Are executive sleepovers the best way for staff to bond?

Whole Foods bosses on sharing leadership: "It's like a marriage"

Would you feel uncomfortable chatting to your boss in your pyjamas? How about brushing your teeth together in the morning, or preparing breakfast with one another?

While sleepovers are standard fare when you're a child, spending the night with your boss is a level of intimacy that most people would rather avoid.

But for Whole Foods Market chief executive and founder John Mackey, escaping the constraints of the office and spending time with colleagues in a more personal setting is the best way to build up a trusting relationship.

"I know this sounds weird, but there's something about sleeping in the same house and then fixing breakfast or dinner together that is very much a bonding experience," he says.

Whole Foods Whole Foods opened its first store in 1980

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People have got to have that sense that their work matters”

End Quote John Mackey Whole Foods

This level of personal interaction, says Mr Mackey, prevents staff compartmentalising their work life and personal life, and means workers can relate on a deeper level.

His approach stresses the importance of emotionally involved leadership and creating a culture that allows workers to flourish.

Gallup's most recent study of employee engagement in the US workplace found an alarming 70% of those surveyed either hated their jobs or were completely disengaged.

Right from when he founded the natural and organic food firm in 1980 with just one store and 19 staff, Mr Mackey has been on a mission to change this.

The company now has 80,000 staff across 373 shops in the US, Canada and the UK, but his main objective remains ensuring employees feel valued and that their work is more than just a pay cheque.

"If you want to create a good culture and a good company then people have got to have that sense that their work matters and that they matter."

Whole Foods Whole Foods sells natural and organic foods
Staff power

To get this across, Mr Mackey says "caring leadership" is emphasised from the top down, with a conscious effort not to promote "the jerks".

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You have to create a culture where everybody has an opportunity to be recognised”

End Quote John Mackey Whole Foods

This isn't just rhetoric. In each store, workers are divided into eight teams in different departments.

When new employees join they are assigned to a team and put on two months' probation. Only when they are approved by at least two-thirds of their team members in a secret ballot can they stay on permanently.

While it is easy to be sceptical about an approach that appears to have come straight from the 1960s hippie era, the results suggest it is very effective.

For the 2013 financial year, Whole Foods reported the best sales in its 35-year history. In the 52 weeks to 29 September, total sales rose 12% to $12.9bn (£7.8bn), and net income rose 18% to $551m.

And for the past 17 years in a row, it has been listed as one of the "100 Best Companies to Work For" in the US by Fortune magazine.

Room at the top

Part of its appeal for workers is the consensual culture. Even the very top job is shared, with Mr Mackey leading the firm alongside co-chief executive Walter Robb.

Walter Robb and John Mackey Walter Robb (left) and John Mackey say sharing the chief executive role works better than the traditional corporate hierarchy of a solo boss

This approach continues throughout the firm, with individual stores having control over budgets and staff having the power to make decisions.

Mr Mackey says this "decentralisation" approach differs from the standard corporate chain model and helps to drive innovation.

One idea that came via this process is the "tap room" - an in-store beer and wine bar that lets customers nibble on food while sampling local wine and beers by the glass.

It started out in one store after an employee came up with the idea, but has now been rolled out to more than 100 stores.

The tap room The tap room came from a suggestion from a member of staff

Mr Mackey believes most chief executives are afraid of handing their staff this level of responsibility, mainly because they fear they will lose control.

He admits the approach can be messy and inefficient, with time wasted duplicating existing ideas, but says the upside - "a much more dynamic and turned on workforce" - is worth it.

Pay is equally egalitarian. The seven-strong executive team, which includes the co-chief executives, all earn the same salary, which is capped at 19 times the average pay of a full-time worker.

And it ends all meetings with what it calls "appreciations", thanking people on the team for specific contributions to the firm, a simple idea that Mr Mackey says has had a "huge revolutionary impact" in terms of improving staff relations.

"You have to create a culture where everybody has an opportunity to be recognised," he says.

This feature is based on interviews by leadership expert Steve Tappin for the BBC's CEO Guru series, produced by Neil Koenig and Evy Barry.

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