How COOK Places Relationships at the Heart of Their Business

In: BlogDate: Nov 22, 2019By: Billy Burgess

Rosie Brown sees great potential in human connection for creating positive, productive workplaces and generating great performance. As the Managing Director of COOK, Rosie has learnt that the best results nearly always come from a group of people working really well together. This has led her to pledge allegiance to the idea that the route to success is in relationship.

At the 2019 Happy Workplaces Conference, Rosie encouraged people to return to work and look at their respective organisations through a relational lens. In Rosie's view, looking at things through a relational lens is a wily method for figuring out what's working and what isn't.

Watch the full talk or view the transcript below.

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How COOK Places Relationships at the Heart of Their Business

Spending a day talking about happy workplaces and leadership is my idea of a really good day at work. A couple of weeks ago I was chatting to someone about leadership and what it is and how there’s often so much ego associated with the word. We were kind of riffing on what actually leadership was and we thought, well perhaps all it is is actually people who are willing to stand for something and that’s irrespective of where they are in the hierarchy.

So he turns to me and he says, ‘So, as a leader, what do you stand for?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh no, let’s talk about other people.’ It’s much easier talking about other people. But he kept pushing the point and in the end where I got to and why I’m here today is what I really stand for is relationships in business. And by that I mean the potential of powerful human connection to create great workplaces and deliver great performance as well.

At COOK we’ve seen time and time again how great relationships have driven performance. In the benefit of hindsight sometimes you go, ‘oh that was great strategy, that was great product development, that was great marketing,’ but actually when you scratch the surface, nearly always it’s a group of people working really well together and the route to success is in relationship.

Maybe that should be no surprise, because when you go back to the very origin of the word company, it comes from two Latin words. We’re all fluent in Latin, right? So two words: ‘com’ meaning ‘with’ and ‘panis’ meaning ‘bread’. So the very origin of the word company is rooted in people coming together over food and is rooted in relationship.

It feels to me, when we look at 21st century corporate working culture, we’ve forgotten that essence of relationship at the heart of it. Actually if you Google the phrase ‘relationships at work’ you get a whole load of HR forums talking about how to stop people shagging in the stationery cupboard. This is not a conversation we’re having. Just to clarify, those aren’t the kind of relationships I’m going to talk about so I’m sorry if that’s a crushing disappointment.

The relationships I’m going to talk about are the countless everyday connections we have with our colleagues; the interactions that enable us to get meaningful work done or not; to help feel our contribution is recognised and appreciated or not; can we see the work place as more than just a paycheck or not? And these relationships, the thousands of interactions that ultimately add up to what we refer to as our company culture.

What I hope to do today is to convince you to go back and look at your organisations through a relational lens. I believe when we really start to look at things through that lens it can help us to see what’s working and why, and also importantly, what’s not.

Some of you know COOK, which is cool. So a little bit about us. We’re a frozen food business and we do two really unfashionable things. We make stuff, we manufacture, we cook stuff. The other unfashionable thing we do is we have shops, real life shops on the high street. We’ve got 90 of them and we’ve got an e-commerce business, home delivery, and as the introduction said, our founding statement was to cook using the same techniques and ingredients that you use at home. That’s what we’ve stuck to over the course of 21 years.

We now have 500 people cooking, we have 500 people working in retail, we’ve got HQ logistics, home delivery. So we’ve got a workforce of about 1200 and it is a wildly diverse workforce, which is part of our richness as a culture. The idea about relationships has been at the heart of COOK ever since the beginning.

These were the founders of COOK. Ed, my brother, is on the right, posh public schoolboy. Dale is a brilliant chef, on the left, from the East End of London and grew up in and out of care homes. There is nothing to connect this people on the surface of it. Different ages, wildly different backgrounds and yet somehow they found a really powerful, trusting relationship that founded a business. The roots of COOK are in relationship.

