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‘Ā, upane! ka upane!’ – How a four-hundred-strong haka symbolises the transformation of KP’s business culture

She speaks animatedly about her time as an Associate Director and HR Business Partner at Coca-Cola Enterprises. 'As soon as I got there I thought this is somewhere I want to be, I loved it.'

The Power of Optimism, Transforming Values and Dancing the Haka – What KP’s HR Director learnt from the All Blacks.

“Ā, upane! ka upane! Ā! A,” is a lyric from the haka traditionally performed by the world-cup-winning All Blacks at the start of rugby matches. Roughly translated, it means: A step upward, another step upward! When I interviewed Johanna Dickinson, HR Director of KP Snacks – owners of McCoy’s, Hula-Hoops, Pom-Bear, Butterkist and Tyrrells –recently, about the part she played in building the famous nut brand’s corporate culture she revealed that she was a fan of James Kerr’s book, ‘Legacy: What the All Blacks Can Teach Us About The Business Of Life.’

I can understand why. Everything about her – from the things she says to the way she says them – is focussed on the positive. She comes across as someone who is all about “stepping upward,” moving forward and – most importantly – helping others do exactly the same thing.

In Kerr’s insightful book, he talks about leaders who possess humility. Something that allows them to connect “their deepest values and the wider world.” As well as positive, Dickinson comes across as unstuffy and down-to-earth. Early on, she speaks proudly about leaving school at sixteen and her first job as a crew member for Pizza Hut – the things those experiences taught her. That, I suspect, is the key to her success – an instinctive willingness to embrace many different kinds of experiences and turn them into actionable knowledge.

The Pizza Hut job led to a retail role working for GAP – ‘Stacking denim walls, folding clothes, learning all about merchandising.’ A step upward, then. A move forward. Which quickly facilitated another. ‘It was when I was working with GAP,’ she says, ‘that I made the move into HR. An opportunity came up at their flagship Oxford Street store and I went for it. At the time, they took a bit of a risk on me really but I think they could see I had a real passion and enthusiasm for the role.’

As someone who has helped to build an award-winning corporate culture at KP Snacks – based around a meticulously researched Values & Behaviours (V&Bs) programme – it’s interesting to hear Dickinson talk about some of the other places she has worked. How their cultures left a lasting impression on her.

She speaks animatedly about her time as an Associate Director and HR Business Partner at Coca-Cola Enterprises. 'As soon as I got there I thought this is somewhere I want to be, I loved it. The big lesson I learnt there was how powerful a brand can be – internally as a communications tool within an organisation for staff. People loved the Coke brand. They were proud to be associated with it, proud to wear the t-shirts, and they had a real passion for Coca-Cola's ethos. I think we have succeeded in instilling some of the same kind of pride and passion here at KP Snacks.’

Whilst Coke’s American positivity and optimism suited Dickinson, her time as an HR Manager at Air France was, at first, challenging. ‘Early on, when somebody gave a presentation, they finished and I clapped – I might have even whooped,’ she says laughing, ‘and everyone just looked at me. I think it was at that point I realised I probably wasn't going to completely fit in there. Air France is great company but, in the long-term, it wasn’t for me.’

‘So, how,’ I ask, ‘did you set about transforming values at KP Snacks?’ ‘When I arrived, the main objective was to establish a new culture for the company, after its purchase from United Biscuits by Intersnack. We were looking to install something new, positive, transformational. Luckily for me, they had just spent nine months doing a whole set of internal focus groups which had delivered some amazing insights.’

Dickinson clearly sees this level of research as a vital part of really understanding an organisation’s people. ‘I think focus groups are essential,’ she says. ‘You can use them to gauge how people are feeling at all different levels of a business. They were really important in ensuring that the values we have eventually focussed down on for KP came from within, from our people. Staff really like the fact that they are jargon free and written in plain English. They are based around taking personal ownership, valuing people, achieving together, and having a positive attitude.’

In Kerr’s book, the author talks about companies who create a vision, take it to a conference, preach it to their people, but then do nothing else about it. And corporate values are, of course, useless unless they are put into action. That’s isn’t a trap KP have fallen into. It’s noticeable that Dickinson’s voice becomes even more enthused when she’s asked about practically applying the values. ‘We now have over a hundred champions across the business,’ she says. ‘People who, in their daily actions, live it. They are real evangelists for the values. And, results wise, in terms of things like staff retention, people have definitely stayed here longer because they now feel part of the culture.’

Towards the end of our meeting, Dickinson talks enthusiastically about an interview she, herself, did for the GB Woman’s Network with four retired Global Board Directors for Coca-Cola Enterprises – Veronique Morali, Phoebe Wood, Andrea Saia, and Suzanne Labarge. All female pioneers at the very highest levels of the corporate ladder. ‘I had so much enthusiasm for what they said. The example they had set. They made you feel like you could do anything.’ She clearly sees their example as inspirational.

As for the haka, in his book, Kerr makes it clear that its symbolic power comes from its ability to transform the many into one – 15 into a team, the team into a nation. After reading it, Dickinson and 400 colleagues were lucky enough to see Sean Fitzpatrick – the former All Blacks captain – speak at a conference where, at the end, he got everyone to join in the Maori dance.

‘Ā, upane! ka upane! Ā – “A step upward, another step upward!” At KP Snacks, thanks, in part, to the positivity and determination of Johanna Dickinson, that upward step is one everybody gets to take together.

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