COOK: Creating Growth by Placing Relationships at the Heart of Business [Full Video]

In: BlogDate: Jul 22, 2018By: Claire Lickman

Six years ago, Rosie Brown entered COOK for the Sunday Times’ 100 Best Companies to Work For list, which is measured through a staff survey — and was shocked to find that they didn’t make the list.

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COOK: Creating Growth by Placing Relationships at the Heart of Business [Full Video]

I’m Rosie, I’m Managing Director of COOK. It’s a business that was founded 20 years ago, and we make really delicious, amazing, ready meals. We do it by cooking like you would at home, using the same techniques and ingredients that you use at home, and our chef’s name is on the label. We’ve got about 900 people on the team now, we’re growing fast, and it’s a really diverse bunch. We’ve got retail, we’ve got office, we’ve got logistics, we’ve got chefs, we’ve got food manufacturing, so it’s a really interesting mix from a cultural point of view.

I stand here with some humility, because while we’ve come a long way on our journey, I’m aware that we have a long way to go, we are far from perfect, and I definitely feel in this space that humility is wise, particularly if it’s going online!

We’re here about what makes us happy, so I thought I’d start with a little bit about me and what makes me happy.

I’m a mum, first and foremost is my boys. They make me happy, they make me feel quite a lot of adjectives as well, but we’re going to stick with happy for today!

At COOK we’re definitely family first. We’re a family business, it was founded by my brother Ed, and back to checking power, if you want to check your power, work with your siblings! We are family first, and we encourage everyone at COOK as far as possible to be family first. Go home, look after your family.

The next picture is a picture of our senior team, and it’s a real privilege to work in this team, we’ve worked together for five years, we’ve built the business, we have fabulous relationships with each other. We went to a conference two weeks ago and we didn’t hire a hotel, we hired a house because we thought it would be more fun. We have an absolute riot, and I think relationships from the top and how they filter down is really key to our culture journey.

Next is curry, just because, and if you haven’t had a COOK curry, try it, they’re amazing!

And then this is a drawing of a bookshelf, some of you will have read these company culture books – there’s a Timpson’s book, Playing To Win by Alan G. Lafley and Roger Martin, Start With Why by Simon Sinek, Drive by Daniel Pink.

My place is a really core belief in people, and that everyone has intrinsic value, regardless of what they can and can’t do for COOK. That has lead me to a deep passion for company culture, which makes me happy!

I’m going to talk a little bit about our Sunday Times Best Companies journey.

Feeling strongly about company culture, I wanted to be able to measure it, I wanted to be able to chart our course. It was about six years ago that we decided, with intent, we were going to get better at this. We didn’t know where we were. We had about 350 employees and we knew we were going to grow, and we really wanted to retain that culture we’d created. We were out of the recession, and we were all a bit skint frankly, and I looked at how I could do an employee survey, and we did the Sunday Times one because it was the cheapest! For £1,000 we could survey everybody and get some really great data from a really great framework that I bought into.

I don’t think any of it’s perfect, but it’s been a great great tool for us. We thought we were pretty good when we did it six years ago, but we were miles out, we were rubbish. But, what a great wake-up call, and what a great time to have that wake-up call, because we just weren’t as good as we thought we were. I will never now say ‘we have a great culture’ unless I’ve got the data to prove it. I think that’s really important.

So, here’s our starting point. We’ve been working at it ever since, and we’re now the highest placed manufacturer and third highest retailer, but I’m on it, and it’s been one hell of a journey. I’m just going to share some things about that. This is a photo from when we got into the top 100 for the first time, it was 89th place. Never has 89th been celebrated quite so much! It was good fun. I’m preaching to the choir here, so I’m not going to labour on this chart. This is our EBITDA graph, and I think that tell its own story. This growth has been driven by people with great relationships working really well together.

Back to the beginning of the journey, where it all started. It started with death. I killed the HR team. Not literally, metaphorically speaking! I felt that HR had no place in COOK. We didn’t have human resources in COOK, we didn’t want to treat people as human resources. The language and the transactional way it was being approached was all wrong. I felt the whole ‘policy and procedure’ method needed repurposing. We needed to repurpose the team. We did that, and we created the People Team.

The primary purpose of the People Team is to care for people, with the logic that if we care for people, they will care for our business in turn. The People Team was born, and we starting talking to people about how are you going to feel cared for, how can we make you feel cared for, what are are your pain points, what are your issues, what are your challenges.

We’ve got about 30 of these, but we couldn’t talk about them all, so I’ve just picked out some.

Health was a real challenge for some people, and so now we have nurses that come in and do regular health checks for people, which has been really inexpensive but added huge value to people.

We’re now doing a profit share. We’ve looked at pay more broadly actually, and I’m really proud we’re now paying the living wage. This year we’ve been running financial well-being workshops in the kitchen which has been fascinating, because finances, for a lot of our team, are a real challenge.