I find it really interesting that as we’ve grown COOK we’ve had loads and loads of advice on how to scale profit and how to scale shops and how to scale manufacturing. We’ve had very, very little advice on how to scale our relationships and our culture. I think that’s why so many people end up with a hierarchy which doesn’t value relationship, because I think it’s the easy option. Leaning into relationships and working with humans and our egos can be a messy, challenging business.

I just want to give you two arguments why we need to keep persisting with it. The first reason is that all the evidence tells us that relationships are a fundamental human need and the cornerstone of wellbeing. And they also happen to be the greatest predictor of human happiness. The longest running study of happiness ever is the Harvard Grant Study, it’s taken seven decades and its conclusion is really clear, which is our sense of happiness and fulfilment across a lifetime depends on the warmth of our relationships with others. So on the basis we spend more time at work than anywhere else, it seems to me that our organisations have to pay attention to this fact if we want people to thrive.

This is John and Rene and at COOK we run a scheme to help people with barriers to employment back into work. These two guys have real histories and stories to tell, which include addiction, spells on the street and spells in prison. What’s been really interesting talking to them is they say the job is a starting point, and that’s great, but really it’s the relationships they’ve found at work, it’s the community and it’s the support that has helped get these guys back on their feet and both now thriving. So relationships help people to thrive.

The second bit of evidence is that relationships drive commercial performance. So we all perform at our best when we’re in a rich network of relationships. We work harder, better, more creatively and there’s so much research from Google to Gallup to back that up. At COOK, we have a clear data link that when a shop team have good relationships with each other, the shop performs better. It really is as straightforward as that for us.

This is the team who’ve run our Lightwater store for years. They have grown the business year-on-year-on-year in declining footfalls and challenging times. They’d go out in the community, they engage with the community, every single one of them contributes to the success of that shop. They all know their place in the team and it is the relationships that exist between them that have driven the performance. So, relationships drive performance.

As organisations we need to pay attention because they help people thrive, relationships, and they drive performance. I just want to quickly test that with our own human experience now. I want you all to think of a great working relationship. This is Chris and Jemima who have a great working relationship. They were doing some yoga thing, I have no idea what they were doing. So I want you each to think of a great working relationship just for a minute, something that’s really enabled you to thrive or really delivered great performance.

I want you to turn to the person next to you and I want you to share the experience of that relationship and how it made you feel. Right, can some of you just shout out some of those words about how good relationships make us feel. Trusted, great. Respected. Understood. Energised. Empowered. Appreciated. Supported. Any others? Loved. Safe, cool.

So we’re going to repeat that exercise and I want you to think of a dysfunctional working relationship, either now or in the past, and I want you to think about how that relationship makes you feel. Try and talk to someone different if you can, but share your experience in how that working relationship made you feel.

There’s a lot of energy in the room for bad working relationships. Let’s have some words for how poor or dysfunctional working relationships make us feel. Frustrated. Distrustful. Toxic. Angry. Shit. Self-destructive. Fearful. Undermined. Powerless. Unconfident. Sad. Confused.

The question that I’m posing and I’m asking is do we want to build organisations where our driving energy is trusted, respected, understood, empowered, supported, appreciated? Or are we trying to build organisations where our driving energy is frustrated, mistrustful, toxic, angry?

I think our company cultures are just the sum of all of those relationships and interactions. So how can we make those as healthy as possible? I just want to share some things that we do at COOK to do that. First off, we approach relationships in the business the same way we approach commercial strategy, with serious intent. I think that’s really important. There’s lots we can do as individuals to have better working relationships, but I’m not actually talking about that today. I’m talking about what organisations can do and the structure that surrounds it.

This is a wonderful lady called Elizabeth who we worked with a few years back to create a model for big relationships. Where we got to with our big relationships model is relationships in the workplace need three key things to have really great working relationships. They need common purpose, the need clarity and they need appreciation. I’m just going to talk through those three things.

I’m going to start with common purpose. We all want to believe in what we’re doing, right? And we all want to unite behind something we can get behind. My definition of a really tough gig is trying to unite a team if the only purpose of that team is to make more money. That’s not going to inspire anyone, so we need authentic purpose for who we’re working with.

