HR director Nick Taylor’s elevation to the Pizza Express board has allowed
him to influence company strategy and implement the necessary training schemes
to enable the company to expand worldwide. DeeDee Doke reports
For most HR directors, a seat on the company board represents the pinnacle of
their ambitions – a ‘final destination’ of sorts, and the successful
culmination of a career. But for Pizza Express HR director, Nick Taylor, being
selected to a board seat was just the beginning of a journey to help his
ambitious, UK-headquartered restaurant and retail food company realise its own
future. And as a straight-talking pragmatist, Taylor would probably be the
first to admit that since his ascent to the board in February 2001, the new
position has proved more of a hot seat than an easy chair.
"On Monday morning, I was a very happy HR non-board director, doing my
job. The next day, I was a main board director. Great," Taylor recalls.
"Get a bit of grooming and development, perhaps? No. While I had much
experience of the front line, I had the problems of not being groomed for a
main 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 a
lot easier." (See box on p24)
So, not only is Taylor still learning the ropes of being a director, but he
has also taken on a major, high-profile project that could make the difference
between future success and failure for his company, and himself, as the first
HR director at Pizza Express to achieve a board position.
Founded in 1965, Pizza Express now has about 300 restaurants in the UK and
Ireland, 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 Pasta
restaurant chain, and has begun a retail operation in which Pizza Express food
products are sold in several supermarket chains in the UK and Hong Kong.
Aggressive expansion plans anticipate hundreds of additional Pizza Express
restaurants in the UK and Ireland. Internationally, short-term plans call for
the opening and operating of more company-owned restaurants in France and
Spain, with continued expansion elsewhere through franchise agreements. Over
the long-term, the international outlook suggests future investment of company
equity in "other territories", which are as yet undisclosed.
The very nature of this corporate strategy forced Pizza Express’ leaders to
consider the company’s future in terms of its people. Who did they have on hand
to carry out their ambitions? What skills did they need? And if there were gaps
in 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 most
senior managers. It was a completely new training concept for the company.
"Ironically, the one target group we had never done any work on was the
very senior. Beyond area manager, the training rather fell off," says
"It really became apparent that we needed to do some development work
for the future, particularly as the business became more complex. We have six
divisions now. You’ve got to make sure your top people have got the skills to
do all of this, not simply run one restaurant," he continues.
"It was that recognition – that we are going to be a global player, we
are 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 development
programme took Taylor nearly a year. "There was, pretty much, total
agreement on the need for development, even prior to my appointment to the
board," Taylor says. "Indeed, my appointment was part of that
process, in recognition that we needed to develop for the future. That was the
easy part. Where the battle came, was how we were actually going to carry out
that development, or training, call it what you will."
There was no shortage of educational or training providers who wanted the
Pizza Express business – from universities offering MBAs, to corporate trainers
delivering executive coaching. As Taylor found out, the toughest part was
selecting 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 of
Pizza Express’ traditional informality, unstructured environ-ment and pragmatism
– not to mention a hierarchy of primarily self-made businesspeople, most of
whom 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, they
wouldn’t have learned anything. They would have just said: ‘It’s typical HR
gobbledy-gook, it’s not relevant to our business, Nick’."
Taylor saw the potential of involving the IoD after he and another
newly-appointed Pizza Express director began a director development course
there. He began exploring the training and development options with the IoD to
see if a good match could be made.
The IoD’s director of development, John Weston, says: "We actually sat
down with them right at the beginning and asked, ‘What is it you want? What is
it you need?’ It’s a sort of diagnosis process. Because often when you sit down
with somebody, they don’t quite know what they want. But maybe they’ve got a
reasonably 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 diagnosis
process, that they own as much as we do. You’ve got to tailor it to the needs
of the organisation."
An interesting difference in the IoD’s experience with Pizza Express
compared to its usual dealings with companies, was who was calling the shots in
developing the programme, says Weston.
"The HR director is usually not the decision maker. What is different
in this case, is that Nick actually had the genuine responsibility and
authority to do that programme. If the programme ‘sponsor’ is not the decision
maker, or isn’t the person who identified the need, then you can sometimes do
what’s not actually required. It helps when the person you’re talking to is the
decision maker – and he was."
