The Merlin Way: Tea Colaianni, Merlin Entertainments plc, Group Human Resources Director

Tea Colaianni, Group Human Resources Director for Merlin Entertainments plc, joined the group in 2010 at a time when its dynamic growth was really accelerating.  

Since then she has been responsible for translating the essence of Merlin and its people into a unique set of values – The Merlin Way – which underline everything the business does; and has restructured HR practices to be fit for purpose for Merlin’s new status as a publicly quoted company, and for its future development.  Tea colaianni hr director merlin entertainments

A champion of gender diversity, Colaianni (right) was named HR Director of the Year at the 2012 Personnel Today Awards and, despite the pressures of such fast growth (Merlin now has 104 attractions across 22 countries and 4 continents), Tea and her team have continuously achieved exceptional levels of employee engagement across the Merlin business.

Blooloop caught up with Colaianni to find out about life at Merlin.

Hilton Hotels and an HR Bible

After an early career in law, Colaianni moved into HR, first with Global One and GlobalTeleSystems (GTS), before later joining Hilton Hotels Corporation.  Those HR experiences were at opposite ends of the spectrum but gave Colaianni a unique mix of skills that have proved invaluable for her role at Merlin.

Global One and GTS were both fast paced international organisations that Colaianni describes as almost “chaotic”.  A typical task would be to “go to different countries, meet the senior team in the business that we wanted to acquire, put in place a retention programme, quickly work out integration and then move on to the next acquisition.”   Great experience, but not a “lot of time to put in place foundations, policies and development programmes."

From there Colaianni moved on to Hilton, an experience which she has previously credited as having “really defined me as a HR professional.”  Hilton’s more structured approach included a “huge volume like an HR bible” full of policies as well as strategic thinking and forward planning with a focus on investing in people, developing capabilities and succession planning.

Colaianni says, “I really saw how HR can work at its best in a large organisation.”

London Dungeon Visitors in a boat

From Firefighting to Setting a Clear Vision

Colaianni joined Merlin in February 2010.  Over the previous 5 years Merlin had grown at such a pace that many of the HR policies and processes usually found in a large organisation were simply not in place.  Providing structure whilst retaining responsiveness would be a unique challenge that Colaianni was ideally prepared for.

She had to hit the ground running:  “There had been a gap between my predecessor and me with the CEO holding the fort on an interim basis.  The first issue for me was setting the strategy, to look at what the business needed from HR as a priority and longer term, and then to put in place the people and systems to deliver that. 

“I also spent a lot of time in the first few weeks trying to understand what was at the heart of the Merlin business.  merlin entertainments logoWhat are we trying to deliver to our customers? And also the whole strategic agenda and the role HR could play in that.”  

Colaianni’s goal then, and now, is to “make sure that we have the right people in place to support a business that never stops.”

“There was quite a bit of firefighting at first because the [HR] team was very small and also very junior so I changed a few people and the overall structure.  With a new team we set a clear vision of what we wanted to do.”

The Group HR team now consists of Colaianni with three direct reports: a Global HR Operations Director, a Group Compensation and Benefits Director and a Group Talent and Development Director.  Each director then has three of four people reporting in to them.  At a divisional /attraction level there are 20 teams that look after the basic operational challenges.  Quarterly conference calls, an annual Global HR conference and meetings by country ensure a consistent approach and sharing of best practice.

HR Involved Right at the Start of an Investment Decsion

One area that needed immediate attention was in standardising terms and conditions and policies that had been inherited as the group had grown, including through several major acquisitions – LEGOLAND Parks; Gardaland; and The Tussauds Group: “There was a lot of work to be done in terms of harmonising terms and conditions especially here in the UK.   Then as we continued to acquire more businesses the harmonisation programme became quite a huge agenda.”  

gunpowder plot at london dungeons

Colaianni has worked to get her team involved at the start of the business development decision making process.  A change in thinking by the rest of the business, which had grown to expect HR to react to decisions rather than to be part of the thinking.    “We really had to change our approach from what was then the norm, which was the first time HR was involved was when an MD said  ‘I need to open an attraction, can you interview these candidates for the position of general manager?’ 

The HR team are now involved right at the start of an investment decision, “before we even put the board paper together.  We’ve come a long way, we’ve completely changed the way we support the business.”    