For the people team at COOK, some of whom are here today, it might be about serving everyone who joins our COOK family. For our finance team it might be about finding brilliant information to help us make better decisions. At a company level we have a purpose about nourishing relationships, but when relationships are faltering – when things get tricky – when there’s a strong common purpose you’ve always got something to come back to that you can then build from and it stops some of that he, she [blame game]. Common purpose is really important.

Also, having some time to get inspired, connect with others that we’re working with and have some time together to get inspired by that. This is the logistics team. Every summer we have something called free range people days and every team goes out to the free range people day to hang out in a yurt in a field, in nature, and connects and gets inspired by what we’re trying to achieve together and by what each team is trying to achieve separately together.

This is Naomi and Hannah who run the puddings floor and this was at our culture collective event, which Henry joined us at this year, where we take 200 team leaders, shop managers out of the business for two days to connect, reflect on why we’re doing what we’re doing and to become better leaders and managers and how we can lead relationships. So we do a lot to take people out of the day job to give them that time to inspire and connect.

This is a day where we shut our shops for the day and we took everybody on a cruise down the Thames. This is actually on board a boat, which was an absolute blast, to say thank you and again connect, get inspired by what we’re trying to achieve. Relationships need a common purpose and they need time for connection so united we stand.

Once we’re united we then need clarity. When there’s a purpose you really believe in, you really want to contribute to it. So right, I know what we’re trying to achieve, how can I use my skills and my contribution to contribute? I think we’re all motivated to some extent by autonomy and having clarity releases all of that potential and contribution. So clarity’s really important, but how does it relate to relationships?

I want a show of hands for anyone who has wanted to gently maim a colleague for stepping on your toes, replying to an email that was yours, taken credit for your work. Put your hand up if you’ve experienced any of these? Got frustrated over a grey area, not been able to move forward an idea because you don’t know who owns it?

So many relationship issues are just straightforward caused by lack of clarity. When there’s lack of clarity, politics sets in.

Two quick things we do around clarity: role design is so important. I’m not interested in big job descriptions, but I am really interested in whether we can articulate what a role does in one or two sentences and communicate that clearly. We avoid those roles… you know those roles, they report into five teams, they do 36 different admin tasks, you don’t really know what they do, they don’t really know what they do?

Second thing we do is really clear planning. So we co-create a plan every year, it goes to all 1200 people at COOK and every year it says we’re going to have a successful year if we do these three things. We have between eight and ten things as a company we are going to achieve that aligns with our strategy. There’s total clarity on both individual contribution and where we’re going.

The third and perhaps most important thing I’m going to talk about, united we stand behind a common purpose, clarity on where we fit in and I’m going to talk about appreciation. I couldn’t do a talk on relationships without referencing the greatest relationship of all time. Don’t know if you know what the greatest relationship of all time is? It is, of course, Kate and Leo. They are the greatest relationship of all time and here they are.

I’m including them because there’s a moment in the film where they’re sat on the deck of the Titanic and they’re talking about Jack’s drawings. Rose turns to Jack and she says, ‘You have a gift Jack, you see people.’ And he turns back to her and he says, ‘I see you.’ What happens in that moment is they both see each other and it’s from that moment that their relationship really blossoms. But at work, too, we want to be seen. We want to be appreciated for what we’re bringing to the party and that in turn makes for better relationships.

We’re always trying to find fun ways to get people to connect at work. These are two of our London shop managers in a photo booth thing who clearly love each other a lot, which is great. As organisations we can act too by appreciating where our workforce is at and meeting the needs of those in our organisations.

In our kitchen and after speaking to people we ran lots of workshops. We have English workshops, we have an Eastern European workforce, we have run Brexit clinics, because that’s been a real challenge to some of them, the uncertainty that’s causing, we do financial wellbeing workshops, mental health, confidence workshops, because that’s where the need is and that’s what matters to people.

