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The HRD Talks podcast – Episode 6 now live!


Episode 6: Adam Dilks, Group People Director at Nightcap Plc

In this episode Adam Dilks, Group People Director at Nightcap Plc shares his career journey in HR from a training scheme at Tesco, to his current role helping Nightcap achieve its goal of becoming the leading late night bar group.  He claims it’s not just about the cocktails!

Adam tells Nic about the entrepreneurial approach at Nightcap, led by Sarah Willingham (ex-dragon’s den,) and how they are focusing on delivering their belief that “everyone deserves a great night out”.  Adam contrasts the “oil tanker” nature of large corporates and how he’s enjoying being at a “jet ski” business.



Nic talks to Adam about how the hospitality sector are embracing inclusivity, managing the transient nature of their workforce, and giving their people a great experience of work.  Adam explains how employers can’t operate in the same way anymore and how employee expectations have changed, and how recruitment is like dating!

Adam also touches on technology, AI, and how employers can use that well and not be afraid of change.  Nic asks Adam about his thoughts on equality, diversity and inclusion and Adam shares his internal “why” that drives him to focus on inclusion and how that avoids it being tokenistic.

Nic and Adam also debate whether the Dragons on Dragons’ Den were judges or just “the Dragons”!


We hope you enjoy this episode!


Adam’s LinkedIn:

Nic’s LinkedIn:


The HRD Talks is brought to you by Actons. For more information on our podcast please visit our website.


Episode Transcript:

0:00:00 – Nic Elliott

So welcome to this episode of the HRD Talks podcast, where we talk with HR directors and people directors about their journey into HR. We get their insight into current trends in the world of work and take their advice on the future of HR and how HR professionals can deliver value and progress their career. I’m Nic Elliott Employment Lawyer, and I’m really pleased to welcome Adam Dilks, Group People Director at Nightcap PLC.


0:00:25 – Adam Dilks

Hi, Adam, how are you doing? Yeah, good, that sounds like a really formal introduction.


0:00:30 – Nic Elliott

Well it is. This is a formal podcast. So, Adam, tell us a little bit about your journey into HR to start with, and then we’ll have a little chat about Nightcap and the exciting stuff going on there.


0:00:46 – Adam Dilks

Cool. So, like most, I definitely fell into HR. I actually definitely fell into it as a career. It was quite intended at one point I joined a program when I first kind of finished studying Tesco and had a great time there, learned all of my core HR skills.

But it was quite kind of young and probably a little bit naïve at the time and just thought this is still another job.

But actually started to progress my career and had a great kind of nearly 10 years there as the first really serious job, but in many different roles over the time that I worked there. I then left and went to a car retailing company for a little while but actually found that where I wanted to be was in a hospitality environment and joined Greene King, originally heading up employee relations, which was not my goal job in HR, but nevertheless I learned lots in that space and then moved into HR director role nearly four years ago now actually. And then from there moved over to Nightcap earlier this year. Nightcap’s a small cocktail late night bar business, predominantly kind of London based, but we have a national geography and we’re on a mission to become the UK’s leading bar group and it is by far the funnest job I’ve had today, not just because of the cocktails, but because of the team and the work that we do.


0:02:17 – Nic Elliott

Brilliant, brilliant cocktails like a bonus. That sounds good to me and from chatting to you about the business, it seems it’s quite a sort of entrepreneurial setup. You want to talk me through that?


0:02:29 – Adam Dilks

Yeah, so my boss, the CEO, is Sarah Willingham, former Dragons Den, I nearly said judge, but I don’t know what the role, I don’t know what it’s officially called. She was on there for a couple of years and, as a result, you’d only have to kind of Google her name to see clips of her entrepreneurial kind of authentic start-up business kind of mind. So she created Nightcap a little over two years ago with her husband, Michael, who’s also one of our exec directors. And this was after having spent all of her career so far in hospitality in the industry, but actually of being a original investor in what was then called the London Cocktail Club, which is a small kind of cocktail bar chain in London. And then, once they created Nightcap, they then started to acquire other businesses. But it’s, at the minute, you know, really really amazing kind of special sized business. It’s got an amazing kind of team within it that really genuinely care about what they do.

