team I work with now. We’ve lofty goals for HR at KFC, which brings a great opportunity but lots of pressure to deliver as well.

Being honest, when I was a student, KFC was not on any list of desirable employers, but in more recent times, you have made some massive gains in employer brand value, what would you put that down to?  

First of all, huge pride in the business at all levels. Our business is full of people who love the brand. Secondly, it’s delivering an experience that matches and exceeds expectations. And thirdly we’ve really got better at telling our story externally. We’re really proud of our unique culture, the career opportunities we can offer and the impact we can have on our local communities and we now spend a lot more time talking about that. We’ve clearly defined a unique Employment Value Proposition based around the three pillars of; ‘Pride’ (in your role, in the brand, in how we give back to the community), ‘Grow’ (focus on learning and development, building a career that right for each individual) and ‘Connect’ (being part of a fun, friendly team that supports and cares), and we brand it well. As HR leaders we have to be marketers, we have to be able to brand our message and know who our target audience is. These days, there’s a myriad of potential platforms via which to get your employer brand messages across, we need to be more in the mainstream press and winning awards like ‘Britain’s Top Employer’ and ‘Great Place To Work’ helps there, but we also need to use social media, in-store advertising, our corporate website. But most of all you have to have your messages written all the way through what you do and it has to be 100 percent authentic.

How attractive is KFC as an employer, to the younger generations, in relations to the negative media over the years, both specifically KFC’s operation and the fast food sector in general?  

I think we are getting better every year. We’ve launched our first graduate scheme this year, which is about bringing high potential leaders into the business in operations. The business has put a huge focus on CSR for several years now, which has been very helpful to our employer brand – for example, we’ve done a lot of work on our food, cutting saturated fat and salt, as well as launching grilled chicken, and we’ve focused on telling the story about our high quality, fresh farm assured chicken. We’ve worked to give more back to the communities where we operate, by raising money for the UN World Food Programme, carrying out regular litter picks, and launching a partnership with Barnardo’s. We’ve also placed a huge focus on Education, and growing our apprenticeship programme, and have recently launched the KFC Honours Degree. This is a first for the restaurant industry enabling our Restaurant Managers to work towards a full honours degree, which broadens their horizons, particularly from a commercial perspective.

Looking at the investment in learning and development, in what I imagine is a transitory sector, how do you square the investment in staff, when you know people will move on?  

Well it depends on why you’re doing it. When it comes to education we have a few goals, we want every role we provide to offer the chance of gaining a nationally-recognised qualification, and we want every one of our restaurants to be a recognised training centre for its local community, where people can find an alternative route into higher education. Youth unemployment is a significant issue in this country and large employers like us can help with that. We really see education as an area where we can make a lasting difference in thousands of lives. Another initiative close to our hearts is our partnership with Barnardo’s. This is about helping people that are referred to us by Barnardo’s, and who come from disadvantaged or difficult backgrounds, to get closer to being work-ready. They complete work experience placements with us of between two and six weeks and our restaurant managers are able to use their expertise in training young people to help them learn important life skills in areas like team work, personal presentation and customer service. It’s about applying our expertise in training to help people broaden their horizons and options. Some have gone on to get permanent jobs with us, and others have left with improved confidence to help them get a job in the future.

What do you think in 2012, now defines KFC as a business and as an employer?  

Going back to your point of company and sector perceptions, it’s a slow process; there has long been a stigma attached to the restaurant industry, but our people really believe in what they’re doing, and that’s essential to changing perceptions. Most people have a local KFC, they know the people who work there and restaurant managers treat it like their own restaurant. We’ve never been about being a big hierarchical company and that helps our restaurant managers adopt an ‘act like an owner’ mindset in their restaurants. Our culture is our defining factor, if you talk to our employees. It’s based on recognition, which is our way of saying a public thank you to our people for a job well done. Most people have their own recognition award to present to someone in their team, to say thank you, and have fun doing it. It sets us apart, it’s approachable, informal and people know that recognition is key. When people from other businesses come into ours, they’re genuinely surprised at how open and approachable everyone is, and how noticeable and fun our culture is. That’s something I’m proud of.

What is the next stage of the business and what do you think are the significant challenges?  

Well there are always challenges! It’s a mature business, but it’s also got a youthful excitement about it. We’re still opening new restaurants, so for us it’s still about growth and, happily, we’ll be creating thousands of new jobs next year, the year after and the year after that. We’re doing some exciting work at the moment around helping our teams share in the success of the business, giving more profit back in reward and bonus schemes, so team members get back some of the money they have made for the business. Our HR agenda is all about growing the business, bringing in people who want to grow and develop in an environment that wholeheartedly encourages that, and maintaining the culture, and HR is right at the heart of that.

What's the next stage for HR in terms of making the business fit for an uncertain economy and a future where change will continue to be a significant challenge?  

Our business is growing very quickly; we opened around forty restaurants in 2012 and hope to open a similar number in 2013, so a key focus for HR is how you get your talent pipeline right. We need to make sure that our training and talent management processes are fit for the pace of the business. And we’ve got to continue to focus on making our culture so powerful that our customers see it from the outside in. We’ll continue to invest in Leadership Development, we talk a lot here about the concept of ‘taking people with you’, and we invest a lot in teaching that concept to everyone in our business. As you progress to more senior roles how you do things becomes every bit as important as what you do, so you’ve got to be sure you’re doing the right things in the right way, and bringing people along with you. So even in an uncertain economy we’ll invest in developing our teams because that’s the thing that will make our business more successful.

Your career track is pretty impressive, that must be a useful role model for the business.  

I’ve been very fortunate in the way that Yum has helped me learn and develop, but I’m typical of a huge amount of people here. Yum is very good at building careers that are right for the individual; there are a lot of people here that have done numerous different roles in different functions, brands or countries to help them grow. Personally, I’ve learnt a great deal from some amazing leaders but the biggest lesson is the simplest, and that’s just be yourself. Don’t try and be the leader that you think a company or a person wants you to be, just be comfortable being you. It took me a long time to be comfortable admitting I didn’t have all the answers, or that I needed help, but when it finally dawned on me that it was ok to show vulnerability, I’ve been much better at what I do, and I’ve had much more fun. Showing that you don’t profess to have all the answers, and that ability to ask for help and be prepared to accept it, is something I will always try and coach our leaders on.

What are the main virtues required in an effective HR leader?  

I would say you have to be a business leader first of all, who just happens to have a deep knowledge in HR. You have to figure out how HR fits into the broader business and make it better, and that’s where you’ll add real value. Where I’ve seen HR fail or lack impact is where it doesn’t do that, and whenever I’ve been frustrated with HR it’s been when it’s separate or ethereal. Here at KFC, new people in our head office will spend several weeks working in one of our restaurants first, to give them a grounding in the business – that shows them how, what we do is applied on the front-line, and we really benefit from that. I feel very fortunate I got into HR, and I can’t think of any other function where you can have such a direct and indirect impact on the business. One thing is sure, no two days are ever the same, and you’ve no choice but to be busy at several things at once. We can make a lasting difference in the lives of thousands of people that work here, and that in my book is a worthwhile goal.

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