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How Adnams is shaking off its 19th century tendencies

Adnams is blending traditional brewing methods with innovative management practices

It’s stood the test of time, but now British beer brand Adnams is blending in some innovative management strategies to support future growth and employee empowerment.

Suffolk-based brewery Adnams has been around since 1872, making beer on the English coast in picturesque Southwold. With around 580 employees, the family-owned business now makes beer and spirits, owns pubs and a hotel and even runs shops across East Anglia.

However, as long-serving chief executive Andy Wood explained, it’s not always been plain sailing. “Adnams lived in a steady state world until the late-1990s, and then it has been volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous ever since then,” he said.

Not only has the sector become increasingly globalised and consolidated, but alcohol consumption in the UK continues to fall and pubs keep closing. Furthermore, the rise of fashionable micro-breweries means the bottom of the market has fragmented.

To thrive Adnams has been modernising itself. “It’s about behaving like a 21st century business and not a 19th century one,” added Wood. At the heart of this transformation is a shift in organisational culture so the company is focused on agility and adaptability. “We can only be a sustainable business in the widest sense if we are nimble and fleet of foot,” he said. “To do that, we have had to develop a much more fluid, fast-moving culture.”

Another key part of this development has been the heightened importance of line managers, Adnams culture director Sadie Lofthouse commented. An employee survey revealed pockets around the business where managers either lacked the competence or confidence to manage effectively. “There was perhaps a culture of managers tending to referee from the middle of the pitch rather than coaching from the sideline,” she said.

With help from an external HR trainer, as well as sports performance coaches, Lofthouse helped Adnams managers redefine their roles and equip each with the tools and techniques needed to manage in a new culture of empowerment and trust. She also developed an in-house programme that would give them the language, skills and confidence to manage in a different way.

Building on this, Wood believes it is often the middle manager who is frozen in an organisation. “They absorb a lot of the stuff coming down from the top and often have all the concerns and worries their frontline colleagues are telling them without being empowered to do anything about it. We are trying to empower the middle.”

In making changes, Lofthouse observed an interesting trend. The capability and competence of frontline and middle managers grew, while senior management felt confident enough to remove centrally coordinated diktats around bonuses and rewarding performance – something which has very recently devolved down to team manager level.

Review staff performance twice a year – or more

Another radical shift in the way the company manages its staff, and demands a much closer partnership between a manager and their team, has been more frequent review process.

With a devolution of power to line managers, Lofthouse wanted to help managers be as objective as possible when assessing performance. While the company had always given employees an annual appraisal with a mid-term review, part of upskilling line managers meant encouraging more regular, good-quality conversations with people about their performance throughout the year.

“What we are trying to move people towards is an ongoing performance log that will be visited at appropriate times throughout the year by either person. We are trying to share the ownership of that rather than somebody having an appraisal done to them. It is actually a much more equal relationship,” said Lofthouse.

Measure staff performance using a defined process

Within the new Adnams performance culture, managers are now expected to have much more responsibility monitoring, measuring and communicating performance to their direct reports. “What we are trying to do here is focus on the adult-to-adult conversation and not the parent-to-child conversation,” Wood said. The latter is a very “last century” attitude, he believes.

Each employee’s conversation with their manager about performance is recorded and built up into a body of content reviewed by each party over a long period of time to see how an employee has developed – rather than taking a measure twice a year.

Lofthouse says their managers have been given a tool that will guide them through the process. “For the less experienced managers or for managers who are quite set in their ways, I think a blank sheet of paper would be a little intimidating,” she added. This allows managers to code any conversation around performance, objectives, personal and career development or concern using a very simple template that guides them through the process.

Define good performance using clear performance metrics

Keen to define how Adnams will continue to improve company culture, Lofthouse said she has also been helping to recalibrate performance metrics. “There was a bit of a view that if you have worked very hard and done a great job you should have a bonus”. Employees had to be made more aware that this is actually what they were paid to do, and that bonuses were for rewarding high performance only.

Wood makes clear that defining good performance is tailored to each individual. “What determines really great performance in one of our pubs at 9.30pm on a Friday night compared to great performance in our finance team on a Wednesday afternoon are very different things.”

The chief executive’s approach centres on ensuring each manager places good performance into its specific context and then agrees objectives with direct reports. However, while each employee’s objectives differ, the way they are delivered needs to be uniform across the business. While the organisational values of Adnams have been held for a very long time, it was only recently that they were codified and translated into a performance context.

For example, some of the values listed and detailed on the Adnams employee performance log include: “Delivering – ‘Ah, that’s better’ moments for our customers” and “High Performance – deliver on our goals and smash it every time”. In every performance meeting recorded, an employee is given a performance grade that considers whether they have achieved their goals, and whether they have displayed the expected behaviours.

The biggest lesson Wood said he has learnt, so far, is about communication. “You can never communicate enough, and when you think the communication is done, you need to communicate again.” For Lofthouse, her advice to others in a similar position is that you can’t do something and then sit back because it needs constant work. “You can never think you have cracked it!”

Adnams is living proof that even a 146 year-old business cannot rest on its laurels.

If you’re interested in improving the way you manage the performance of employees at your business then utilise our benchmarking tool. We’ve also got some helpful quick tips below.

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