I should start with the person who has had a significant influence in my early life, my mother. I was raised by a God-fearing Jamaican woman who has an inner personal strength, incredible confidence, mental toughness and resilience tempered with empathy; she can be a little blunt, but I always took heed of what she said. When you’re raised by somebody like that, that seamlessly gets woven somehow into your DNA. Growing up was fun and full of activity, Mum and Dad both had professional roles and Dad hoped that I would go into medicine or law, but I knew that wasn’t for me. A solid academic education is held in great esteem in my family, but it’s fair to say that if I excelled in anything, it was physical education. After school extracurricular activities were the norm. I would often arrive home with winner’s medals in gymnastics, athletics and team sport and mum would invariably say: “Every black person can run, Carla… what are you going to do beyond athletics when you are 30? You need to put the same level of effort into your studies!” Her message was that you shouldn’t do what society expects of you because of your skin colour. You need the same level of drive, passion and commitment to succeed academically and you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it. I certainly did not under achieve academically, but I wasn’t a straight A* student, unlike my siblings. Although what mum said stung, it also stuck in my mind and eventually, I realised she was, of course, right. I took great pleasure in completing The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme because of the skills I learnt and I enjoyed team sports. I was often the captain, which was a privilege as it afforded me the chance to select and lead a team. I remember my PE teacher saying that how I picked teams was unusual, in that I always chose “a team” that featured a variety of abilities, as opposed to selecting the best. For me, it wasn’t about the person being the most skilled. If they had the right attitude, then I wanted them on my team, as this defined how they felt and perform in the game. I knew they would do everything they could do to deliver a great result. I think that is something which has stayed with me in my career even now. If people have the right mindset, you can develop them. Interestingly, companies now consider mindset alongside technical skills and experience as important. I look back now and I see that my thought process on what made a great team contributed to my chosen career and I was sure that my skill was working with people, somehow… I just didn’t have a clue in which field that might be.
Group HR Director , Sanderson Design Group
IT IS OFTEN SAID THAT TRUE COLOURS ARE REVEALED IN A CRISIS.
After sitting my A-levels, I had no definite direction in mind. Having started work at 15, I was curious about how people thought, companies operated and I loved learning. My mother’s view on the world was that “if you are not sure what you want to do, then just keep studying until you find your path”. I settled on a degree in European International Studies and instead of choosing a language, I selected a range of social sciences modules. I remember a brilliant module called work, organisation and equity, which really switched on a light, a burgeoning fascination in people, leadership and culture, all of those influences that make HR such a unique proposition. At this point, I’m not sure I knew what HR was, but working in retail settings in my teens, I was always intrigued by people’s interaction – colleagues, managers or customers – and what they would say out of earshot. I began to think, “there must be something in this”. Money became an imperative during my studies and I often worked nightshifts in retail. I learnt that whatever the setting, it all came down to people – the engaged, the disenfranchised – and I was fascinated. I discussed this with the lecturer after receiving the highest grade she had ever awarded and she said: “Carla, the field you need to consider is Human Resources.” After much thought – and, to my parent’s surprise – I announced that I was going to study a Master’s degree and my CIPD at Warwick Business School (WBS) as it would enable me to develop knowledge in all aspects of HR (Industrial Relations, HR Management and Organisation Psychology, Behaviour and Change). I knew I wanted a career in HR and was going to work my way up and, in the process, I wanted to make sure I had the theoretical knowledge as a baseline. My only challenge was that there was no way I could afford a Master’s degree. Fortunately, after writing several essays, I was awarded one of just four scholarships available from the WBS, for which I will always be immensely grateful.
My experiences have taught me the importance of mental toughness balanced with empathy, tenacity, resilience and challenging the status quo. I had to work while studying, which was often challenging balancing both commitments and I have had several bumps in the road. I feel that any role I have taken has never been about tokenism, it’s about what you bring to the table and ultimately you must know your craft. As for what my parents think about pursuing a career in HR, I know my mother is proud of it as it can make a real difference in people’s lives. As for my dad, no matter where my career has taken me when asked; “what is Carla up to these days?” Dad would now say, “she makes wallpaper.” When I worked for Britvic, it was: “Carla makes pop.” At Burberry, “she works in a fancy shop”. My parents, particularly my dad, always put my achievements into context, which keeps you grounded.
