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Interview

ANTHONY KIRBY
GROUP HR DIRECTOR , SERCO GROUP PLC

Heading out for a week in Dubai or facing a stretch at Her Majesty’s pleasure, the chances are that Serco will be involved, somewhere: Whether it’s managing custody with compassion, or air traffic controllers, keeping a watchful eye on the thousands of passenger jets raking across the skies.  Equally, Serco also operates in; defence, immigration and healthcare – the “difficult to do” elements that civilization depends upon.

Anthony, tell us about your early life and how you decided upon HR as a career.  

I was born in Liverpool and, after secondary school, started full-time work age 16. I studied part-time at college to further my education, but long-term, I wasn’t at all sure what I wanted to do career-wise. If anything, I had a leaning for studying medicine, but the lure of having money in my pocket pulled me into the workplace. My first proper job was at Letheby and Christopher – a catering business, based at Haydock racecourse – an operational role. Quite soon after joining, I applied for a HR role that came up – the only reason I tried for it was I thought I could do a better job than the person currently in place – typical cockiness of youth in those days. I thought the key to HR meant giving people what they asked for and keeping them happy – naïve as well! But I very soon became aware of what real HR was all about. At 19, responsible for workforce deployment at Aintree racecourse, the venue being eventsbased, it had a very transitory staff profile – incidentally I also worked at Manchester City FC in the same role. By the time I was 21, I’d made regional staffing manager and I often look back and think, ‘how did that happen so fast’? But I was really determined, engaged and keen to find new ways of doing things. Thankfully for me, I had a line manager that appreciated that, so from there I became the HR Business Partner for the North, and my work went from the hustle, bustle and general organised chaos of staffing events – with a variable and volatile workforce – to managing a more stable and static one. By this time, my career was on a roll and I eventually became HR Business Partner nationally, for a number of businesses, supporting three divisional Managing Directors. It was at that point that I joined the HR team of the acquiring Compass Group and their ambition and goals, incredibly exciting, would then propel the next stage of my career.

I gained a role in Compass Group UK & Ireland as HR Performance Leader, which was effectively “Head of HR”. Then a new HR Director joined and my role changed to head up HR change and transformation, at a time when the business was particularly active in M&As. Things were happening quickly, the business expanding rapidly and, after a good deal of hectic activity, I was asked to take on the role of HR Director of Sport, Leisure and Hospitality, which encompassed about 100 business units, 5,000 employees and 32,000 casual workers. So a big leap in responsibility, working across very exciting locations such as; Twickenham Stadium and Cheltenham Racecourse. This was high-end hospitality and being fully-embroiled, 24/seven was incredibly absorbing and exhausting, whilst I also studied for a Masters in Strategic HR. In 2011, I became HR Director for most of the UK Operations, continuing to support sports and leisure, with the business and industry segments added to the role – so feeding people at work, in retail, and cafes in, for example, Sainsbury’s and Asda. Again, my areas of responsibility went from 150 sites to 2300 sites, a huge number of businesses that we had to ensure had the right people at the right time, operating at optimum levels.

Compass Group went through a sustained period of considerable growth, were you becoming more involved with the business strategy?  

Yes, very much so, increasingly the group was acquiring and winning a greater variety of businesses, which needed to be understood, resourced and organised. So, the leadership team was crucial in developing new business strategies, as the company moved into soft support services and more bundled services, where our clients were looking for efficiencies and scale. At this point, I was HR Director for what was called Specialist Sectors, including; education, sports and leisure, healthcare and defence, as well as the offshore businesses, providing services to, for example; offshore oil rigs, – transporting people via helicopter onto the sea-based rigs. I was also managing; Shared Services, recruitment, payroll, security and vetting, and advice and administration. Then came a real game changer, the 2012 London Olympics. I took responsibility for leading a great team of people to deliver our part of the London Olympics, managing the resourcing, deployment, accreditation and training for a workforce of over 10,000. A massive undertaking, but thankfully, the team were well prepared and incredibility passionate – we delivered our part of that fantastic event without a hitch. Not bad considering we were the largest private sector employer for the Olympic games. In all, we delivered seven venues, the torch relay, cleaned the transfer buses and provided all the food and drink for the Met police and ambulance services. I look back on that with a great deal of pride. After the sun set on the London Olympics, I had the opportunity to join the PLC group in December 2012, becoming Group Labour Strategy Director, supporting over 40 countries across the globe, involved in massive scale programmes supporting areas like; employee engagement and creating a virtual employee relations community. It was a very diverse role, travelling most of the time, and then in early 2013, the group went through a big transformation, and we needed to implement regional structures. I became HR Director for Europe and Japan in 2013, supporting 23 countries, six billion revenue and 190,000 employees. Another learning curve as it gave me the cultural understanding of union relations in different markets, leadership expectations in different geographies and the changing nature of the workforces in say Eastern vs Western Europe – it all required a great deal of adaptability.