We’ve started career counselling. We had lots of people wanting to grow, not knowing how, so we set up a service.

Interestingly, everyone took their birthday off as holiday. Now, they don’t get a huge amount of holiday, and so we said, ‘why don’t we just give everyone their birthday off, why are they using their precious holiday days on a Wednesday?’. So we let everyone have their birthday off. Again, an inexpensive, high impact, cool thing to do.

We have a hardship fund, again this feeds into the finance piece. I’ll give you an example of that. Gina called me last week and needed to pay an unexpected vets bill, which wasn’t insignificant, and somehow she had to find the money or else the consequences weren’t going to be great. That’s what the hardship fund is for. A lot of people who work for us are retail manufacturing, there aren’t big savings, there aren’t big pots to fall back on, so the hardship fund helps people out.

And, volunteering. We give everyone five community days for volunteering. Again, self-selection, I have no idea, but we tend to recruit people who are quite community-minded, and they want to do more, and actually one of the ways we can have an impact as a company is helping people do more by giving them the time.

So those are just some of the ways we set the foundation and repurposed the People Team, we’re going to care for people and we showed some intent by hitting some of these pain points.

There are three things, I think, that have really propelled us in the last five years.

The first of which is our values, which we call our essential ingredients. There are five, and we feed them into everything, we’re quite obsessed! They’re in recruitment, they’re in performance management, they run right the way through leadership training, everything. There are five things and I’m not going to go through them in too much detail.

‘Care’ is eggs. Care is about quality takes effort not money, and it’s about taking care in what we do. ‘Be part of the family’ is about we all have different roles and responsibilities, but it’s a teamworking thing. ‘Be remarkable’ is that we all have the potential to do a remarkable job, it doesn’t matter if you’re sweeping the floor or running the company, and that’s a performance one. ‘Have fun’, obviously!

And then we have ‘Churchill’s pig’, which is about ‘a dog looks up to a man, a cat looks down on a man, and a pig looks a man in the eye and sees his equal’, and it’s this idea at COOK that regardless of managers, not managers, leadership – we’re all equal, we all need to look each other in the eye as equals. We have a few things that go on, we have a pig that everyone can put feedback in for leadership, and things like that. For me it’s really critical because the danger without Churchill’s pig is that we create a happy cult, and I’m really cautious and scared of that because then it becomes a form of control, like ‘you’ve got to be happy here’. We’ve done quite a lot of work around the fact that we all have bad days, and we acknowledge those bad days, and it’s okay to have bad days. Churchill’s pig has been key to that.

Here are some ways that we bring our essential ingredients to life, to give you a picture.

We don’t do individual performance reviews, but that’s a whole separate talk and I could bang on about that for some time. We look at team performance, so teams in the kitchen will set their own goals. Here they’re setting their goals around values, which value as a team they think they’re best at, and what they have to work on. They talk about their relationships with other teams, how they’re rating their performance, what makes them happy at work, they set their own business goals. That’s how the values feed right back in, and all of our shops will fill out this, what we call a Team Selfie, as well. It’s about ownership and setting your own goals – not coming from on high.

These are cookies, and with all of our new starters we put all of our essential ingredients together and we make cookies, and we talk about our values. When you first come into COOK, you make cookies, and people look at us – you know, they come in, senior appointments, and you say, ‘we’re going to make cookies today!’ and they say, ‘oh, really…?’, but by the end of it there’s actually a really rich, productive conversation about why they’re important.

As I was thinking about this talk and putting it together, I cut and pasted this email from Ed (my brother who founded COOK). He uses the language of values all of the time. ‘Remarkable’ is one of the values, and this is just how he was going to start a board report, but it’s just a little example of how leadership are using it in their language. Without leadership caring about the values, you’re stuffed.

We tell stories. We do a lot of storytelling internally, about what values mean. If you’ve got four minutes, go onto our website, and have a look at Red and Craig’s story. It’s a really beautiful story of forgiveness. We employ quite a lot of people with barriers to employment, and Red was formerly homeless, and been in prison. He’s come to work for us, and it turned out he had quite a history with Craig, who works in the kitchen. As management, we were left with this challenge of what to do, and the video tells the story, and it’s really beautiful so do watch it.

This is an example of a values nomination, from Kia: ‘I am nominating Damien, because I am coming out of my comfort zone and Damien helped me to do this, by giving me the opportunity to go into the pie room. He has helped me learn new things.’ We do values nominations across the business as often as we can, quarterly or half-yearly, and we invite everybody to nominate people against the values. I started this, and everyone said I was completely mad, no-one will do this. To be fair, the first few times I did quite a lot of prodding to get it going, and now I have nothing to do with it. We did this two weeks ago in the kitchen, bearing in mind it’s a manufacturing environment, we had 140. That’s 140 connections, 140 relationships, 140 bits of interaction, and it’s an incredibly powerful thing.