The effort made to bring more strategic thinking and structure to HR for Merlin has been worth it says Colaianni, “In a way it would have been easy to keep doing what we’d always done but that would have meant not only constantly reinventing the wheel but also potentially making the same mistakes over and over again, and always just trying to catch up with things.  We needed to be in the driving seat.”

Rallying Brands and The Merlin Teamsealife conservation campaigns

Another challenge faced early on by Colaianni was trying to bring together the disparate Merlin brands.  Merlin has famously allowed a great deal of autonomy to its various sub brands, preferring to keep the Merlin brand itself out of the public limelight.  While this has worked spectacularly well in some ways, Colaianni needed more consistency for employees; not least so that employees could move more easily across brands and markets as Merlin continued to grow

Each attraction also brought with it its own practices:  “We didn’t talk about Merlin as an employer, we talked about people coming to work for LEGOLAND or Dungeon or Madame Tussauds. 

“It was an absolutely fascinating experience trying to rally everybody around a common sense of purpose and direction, and getting people to feel like they were a team – all working ultimately for Merlin Entertainments – as opposed to being individual units.”

‘The Merlin Way’

Colaianni was responsible for articulating Merlin’s values in ‘The Merlin Way’.  Merlin already had a value statement when she joined but Colaianni identified early on that this did not reflect the true values of the company, and was also “very corporate, something like 15 different statements.  Nobody could remember them.

“That was one of the things that clearly jumped out at me.  There’s an inconsistency here – people are living values that they passionately believe in, but that’s not the language that we use when we talk about our values.

“So we did this piece of work where we talked first to CEO Nick Varney and the senior management team, and then to different groups across the business.  I started from the top because in the past the process had started from the bottom and gone upwards and that’s why I felt the values were not reflective of how the senior executives behaved.  

 “The Merlin Way is the essence of what the company is about – something everyone at every level can believe in.  We didn’t do anything that was very clever or different or new, we just put together what was already there.  That’s why these values have been so powerful.  A lot of companies put together values and say this is what we aspire to be and how we want the company to be perceived.  For us this was the way we already operated – we had just not articulated it in that way.”

colossus rollercoaster at thorpepark

Being true to the way the business operates makes the values easy to remember and live by: 

“Well everybody remembers ‘we care’ because we do care.   We care about our customers delivering memorable experiences and we care about the animals and sea creatures for which we are responsible, and all the conservation aspects.  We care about the health and safety of our customers and employees.  ‘We care’ – it’s really short and punchy and says it all.  

“’We love what we do’ – that’s absolutely what people who work here do.  95% of our employees enjoy working here."

In terms of using the values in everyday life: “Everything that we do from an HR perspective is linked to The Merlin Way.  Before we had a poster and that was it.  Now every single HR process, every single policy, everything we come up with goes back and refers to The Merlin Way so there is this constant connection to our values.”

Senior management commitment has been key to the success of the values.  Colaianni says, “Because when we say ‘we do what we say’ that’s what people see.  For example we always say if we can’t do something, but we also explain why we can’t do it.  And, if we promise something, if we say this is what we’re going to do, we will do it.”

“I would say The Merlin Way is probably one of the most effective and successful initiatives that I have ever driven in a business, and it’s something that I’m exceptionally proud of.” 

Merlin Entertainments team at chessington world of adventure

Employee Engagement

Merlin has an impressive record in employee engagement: 97% of the 22, 000 employees worldwide took part in last year’s online annual employee survey and of those 95% said that they enjoy working for the company.

For the last few years Merlin has also segmented the survey in order to be able to drill down into the results by department, whilst still preserving individual confidentiality.  The survey responses are analysed in detail and action plans drawn up to tackle issues.

Colaianni cites the ‘You said.  We did’  initiative as being particularly successful.   As part of a collaborative process with small teams of employees, departments can feedback ideas for improvement to Group HR.  Posters are then created showing how Merlin has responded with the content approved by the teams who made the suggestions.  

Colaianni says that the response from the company to the survey means that employees perceive the value in taking part and hence the almost 100% response: “I’ve never seen anything like this before!

“My vision is for Merlin Entertainments to be the best company to work for in our industry.  So by having that continuous process of asking for feedback, discussing the feedback and doing something about it, hopefully we’ll get to a point where we get external recognition of being the best company to work for.”

Lessons Learnedhelen mirren at madame tussauds

Blooloop asked Colaianni what she thought that other customer facing industries could learn from the attractions industry. “There are some retailers who do the customer service piece really well and there are others who do it so poorly.”  

