Comments are closed. HR director Nick Taylor’s elevation to the Pizza Express board has allowedhim to influence company strategy and implement the necessary training schemesto enable the company to expand worldwide. DeeDee Doke reportsFor most HR directors, a seat on the company board represents the pinnacle oftheir ambitions – a ‘final destination’ of sorts, and the successfulculmination of a career. But for Pizza Express HR director, Nick Taylor, beingselected to a board seat was just the beginning of a journey to help hisambitious, UK-headquartered restaurant and retail food company realise its ownfuture. And as a straight-talking pragmatist, Taylor would probably be thefirst to admit that since his ascent to the board in February 2001, the newposition has proved more of a hot seat than an easy chair. “On Monday morning, I was a very happy HR non-board director, doing myjob. The next day, I was a main board director. Great,” Taylor recalls.”Get a bit of grooming and development, perhaps? No. While I had muchexperience of the front line, I had the problems of not being groomed for amain board role. So it would have been good if I’d been told the year before,‘You’re board material. It’s time to develop you’. That would have made life alot easier.” (See box on p24) So, not only is Taylor still learning the ropes of being a director, but hehas also taken on a major, high-profile project that could make the differencebetween future success and failure for his company, and himself, as the firstHR director at Pizza Express to achieve a board position. Founded in 1965, Pizza Express now has about 300 restaurants in the UK andIreland, as well as other branches – mostly franchise-owned eateries –elsewhere around the world, including Cyprus, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary,India, Japan, Poland, Spain and Saudi Arabia. It also owns the Café Pastarestaurant chain, and has begun a retail operation in which Pizza Express foodproducts are sold in several supermarket chains in the UK and Hong Kong. Aggressive expansion plans anticipate hundreds of additional Pizza Expressrestaurants in the UK and Ireland. Internationally, short-term plans call forthe opening and operating of more company-owned restaurants in France andSpain, with continued expansion elsewhere through franchise agreements. Overthe long-term, the international outlook suggests future investment of companyequity in “other territories”, which are as yet undisclosed. The very nature of this corporate strategy forced Pizza Express’ leaders toconsider the company’s future in terms of its people. Who did they have on handto carry out their ambitions? What skills did they need? And if there were gapsin people or skills, how were they going to fill them? Early this year, with the help of the London-based Institute of Directors(IoD), Taylor launched a new development programme for Pizza Express’s mostsenior managers. It was a completely new training concept for the company.”Ironically, the one target group we had never done any work on was thevery senior. Beyond area manager, the training rather fell off,” saysTaylor. “It really became apparent that we needed to do some development workfor the future, particularly as the business became more complex. We have sixdivisions now. You’ve got to make sure your top people have got the skills todo all of this, not simply run one restaurant,” he continues. “It was that recognition – that we are going to be a global player, weare going to have more divisions – that sowed the seed,” Taylor says.”And it is my job to make sure we’ve got the right people in place.” Devising and getting a plan approved for the senior management developmentprogramme took Taylor nearly a year. “There was, pretty much, totalagreement on the need for development, even prior to my appointment to theboard,” Taylor says. “Indeed, my appointment was part of thatprocess, in recognition that we needed to develop for the future. That was theeasy part. Where the battle came, was how we were actually going to carry outthat development, or training, call it what you will.” There was no shortage of educational or training providers who wanted thePizza Express business – from universities offering MBAs, to corporate trainersdelivering executive coaching. As Taylor found out, the toughest part wasselecting the right development for his company’s specific needs. He knew, however, that a purely academic approach was not the right answer.Pursuing the academic avenue would have gone against the cultural grain ofPizza Express’ traditional informality, unstructured environ-ment and pragmatism– not to mention a hierarchy of primarily self-made businesspeople, most ofwhom had succeeded without an advanced degree. “It was critical that we got the right fit. If it was too high a level,it would have switched our people off – they wouldn’t have listened, theywouldn’t have learned anything. They would have just said: ‘It’s typical HRgobbledy-gook, it’s not relevant to our business, Nick’.” Taylor saw the potential of involving the IoD after he and anothernewly-appointed Pizza Express director began a director development coursethere. He began exploring the training and development options with the IoD tosee if a good match could be made. The IoD’s director of development, John Weston, says: “We actually satdown with them right at the beginning and asked, ‘What is it you want? What isit you need?’ It’s a sort of diagnosis process. Because often when you sit downwith somebody, they don’t quite know what they want. But maybe they’ve got areasonably good idea, and you’ve got a reasonably good idea of what you can do– the skill is finding where we can help. “We ended up with a programme that has evolved out of the diagnosisprocess, that they own as much as we do. You’ve got to tailor it to the needsof the organisation.” An interesting difference in the IoD’s experience with Pizza Expresscompared to its usual dealings with companies, was who was calling the shots indeveloping the programme, says Weston. “The HR director is usually not the decision maker. What is differentin this case, is that Nick actually had the genuine responsibility andauthority to do that programme. If the programme ‘sponsor’ is not the decisionmaker, or isn’t the person who identified the need, then you can sometimes dowhat’s not actually required. It helps when the person you’re talking to is thedecision maker – and he was.” The pre-launch portion of the programme included group meetings, andone-to-ones