Bonding agents

Compass Group: CIPD People Management award finalist

It’s surprising that the Compass Group brand is not more ubiquitous. The company serves the food in many of our hospitals, schools and workplaces; manages the motorway service stations we use; provides catering for celebrated events such as Wimbledon and the Oscars; and owns sub-brands such as Upper Crust and Caffè Ritazza.

Compass is the ninth-largest employer in the world and has a 415,000-strong workforce scattered across 90 countries. Yet, despite this, many of its staff have admitted they had no idea how far the Compass grip reached.

As Tracy Robbins, group HR director, leadership and development, who is based at the company’s global HQ in Surrey, says: "We recognised that we needed to focus on building a Compass Group identity."

Until 2002, the lack of this identity was not so crucial. Since 1987 sales have topped £11 billion, with the group growing largely through acquisition – 167 companies have joined Compass in the past 13 years. But two years ago, the company decided it wanted to pursue a different strategy – one of more organic growth.

"Growing through acquisition meant we had a strong focus on financials. But we wanted to start differentiating ourselves through service. And the only way of doing that is through our people," says Robbins.

One of the biggest hurdles to this new people-centred focus was the organisation’s disparate nature. Not only is the company made up of myriad sub-brands, it also operates in eight different market sectors. Staff are spread across the globe in countries such as Kazakhstan and Angola, and on remote sites such as oil and gas rigs.

Robbins says: "Almost 170 different businesses from around the world had been brought together. Our challenge was to find a way to bond these businesses together, to provide a corporate ‘glue’. But we also wanted to make sure we preserved the uniqueness of our individual businesses and brands."

The people charged with making that happen were the operational teams, supported by their HR teams. The solution – a global HR strategy, was called "The Journey from Good to Great".

Robbins describes this as a pathway to improved business performance. In practical terms it set out a simple, clear new vision – "Great People, Great Service, Great Results" – and a series of values (see below), which underpinned strategies already in place.

"We had existing strategies, such as being a preferred employer and customer satisfaction. But we didn’t have a framework to make that happen. The new strategy meant we were united in a common direction," Robbins explains.

Drawing up a common global strategy is one thing, but fully engaging employees and gaining their emotional commitment is quite another – particularly if your staff span every continent in the world. Before the company embarked on any training prog­rammes, the Compass strategy had two fundamental assets in its favour: its sheer simplicity and support from the very top.

"The focus on people was the aim of our chief executive Mike Bailey," Robbins says. "It’s valuable to have a CEO so focused on staff, but having started out as a chef he has more of an affinity with the front line."

The global training programme launched to connect staff, both front-line and senior, to this single vision and set of values was a huge task. It was the first ever worldwide programme launched by Compass and a total of three million hours of development were devoted to it.

Leaders were given training to enable them to manage the change and implement the strategy, while front-line staff attended experiential, interactive modular sessions to encourage them to put forward ideas, no matter how small, on how they could improve both individual and team performance.

While the programme had at its core the same messages and content, it was tweaked to take cultural nuances into account. Cathy Smith, divisional HR and CSR director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Compass, says: "In some countries, we had to work around the behavioural elements. For example, Kazakhstan is a very egalitarian society so the concept of supervision is different to that in the UK."

For these reasons, it was crucial that the language used to convey the company values and messages was appropriate.

The phrase "good to great" was effective because of its universality, Robbins says. The only exceptions were China, where great means rich, and Spain, where it’s not a powerful word. Here, more appropriate words were substituted.

According to the company, the roll-out of the training programme has produced positive feedback from staff, but there is also other tangible evidence of its success. The staff "great ideas" scheme, which was launched at the same time as the vision and values strategy, has become so popular that, although it is officially a global scheme (with the top 100 ideas being rewarded with 100 com­pany shares), many countries and regions have launched "sub-" schemes and collated their own 100 great ideas.

Veronica Jashek, retail service assistant, who provides catering services at a BT site, says: "The training was effective because it was clear, simple and made me more knowledgeable about my employer. It gave me direction, made me feel valued and a part of the business. Now I want to do the best job I can."

Her feedback echoes findings from a global staff-satisfaction survey carried out in 2002, which was planned as part of the vision and values strategy. It found that 81 per cent of staff enjoyed their jobs and were motivated and 70 per cent were proud of the company. An impressive 74 per cent said they were likely to go above and beyond their duties, far more than the 63 per cent global average (from the Walker Information 2000 Global Employee Survey).

But what about the bottom line? In the year 2002-2003, the company reported organic growth of 6 per cent on turnover and a 10 per cent increase in operating profit. Since then, the group has had less successful reports, and this autumn it issued a profits warning. The news was disappointing, Robbins concedes. "But it reinforces the importance of our journey and the emphasis on the contribution our people can make."

Louise Miles, general manager of catering services at another BT site, says: "When we heard what happened there was a positive response – people wanted to do something about it. One person even said they would have to work harder to make more money."

Core values

Compass Group’s values are:

  • "Can do"
  • Win through teamwork
  • Embrace diversity
  • Passion for quality
  • Share success