Raw emotion

Martin Couzins discovers how chief executive of Nationwide, Philip Williamson, gets his employees emotionally involved in the business.

It is not often that a chief executive gets misty-eyed when talking about his employees, but that’s what happens to Philip Williamson, chief executive of Nationwide, the world’s largest building society. “I care about people – I care about Nationwide people. I owe them so much. They have given me fantastic support. It’s quite an emotional relationship,” he says. And he means it.

Williamson is warm, open and very passionate about ‘his people’. He continually refers to the importance of the emotional engagement of employees with the business, with one another and with the customers.

Nationwide has created an initiative called Pride, aimed at getting its employees emotionally involved in the business. “I want them to feel proud and committed to working for this organisation,” explains Williamson. “In getting that right, the passion for Nationwide is shared with our customers. They like us for doing that and are then advocates for the organisation and do more business with us, and our results improve.”

People initiatives are a central part of what Williamson describes as his five ‘Ps’ strategy – products, processes, people, pride and performance. If you can get the first four right, you don’t have to worry about performance, he says. “And the people equation is the vital, vital ingredient in that mix.”

“As a mutual organisation, our customers own us so we have a unique opportunity to say to them every day: ‘I guarantee I only work for you, because we don’t have shareholders’,” he adds.

This relationship has proved fruitful. In 2005, Nationwide made a record £521m profit and 875,000 new accounts were opened. The society also continues to outperform its competitors in customer satisfaction surveys.

In a recent survey carried out by GFK NOP, 81% of Nationwide customers were extremely or very satisfied with their current accounts, compared to the market average of just 67%.

And 2005 was also a stellar year for recognising people initiatives at Nationwide. It was named Best Large Company in the Sunday Times Best Places to Work 2005 list. What pleased Williamson about this accolade was the fact that 90% of the marks came direct from Nationwide’s employees.

The figures back up the awards. Absence, at just three days per employee per year, is the lowest in financial services, compared to an industry average of 5.7 days. Staff turnover, at 8%, is also well below the industry average of 20.8%. Call centre turnover is 15% compared to competitors’ 60%.

Last year Nationwide spent 10m on training and development. And, according to an internal staff survey, 79% of employees are happy with the training they receive. The HR team has also developed an intranet-based career development tool called the Development Curve.

Keeping everybody happy

The relationship between staff satisfaction and customer satisfaction is critical for Williamson, and one he says is central to business success. Each year Williamson produces a video outlining what he wants from staff. “I think our people know it is sincere and that we care about them as individuals and want them to be fulfilled in terms of personal career choices.

“We have the highest level of employee satisfaction and the highest level of customer satisfaction. All these things are linked together,” he adds.

“It is vital we listen to what our employees say and find a framework to enable them to feel emotionally committed to the brand – to be proud to work for Nationwide – and I believe they are and that passion is transferred almost naturally to the customer.”

Although Williamson takes the credit for leading the engagement agenda, and he sees his legacy to the business as having made a difference in terms of attitudes and behaviours, the HR team is at the heart of making engagement a reality.

“HR is integral to what we do. It is of paramount importance that our HR people all understand what we are seeking to achieve. They then have the day-to-day responsibility to get buy-in from our people and to equip them to do their jobs,” explains Williamson.

Reflecting the central role of HR, Nationwide’s personnel director David Rigney is a member of the senior management team. Williamson says there is a close rapport with the rest of the HR team.

But even for this people-focused chief executive, some of the age-old criticisms of HR hold true. “Sometimes I would like HR to be a bit quicker out of the blocks on some initiatives,” admits Williamson.

He also feels that HR is sometimes too cautious when it comes to taking risks, and thinks HR professionals should show a bit more common sense. “Sometimes we are frightened to make a common sense decision. For example, we should advertise all job vacancies so all can apply.

That’s fine, but at a more senior level I might want a particular person to go into a particular job. Now do I honestly want 10 people filling in job applications when I know who I want for the role? That’s a complete waste of commercial time, so the policy needs to be changed.”

HR’s response to this, according to Williamson, is to say: “Oh no, you can’t do that.” Getting animated, he bemoans the fact that HR can be a bit “fluffy” at times and there is a tendency to get the flipcharts out. But it is getting better.

“What we need out of HR is commerciality and I think we are getting much better at that at Nationwide,” he says.

Dressed for success
So how would a potential HR director of Nationwide impress the boss? “Apart from the technical skills, I am interested in an HR director who is different,” says Williamson. “This is going to sound harsh, but many people end up in HR because they see it as a slightly cuddly, fluffy option, out of the heat, the frontline of sales or whatever else. I need someone very commercially minded – we are running a business. They need to be competitive. They need to be highly energised and creative – a team player.”

And a team player is how Williamson sees himself. He is a keen sportsman, relishing the feeling of winning as part of a team. He puts his style of leadership down to his sporting and life experiences, which include a stint with Voluntary Service Overseas in the South Pacific. He also studied at Harvard Business School, where he feels he learned a lot from other business leaders.

“Great teams require motivation, inspiration and leadership,” he says. “Team members need to be aware of each other, have the skills to play well and an extra ingredient, -your cultural style – the way you do things, the way you are as a team. That’s where I believe we have an ability to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace. If my employees believe they are part of a successful formula, I’ve won.”

Williamson’s challenges for 2006

  • Focus the business around putting retail centre stage.

  • Improve the customer experience.

  • Put customers (members) at the heart of everything Nationwide does.

  • Make members better off by inviting them to take advantage of Nationwide’s range of products.

What is PRIDE?

Pride is the mnemonic for Nationwide’s values. It stands for:

  • Putting members first

  • Rising to the challenge

  • Inspiring confidence

  • Delivering best value

  • Exceeding expectations.

As part of the initiative, employees can recognise and encourage Pride behaviours in their colleagues through postcards and recognition cards that count towards awards. Employees can give someone instant recognition by sending a colleague a Pride e-postcard.

Nationwide facts

Nationwide is the largest building society in the world. Its head office is in Swindon and it has retail outlets and offices throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It boasts:

  • About 16,000 employees

  • About 880 retail outlets

  • 11 million customers

  • Assets of more than £115bn.

About Philip Williamson

Williamson was born in Liverpool and has a degree in economics from Newcastle University. His early career was with Lloyds Bank where he held a number of senior executive posts. While at Lloyds, he spent three months at Harvard Business School.

After leaving Lloyds, Williamson worked with property group UK Land before joining Nationwide in 1991 to lead the commercial lending area of the business. In 1994 he was promoted to divisional director and held the roles of marketing and commercial director and retail operations director.

He is currently chairman of the Building Societies Association. He is also the president of the European Mortgage Federation.

A keen golfer and enthusiastic fan of Liverpool Football Club, Williamson supports Nationwide’s sponsorship of the England football team.
He is married with two daughters.

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