We’ve just been playing around, this is a bit of a spoiler alert actually, we’ve just been playing around with company purpose and at the minute we’ve landed on something that is, I think, really unique to us but actually really meaningful and it’s, our purpose for existence, because we believe everybody deserves a great night out and if you can kind of line yourself up behind that like work then doesn’t become work.

So in this, in this business, it very much is a we’re here for a really good time but work sensationally hard. But this kind of entrepreneurial, kind of start-up mentality of let’s just have a go at things, with the aim of we want to create great nights out. We want to be the UK’s leading bar group, let’s take a risk on things, let’s try it. If we fail, we’ll learn really quickly and we’ll go in a different route. But actually, because the spirit is ambitious, is about doing things  a little bit different to everybody else, because we can and we want to get it right. It makes for a really fun, energetic, creative workplace that I didn’t think I would, I didn’t think existed. So incredibly refreshing to be a part of.


0:04:50 – Nic Elliott

And presumably that’s part of that’s driven by the size of the business, as in yeah, it’s not a huge corporate that struggles to be sort of dynamic and agile in that way


0:05:05 – Adam Dilks

Having having spent years in corporates and this isn’t this isn’t a knock on those businesses, they’ve got to where they are through exceptional leaderships and exceptional decisions.

But actually what I recognise from my short time so far at Nightcap is any business wants to be agile, wants to be nimble enough to go in a different direction when things are difficult or aren’t going right.

And  industry wise and across most businesses use these terms kind of oil tanker, jet ski and having spent a lot of time in businesses that, despite not wanting to be oil tankers, but because of infrastructure, because of layers, because of needing to make big decisions that impact large workforces, it can feel oil tank like. I’ve definitely come into a business that is jet ski like in its approach and if you think about being on either one, the jet ski is always more fun, it’s more dangerous, it’s more risky, but actually it’s more enjoyable. The results come quicker if you like, but that kind of big shift in the two has been something for me that is real eye-opener. And actually taking those learnings that you get from bigger businesses like Greene King, like Tesco, and bringing them into a smaller business at this sort of stage actually can make real change, make real difference for the team that we’ve got in the business today.


0:06:26 – Nic Elliott

I know that’s really interesting. It also reflects my experience of having worked in a big global law firm and then moving to a much smaller one where actually you can try stuff out and do things slightly differently, and that kind of thing. So that’s really exciting, sounds great. So then, in terms of HR challenges in a business like that and one that’s entrepreneurial and wants to grow and develop, what are you facing in this new role?


0:06:53 – Adam Dilks

So the good thing is nothing new yet, but give it time. Hospitality and probably retail and any real customer facing business, multi-site business is always going to have similar sort of challenges around, the same as probably any business right now. But being able to attract and retain the right sort of talent and actually one of the things that is really refreshing that I think hospitality is really starting to take a turn in but in particular Nightcap also equally green king is really looking at how to become a really inclusive employer. You know there are many people with many talents and in businesses that a customer facing you want to be able to put people in front of those customers that are reflective of those customers and you know you’ll know as a consumer customers come in all different shapes and sizes. So we need and want to attract talent that is inclusive, that comes to us and recognizes hospitality first as an industry. But certainly Nightcap is a business that I can feel like I fit in, I can feel like I can belong and therefore we’ve got to do work in how we appear externally to show that, but then also what the employee experience is like internally.

I think the kind of challenges that may be more typical of hospitality businesses are, for a lot of people they aren’t long term career choices. They are roles and jobs that people get as first jobs out of education, maybe second jobs around other more longer term careers, maybe part time jobs around maintaining other hobbies or other life choices, maybe a job around families.