Likewise we have a hardship fund, because we definitely don’t want people going to the loan sharks elsewhere to support people. We have a holiday home, because when you’re on the Living Wage affording a family holiday can be a real stretch. We have something called the Dream Academy, which is a life-coaching programme, which is four months. A lot of people who come and work for us don’t have a lot of education, haven’t had a lot of input, and this is a programme to really help people identify what their life goals and dreams are and then to help them achieve it.

We’ve had some lovely stories. Having better relationships with their step-children was someone’s dream. Someone learned to drive. Better teeth, buying a first flat. I think the point is when we tune into the needs that exist in our teams and in our organisations, and then we go and meet that need, people feel appreciated and that fuels positive relationship.

At individual, team and company level, when we have common purpose, we have clarity on our contribution and we appreciate and feel appreciated by those we’re working with, we’re well on the way to good working relationships.

I just want to close by sharing Damien’s story. This is Damien. He’s a brilliant chef, really keen amateur photographer and an incredibly kind human being. He’s been very kind in letting me share his story today. He lives alone, he doesn’t have family nearby, and he lives with mental health issues. Last year, those issues spiralled and became a serious threat to his life.

At work we have a big part of the family value, which is about looking after each other, looking out for each other and mucking in where necessary. When Damien got seriously ill what the kitchens team did between them was they organised a rota so that Damien got visited, he got supported, he got contacted. I really believe it was their kindness and compassion that means Damien is still with us today. He’s well on the road to recovery and he’s back at work and it’s fantastic.

I’ll finish with one of Damien’s photos. This is one of his pictures he took recently of a sunrise on the Kent coast and I hope the symbolism of the new dawn for Damien isn’t lost on you either. But I think it’s a brilliant story to illustrate why workplace relationships really matter. We’re all in a position where we can reject the established corporate system and lean into the messiness and challenge of creating great relationships in our organisations. They deliver great workplaces and great performance and if we all get on board then maybe we can genuinely have a new dawn for our workplaces.

COOK has been around for 21 years. It’s a frozen food business that cooks food and sells it in shops on the high street. This, along with their e-commerce and home delivery operations, amounts to a workforce of about 1,200.

Relationships have been at the centre of the company since day one. It’s certainly not the easy way, says Rosie: “Leaning into relationships and working with humans and our egos can be a messy, challenging business.” But this hasn’t stopped COOK from prioritising relationships.

Not only are strong relationships the basis of wellbeing, but they’re also the most vital contributor to human happiness. “The longest running study of happiness ever is the Harvard Grant Study,” says Rosie. “It’s taken seven decades and its conclusion is really clear, which is our sense of happiness and fulfilment across a lifetime depends on the warmth of our relationships with others.”

Relationships don’t just buttress contentment – they help people to thrive, both inside and outside of work. This is something COOK has learned through its scheme to help put people with barriers to employment back into work. And from a commercial standpoint, the data clearly indicates that when a shop team has good relationships, the shop performs better.

There’s no imbalance in terms of how COOK approach commercial strategy and how they approach relationship; each is pursued with serious intent. They’ve identified three key things to cultivate and nourish great working relationships. “They need common purpose, they need clarity and they need appreciation,” says Rosie.

Common purpose ensures that when things get tricky and relationships start to fray, there’s something to come back and build from. Beyond this, every year COOK runs a culture collective event where 200 team leaders take two days out to gather and reflect on why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Clarity means understanding how to use one’s skills to contribute to successful operations. When clarity is lacking, that’s when political disputes arise and relationships break down.

Rosie identifies appreciation as the most important element of all. “We want to be appreciated for what we’re bringing to the party and that in turn makes for better relationships,” she says. COOK has a commitment to meet the needs of those working in the organisation. This is demonstrated in a variety of ways, such as financial wellbeing workshops, mental health and confidence workshops, and English workshops for the Eastern European workforce.

“At individual, team and company level, when we have common purpose, we have clarity on our contribution and we appreciate and feel appreciated by those we’re working with, we’re well on the way to good working relationships,” says Rosie.

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About Rosie Brown

Rosie 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.

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