CEOs Reveal Secrets Behind “Best Places To Work”

small euro car parks yellow and blue carWhen we think of companies that win “best places to work” awards, the likes of high-tech, high-fliers like Google, SAS or Cisco spring to mind. And if they aren’t high tech, these companies already seem to have some sort of cachet that makes them desirable places to work. Look at Fortune Magazine’s list for 2010, for example.

But as Bob Lee, CEO of Ireland’s Great Place To Work Institute, pointed out, some of the top-placed companies in these listings are not “glamorous.” Speaking at one of DITs’ series of leadership forums last week, he introduced two of this year’s winners: McDonald’s and Euro Car Parks.

Euro Car Parks has been on the best-places list for the last four years, and was named the Small & Medium Enterprise (SME) winner for 2010. Dave Cullen, is founder and CEO of the 10-year-old company. In a very conversational and approachable talk, he said the key was listening to people. “I’ve harnessed all they said,” he told the audience. He also appears to put a lot of effort in to maintaining relationships with staff.

However, listening was a skill Cullen had to develop. It was “an uneasy process,” he said. Euro Car Parks’ first five years were characterised by rapid growth. When it was first suggested they enroll in Great Places to Work, Cullen said he had to release a lot of control. But he started to listen, he started letting staff to tell him what they needed to get the job done, and he found out that what he told them previously was not always right.

Letting staff take control, however, allows Cullen to break free of daily tasks and to plan the organization’s future.

Other means of engagement include a 10-person staff steering group that he meets every two months or so.  Cullen said he also makes a point of calling five people a week “for no reason.” He doesn’t do it to ask for something, it is just to talk.

Building these relationships proved invaluable because 2009 was such a challenging year. With retail sales falling off a cliff and a large drop in business, Cullen said his emphasis switched to holding on to customers and staff. Workers were asked for ideas, and one employee suggested a five-percent price cut to keep customers. That worked, but as conditions tightened, staff were also asked to take a pay cut to avoid redundancies.

Cullen did this by writing to each of his 200+ employees individually and explaining the situation. He secured buy in, and is now in a position in 2010 to be able to reverse the cuts.

McDonald’s has been on the best-places list for six years, and won 2010’s hospitality sector award. It has over 3,600 employees in Ireland, and its managing director is John Atherton.

Again, Atherton’s emphasis is on people. But he boiled his talk down to three aspects: Integrity, collaboration and transparency. Noting that 37 percent of his workforce is under 25 years of age, he said this “Google generation,” values inclusion and involvement. They have always had the answer at their fingertips, he said.

Collaboration is not decision making by committee, or finding a way to avoid making decisions, Atherton said. To drive home the first point, he cited G.K. Chesterton:

I’ve searched all the parks in all the city and I could find no statues of a committee.

On Transparency, Atherton said he also puts a lot of effort in to communication with staff. In some cases, this has actually involved reducing communications. He said emails to restaurants, for example, have been cut to one a week unless some critical problems pop up. Those emails are a consolidation of numerous messages that would have been sent individually in the past. They can deal with anything from regular operations to explanations of new promotions, and are usually sent on Monday. The timing and the reduction of inbox clutter is appreciated by the recipients, Atherton said.

He was asked about staff turnover, and the assumption amongst outsiders that it would be high in McDonald’s. Atherton said managers average 10 years while counter staff stay for an average of two years. Another challenge faced by McDonald’s is that it is an employer of people new to the workplace. Atherton said managers teach these youngsters about the importance of basic skills such as punctuality and appearance.

All told, Cullen and Atherton gave two very interesting talks. If you can spare the two hours, try to get in to DIT on Aungier Street, Dublin, for the next one on Aug. 19. More details on upcoming events can be found on the Great Place To Work website.

Image courtesy of Ell Brown on