That’s some examples of how our values are living and breathing within COOK. In what creative ways could you, or do you, bring your company values to life? Our values underpin everything we do.

The second thing I want to talk about is opportunities to grow.

We’ve got 900 people, we’ve got a lot of people looking to build careers, we’ve got a lot of people wanting to grow. We’ve approached this in a fairly traditional way, we have an Office Academy, a Retail Academy and a Kitchen Academy, and that’s really great. The things that we have done that have been most rewarding have been about personal growth. We’ve done a load of values workshops, asking people to explore what their values are, and then how they feed into the company values, which has been a really fascinating piece of work, and really insightful for people to understand what drives them. More recently we’ve been doing a confidence program across the kitchen and office. It’s completely optional but nearly everyone does it. It’s really light-touch, it’s fun, and watching the scales drop off as people realise confidence is a skill and not a gift from God has been really extraordinary.

We’ve also got this thing called the Dream Academy, which is super cool, we’re all really proud of it at COOK. It’s completely nicked, like all of these ideas are from somewhere else. It’s from a book called The Dream Manager by Matthew Kelly, and it’s a cleaning firm in the States that realised they had really high staff turnover, and how they could get people to stay.

What the Dream Academy is, is it asks people what are their hopes and dreams, and then it encourages them to sign up to the Dream Academy, a personal four month coaching program. It’s offline and confidential – just between them and the Dream Manager. They share what their hopes and dreams for the future are, and then the coach helps them break it down and coaches them in how they might help achieve their hopes and dreams.

It’s been an extraordinary thing. We’ve had over 100 people go through it now, and more people are going through it all the time. We’ve had someone who wanted a better relationship with her step-son, we’ve had someone who wanted to sort out her teeth because she couldn’t smile in public. We’ve had someone from the kitchen who had never taken his family on holiday and was desperate to do it, but it was so far out of his comfort zone to try to organise that, he wanted some help. That’s who the COOK Dream Academy is. It’s for everybody.

I’m just going to share Darren’s story because I think it’s a really powerful one. He’s given me permission to share this story.

Darren, three or four years ago, was chopping chicken in our kitchen. He signed up to the Dream Academy – he was brave enough to be one of the first to go on it, actually. Through this process he realised that he didn’t want to chop chicken, he had kids, and he wanted to work in stock control. To do that he needed a qualification. Through the process he signed up to an evening course, got the qualification, and the long and the short of it is that now, four years on, Darren is working in stock control in the office, and he’s also got the first part of his accountancy qualifications. He’s the first person in his family to ever have a professional qualification. He’s really inspiring; he took the opportunity, he grabbed it.

The Dream Academy tells the story that the more opportunities, support and encouragement workplaces can provide, it’s amazing where people end up. It’s really inspiring for us.

The third thing I want to talk about is big relationships.

We really want big relationships at COOK. We talk about them a lot, we make time for them, we invest in them. We shut the shops for a day, which is pretty unheard of in the retail world, so that we can all get together. We shut the kitchen for a day so that we can go on day trips and all get together. We train all out leaders in relationships. I don’t know if anyone’s come across the Harvard Grant study, which is the longest running study ever, I think – it started in in the 1930s – and it’s about human happiness. Their findings are that the better your relationships, the happier you are, and essentially life is about the quality of your relationships. We feel that should apply to work as well. Not just to working with each other, that applies to how we work with suppliers and various other people.

We really encourage people to bring their whole selves to work. I abhor this idea that you have to walk through the door and put on a professional face. We’re the opposite of that. Come in, tell us about yourself, what’s going on, let’s work together, let’s have a relationship. A culture, ultimately, is only the sum of all of those individual relationships anyway, so the more you can work on those individual relationships, the healthier the culture’s going to be.

Internally we use a tool to help us and our managers with relationships. It’s a model for relationships at work. It’s a Venn diagram where the three circles are Unity, Clarity and Accountability, and Appreciation. It’s brilliant, we use it all the time, it works, I promise! When relationships aren’t going well at work, either in between people or teams, we look to these three things:

Is there unity? Is everyone trying to agree the same thing? Is there a shared goal, a united vision, are people united in what we’re trying to achieve?
Is there clarity and accountability? Are we really clear on what you’re doing, are you clear on what I’m doing, are we stepping on each other’s toes, are there grey areas, or are we really clear about all of that?
Is there appreciation? Am I saying thank you, am I connecting with you, do I care about what you’re getting up to, and do I appreciate that you might have a different viewpoint to me?
Those are the three things we use, and whenever something is going wrong, I promise it is because, in our experience, one of these three things is out.

