· 7 min read · Features

The UK's top employer: interview with KFC's James Watts

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KFC’s James Watts on how the fast-food giant, does more than train its young recruits – it prepares them for life

If you were asked to guess the UK’s top employer, it’s unlikely your thoughts would immediately turn to chicken. Fantastic development opportunities, a culture of fun and recognition and treating employees like family, yes, but probably not chicken. Well, you’d be wrong. 

KFC UK and Ireland is the only large organisation to be awarded the Britain’s Top Employer accolade for three consecutive years, 2012, 2013 and 2014 - as announced this week. It’s also scored highly in the annual Great Places to Work ranking, and last year won big at our own HR Excellence Awards, taking home the Gold award, with VP HR James Watts nominated as HR Director of the Year. These successes have caught the eye of the BBC, which is now filming a four-part documentary behind the scenes at the fast food chain, to be screened this September. Yes, there’s something a little bit special about life at KFC, and it’s not just the chicken. 

James Watts knows there is. He felt it the first time he interviewed at KFC’s parent company, Yum Brands, in 2004. Having landed his dream job at Disney in 2002 – he admits to being “a bit of a Disney geek” – he wasn’t looking for a new role when Yum approached him about an opening at Pizza Hut. He went to the interview “out of curiosity”, but was instantly “bowled over by the calibre of the people and the passion they had for their brands”. 

“Most importantly, it was the role HR played in the organisation,” he says. “HR in Disney was strong, but HR in Yum was so core to the business. It was a strategic player that made an enormous impact on the organisation, the culture, the people and the bottom line. Yum is the best organisation I’ve seen in terms of taking people and fast-tracking them through all sorts of different experiences – brands, functions and countries. Extrapolate that across 20 business units worldwide, and it’s an incredibly compelling proposition for an HR person because you are at the heart of everything and the sky’s the limit.” 

A talent factory

Since joining Yum, Watts has worked his way around the business, with jobs at Pizza Hut and KFC before moving to Dallas, Texas, to take on global roles with Yum Restaurants International, spending much of his time working in markets including the Middle East and Latin America. In his current role, he focuses on the UK and Ireland, as well the separate business unit of Central and Eastern Europe. In the UK, KFC has 850 restaurants, 260 of which are company-owned (the rest are franchised). The fried chicken business is booming here: last year the company announced it was opening 40 more restaurants and had enjoyed seven consecutive years of same-store sales growth. 

Watts says the UK business is not only huge for Yum in terms of sales and profit, but has particular influence in the global people agenda. It acts as a talent factory for the rest the business. “We have a leadership position in the Yum world on people,” he says. “We are one of the business’s biggest exporters of talent.” While KFC’s head office in Woking, Surrey, holds only about 180 people, 21 have been ‘exported’ into leadership roles around Yum in the past two years.

“We have a relentless drive for talent, so we’re always hiring, even if we don’t have vacancies,” Watts continues. “We’re always looking for the next generation of really talented people, and if we see someone we love, we’ll find somewhere for them. We develop people so fast and are always moving them around, so something will come up. We never pass up great people. Our goal is to have 50% of our management positions with someone ready to step into them tomorrow. When you have that goal to maintain, you’re always hiring and developing talent.”

Although the public might not realise it, developing talent is one of KFC’s strongest suits. Not only does that involve building global talent for Yum but also helping young people, many of whom have never worked before, to take the first step towards achieving their potential. “I have a vision of being a champion for young people as a business and a brand,” says Watts. “We have historically been a strong employer of young people and had great training and development programmes. It’s our heartland. But this is about taking it to the next level.”

Champion for youth

It’s the linking of business and community, and taking an active stance on youth unemployment, that Watts is personally passionate about. He dropped out of university and fell into a job operating the rides at Thorpe Park before moving into a back office role at the Tussauds Group (now Merlin). The company also funded him to study HR management part-time. 

“Everyone in the business is passionate about being a champion for young people, but I am in particular because I have a non-traditional background in terms of my education,” he explains. “I didn’t go to university, studied while working and was fortunate enough to find a company that invested in me. We have the opportunity to do the same thing, on a much bigger scale, for people who need it way more.”

That means every single role in KFC comes with the chance to earn a nationally accredited qualification. The organisation offers apprenticeships at levels 2 and 3, college and university graduate schemes, KFC degrees via a partnership with DeMonfort University for restaurant managers, and professional qualifications. It has also launched KFC University, offering training in functional skills, life skills, operations, culture (for new joiners) and leadership. The plan is to open up some courses to the local community. For young people from less advantaged backgrounds, it partners with the charity Barnardo’s to give work placements to those struggling to get a foot on the first rung of the career ladder. 

