The youth of Australia has been much maligned in popular media. But businesses that have to work closely with this generation have discovered an alternate reality, one in which younger people can be engaged and encouraged to share their individual and collective brilliance. Four years ago, when Tony Lowings took over the top job at KFC SOPAC, he decided to embrace the power of the younger generation. That initiative has been a resounding success for levels of youth employment. We spoke with him and KFC Chief People Officer Rob Phipps (FCPHR).
What inspired your focus on organisational culture? Did it begin with a problem?
Tony: I have been in the KFC business for just over 21 years. I moved back to Australia at the beginning of 2011 and the business was not going well. I had many conversations to identify what needed to be done to fix the business and it was not obvious. One lesson I have learned from my time in the business is not to try to fix your weaknesses, but instead play to your strengths. We have great people working for us – 95 per cent of staff are those born between 1980 to 2000. We made a conscious decision that we would take our assets and turn it into a towering strength.
How have you engaged the younger workers?
Rob: It has been a series of things. The restaurant general manager (RGM is the individual manager of a specific restaurant) is our number one leader. We spent a significant amount of time and energy investing in those individuals, helping them to behave more constructively, more often. We have also accelerated a graduate program that takes RGMs and puts them in positions where they rotate around our restaurant support centre, so they can accelerate their development.
Tony: We have always taught leadership skills, but that was usually to our leaders. So we took the work we had done with a human synergistics tool into the broader organisation. We were a little sceptical about how it would resonate with the restaurant staff, but when we applied it to our company restaurants in NSW they loved it. We started to see people performing a lot better because there was a realisation that they just had to find their own potential. So we built it more deeply into the organisation.
How else did you manage culture across the business?
Tony: You have to distil a culture that means people will get out of bed every day and want to do the right thing because they are going to get recognised for it and they’re going to feel good. So we built in a lot of corporate social responsibility to give the business a soul and a value structure for people to rally around. We did a huge amount of work around community, environment, fixing the nutritional quality of our food and, of course, around people. Those initiatives provided an anchor point for people to say, ‘Yes, I am proud to work for this business’.
It is an enormous undertaking. Where did you begin?
Rob: I started with the CEO. Then you bite it off, bit by bit, from there. You move across to the leadership team then talk to senior management. As the discussion progresses you include more of the organisation. You have to start from the top and bring the leadership team on board as advocates for the programs. Sometimes our desire to do good things drives us into action before alignment. But if you haven’t got the organisation coming along with you, the best program in the world will probably not work.
How do you feel when you hear Gen Y described as ‘lazy’?
Rob: It makes me feel frustrated. I disagree with that premise. If you look at all the rhetoric across the decades, there is always a problem of some kind with the kids. But they provide incredible energy to the organisation.
Tony: Every day I am blown away by the capability of our young people. And we get something back from them. We call it ‘reverse mentoring’.
How do senior management make contact with younger staff?
Rob: If people are starting on our leadership team from outside the organisation, they have to do six weeks in a restaurant and get trained up to shift supervisor level. Then we have a program called Pulse, where every year each person in the office spends a day in a restaurant. It reminds us of why the restaurants are important, and how we can support restaurant staff because they are the ones who make our money.
Is clear career progression important?
Tony: Yes, and we have ramped this up a lot. Progression in the stores has always been visible, but people haven’t necessarily seen what happens beyond that. So we have done a lot of work with our graduate leader program, covering a range of roles. We also try to publish stories internally about success stories.
So has this initiative achieved success?
Tony: We have a long way to go, but we have made some really big strides. We’re performing financially – we’re probably one of the best performing business units in KFC worldwide. And I think we are doing better than most of our competition here in Australia. But I am most proud of the work we have done on culture and people.