So it’s really important that we recognize the time that employees spend with us isn’t necessarily always going to be a long time, but it’s got to be a great time. And I think, if I think about my outlook as a people director, what do I want to create for this business – is a business where somebody can come and work, even if it’s for a short period of time, in between studies maybe but always remember it as a great experience because of the work that I did and the people that I worked with and how I was looked after, and that is quite a challenge for any employer. But actually going back to that point around us being in that almost start-up mentality, a smaller business in an entrepreneurial style, there’s many things that I’ve got over my career that I’m going to try out, start to try out and test out so far, to see what really works for teams and what really works for either new employees or existing employees, to really make them feel like I belong, I’m looked after, even if I’m not here for a very long time.


0:09:31 – Nic Elliott

That’s interesting and actually it reflects something that one of my other podcast guests, Andrew Stevenson, at Equinity was saying recently and he was talking about the fact in a lot of industries people don’t stay in roles as long anymore.  But what he was saying was employers just need to get used to that accept it and actually make sure that the time that they’re with you is absolutely brilliant and you get the most out of them for that period of time, which I think is a change that we’ve seen you know, long service is not quite the same anymore.


0:09:46 – Adam Dilks

The best thing I could hope for is that people have a great experience with us, translate into an advocate for their friends and families looking for a role, their children in years to come looking for whatever it might be, but actually we’ll see them on the other side of the bar as a customer, you know. So why wouldn’t we want to focus on that rather than how long can I keep you here for when actually this isn’t your career path necessarily and for some people it is and I think there’s loads that we can do and we will do, but loads that we can do in hospitality to recognise somebody might come to us while studying at university, might be studying in a marketing degree, but they might be working in one of our bars as a bartender.

Not only will we give them great skills to be a bartender, some of the things that I’ve seen so far in my time at nightcap are world-class cocktail making. I’m very, very envious of the skills that this team has got but actually, how do we unlock the possibility for them to explore a career with us as a marketing professional, because we will only be hiring them anyway. Actually, if we were able to take them through that career journey as they’re studying, and then into a professional role with us, of course we would want to do that. They already know the business. Imagine the value of them being able to then market the business for us, freshly educated. So yeah, I think there’s lots of opportunities for people to be able to create career paths at the same time as recognised and there will be a workforce. There’ll be people that just want to come for a short while and then move on.


0:11:34 – Nic Elliott

Yeah, makes sense. And what are the trends you’re seeing out there in the world of work that are of interest to you at the minute.


0:11:43 – Adam Dilks

So I think through the lens of an employee definitely the stuff that we’ve just spoke about the balance has shifted. Employers cannot continue to operate in the way that they did 10, 20 years ago or, dare I say, even a couple of years ago, and that isn’t necessarily just a post-COVID shift. I think attitudes are changed as different age groups come through into the workforce. Their expectations and their demands of their employer are very different and I don’t know if this is the right assumption to make, but it’s a bit like dating. There’s lots out there and there’s lots of ways to be able to date these days and lots of ways to be able to get to know somebody without investing too deeply. So I think from an employee perspective, they’re looking at employers and going.

I can judge you quite heavily before I even meet you, by your website, by your bars, in our situation, by the people that I meet. So I can do all of that first and, believe me, I think employees are doing that. But then, when they’re in, they really want to be impressed, they want to be looked after on those just basic human needs like respect, like trust, like empowerment. They’re big words but actually really meaningful, dressing things up and providing a pizza on a Thursday and free fruit. That’s nice, but it means very little actually. They would much rather be respected, looked after, given career opportunities, empowered and trusted to do their work. So I think, through an employee lens, expectations are rising.

I think, from an employer’s point of view, it’s how to connect to that workforce and tech is becoming, I don’t know, if becoming is right, but has been there and has been in the background, definitely moving more into the foreground about how employers connect with employees. And if I think about what I’ve started to look at recently it’s absolutely  that stuff that I was describing there. An employee or a candidate is going to judge your business from its wallpaper, from its shop front, before they start to speak with anyone. So your tech about how you recruit has got to be bob on, has got to be connecting with people in the way that they are looking for jobs through social media, through their feeds, through those sorts of modern tech approaches. It always baffles me when posts are still put up about we’re hiring. I’m not saying it doesn’t have any traction, but it certainly doesn’t connect with candidates in the right way. Remember when we used to place adverts in the paper for a job?

