Following Whitbread's unsuccessful attempt to buy Allied Domecq in the summer of 1999, the company faced a series of challenges. These included questioning its long-term strategy, a sharp fall in its share price and a subsequent exit from the FTSE 100. Then followed a period of major refocusing, resulting in the disposal of Whitbread's pubs and bars, Beer Company and Thresher Wine company. This culminated in the relaunch of 'Future Whitbread' - the UK leisure business.
As Whitbread's then chief executive David Thomas said at the time, having "come out of the tunnel and started to see some light" by August 2001, the time was right to define what the future vision and direction for Whitbread would be. At this point, Thomas asked HR to help come up with a plan.
The approach recommended by HR was to run a two-day workshop involving the top 40 leaders. It also suggested using Jim Collins' 'hedgehog concept', taken from his book Good to Great, to define Whitbread in the following terms:
- What it could be 'best in the world' at
- What drives its economic engine
- What it is deeply passionate about.
As a result, Whitbread was able to define its purpose, passion, measure of success and values.
At this stage, the top 40 were enthused and engaged, but there was potential for division below the Whitbread senior leaders. This was understandable, as the previous two years had caused much uncertainty and anxiety, with half the workforce being sold.
To understand the potential barriers, the company decided to use an organisational and fitness profiling (OFP) process. This system originated out of Harvard Business School, had been used successfully in Whitbread's Marriott business and was recommended by its then managing director, Alan Parker.
The first step was to gather a taskforce of 10 senior leaders - people who would be independently minded and unconcerned about sticking their head above the parapet. Members of the taskforce were from the divisional boards and a variety of disciplines, including HR.
The team then interviewed a cross-section of 100 leaders across Whitbread to gain their honest views about the vision outlined and potential barriers to success. Members reviewed the feedback using a structured process and presented the findings 'warts and all' to Whitbread's group executive.
The feedback was tough, and included comments such as: "The vision is great, but our leadership is currently