Managing and keeping a grip on an expanding business at this scale is mind-boggling.  

If you think about it, my scope of responsibility had expanded from 2300 business units to 24,000 operating units. But whatever scale you’re working at, the same rules apply; it’s about having the right people trained and ready, with the opportunities to contribute and grow, at the point in the road where service is delivered and decisions are made. Leadership too is, of course, paramount and in three years we changed about 60 percent of the leadership population. On a global scale, beyond determining a multi-country people strategy, you are then very much reliant on your local management – I had an HR Director in every country, so you have to be able to flex between conversations and solutions with the European and Japanese Executive Team down to particular operational people issues in Moscow or Manchester, Poland or Portugal, Switzerland or Sweden! It was an exciting time of growth, against a backdrop of the European economic challenges – it was a tough gig to balance country by country, keeping the growth wheel turning, slowly but turning nonetheless. I had also opted to study a second Masters degree in Industrial Relations and Employment Law, so I was a glutton for punishment, but I was working for a great boss who supported me through it. I then moved roles again, this time to Group Workforce and Organisation Director in 2016 and, within that role, I was effectively responsible for labour productivity, organisational efficiency and people risk reduction. Here I was responsible for adopting and developing plans and implementing them with our teams across the globe, be they in; New Zealand, India, Brazil, Abu Dhabi, Spain or Japan. Our global workforce was around 500,000 so our opportunities to make a difference was real. Then, out of the blue, I was headhunted to work at Serco as Group HR Director. I had a meeting with Rupert Soames, CEO of Serco, and he described the ambitions of the organisation, the challenges and opportunities ahead, and I was sold. Compass was magnanimous in agreeing to allow me to start to engage with the senior management at Serco, whilst I worked out my notice, and this was really helpful to gain an overview from other members of the executive committee, about what were the priorities and key focus points, allowing me to hit the boards running on day one.

Again a business of huge scale and complexity. What was the real decider for you to take the job?  

Serco had challenging problems in 2013 and Rupert Soames was brought in to sort them out and put the business back on track. In 2017, the business was just really starting to accelerate the transformation stage of its three point plan to; stabilise, transform and grow. The scope and scale of the role, moving forward, was something else that hooked me in, as well as the diverse public services that Serco provide. This is a business of enormous scale, but it’s the diversity that is most compelling and the public services reach right around the globe; somebody takes a driving test in Ontario Canada, and a Serco driving instructor will decide if you pass. Fly to Dubai and Serco air traffic controllers will guide your plane in. We operate, with partners at the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment, rail services in Saudi Arabia, air traffic control towers in North America and Iraq, call centres for Police forces in Australia, healthcare facilities for NHS Trusts, manage tunnels and bridges in Hong Kong, to aide traffic flow, plus ship modernisation for the US Navy and, of course, we operate a number of prisons – as well as sometimes building them in Australia, as well as here at the Category B HMP Dovegate. And, in January, Group Transformation and Corporate Shared Services were added to my responsibilities, and that brings us right up-to-date.

What would you call the major challenges ahead that you need to consider to meet the needs and objectives of the business?  

Our industry has come in for a bit of a battering, following some well-published challenges at a number of our competitors. As a leader in the outsourcing sector, we have to be clearer on the narrative about building a fantastic and rewarding career in delivering public services and all that means with a great organisation such as this. We have 55,000 people around the world delivering services in some of the most competitive outsourcing arenas, and so the HR function has to be commercially-minded to compete and support in the areas of business development and growth. This is true also in attracting, developing and retaining those highly regarded skills that all businesses desire. As a business whose labour cost equates to more than 70 percent of our cost base, HR has to be in the in the middle of our growth and bidding teams, driving innovation into the people agenda. For example, if we are entering a ten year contract, how do we provide innovation for our users and our people in years three, five or seven years, to ensure we are best placed to retain the contract to deliver those services in ten years’ time? I see that we have a big part in this, but not just the sole responsibility, after all, we can attract and recruit great people, but if line management isn’t so good, those people may not hang around for long unless we do something to address it. Operating a global business doesn’t lend itself to a one-size fits-all strategy for each of our 20+ countries, especially when you take into account cultural nuances, but you do have to have some Group-wide frameworks, policies, guidelines, procedures and targets, ensuring compliance, governance and performance. So our challenges – along with many others – include; creating a truly diverse workforce and an inclusive workplace, an open and honest culture, a workforce that feels empowered and engaged at the point of service delivery, attracting the best possible people who believe in public service through a compelling narrative and proposition, and being an organisation where people want to be part of building something worthwhile. All of these will help us meet our objectives of optimum operational delivery, revenue growth, margin progression and having an engaged workforce is of course at the core.