One of the things that I’ve started to explore recently is artificial intelligence and how it can help help some thinking in a business. I recently used a piece of tech to enable me to make a job advert. It sounds better better than what I could write it, you know, and I put into this here’s kind of the skills that I think I’m looking for here’s a bit about the company and then use this tech to help me create this advert and actually what it produced was something I would never have been able to do. And I think, how do Employers again start to use that technology, not to replace Professionals, but actually to help take their business to to new levels, to be able to attract and certainly Retain engaged teams?


0:15:24 – Nic Elliott

and, and that’s scary for a lot of people Does it scare you?


0:15:27 – Adam Dilks

I think unknown often scares people. I won’t necessarily try and assume you know all the different reasons why people might be scared by it. From my point of view, I’m definitely not. I’m excited about how it can help.

I think naturally some people might be scared that it’ll replace you, but I don’t think it’s ever gonna be a substitution. Gosh, imagine this in a hundred years’ time. This play back. I don’t think there’s ever gonna be a substitution for actually authentic great people running great businesses.


0:15:57 – Nic Elliott

Yeah, brilliant. That’s really really interesting. Thank you, and and I think kind of building on that, having known you a little while, equality, diversity, inclusion is clearly is important to you. It comes up a lot when we’re chatting about stuff and clearly, it’s been a feature of the businesses that you’ve worked with. Why is that?


0:16:22 – Adam Dilks

It should be part of a core conversation.

I don’t think about D and I as a separate department or function. It is how do we include it completely into recruitment, into employee engagement, into performance management etc. Yeah, I think I’m probably purpose or individually driven. You know, if I think about my personal why is I’ve always had a bit of a hang up but it’s my own hang up around being young and being able to attain kind of, you know, senior roles or be able to do trusted work in in positions of responsibility. And they also recognize, you know, I’ve probably got a couple of my own own elements that look and maybe are a bit different to people historically in, you know, perhaps a HRD role or perhaps a role of leadership. So I’ve probably got my own internal why that drives, naturally, those types of conversations.

But equally, I think any employer, any professional these days, any manager of people, anybody actually, these days, cannot consider how we include people in our everyday lives. I can’t bear the thought. I can’t possibly think about the thought of exclusion. You know it blows my mind. I’m a bit of a SWAT when it and a bit of a geek when it comes to history, and I think about some of the historical but actually some present-day stuff, but some of the historical choices that countries, that employers, that businesses made about judging people because of their race or because of their gender or whatever it might be. And I what does it achieve? So there’s definitely a personal drive in it. I’ve definitely got personal connection to why I do it, but I think you know I, you can’t not, you can’t not lead through this type of agenda. You do, you run out of steam very quickly and you you’ll still always be trying to solve the same same problems because you’ll never solve them.


0:18:34 – Nic Elliott

Yeah, part of the reason I asked that is that I see a genuine passion for it in you, where it’s clearly in focus for a lot of businesses and , in my opinion, sometimes is a bit sort of tokenistic. Well, we know we should get on board with this. It’s important. So what initiatives can we put in place? Whereas it feels genuine when I chat to you about it.


0:18:58 – Adam Dilks

There’s nothing more disengaging than leaders rolling out a pre-rehearsed story about how they’re gonna put inclusion onto the agenda. It shouldn’t be being put onto the agenda. It should already be there. It should always be led by the top and it can’t be anybody else. It’s always got to be led by the top. And you know when I thought about, the role that I’ve just started here at Nightcap. What pulled me towards it quicker and more harder than anything else, was actually Sarah, as a leader, leads through this again, much like what you’re describing in me.