During my Master’s degree, I gained a placement in the children’s publishing company, Scholastic. The company famously publishes Clifford the Big Red Dog. Within a few weeks, I was offered a permanent role. Unlike my peers, I consciously chose not to join a graduate scheme in a large multinational corporation. I wanted to gain end-to-end hands-on experience across HR departments within various industries and move when I was ready. The HR department was very traditional, but I had direct access to the HR Director, who taught me the practical fundamentals of HR. In efforts to gain knowledge and experience in all aspects of employee relations, I briefly worked in a Housing Social Enterprise that supports some of the most vulnerable in society. The role was to resolve a backlog of complex employee relations cases. While I enjoyed this, I found that the HR department was too bureaucratic and it prioritised unnecessary elements in a process over finding timely pragmatic solutions to enable the enterprise. I remember comparing my first real-life HR experiences with my studies. What excited me about HR was that you could gain a 360-degree view of a company and have a meaningful impact on the employee experience, whether it’s engagement, culture, talent, learning or organisation design. I reflected on Dave Ulrich’s HR model and concept of the Business Partnering style of HR, where HR delivers value back to the business instead of simply managing risk. Why HR didn’t have a seat at the table was language featured in HR and HBR articles, which resonated with me. So, I decided to pursue a role where the HR strategy aligned to the business partnering model and moved to Britvic.
When I joined, Britvic had recently been through an IPO, with an ambitious growth plan and the HR function was at the centre of it, with the Business Partnering model. My firm belief is that HR could deliver value to any company, providing it has credibility and understands what makes the company tick, coupled with the HR strategy centred on creating a Great Place to Work, was the cherry on the cake. I was hungry to develop, eager to learn and there was no shortage of meaty projects, including business-wide change programmes and transformation through acquisitions. I spent a considerable amount of time partnering within the Supply Chain, before moving across to Commercial and Central Services functions. The HR Exec knew that I was determined and up for a challenge and pushed me and I was able to hone my craft in several HR roles, which was brilliant. When joining, I remember I was given an objective to create and facilitate a high performing team development programme – and this was during my probation period – with people I’d never met before from the factory floor, some with decades of experience. It was daunting, exhilarating and fascinating, all at the same time. Conversations with the Exec would inevitably begin with: “Carla, we have a great development opportunity for you.” One year, I recall thinking I was given significantly more of these “development opportunities” than my peers and I made the point. It was explained that they saw great potential in me and wanted to keep me stimulated and interested. Britvic supported my drive, ambition and being thrown in the deep end suited my curiosity. But after nearly seven years and countless projects, it was time for a change and I wanted to continue to develop my skillset in a different environment.
One of my goals was to acquire HR experience in various industries and after nearly seven years, I wanted to move as far away from FMCG as possible. This is not a criticism of Britvic at all – it was a great organisation and I loved my time there – but I didn’t want to land a new job based just on my industry experience. That’s the beauty of HR because, wherever you go, people are people. I’m passionate about what I do and my nature was to run at 100 mph and, if anything, I am guilty of not taking the time to think about myself and with a company that does the same, there is little time to stop and take stock and I learnt that sometimes you have to go slow to go fast. However, what happened next gave me little choice but to stop, as I was hit by critical illness. It reminded me that I wasn’t bulletproof – life isn’t always plain sailing and there will be bumps in the road. It is how you deal with them that counts. When I was young and had a problem that I couldn’t get over, my mother used to say: “Thoughts impact how you feel Carla, you’re not dead, so pause and then move forward”. Once this had sunk in, I had no alternative but to stop, reflect and take stock of my life and career. I was ill for quite some time, but as I began to recover, I was able to carry out some part-time coaching, which proved to be essential to my recuperation and just having the time to think was invaluable.
The opportunity with time to think is, it raises your expectations and forms a specific objective that is hard to fulfil. Finding the right culture, leadership style and the ability to work internationally and ideally in South-East Asia was essential for my next role. I also wanted to be in a world of heritage, creativity and talent and Burberry had all of this and more. I found it so compelling – it’s a place like no other – and the CEO, Angela Ahrendts, is a remarkable woman, capable of achieving phenomenal results through clear vision and strong leadership, which filtered throughout the C-suite. But above all, there was great humility within this incredibly talented community and celebrated positivity, along with a huge passion for the Burberry brand. It is a dynamic, vibrant culture that truly recognises that its people are its greatest asset and readily lived its values to protect, explore and inspire. I also realised very quickly that you cannot just shoehorn in practices learned, import previous experience sets and apply the tools at your disposal to every new situation. It is true, people are people, but everyone is unique, as is every situation and working environment. To be effective in HR, you need to deal with ambiguity, use intuition and have the capacity to adapt. That was vital learning for me.