I’m going to give you a little example. We have two teams that work incredibly closely to bring a product into our shops. One is the Commercial team – they design the recipes, they know what will sell, they price it. The next is our Kitchen team, who then have to turn this concept into mass-production and make it work with the quality the same. We were really struggling with getting these teams to work well together. We were thinking, ‘they really appreciate each other, they really like each other, there’s no problems there, the relationships are good. Clarity and accountability, everyone knows what everyone’s doing’.

In that instance there wasn’t unity, because the Kitchen team were focused on margin, and the Commercial team were focused on brilliant product for the customer. It was only when we restructured it and made everybody aware of both of those KPIs that we sorted it out, and finally had unity. We really dug down to find out what was going on.

I want you to think of a relationship at work, that isn’t perhaps going as well as you’d like, and have a moment to reflect whether perhaps there’s one of these things missing that is causing it to go off track?

Those are my three reflections. I think the foundation is caring for people, and for us it’s been about shared values, really providing opportunities for growth, not just career but personal, and great big relationships.

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“Feeling strongly about company culture, I wanted to be able to measure it, I wanted to be able to chart our course. It was about six years ago that we decided, with intent, we were going to get better at this. We didn’t know where we were. We had about 350 employees and we knew we were going to grow, and we really wanted to retain that culture we’d created,” Rosie explains.

“We thought we were pretty good… but we were miles out, we were rubbish. But what a great wake up call, and what a great time to have that wake up call, because we just weren’t as good as we thought we were.”

COOK is now the highest placed manufacturer, and the third highest retailer, on the list, having been listed on the Best Companies list since 2013. The key to these high levels of staff happiness has been caring for the people — “if we care for people, they will care for our business in turn.”

In this 20-minute video from the 2017 Happy Workplaces CEO Conference, Rosie talks about COOK’s journey to become a happy workplace. COOK now has a very clear, values-led strategy, give their people opportunities to grow in their personal and professional life, and have a particular focus on the importance of creating relationships at work.

What you’ll hear in this video:

  • Why Rosie replaced the HR team with the People team — changing the team’s focus from following policies and procedures to care for the company’s people (4:53)
  • Addressing some of the challenges that people in the company faced — introducing regular visits from a nurse, career counselling, and giving staff their birthday off (5:50)
  • Creating company values, the five essential ingredients that feed into everything COOK does — recruitment, performance management and leadership training — and how they bring them to life (7:57)
  • Giving staff opportunities to grow in both their personal and professional life — COOK has created the Dream Academy, with a confidential four-month program with a coach to help their dreams come true (13:20)
  • The importance of big relationships and COOK’s model for relationships at work — a Venn diagram of Unity, Clarity and Accountability, and Appreciation (16:56)

Resources and related content:

  • Rosie’s PowerPoint slides – click here to download
  • Running short on time? Watch the two-minute clip from Rosie’s talk
  • The Happy Manifesto by Henry Stewart — click here to get your free eBook
  • Click here to see all of the videos from the 2017 Happy Workplaces CEO Conference
  • Why you need to make friends at work — Shannon Banks talks about the importance of building relationships at work at our 2016 Happy Workplaces Conference
  • The Key Business Question: Will it Make Life Better? — Henry Stewart’s blog about Propellernet, a company who make their people’s dreams come true with their Dream Machine: When the company hits their targets, one person gets to live their dream
  • Happy offers free staff surveys to help you benchmark your staff’s happiness and get measurable feedback on your organisation — click here to visit Happy’s website for more information

About Rosie

Rosie Brown started her career in London, and it didn’t take long to work out that politics and investment banking weren’t going to be part of the long term plan. In 2000, she joined COOK (then three years old, and co-founded by her brother Edward) working in most departments and having three sons along the way. Rosie became People Director in 2012. In 2016 Rosie took on the role of Managing Director.

COOK manufactures remarkable frozen food in our own Kitchens (made like you would at home) and sells it nationally in 86 retail stores and online. COOK are proud to be a founding UK BCorporation (people using business as a force for good) and have been voted as one of the Sunday Times Top 100 Companies to Work For, for the last 5 years (and the highest placed manufacturer). In 2015 COOK won the Sunday Times Wellbeing award for our work on relationships, and in 2016 and 2017 won the award for Developing Potential. In addition, COOK’s ‘Dream Academy’ was voted in a Times list of Top 10 company benefits. In February 2019, COOK were recognised in 14th Place in the Sunday Times Top 100 Companies to Work For list.

Claire Lickman

Claire is Head of Marketing at Happy. She has worked at Happy since 2016, and is responsible for Happy's marketing strategy, website, social media and more. Claire first heard about Happy in 2012 when she attended a mix of IT and personal development courses. These courses were life-changing and she has been a fan of Happy ever since. She has a personal blog at

More by Claire

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