Cooking up culture at Jamie Oliver: Interview with Daniel Eley, head of people and development at Ja

Written by
Changeboard Team

22 Jan 2015

22 Jan 2015 • by Changeboard Team

Building on Jamie's vision

When he joined Jamie Oliver Ltd in April 2007, one of Daniel Eley’s first tasks as head of people & development was to build upon Oliver’s vision – to create a culture of ‘amazing people’.

“Jamie’s approach to food is no different to how his businesses are run,” says Eley. “He’s inspirational, creative and comes up with brilliant new ideas. He’s able to interact and connect with so many people at fast speed, and he never takes no for an answer. You only have to look at his school dinners campaign in 2004 (by March 2005, Oliver had secured a government pledge of £280 million to raise the quality of meals in schools) to see how he puts all his energy into knocking down any barriers in his way.”

While Oliver’s time is fundamentally constrained, it’s his ability to cut through process and procedure that enables him to carry out so much work and realise his goals. Eley believes this sets the bar high for employees.

“My role in HR is to help our people live up to that standard,” he says. Eley and his HR team of three oversee 350 employees across Jamie Oliver’s three company groups including media, retail and the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, as well as just over 100 staff at company group level.

Oliver’s personal values are reflected in these. A separate HR function looks after the fourth business – the Restaurant Group. The four groups are headed up by the executive chairman and each run by a separate CEO. There are eight people that sit across the board and Eley reports directly into the CEO of the Media Group, with a dotted line to the executive chairman.

Personable business

“Jamie is really passionate about his business brands and the people who work for him,” says Eley, who, after joining the group in 2007, ran a values exercise with Oliver and asked him what he wanted his legacy to be. The company values borne out of that session were: ‘Keep it simple’, ‘enjoy yourself’, ‘give it your all’, ‘grow with us’, ‘spread the love’ and ‘think fresh’. “This gave me a good hook to hang lots of stuff on so I could feed these values into the organisation,” he adds.

Eley set about using these values to determine the kind of people they needed to recruit, the job descriptions they needed to write, and how to put together a development programme which they titled ‘Grow with Us’.

He explains that Oliver often talks about the fact that he loves working with brilliant people, and even if he doesn’t make the connection himself, he trusts his people & development team to find and attract candidates that can be engaged and developed to help build the business.

Tantalising questions during interview

A recruitment challenge Eley and his HR team face is that for the majority of roles – on average there are 35 vacancies per year, excluding the Restaurant Group –people won’t naturally think of coming to work at Jamie Oliver. As most people view him as the ‘bloke on TV’, a ‘chef who writes cook books’ or as the restaurateur that set up Fifteen, the assumption is that to work for Jamie Oliver you need to be a food stylist.

After the CV sifting and shortlisting of applicants, rather than using a very prescribed set of evidence gathering, Eley likes to dig deep to unearth the true character of the candidate. “I’m upfront about what they can expect when they come to work with us,” he says. “It has to be real. What you might be told one day will change tomorrow – this is the nature of Jamie Oliver’s personality because he’s so full of ideas,” he says. “I tell candidates that we’re really friendly, open, very creative and fast-paced, that there’s a real buzz and people clearly love what they do here.”

To get under a candidate’s skin, Eley has devised a quirky interview questionnaire to catch people off guard. Questions asked include: ‘If you could be any food what would you be?’ ‘If Jamie Oliver and his wife Jools were coming to yours for dinner, what would you cook for them?’ ‘What’s the wildest idea you’ve had in the last year and what did you do about it?’

During the second round of interviews, the candidate meets the rest of the team informally, asks questions and experiences the physical environment they’ll be working in.

Performance & development

A perfect example of following Jamie’s ethos to ‘keep it simple’ and ‘think fresh’ is in the performance reviews and development plans.

Before Eley joined, the appraisal process was more of a tick-box exercise where managers assessed their people against a long list of questions and answers.

“Last year we had an epiphany,” he continues. “Performance and development of staff is all about communication, having a conversation and cutting out the politics instead of reviews being seen as something scary.”

Training sessions were offered to all the managers on how to prepare their performance reviews and give feedback. “It’s about asking employees: ‘what’s going well day to day?’, ‘what could be better?’, ‘how do you think we’re doing as a business and where could we be?’, ‘are you living the values?’, ‘what do you love about working here and what do you want to achieve?’” says Eley.

Coaching on the menu

From these conversations, Eley and his team encourage managers to work out their team’s individual development needs. He says: “After the appraisals, we meet with each manager to see what challenges they are facing and what’s going on in their team. We offer advice on how to ask coaching-led questions in the feedback rather than pointing the finger, as well as their next career development steps to strengthen the business.”

Eley and his HR advisor also check in on their department managers every two weeks. “We’ve developed relationships with all the managers so they understand we will pursue a difficult conversation if there’s any poor performance with the line manager or their team,” he says.

“We’ve managed to build a reputation for doing things in a personable, approachable way. Yeah, there’s the odd joke such as ‘ooh, stop misbehaving, HR are coming’, but managers and staff are very comfortable asking us to help with things before they go horribly wrong,” he says. “By being accessible and providing positive options by sitting down with our managers and working out solutions on an informal basis, we can provide better support for our staff.”

Growing your own

Within the Jamie Oliver culture, everyone has the opportunity to give something a try or to step up. “I’m a big believer in giving people opportunities to learn and grow on the job rather than taking someone off to a classroom,” says Eley.

“I love getting people to increase their self-awareness and open their eyes to better alternatives. And I like seeing the penny drop when someone realises that they can make a simple change that will have a huge benefit to them, or shows them they were capable of something that they didn’t think possible,” enthuses Eley.

Each month, Eley receives around 15 ‘spread the love’ recommendations per month from employees recognising their peers for extra effort. The shortlist of nominations is put in front of the executive chairman, who chooses which three receive a prize of £80 worth of vouchers per month. This gives the chairman and the award winner’s line manager a chance to say thank you for a job well done. The winners are also featured in the monthly ‘Mash-up’ – the company’s internal newsletter.

There are six annual awards: ‘Spread the Love’, ‘Business of the Year’, ‘Rising Star’, ‘Star Performer’, ‘Unsung Hero’ and ‘Upcoming Business’, as well as two or three ad-hoc prizes awarded by Oliver.

The charitable Jamie Oliver Food Foundation sits so centrally within the heart of the business that Oliver doesn’t see the separation between the charity and commercial function. “It’s not about making loads of cash and then doing good on the side,” Eley says.

“In all that we do as a business, the same principles apply. Jamie wants everything we deliver to educate and inspire.”