Claire Astley

Five years ago, UKTV started a journey in what was a testing time for TV. A new CEO and leadership team with HR centrally positioned, focusing on redesigning the company’s culture to define the ambition, values and behaviours that would go on to shape the channel for the future. Today, it features in The Sunday Times 100 best companies to work for list and is a vibrant and successful broadcasting player.

Claire, tell us about your early life and why you decided on a career in HR?  

I did a degree in psychology at the University of Birmingham, and my studies fuelled a natural curiosity in people and what makes them tick, and that has proved to be a fundamental element throughout my career. I realised early on that I wanted to pursue a career that combined my interest in business and in people, and HR was the perfect route in. I was very fortunate to land a summer placement in the HR department at Kraft Foods, and whilst this was in a very different sector to where I’ve spent most of my career, it was fantastic experience and a great opportunity to gain first-hand exposure to the world of HR. It was this placement that really confirmed to me that HR was the career I wanted to pursue. My first role after leaving university was in the Personnel department at Aston Martin and the role was primarily supporting the Personnel Manager at the production site where the DB7s were hand-built. It was a very traditional and steady workplace back then and the personnel department was also very traditional in its approach. It was very much an administrative function, but it did give me a good grounding in HR basics.

I then saw an opportunity to join Pearson Television, as it was known back then, which was part of the Pearson Group. The role sat within the Broadcasting Division of the business, working with the team that provided transmission playout, television studios and post-production services to TV broadcasters and blue chip clients. The working environment was a complete contrast to anything I’d experienced at Aston Martin. It was a fast-paced client services environment and I joined at a fantastically vibrant and important time for the company and indeed, the sector as a whole. The business was rapidly expanding and it was in the real growth phase of multichannel TV, with new channels and services being launched all the time. The business was also in the process of building the HR function and so, as a launch pad for my career, I couldn’t have chosen better. I had fantastic generalist HR exposure there, and there was a huge amount of variety and opportunity to get involved in and experience pretty much every aspect of HR – everything from recruitment, policies, reward and recognition, performance management, training and development, through to TUPE transfers and restructuring. I had five hectic but very enjoyable years there, and learnt so much – not only in terms of my technical HR skills – but also that HR was a lot more than just an admin function. I saw that if HR is truly integrated, it can be a real business enabler.

By comparison to the traditional settings at Kraft and Aston Martin, the world of media and broadcasting must have been a stark contrast.  

In many respects yes, but I felt confident in the experience provided by those two early roles and I was excited about becoming involved in every aspect of HR. This really galvanised me for the vibrant and fast-paced media environment and I was eager to get stuck in and keep learning. I was bitten by the TV bug and everything that has happened from then until now has not dented that enthusiasm one bit. HR is absorbing, whether you’re in charge of a team of people manufacturing chocolate bars or people building the most desirable cars in the world, but I don’t think anything matches the dynamism and spark of the creative environment in TV.

Give us an idea of what your chief objectives and wins there were? This was a growing business, so top of the agenda was building management capability and ensuring we had the right people with the right skills. Another essential element was ‘pipeline’, so once the management structure was formed and stabilised, I was involved in designing a graduate recruitment scheme. I was mindful that with technology evolving at such a pace, skill requirements were changing and attracting new talent was crucial. In turn of course, the business model had to change and one of the biggest challenges I experienced was making sure HR kept up to speed with this constantly evolving environment. This meant that a silo mentality would be catastrophic, so we needed to ensure we kept up-to-date with what was happening in the industry, and align that understanding with providing HR support that would enable the business to stay competitive. What makes this world so engaging is the people, the creative buzz, and the frenetic schedule is all encompassing.

Where did you go from Pearson?  

I spent the next two years working for the Ascent Media Group. This move came about as a result of Ascent acquiring and integrating LPC (formerly Pearson Television) into their business, and I moved across and joined their existing HR function. Although I was still working in the same sector, it was a very different experience, both in terms of the culture – it was a US-owned global business – and also because the business was going through a significant amount of organisational change. It had acquired a number of businesses which needed to consolidate and rationalise, which meant I spent most of my two years restructuring. There came a point where businesses had grown beyond what they could achieve, coupled with the explosion in technology, away from the traditional TV platform, came the realisation that technology was calling the shots, and would be a major game changer for TV broadcasting. Strong people management was critical at this time, along with clear and consistent communication, performance management and the right values in an organisation. On a personal level, you need real resilience and a strong belief in what you are doing.

