High Performance Teams – Paul Wilson, Petbarn

Paul Wilson is the Managing Director of Pet Barn, Australia’s largest pet specialty retailer. Since buying a small chain of 8 stores in 2005 Paul and his partners have grown the business so that it now has 130 stores together with and 100 vet practices in Australia and New Zealand, employing more than 2500 people.  I talked with Paul about creating high performing teams.

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Mark:   What do you consider to be the major challenges for leaders who are trying to create high performing teams?

Paul:    I’d say the biggest challenge for people trying to create high performing teams is to step back and be an influencer rather than a directive type of person. I think there’s a real difference between leadership and management.  Leadership is about influencing skills – it’s about influencing behaviour not necessarily directing it and I think there are a lot of “leaders” in business who are managing as opposed to leading.

Leaders’ give people the freedom to actually get on with their job and achieve things that are better than they ever thought they could actually do.

Mark:   What else is important to create an effective team?

Paul:    I think it’s fundamental that you have to align people with a vision – a vision that’s realistic, that’s attainable, that they can relate to and is simple.  One of the key things that we’ve found is that across our business something like 90% of people can actually quote the vision back to you when asked because it’s simple and something they can hang their hat on.

Our vision is to be Australasia’s pet speciality retailer of choice. When we talk about choice we mean from the point of view of the customers, employees and suppliers.  We want customers to choose us, we want employees to choose this place to work within the industry and we want suppliers to say this is the business that they want to support and deal with.  Aligning everyone with the vision and ensuring that they are absolutely aware of it is fundamental to creating a team that’s all going to row in the same direction and achieve beyond what they could have dreamed of themselves.

Mark:    Are there any other challenges beyond the need to let go and the need to ensure people understand and are aligned to the vision?

Paul:    I think you’ve got to obviously have goals and targets and to some extent the vision is more of a psychological alignment than a numbers alignment. At the end of the day the result of business is numbers and you’ve got to have goals and targets set, they’ve got to be clear, there needs to be good accountability amongst the team. People need to know not only their own accountabilities but also what each other are accountable for. One of the challenges for some leaders is that they might be a group of people all doing their own thing but they are really not sure what each one is responsible for and what part they play. It’s a little bit like a football team, there’s a captain, there’s a coach and there’s all the players with various roles to play and I think a team in business is very much like that.

Mark:    Thinking about some of the teams you’ve seen that haven’t performed well, what have the leaders done wrong?

Paul:    It usually comes down to trust. Leaders who betray people’s trust struggle. I’d say that if you betray people’s trust in a team then it’s really going to be hard to get that team to perform collaboratively and be at one with you and what you are trying to achieve. I think fundamental to teams that have broken down or otherwise aren’t performing well, is that there’s a trust issue somewhere.

Mark:    What do you do to build trust?

Paul:    I think it’s about being genuine. It’s about being yourself, it’s about not being something that you are not, it’s about being consistent, not being Jekyll and Hyde. I think you’ve just got to be genuine. To some extent it’s about involving yourself in their lives, not just at work but beyond that. I’m not really a big subscriber to the concept of work/life balance because I have a view that work and life are one and the same. One of the ways you can engender trust is to really understand people and what’s going on in their lives and have empathy for that and I think out of that people tend to support you and have more trust in you as well.

Mark:    How you have gone about trying to create a high performing culture at Pet Barn, in terms of your leadership team?

Paul:    I think fundamentally I think it’s about making a place that people want to work first of all. I think a health check for a business is whether people actually want to come to work each day and we constantly say to our people if you are not enjoying work think about why you are coming here. If you create an environment where people want to come to work you are going to get better performance.

I think the other thing you do is you recruit the right people into the team and I think attitude, obviously experience is important but ultimately if someone has got the right attitude and the right drive I think you’ve got more ability to leverage that person.  I really believe that you shouldn’t over recruit for roles where you’ve got someone that’s been there and done it all before and comes into the organisation and says well I’ve done all this before. I think in some ways it’s better to have someone that may not have quite done what you are wanting them to do but has the ability to grow.  The opportunity to grow gives them a lot of satisfaction and they usually end up doing great work.