Following the collapse of Carillion, the outsourcing sector took a bashing. How do you make a statement about Serco's employer brand, in order to attract and compete for talent and skills?  

Having a global footprint and a diverse range of services is crucial at times like these. Despite the headlines, overall, outsourcing in the private and public sectors remains strong, weaker in some areas than others, but there is an incredible amount of variety and opportunity, so Serco has plenty to counterbalance the negativity around the sector at the moment. We can promote good quality careers with real authenticity, but it’s a strategy that we constantly need to keep on top of. This sector employs well over a million people in the UK, so we have to keep the employer brand and that of the sector high on the agenda for good quality candidates and colleagues. A business like this has tremendous resources at its disposal to train and develop really committed people – but we must be sharper about demonstrating it externally. A good example of this diversity is, you could spend a couple of years in a justice establishment, then work in transport, move to our citizen services business then work in healthcare. There really is no other employer that can offer such a variety of career path options. You could work in five separate sectors and still be with Serco. The bottom line is, despite the Carillion debacle, this industry is represented by some rocksteady operators, and we typify that stability; a solid backdrop, a wide diversity of options with leading-edge development prospects.

You've spoken a good deal about young employees, short tenures, but the mainstay demographic in the business is older, how are you set to ensure older employees too are developed and provided with opportunity?  

Our retention and development strategies are not focused or specific to any generational profile, but I am minded that we do have some great people who have worked with us for approaching 25 to 30 years. At some stage in the future, as some of them tell me when I visit our various businesses, they are in fact looking forward to relaxing and trying some less challenging things in the future, and this is part and parcel of creating a diverse mix generationally. We fully-recognise and support all of the generations working in our businesses – in fact we could have some contracts with colleagues from four different generations, working side by side, so the ability to partite experience and knowledge between them is really valuable and encouraged. Our apprentice schemes clearly are aimed at the younger demographic, but having mixed multi-generational workforces adds to the diverse mix of thinking and experiences. If you take our Prison Custody Officers as an example, I don’t think that’s a job, it is a vocation, and you become better at it and more adept at dealing with challenging  situations as you go – that’s experience, not age. A key part of our PCO’s role is to connect with people in their care, provide a stable and safe environment to rehabilitate themselves and demonstrate, through regime management, that they do have options, at the same time as protecting the public. I have seen and spent time with many great PCO’s and custodial operations managers in our establishments, of all ages, from; 19 to 64, like here at HMP Dovegate. So I can’t say that you only become a good Prison Officer once you reach the age of some arbitrary number, but I can say you become a great Prison Officer when you ensure you are following the rules, you work as part of a team, you are able to empathise in different situations and have that feeling of care and compassion that you want to use to help and protect others. In fact, we had a management development course graduate lately where the age profile ranged from 23 to 59, so age is just a number. It becomes more than a number if you don’t have the right mix and balance.

HR itself is struggling with its profile, what can it do to improve its future skills?  

Firstly, we have to lead our organisations on certain things, not just the function. Many organisations look to HR to come up with options that address issues outside of our historical remit, and I do think that is because, in many organisations, the answers to whatever the questions are, always come back to ‘the people’. It is clear to me that HR has the right to be in the conversations, leading them sometimes and being supportive at others. If HR doesn’t have a valuable opinion, a set of ideas – not recommendations, but ideas and contributions – then we will fail. I have always been lucky to have worked in peopleheavy services businesses, so the true value of HR has always been understood. But I would say that, building a career in HR – through vertical progression alone – can be seen somewhat limiting. Having the credibility, even if only for a few months of being outside the ‘bubble’, is valuable – not essential – but valuable. So if you work in pensions, try a stint in resourcing, if you work in payroll try pensions, if you’re in recruitment try L&D, if you’re a generalist try a specialism for a while and vice-versa. Will we be witnessing HR turning into a people sciences role in the decade ahead? I think so. Throughout my career, I’ve never thought of HR as being anywhere else other than right in the mix of the business. I’ve never understood how HR can be separate to the core operations of any business, how can it be? My focus, moving forward, is ensuring we become the most innovative employer and the best managed business in our sector. We will continue to move forward, focused on our business objectives of delivery, transformation and growth, whilst absorbing the changes coming thick and fast, and the market forces affecting the dynamics. Right now our people agenda is focussed on developing good quality, capable leaders and line management; making this a truly inclusive and diverse workplace across sectors.