Colaianni recounts asking at her local supermarket checkout “How’s your day?” and getting the answer, “Well it will be better in 10 minutes when my shift is over!”

“At Merlin we believe the key to success is twofold – first always putting the customer at the heart of everything that we do; and second making doing this and working for us fun for employees.  There are lots of other industries out there that could do that, whether it’s retail or financial services or others.”

Recruitment

Colaianni confesses that even when she was approached to join Merlin, she didn’t immediately recognise the name.  So does Merlin’s relatively low profile make recruitment challenging?

Times have changed says Colaianni.  Marketing of Merlin Annual Passes, the press interest resulting from the build up to the flotation and since, and also the consolidation of the company’s employee communications under the Merlin name have increased the company’s profile with the public.

In addition Colaianni is confident that Merlin now offers employees “a unique career opportunity.  You get to work with so many different brands in so many different countries.  We promote from within and encourage people to apply for jobs within the organisation – and the speed of our growth means there are always new opportunities for people to take advantage of.  There’s really no need to go anywhere else – I always say it and I truly believe it.

Merlin annual pass from merlin entertainments

Graduates appreciate Merlin’s “huge commitment to developing them, fast tracking them and supporting them with mentors.  There are so many examples of people who have joined us in junior roles, graduates coming out of university and progressing in their career with us.  

“Actually we find that we haven’t got an issue in terms of attracting people.  Last year we went for the first time to recruit in China for our graduate programme and we had over 3, 000 applications.  There isn’t a Merlin Annual Pass in China – but they still knew who we were through the media we generate both for the Merlin business story in China, and around the individual attractions we are opening there.   This year we had to close the applications within a week because it was already over 1000.”

HR Director of the Yearpersonnel today awards

Colaianni was named HR director of the year at the 2012 Personnel Today Awards.  Despite being uncomfortable with the attention she says, “It was my proudest moment.  I came back to work in the morning and my team had put together a big card with my picture on it which was lovely, although being at the centre of everybody’s attention was a bit embarrassing.  But I was very proud, and my mum and my dad were exceptionally proud!”

Women at Merlin

Colaianni is the only woman on the Merlin Entertainments executive board, but is spearheading gender diversity initiatives both within the company and beyond as a member of the Leadership Council for Women 1st and the Prince’s Trust Women Leadership Group.

“I started 18 months ago and we’ve had some great successes.  Yes I was the only woman, and I still am the only woman on the executive board, although we do now also have a woman as one of our Non Executive Directors.  However, when I look at the top 50 managers in the Group 22% of them are now women, and my target is 25% by next year.  Then I’m going to challenge the business and focus everybody on increasing that target further. 

“The way we’re looking at it is making sure that we’ve got a clear strategy and support from the top.  Nick [Varney] is an advocate of diversity in all aspects, but in particular gender diversity, and we’ve put together what we call ‘Women@Merlin’."

Initiatives include webinars with inspiring internal role models sharing with other women about career paths, obstacles and advice.  In addition workshops have been set up to talk about specific topics like authentic leadership, making an impact at senior level and public speaking as well as developing women’s confidence in male environments.  Quotas on shortlists have also been introduced to try to get 50/50 representation, not always easy but a target to aim for.

Colaianni says that gender diversity is “something that I want to see Merlin get even better at.  I’m confident that we will get there.”

australian tree top adventures

Constant Change

Does Merlin’s rapid pace of growth present particular challenges in terms of HR?  Colaianni thinks not.  Merlin is a people business and the one constant for the company is change:

“When I look back to when I joined the business four years ago we had 63 / 64 attractions, now we have over 100 as well as a growing number of hotels and other accommodation.  When I look forward at our aspirations and plans it’s yet again massive growth but that’s been a constant aspect of life at Merlin.  We have an expression ‘never a dull moment’ and there really is never a dull moment.  If we’re not opening a new attraction we’re building a hotel or we’re looking at developing new brands.  There is not a chance to get bored here, there is always something going on.  It’s always fast paced.  That’s always been the case and will continue to be the case.

“There is a huge people culture in the business and it is actually quite easy to push the people agenda.  I’ve received some exceptional support when selling my ideas to the business, which is testament to the fact that the organisation has people at its heart.”  

Working for Merlin, concludes Colaianni, “is absolutely fun and exceptionally rewarding.”

smiler rollercoaster at alton towers at night

Images: all images kind courtesy Merlin Entertainments Group.