Tell us about your move to UKTV.  

I was approached with an exciting opportunity – it was a brand new role at UKTV, and they were looking for someone to come in and establish a HR function, build a team and develop a people strategy. The business had never had an internal HR function before, with operational HR support being provided remotely from the shareholders previously. What attracted me to the role was the opportunity to build the function and team from scratch and to learn about another area of the media and TV industry. There was also a real sense of passion and fun amongst the people. Initially my main focus was making sure all the basics were in place and that we were delivering these exceptionally well.

When our new CEO, Darren Childs joined the company in 2010, his vision was that we needed to focus on innovation and that would give us the competitive edge. The business was still growing, but it was a linear channels business at that time and Darren believed that UKTV’s future success depended on creating a place where talent wanted to go and where they would be most liberated to create and innovate. If you look at companies that have been very successful, and continued to grow despite the economic downturn, the one thing that they all have in common is their ability to innovate. They also have strong cultures, and Darren and I were totally aligned and shared the view that, in order to continue to grow the business in the long term, we needed to have a highly-engaged and motivated workforce and create an environment where the brightest talent wanted to go, were encouraged to fully explore their creative potential and come forward with new ideas. We became wholly-focused on redesigning the DNA of the business. The team began at the beginning – asking why are we in business – as the first step to defining the ambition, values and behaviours that would shape future success. Working with a values and behaviours model, we listened to what people really believed in, we examined and captured what successful people at UKTV were doing, and we worked tirelessly to create a clear ambition that fired people up and constantly linked action back to that ambition to drive shared ownership, passion and belief.

What is the business model?  

We have a portfolio of ten channels, they are split into three areas; the entertainment team look after Dave, Gold and Watch, the Lifestyle team oversee Eden, Good Food, Home and Really, and the Day team are responsible for Drama, Alibi and Yesterday. We also have our VOD team who look after our video on demand service, UKTV Play. We then have all the other business functions and centres of expertise that act as enablers and support those teams, for example; Comms, Marketing, Finance, Research, Commercial, Legal, and HR. Creating and acquiring content is also a big part of the business. In order to continue to grow our channels and define them in the market, original commissions and acquisitions form a key part of our strategy. For example, we have gone from a bit-part player a few years ago to one of the most prolific UK buyers at the LA Screenings. We also have an enviable collection of ‘best in class’ acquisitions through our long-term deal with the BBC, and we secure third-party acquisitions through ITV and C4. We have also significantly increased investment in original content and we are making ambitious and innovative programmes that wouldn’t be made elsewhere.

Maintaining ten channels is a feat that must be a significant concern to ensure you maintain that?  

Whilst we have seen an explosion in digital platforms over the past few years, there is still an enduring appeal for professionally-produced, long-form content. We have ten well-defined channel brands that all offer the audience something different, and the network’s success is because we have taken risks and experimented with our content mix, putting the needs of our viewers first. A key focus is continuing to grow the linear [live broadcast as opposed to video on demand] channels business, while also ensuring we grow in the digital space, giving viewers access to our content on multiple devices. Our award-nominated on demand service, UKTV Play, is now available on a number of key platforms, providing viewers with access to shows from across the network. Also, with more and more devices entering the market, enabling viewers to watch programmes when and where they want, it’s important to have a strong presence in the video on demand space. We’ve already seen UKTV Play, which we launched less than two years ago, add significant value to our business. We’ve just celebrated our most successful year ever and, in fact, the network has grown its share of viewing by 30 percent in just five years, bucking the market trend. Our increased investment in original programming has contributed to the network’s record-breaking viewing in 2015, but it’s not just investment in content that fuels success. Everyone is involved in shaping the company’s vision which has contributed to high levels of engagement from staff, and that is a key driver in the success of any company. We have just been named in The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work for.

Tech skills are thin on the ground, are you finding it difficult to attract the right people?  