“Whatever part of your life you’re in, there should be something with KFC that helps you,” says Watts. “There’s an entry point for everyone, regardless of your background. If you have the desire, the attitude and the capability to learn, we will take you on and have the right training programme to move you on, as quickly as you can go. If you start as a team member with no experience, but are good enough and have the right attitude, you can be a team leader in 12 weeks and an assistant manager in six months. We’re an alternative or complementary route to higher education because not everyone has the chance to go the traditional route.” 

For young people, Watts is convinced it’s a compelling proposition. “It’s the opportunity to grow and build whatever career is right for you. The price of entry is pretty straightforward, but then you can be anything you want to be if you’re good enough,” he says. 

Community action

The next step is to extend that approach beyond the boundaries of the business to help the wider community. Watts says the company is working on a volunteering programme where employees will go out and teach others what they’ve learned about working with young people. “We want to take our employees’ skills and passion for working with young people beyond the business,” he says. Since 65% of KFC’s 24,000 employees are under 25, they ought to know what they’re talking about.

The company is also partnering with think tank The Work Foundation to produce two ‘youth insight’ reports a year. The first was published in October and included the thoughts of more than 2,000 young people. “That age group was far more optimistic than we expected,” says Watts. “They felt they would be able to find a job they wanted over time, which is good to see. But it did call out some real areas for improvement – in particular the bumpy ride from education to employment. Careers advice at schools around what’s required for the world of work is pretty poor.”

Watts visited all three political party conferences to discuss this issue. “We have to find a platform to bring together the three points of the triangle – Government, education and business – so we can look at the whole system end-to-end,” he says. “It seems they all work in isolation. The risk is not joining the dots. The intent and ideas might be great, but if they don’t come together it doesn’t matter. From a business perspective, we and other big employers can make a difference working at a national level.”

He is firm that this isn’t just an ‘HR initiative’. But, he concedes, “it sits very close to the world of HR because we have the appropriate skills set and mindset. We look at developing people, but normally just within the boundaries of our business. This is taking it one logical step further.”

And why do it? “Because we can. We have an obligation as a business that is funded by people in communities to help those people be all they can be.” That, and it is beneficial
to business performance. “Our people are never more engaged and passionate than when they are giving back or helping to develop. The business benefit is huge because you are harnessing the passion people have to make a difference.”

A culture of recognition

Engagement is a big deal for KFC because it directly affects the bottom line. “We know the restaurants with the strongest engagement scores have the strongest customer metrics,” says Watts. “We are proud of our culture and it’s strong in pockets, but we need it to be 100% consistent in every restaurant. There needs to be so much energy and engagement driven off our culture that it directly impacts customer experience.” 

With most restaurants run by franchisees, that consistency becomes even more important. In recent years, KFC has done much to help franchisees build their capability. Now, the focus is taking the culture “to the next level”. “It’s a whole system,” says Watts. “We are working to make sure areas like hiring, training and measuring are based on that cultural framework.”

Attending KFC’s annual general manager conference, it’s evident how critical restaurant managers are to creating the culture and buzz that Watts wants customers to feel in every restaurant. He describes it as “fun and friendly, informal and authentic”. Recognition plays a vital part, he adds, pulling out a box from a cupboard in the corner of his office. Inside is a bronze superhero emblazoned with the words “culture action hero”.

“Everyone makes their own awards,” he explains. “I give this one to people who have done a brilliant job bringing the culture to life. It costs me a fiver a time but means the world to people.” Other senior managers give out awards such as medals and a “stuffed culture vulture”, and Watts is developing another one now: the stage builder award. “As a leader, your whole job is to put other people on the stage. It’s not about stealing the spotlight, it’s about giving the spotlight to others. From the outside, it might sound cheesy and weird, but it’s brilliant. It creates smiles and energy.” 

But this relentless push on culture and recognition also involves tough decisions. “If people don’t walk the talk on culture, they leave the organisation,” says Watts. “We’ve had the smartest people who haven’t made it because they don’t walk the talk.” 

While “walking the talk” is everyone’s responsibility, HR has a big role to play. “You can’t build a great culture in a business if you don’t have a strong HR function to champion it, bring it to life, and to eat, sleep and breathe it every day,” Watts believes. “HR should be the effectiveness guru, pulling together the different parts of the business and driving a culture of relentless innovation.”

But to do that, the profession must focus on building OD and collaboration skills, and the ability to knit together the different pieces of the business. “This isn’t what a lot of traditional HR people learn,” he adds. “That’s where HR can add real value, because it’s the truly valuable stuff that differentiates one business from another.” And it’s this “stuff” that will continue to differentiate KFC as one of the country’s best employers.