I was initially based at the head office in London, partnering with creatives and technical functions and did a short stint partnering retail on my return. At the time, Burberry was ambitiously developing in new territories – and, being part of the Leadership Council, which was their High Potential programme – inevitably, it wasn’t long before my thirst for challenge led to a completely different experience. I was asked to lead the HR department across the Middle East & India and although the location wasn’t part of my initial plan, I was up for the challenge. Part of my role was to reset the HR department and implement consistent HR processes and ways of working across the region, in line with global best practices, which was no easy task. Other aspects focused on elevating retail performance through a range of initiatives. However, on arrival, my husband and I were unfortunately impacted by some challenges Burberry faced, for which a playbook didn’t exist. Having decided to relocate countries and all that entails, going home was not an option. Working as part of an internal and external team, the issues were resolved, but it’s fair to say it was a rough start to our arrival to the Middle East. Being allowed to work was part of their increasing freedoms and I felt privileged to witness this great change. I loved being part of the team that opened the first women-only store in Saudi Arabia. My time at Burberry was truly fascinating and crucial to my personal and professional development.
The short answer to your question is that it has a plethora of opportunities, not just from an HR perspective. It was not called Sanderson Design Group when I joined, we rebranded and that was one of the opportunities that have been realised. But top of mind for me was wanting to continue working in a creative environment for a British brand. SDG is a leading luxury interior furnishings company and we specialise in fabrics, wallpaper, paints, which are sold around the globe. We have an amazing portfolio of well-known brands, comprising of the iconic Sanderson, Morris & Co. – with heritage that dates back to 1860 – to Harlequin, Zoffany, Scion, Clarke & Clarke and the recently launched direct to consumer brand, Archive by Sanderson Design. The other notable elements are, that I grew up in a home with Sanderson on the walls and curtains in a few rooms, which were my mothers’ pride and joy. To put this into context, we didn’t have a colour TV for a considerable amount of time as she prioritised home interiors over technology. Her view was that it would enrich our lives. I love the beautiful indelible line that travels right from the imaginations of the creatives to the pencil, through craftsmanship in our amazing British factories and out into the world, forming part of the choice for customers to have in their homes, hotels and offices.
I was impressed by the brand’s, rich archive, product and I could see potential from a digital perspective, having come from Burberry, one of the first luxury brands that moved into the digital space. At the time, the strategy centered on international expansion, further acquisitions, market penetration and product extension. The compelling opportunity was that there wasn’t an HR department; just a few individuals focused on payroll and recruitment. Of course, this is fundamental and there is no point in talking about strategy if you can’t do the basics right. But I saw this as an excellent opportunity to add value, create and shape the people agenda and have a meaningful impact on the employee experience. It was what I was looking for at this stage of my career and I felt that it was an opportunity to directly influence the shaping of a company’s future. I joined at the end of 2016 and it didn’t take long to realise that the company wasn’t where I thought it would be.
I knew that there were several legacy issues and the job of work was on leadership, culture and talent, but the reality was that the baseline wasn’t at zero as I expected – it was more like minus 200 – this was a turnaround situation. There was a fantastic opportunity to move the company forward. Influence is a vital part of HR business partnering and providing your focus on the organisation – which includes its people – you can build momentum in the right direction. There has been a considerable amount of change and transformation work done to date; we have rebuilt our Board and Group Leadership team and I was delighted that Sanderson Design Group was recognised in the 2021 Korn Ferry UK Consumer Diversity Index as one of only six percent of all listed companies to have a female Board Chair (Dame Dianne Thompson) and one of only five percent to have a female CEO (Lisa Montague) and we have a 50:50 mix of male to female board directors. With a refreshed team, we have laid a strong foundation with a clearly defined purpose that is easily understood and set direction in terms of what we do and what we bring to our customers. Our purpose is “to bring the beautiful into people’s homes and lives”.
We have clearly defined purpose that is easily understood and sets direction. As a design-led company, that centres on being bold and inspirational through creativity and innovation and plays directly into our values: Intrepid, Imaginative and Respectful. Being respectful is important to our colleagues and customers and the wider environment and our planet. Being respectful also informs our view on sustainability, DEI and matters relating to ESG. This is encompassed in our live beautiful strategy and strategic framework of which people are at its heart. There is much work to do in our industry and diverse leadership leverages fresh ideas. When I joined, I didn’t think I would see the black England rugby player Maro Itoje on Sanderson’s timeless and quintessentially English brand campaign as an ambassador. For clarity, that wasn’t my idea – although I wish it was – it’s just evidence of a great leadership team, seeing a synergy between Sanderson DNA and this modern British icon’s passion for art and creativity.