Mark:    How you have gone about creating a place where people want to work?

Paul:    Simple things like having some fun. Fun is ok. We are fortunate that the pet industry is one of those engaging type of industries where the customers are engaged, the staff are engaged, and it’s an industry where fun is fine. We let our people bring pets to work for instance and it lightens the atmosphere, it creates an environment that they want to be part of and that they couldn’t do elsewhere.

We are also lucky that our business is a growth business. That’s always a great environment to be part of and people like being part of businesses that are growth rather than cost driven, trying to redo the balance sheet or the P & L to fit the business to size. So I think we are fortunate in that it’s a growth business and it’s an exciting business, it’s new and that helps them want to turn up to work every day.

I think the other thing is letting people have the freedom to do their job and once they know what they’ve been asked to do, let them go and do it. Let them make mistakes. Fear is not something that should be part of their culture. Back to one of your other questions I think that’s probably where leaders or managers fall down is that fear becomes one of their tools and I think as soon as that comes into the tool set it illustrates that that leader is probably struggling.

Mark:    What do you do with your current leadership team to ensure you all understand the mutual accountabilities and are performing at the top of your game?
Paul:    All teams need some structure to operate well so we have annual planning cycles and we have quarterly reviews of those planning cycles. The other thing we ensure we do is every Monday we get the senior people in a room and we talk about the week that’s just been, the week that’s ahead, what are the top things that are top of mind for them and of concern to them and what’s keeping them awake if anything is keeping them awake.

It doesn’t need to be a three hour meeting, we call it the “dump” where they get a chance to tell people and other functional heads what’s important to them at the moment and therefore everyone knows what’s going on in each other’s work lives at that point in time and are there to help coach and assist them through whatever issues or challenges that they are facing.

And I think it’s important to also ensure we have plenty of informal communication. There’s nothing like hallway conversations and you get so much more out of running into someone in the hallway and having a conversation than you do by firing an email down the hallway to them to find out an answer to a question. We are big on encouraging informal communication within the group.

Mark:    What else are you doing with the senior team to make sure they are at the top of their game?

Paul:    One on one conversations.  I have a one on one conversation with each team member regularly to see where their head is at. I think that’s fundamental as a coach and I think I’ve taken more of a coaching role than the directive leader role. Being there for them when they need you is important. I think ultimately the reality is that your job as a leader is to support your team. When they’ve got an issue and they are looking for some advice or someone to listen to them. Half the time just sitting and listening results in the problem get resolved. So being available is important to the team.

Mark:    At some point most leaders find themselves with a team that’s good but not quite where they want it to be.  What do you do to shift a team from good to great?

Paul:    It’s an interesting one. Sometimes I’ve had comments from some of our directors to the effect that while the senior team is good, they could be better. My response has been to take it on board but push back and support the team. My experience has been that if you keep backing the team, let them know you are disappointed if necessary but support them, they soon come back to you and lift their game.

Mark:    What do you do when you’ve believed in someone and they’ve let you down?

Paul:    Well I think it’s important to confront it with them and let them know how you feel about it rather than hide it from them. I think you owe it to them to let them know. Hopefully they learn from it and move on and say to you ‘well hey this is why it’s happened’. Usually when you talk it out you get a good outcome.

Mark:    To finish up, if you were talking to a group of young leaders at Pet Barn and had to summarise your thoughts on creating high performing teams, what would you say?

Paul:    I guess I’d remind them that leading is different to managing and stress the need to influence rather than direct. I’d highlight the fact that they are coaches as much as managers. I’d emphasise the need to build trust and support in the team by having a clear vision, goals and accountabilities and being genuine. I’d remind them of the importance of actually caring about their team members as people and being there to listen and provide support. I’d stress the need to recruit for attitude as much as ability and I’d highlight the importance of communication – regularly talking and listening to the team. Something like that.



Mark Rosenberg