between Taylor and each of the 18 participants. The diagnosisprocess also required these Pizza Express managers to undergo in-depthinterviews and profiling by IoD representatives – an early trial by fire forthe participants. “It was a long, drawn-out process,” says Taylor, “extremelyexpensive, and quite painful in a couple of cases. It is quite daunting to haveto look at yourself in the mirror; what you see is not always very nice. But itwas well worthwhile, because it really did set the scene. It made theindividuals feel it was serious. They also began to see some areas fordevelopment, and gave the IoD and the trainers some very good material to workwith before they launched the programme.” All of the company’s most senior managers – those reporting to the mainboard – were invited to participate. Only one turned down the offer. Twoparticipants, who had been external appointments to their current roles, hadadvanced degrees. Another participant had his last training in the 1970s. Thenumber of years in service at Pizza Express ranged from one year to 25. “From an HR practitioner’s perspective, it was a group from hell. Youcould not get a more diverse group in a room all at once.” The main skillin need of development was strategy, Taylor says. “We’d been a veryinward-looking company. The majority of the candidates were internallypromoted. Therefore, the issue for us was preparing people for that awfulconcept, ‘thinking outside the box’. We made it clear we were not there to makethem better wholesale directors or HR managers; they were learning businessskills about strategy, and developing strategic leadership skills.” By the end of this month, the group will be more than halfway through theyear-long programme. “I lay awake in a cold sweat at night during thefirst couple of modules, waiting for the feedback,” he admits. “ButI’ve spoken to virtually all of them after each module, and generally, I’vebeen delighted by the feedback. Overall, it has been great, and they’ve allreally enjoyed it.” Once this initial programme ends, it will be reviewed for fine-tuning.Taylor would like to see it become an annual offering, with the group ofparticipants roughly a third of the size of the first. One possibility is thatthe initial in-depth interviews and profiling of prospective participants willeventually be used to screen out some of the candidates. “Bearing in mind this was the first time we had done this, to suddenlyhave gone from no development at all, to saying ‘right, it’s you and you butnot you’, could have been desperately unfair and deeply divisive,” Taylorsays. The managers involved in the programme are now working better together as agroup, Taylor notes. However, immediate results were not expected, heemphasises. By the same token, his own coursework at IoD is nearly complete, but he sayshe does nothing differently in his day-to-day role in spite of being”aware of an awful lot more”. Look ahead to five years time though,he adds, “and the difference will be immense”. Getting on the ‘hallowed’ boardNick Taylor has managed otherrestaurants, worked in Pizza Express’ franchise department, and headed up thecompany’s training department, as well as HR. He’s been on the front line, andhas experienced what it is like to have little use for an HR department. But hedidn’t have preparation to join the ‘hallowed’ board.Ascending to the company board without appropriate training ordevelopment is all too common – a scenario that companies should seek toprevent. The selectee’s first reaction is typically “delight. ‘Imade it! I made it!’ – which then turns to complete apprehension”, saysProfessor David Norburn of the University of London’s Imperial College. The IoD’s John Weston agrees. “What we have often foundover the years, is that people get trained very well to be managers, or upthrough functional disciplines. But when they get to the board, it is acompletely different game. The rules have changed, they’ve got collectiveresponsibility for the whole organisation.”Norburn says the process of preparing for the board must beginearly in a career, so the aspirant can gain a breadth of experience across avariety of functions, and preferably, across international borders. Suchexperience will demonstrate an ability to adapt: the more adaptations a personhas to make, the better for their upward climb – and for the company as well. Further, Norburn says, failure should be rewarded as itreflects a willingness to take risks, in spite of the typical company attitudeof ‘it’s not my fault’. Accountancy and engineering are among the most commonprofessional backgrounds represented on a board, with the occasional marketeerthrown in, says Weston. HR is still rarely present at the table. What excitedIoD about Pizza Express, he says, is that “this company is saying: ‘Wevalue HR so much, we’re going to put the HR director on the board’.”Defining strategyWhen it comes to strategy, the IoD’sJohn Weston is quick to point out the critical link between HR and corporatestrategy, the need to define that strategy, and Nick Taylor’s proactive stancein sharpening Pizza Express’ strategic knife-edge. “HR is relatively simple in principle: it is about havingthe right people in the right place with the right skills at the right time tofulfill the strategy,” Weston says. “Personnel is about havingpolicies and procedures, and strategic HR is about aligning those things withcorporate goals. If you don’t have corporate goals, you can’t have a strategicHR policy.”So set the company strategy first. That’s what mostcompanies have got to do, and to be honest, not as many as you’d think actuallydo,” he adds. “Some have a mission, some have a vision. But noteveryone has a strategy. “The hardest thing about strategy is implementing it. Alot of strategies don’t happen because when it comes to the implementation,it’s too difficult or too big a challenge. Strategy is a reasonably simpleintellectual concept, but people struggle making it happen and managing thechange – that is where HR comes in,” he says. “The skill of a good HR person is to say, ‘Here’s thecompany strategy: how do we make sure we have the right people in the rightplace at the right time? How do we make sure they’re inspired and involved, andhow do we make sure we get them to do these things to ensure the strategybecomes a reality? And that’s what Nick is trying very hard to do.”Websiteswww.pizzaexpress.co.ukwww.iod.com A slice of the actionOn 1 Sep 2002 in Personnel Today Previous Article Next Article Related posts:No related photos.