It’s just authentic in her it’s who she is so it’s dead easy for me to come in as a people director and be talking the same language and when we talk about inclusion and belonging and doing the right thing and looking after people in the right way, I’m not pitching to her of why we should do it. We’re almost going – how do we do it as quick as possible in the right way? We’re excited by it. So you know, I think there’s nothing more obvious than an inauthentic leader who is channelling an agenda that they really think they’ve only got to do because it’s on trend right now. And those, even if they do a great job on stage, their real traits always leak out the daft if they think people don’t spot it and then people vote with their feet right.

I’ve talked about employee expectation of employers is growing. They look at that, take one look and go. That’s not for me. Your pictures aren’t representative of your actual work force, and one of the things I personally struggle with is representation targets. Like it should be within you to always look for the right talent. You should make the right choices to where you look for that talent. But having a target for representation is almost kind of a bit of a tokenistic approach.


0:20:49 – Nic Elliott

I think Sarah was one of the dragons, so she was just a dragon, not a judge. There we go.

And one of the other things we do on the podcast, and one of the reasons we’re doing it, is to try and encourage the HR profession. Lots of what you talked about is really interesting and, I think, really encouraging for people, and we try and get our guests to share a bit of career advice, I suppose, for HR people and both those that are starting out in their career and then those who might be, you know, in a kind of head of looking to that people, director or HRD role. And would you encourage people into the profession?


0:21:33 – Adam Dilks

It always feels weird to give career advice because I still think I’m learning. Oh well, you’re learning and I’m great, but I definitely still think I’m learning. I think my top tips would be don’t let your inner demons hold you back. The worst you’re gonna be told is no. If you put yourself out there, the worst you’re gonna get is no.

Generally these days, you’ll get no and here’s why, particularly if you’re working for a decent leader or a decent company, but I think you’ve got to be the one that puts yourself out. You’ve got to apply for something and give it a go, and I think you can’t really point at people for not giving you an opportunity unless you’ve given it a go yourself. You’ve got to take that self-responsibility. The second thing that I would say is be really clear in your mind about what you want to do. I often find the hardest career conversations with my team or talent reviews with people are when people say how can I just do anything? Okay, and then you end up writing the name somewhere and go, right, we’ve got all these jobs, they’ll do anything, but this person really wants this. So it’s quite clear If you’re in there, I’ll do anything camp, but then don’t really know where to put you, what to do. So if you can be really clear, that goes.

Actually, in this period of time, I want to learn the skills in order to do this role. So if I’m in a ‘head of’ role and I really want to be a people director, what’s my bridge, what’s the gap? But actually that’s really clear. If I was the people director hearing that from one of my ‘heads of’, I know exactly what I need to do to help them to get there and I know what their plans are, etc. If they kind of go I just want a bigger job it’s really difficult then to know how to support and know how to guide through that path.

So, put yourself out there and be really clear about what you want.


02:23:24 – Nic Elliott

And if you’re starting in the career, what’s a good way?


0:23:27 – Adam Dilks

Don’t be afraid to learn, don’t be afraid to work. I think one of the challenges these days with some of those attitudes shifts for perhaps the newer generation coming through employment is almost like an expectation that something’s given, and I’m being really generalistic there. Not everybody is like that by any stretch. But I definitely can look back and be proud of what I’ve achieved through not being afraid to learn and working hard. That doesn’t necessarily translate to I only work and I don’t live. It doesn’t necessarily translate to long hours. It translates to working really hard, meeting deadlines, doing what you say you’re going to do and learning along the way. And I don’t again even just mean traditional learning of how to do something.

I mean learning by getting it wrong and, you know, then recovering from it. I only told you this morning I made a bit of a balls up today and actually I’ll learn from that. We had a really good conversation of how I’ll learn from it. Do it differently next time. So you know, not being afraid to learn and working hard.


0:24:33 – Nic Elliott

Sounds great, and I think that’s probably the end of our time together, but I’ve really enjoyed chatting all of that through with you.

It’s been really, really interesting. I really appreciate you taking the time out, so thank you. Thanks again, Adam.

Posted on July 20, 2023

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