The pre-launch portion of the programme included group meetings, and
one-to-ones between Taylor and each of the 18 participants. The diagnosis
process also required these Pizza Express managers to undergo in-depth
interviews and profiling by IoD representatives – an early trial by fire for
"It was a long, drawn-out process," says Taylor, "extremely
expensive, and quite painful in a couple of cases. It is quite daunting to have
to look at yourself in the mirror; what you see is not always very nice. But it
was well worthwhile, because it really did set the scene. It made the
individuals feel it was serious. They also began to see some areas for
development, and gave the IoD and the trainers some very good material to work
with before they launched the programme."
All of the company’s most senior managers – those reporting to the main
board – were invited to participate. Only one turned down the offer. Two
participants, who had been external appointments to their current roles, had
advanced degrees. Another participant had his last training in the 1970s. The
number 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. You
could not get a more diverse group in a room all at once." The main skill
in need of development was strategy, Taylor says. "We’d been a very
inward-looking company. The majority of the candidates were internally
promoted. Therefore, the issue for us was preparing people for that awful
concept, ‘thinking outside the box’. We made it clear we were not there to make
them better wholesale directors or HR managers; they were learning business
skills about strategy, and developing strategic leadership skills."
By the end of this month, the group will be more than halfway through the
year-long programme. "I lay awake in a cold sweat at night during the
first couple of modules, waiting for the feedback," he admits. "But
I’ve spoken to virtually all of them after each module, and generally, I’ve
been delighted by the feedback. Overall, it has been great, and they’ve all
really 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 of
participants roughly a third of the size of the first. One possibility is that
the initial in-depth interviews and profiling of prospective participants will
eventually be used to screen out some of the candidates.
"Bearing in mind this was the first time we had done this, to suddenly
have gone from no development at all, to saying ‘right, it’s you and you but
not you’, could have been desperately unfair and deeply divisive," Taylor
The managers involved in the programme are now working better together as a
group, Taylor notes. However, immediate results were not expected, he
By the same token, his own coursework at IoD is nearly complete, but he says
he 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’ board
Nick Taylor has managed other
restaurants, worked in Pizza Express’ franchise department, and headed up the
company’s training department, as well as HR. He’s been on the front line, and
has experienced what it is like to have little use for an HR department. But he
didn’t have preparation to join the ‘hallowed’ board.
Ascending to the company board without appropriate training or
development is all too common – a scenario that companies should seek to
The selectee’s first reaction is typically "delight. ‘I
made it! I made it!’ – which then turns to complete apprehension", says
Professor David Norburn of the University of London’s Imperial College.
The IoD’s John Weston agrees. "What we have often found
over the years, is that people get trained very well to be managers, or up
through functional disciplines. But when they get to the board, it is a
completely different game. The rules have changed, they’ve got collective
responsibility for the whole organisation."
Norburn says the process of preparing for the board must begin
early in a career, so the aspirant can gain a breadth of experience across a
variety of functions, and preferably, across international borders. Such
experience will demonstrate an ability to adapt: the more adaptations a person
has to make, the better for their upward climb – and for the company as well.
Further, Norburn says, failure should be rewarded as it
reflects a willingness to take risks, in spite of the typical company attitude
of ‘it’s not my fault’.
Accountancy and engineering are among the most common
professional backgrounds represented on a board, with the occasional marketeer
thrown in, says Weston. HR is still rarely present at the table. What excited
IoD about Pizza Express, he says, is that "this company is saying: ‘We
value HR so much, we’re going to put the HR director on the board’."
When it comes to strategy, the IoD’s
John Weston is quick to point out the critical link between HR and corporate
strategy, the need to define that strategy, and Nick Taylor’s proactive stance
in sharpening Pizza Express’ strategic knife-edge.
"HR is relatively simple in principle: it is about having
the right people in the right place with the right skills at the right time to
fulfill the strategy," Weston says. "Personnel is about having
policies and procedures, and strategic HR is about aligning those things with
corporate goals. If you don’t have corporate goals, you can’t have a strategic
"So set the company strategy first. That’s what most
companies have got to do, and to be honest, not as many as you’d think actually
do," he adds. "Some have a mission, some have a vision. But not
everyone has a strategy.
"The hardest thing about strategy is implementing it. A
lot 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 simple
intellectual concept, but people struggle making it happen and managing the
change – that is where HR comes in," he says.
"The skill of a good HR person is to say, ‘Here’s the
company strategy: how do we make sure we have the right people in the right
place at the right time? How do we make sure they’re inspired and involved, and
how do we make sure we get them to do these things to ensure the strategy
becomes a reality? And that’s what Nick is trying very hard to do."