Attracting the best talent is critical, and yes it is competitive! We have quite an intensive recruitment process, where we focus on our values and culture just as much as a candidate’s skills and experience. All our colleagues here would have gone through a phone interview, a technical and skills based interview, a values interview, a peer interview and then met a member of the leadership team for a coffee before they join. The benefit is they get to meet a whole range of people from across the business which allows them to get a feel for the culture here. Some might say it’s long-winded, but getting the right people is imperative here. A huge threat to the TV industry is losing young talent to digital and tech-based companies so a key focus for us is growing our own talent. We’re committed to offering access to young people and providing hands-on entry level opportunities through apprenticeships. We are now looking at expanding our apprenticeship programme even further and creating roles in the digital and tech space, and a key thing we look for is their ability to think of fresh ideas. What’s great about young people is they have grown up in the digital world and they absolutely have the skills needed. Part of our focus is to attract people from diverse backgrounds – you don’t have to be a graduate to have great ideas. Our apprentices are passionate and motivated and are delivering impressive and tangible results for the business. We also partner with local colleges and organisations such as Creative Skillset and The Media Trust to mentor young people who are keen to get into the media industry. We open up UKTV’s offices to them and provide training opportunities.

And engagement and motivation are absolutely critical to stimulate the creative environment.  

A primary focus was getting everyone at UKTV to feel involved in the collective ambition and purpose, so we concentrated on core values, incentive schemes and encouraging people to innovation pot is a scheme that enables anyone to apply for funding to implement an idea that they feel will benefit the business. We then team them up with a suitable mentor who will help them bring that idea to life. A creative environment is great to be fun in, but there has to be pragmatism too, you can’t just have creativity and no structure, that’s why it’s so important to have the values in place. You don’t want to stifle creativity, it’s about how you do it as well. We have what is known as the CLICC values (Create, Learn, Influence, Challenge and Collaborate) and we developed these involving the entire organisation. We devised a whole company treasure hunt as a creative way to launch the values within the business and help embed these in people’s minds. For values to be truly embedded in an organisation, you need to bring them to life and integrate them into everything you do. We integrated them into both individual objectives and the bonus structure so that it became about not only what people did but how they did it. We have also redesigned our recruitment, induction and retention processes to attract and retain the right people. We’ve recently introduced a new online approach to appraisals called ‘My Personal Best’ and, alongside this, we are also about to launch our new online learning and knowledge centre, which will give people greater flexibility over when and how they learn. Expectations of employees have grown massively over recent years and people now expect a lot more from the companies they work for. They want a solid learning curve, fresh challenges, to be included and involved, instant feedback and guidance, and greater flexibility and work-life balance. They will happily move on if they don’t get it and for the smartest talent there are so many opportunities and career options out there.

This is an industry that has to develop, what’s your perspective on the immediate future, but also the potential for expansion?  

The future focus centres very much on growth and innovation – in terms of what that means in HR, it’s ensuring we continue to attract, motivate, reward and retain the best talent in the industry, and about growing and maintaining the high performance culture we have created. We are determined to grow the business for the future, both in the linear and video on demand space. The business has enjoyed year-on-year growth, bucking the market trend, and we hope to maintain this moving forward. In fact, year-end results have revealed that we are now delivering more share of commercial impacts than Channel 5’s full portfolio and all of Sky’s wholly-owned channels, including movies and sport, for the very first time. We are also growing in terms of staff numbers and have seen a 13 percent increase in the last 12 months.

You have been involved with HR almost all of your career. Give us an idea of how you feel HR has served you.  

I’ve seen huge changes in HR in my relatively short tenure of 15 to 20 years. The function has evolved dramatically, professionalised itself and today it’s operating much more as a strategic and valued partner, with a key role in influencing the growth agenda. You have to have a tough veneer, you need to be very resilient and have a strong belief in what you are doing. You also have to have a sense of humour, be able to empathise but deliver at the same time. I feel very privileged to work in this industry, it’s constantly changing which really keeps you on your toes and I’ve worked with some exceptionally talented and fun people who care passionately about what they do. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to have been part of what UKTV has achieved particularly over the last five years. I feel incredibly proud of playing a part in creating such a brilliant working environment and developing a culture that enables people to generate their best ideas and work. I have a fantastic team who are equally passionate about what they do and I’m really proud of what we have delivered together. As a team, we continue to have big ambitions and aspirations for the future, and there is still a huge amount that we want to achieve.

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