You can’t create a culture with sweets and pizza

Six golden rules that have turned The New World Trading Company into one of Britain’s most impressive mid-sized organisations…

The New World Trading Company is sailing towards top spot in the Sunday Times ‘Best 100 Companies to Work For’ list. In 2017 it was tenth in the ‘Mid’ category; last year it came seventh; now it’s fifth. The company, which employs around 1,500 people, has developed a reputation for innovative staff-engagement programmes. Take its ‘Tribes’ concept, for example. On joining, all employees are randomly assigned to one of six NWTC tribes. Just as Harry Potter was placed into Gryffindor House when he arrived at Hogwarts, NWTC newcomers might end up in ‘Orbiter’, ‘Kingfisher’ or ‘Endeavour’. Through the Tribes app, staff compete to win prizes and receive invitations to house events. With NWTC working across 26 sites, Tribes is a neat way of gluing everyone together and reminding them that they are a vital part of a bigger whole. 

Consider, too, NWTC’s astonishing ‘Message in a Bottle’ scheme. Through this, employees can send a positive note to any colleague at NWTC. They compose their communiqué, fill out a form, select a recipient and hit ‘send’. Next, the missive is printed, rolled up, placed inside a tiny, glittering glass bottle and posted. Last year, NWTC sent out an incredible 9,500 bottles. If the medium is the message, the message here is clear: “You work for a creative, unique company”.

Unsurprisingly, these shrewd innovations have grabbed the limelight in articles examining NWTC’s success. However, to focus on such jewels – as enticing and as valuable as they are – is to miss the point, says NWTC CEO Chris Hill. The critical thing, he told CLIC, is what lies beneath the glitter. After all, you can’t mend a crumbling wall with pretty pictures. Alternatively (and to paraphrase Chris), you can’t motivate untrained, uncared-for, out-of-place staff by merely showering them with sweets and pizza.

Below, Chris outlines the six substantial ideas – rules if you like – that he believes have turned NWTC into the sleek and successful ship it is today. This is about how they built the boat, not about how they fitted the chrome trim. 

Over to Chris…

1) Think of your company as a person. Hire people who match its personality.

When I took the reins at New World Trading Company in 2013, we visualised what the organisation would be like if it were a person. We wrote down its personality traits. Next, we agreed that everyone we bring into the company must match those characteristics. By doing that from the outset, we’ve filled the company with like-minded people. That’s played a significant role in building a cohesive whole.

Our mantra is “to find and developed like-minded people who share our values”. That’s pretty much the one-liner that sits above the door at head office. So, we search hard to find people who are like us and who share our values. Once we’ve found them, we develop and cherish them.

2) Always recruit carefully and never stop recruiting.

NWTC’s second fundamental rule is to prioritise good recruitment above all. Fixing a bad hire takes five times longer and costs five times more to put right than filling a vacancy. Therefore, never rush into any hire, even if you’re under pressure to fill a gap. It’s human nature to want to recruit fast if there’s an immediate need (“you look sensible, you’ll do”). However, that approach delays and magnifies your problem. 

To put yourself in a stronger position, you should never stop recruiting. Having a full team doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hire. Brilliantly talented people can walk through the door at any moment. If they do, get them on the bus and figure out where they sit later. Do that and you’ll never be short of great people. 

3) Tackle difficult conversations quickly by being honest and specific. 

If somebody’s doing well, tell them. If somebody’s doing poorly, it’s also your job to be straight with that individual, explaining where they are going wrong and allowing them to change. Doing this is not easy. No one relishes conversations about poor performance. However, put these chats off and the issues become ten times harder to deal with later on.

It’s vital to be specific during challenging one-to-ones. You’re asking for certain behaviours and characteristics. Say what they are in clear and straightforward language and be sure to model those qualities yourself. By being extremely specific about what people need to do to improve, you get the best outcomes. You can only avoid Chinese whispers by being precise, especially when you employ 1,500 staff across 26 locations.

4) Communicate your purpose. Give people the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’. 

As well as being specific, it’s critical to explain the ‘why’. So, why are we asking you to do that? Because it leads to ‘X’. What’s the aim? The aim is to achieve ‘Y’. If you want to create a healthy workplace, your purpose must always be clear. 

One big ‘why’ that we don’t ever shy away from at NWTC is profit. We don’t hide our desire for profit or that we want the numbers to be as high as possible. 

However, an even bigger purpose is fulfilling NWTC’s company values – which are ambition, integrity, individuality, happiness, exploration and expertise. Therefore, profit cannot come at their expense. They must know what your company’s unique red lines are and understand exactly why they exist.

5) Be honest about the career you’re trying to sell.

There’s a misplaced idea that to attract the best talent you need to convince every recruit that they’ll one day become CEO. We’re clear that we aren’t trying to hire future CEOs or future managers in every interview. What we’re looking for is a whole range of people with different ambitions and different length-of-service expectations. The critical thing, as I’ve already said, is hiring people with the right personalities.

We describe a role at NWTC as a bit like going to university. Yes, some people want to ‘study’ for five or six years, climb the hospitality ladder and eventually run their own bars and restaurants. But others want to use their time simply as an opportunity to grow – to leave home, make new friends, learn new skills and develop themselves. 

We’re happy if people choose to stay for three or four years. We’re also happy if they want to stay longer of course, but if they leave after three or four years, that’s fine. We’re not selling a false dream that one day they’ll earn a six-figure salary and run their own bar-restaurant business. What we’re selling is the opportunity to learn skills – both hard and soft, expand key product knowledge, meet friends for life and have fun along the way. 

6) Operational consistency underpins everything.

At NWTC we do lots of things to excite, delight and engage the teams, including Tribes and Message in a Bottle. However, these are optional extras. Far more important is our fairness, consistency, reliability and dependability as an employer. It’s no good building a fancy staff-engagement app if you don’t provide your teams with the tools they need to do their jobs properly, if you leave them short-staffed, or if you don’t supply the right training.  

By doing these things well, you build a solid, concrete base that shows people their job is serious, important and backed by a proper company. Only when you’ve established that base can you add the bells and whistles. You can’t launch something like Tribes and just hope your staff are going to have a great time. Throwing sweets and pizza at someone who’s not enjoying their job is never going to work! Operational consistency must be at the centre of everything you do as without strong cohesion you end up with untrained, uncared-for, out-of-place staff who have no loyalty and no sense of belonging.

By placing these six rules at the heart of its culture, NWTC has rapidly become one of the most attractive companies to work for in the UK. Chris Hill is clear on where the journey for any organisation looking to sprinkle some NWTC magic over its recruitment-and-retention strategy must begin. The starting gun is Point 1 above: Think of your company as a person. Then, hire people who match its personality. Only then can you start to build a robust structure. Recruit poorly suited staff and the foundations will crumble before you’ve even laid your first brick.