How I think about this is that we’re not all Michelin star chefs, but we all like to eat great food inspired by recipes and culinary techniques. Our strong brand portfolio that contrasts from the maximalist style of Morris & Co. to the minimalist end, often linked to the Scandinavian look in Scion and our talented designers and the brilliant craftsmanship from our fabric and wallpaper factories aim to inspire people their own environments. For example, to help consumers unlock their perfect colour and design choices, Harlequin created an ‘Own the Room’ quiz based on four distinct Harlequin looks. The campaign is based on a specially commissioned whitepaper from Stephen Westland, a professor of colour science and technology from the University of Leeds. The paper discusses the emotional and physical benefits of colour in the home and its effect on health and well-being. The paper stresses the importance of matching colours to an individual’s specific characteristics to maximise the benefits. I feel this is a great way to inform and inspire our customers.
The pandemic has been horrendous and the effects of loss have been traumatic. I think we are all grateful for the sacrifices made by everyday people to NHS staff on the front line. I don’t think anyone can underestimate the impact it has had on people’s lives across the globe. We were not immune from the impact and lost 10 percent of our people during 2020, despite a range of initiatives to reduce our cost base. However, we were able to leverage some of the disruptions and move forward on our live beautiful strategy and people workstream. Our two key commitments are net carbon zero by 2030 and to do this, we are transforming the way we design, manufacture and distribute. The other is to be the employer of choice in the interior design and furnishings industry. We have started moving the cultural dial with the introduction of variable pay for all employees, a range of wellbeing initiatives, a policy to pay the Real Living Wage, apprenticeships and a high potential programme called the Futures Team. I also see this in the recent engagement survey results where sustainable engagement increased to 78 percent from 58 percent in 2019. As an active member of the Royal Warrant Holders Association, we sponsored a scholar through the Association’s charity, the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, which supports the training and education of talented and aspiring craftspeople. We also became corporate members of the Furniture Makers’ Company, a City of London livery company and the charity for the furnishing industry. We champion the curious and beauty in all forms, rebelling against conformity and embracing individuality. That’s why in 2020, we signed up to the Design for Diversity pledge and want to provide access to our profession, through a range of means, including mentoring, apprenticeships and work placements. To protect our brands and grow our organisation, we must have talent that is fit for the future. Developing talent and capability plays a vital part in achieving our ambition. We have learnt from the pandemic that talent management cannot solely focus on roles; it needs to ensure people have the right and agile skills. We can’t foresee the future and I doubt many people at the start of 2019 thought there would be a global pandemic in 2020 and we would still be dealing with its impact in 2022. Skills relating to learning to adapt to change and all it encompasses – including leading with empathy – will form part of our Futures Team programme’s next stage of learning.
We can’t change what has happened and a quote I enjoy says that; “how we respond is a subjective choice”. It is essential to realign expectations, as change impacts our lives and work and home are intertwined. People are fatigued by months of change, so we must remain emotionally connected to them. We cannot simply return to the past, the post-pandemic future of work must be flexible, transparent and accountable. Hybrid working will be the norm for many people and we need to work with our teams to set principles and expectations, to ensure the fabric of our company’s DNA is not lost. In the immediate future, we need to redefine and shape what a great place to work for all looks like in a post-pandemic world. We will do this by making sure that people feel that they belong and valued and respected and that is about developing trust and being clear and transparent. Building resilience is essential and creating a positive change experience through a healthy environment will be a focal point. This creates opportunities throughout the organisation to expand on learning and development. Simply, we want happy and motivated teams working to the best of their ability, feeling fulfilled and secure in their work environment and supported in their career ambitions.
I have been fortunate to work with some brilliant people and teams in every company I have worked for to date. There is still plenty to do here – even though the pandemic has been something we could all have done without – it has presented salient lessons and interesting provocations for the future of work. I will know that we have improved when we achieve the Great Place to Work certification. I’m still passionate about learning, particularly the application of neuroscience in sustainability. The next chapter is about continuing the development of culture and talent we have started. As a leader, you have a role in helping leave a company in a far better place than you found it and that will continue to be one of my goals.