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Interview

Harnessing energy sources to replace depleting fossil fuels which have been so vital to advancement, but so catastrophic for the planet we occupy, is the greatest challenge ahead. Wind, tide and sun  seem ancient, but nuclear can sometime seem baffling and frightening science that poses as many questions as it answers. Unquestionably, debate and discussion will be fuelled along the journey, as nuclear is positioned as a fundamental component of the world’s future energy needs.

Clare, tell us about your early life and how you found a career path into HR.  

You can probably tell from my accent that I’m from Liverpool originally and, like everyone, the places and people I was surrounded by formed me as a person. As a family, we lived in a suburb of Liverpool and was lucky to be exposed to dance, music and horse-riding lessons but my family are working class and as such had a strong work ethic. From a young age, I experienced life through a multitude of lenses and this gave me drive and ambition but also made me passionate about fairness and equal opportunities for everyone. My background I believe has shaped two sides to how I live my life. My school was a Grammar school that turned into a comprehensive during my time there, and where I performed well in GCSE results, then discovered extracurricular ways of having fun and bombed in my A-levels. Without much discussion with my parents, I decided not to go on to university – there’s that rebel side again – and instead I became an accounts clerk in a battery manufacturer. A few weeks in, I realised I had made a big mistake, not that I’d admit as much to my parents, so I was determined that I was going to “work my way up to the top”. I guess I chose the hard way. I thought that I needed to differentiate myself from the crowd, so I volunteered for everything and grabbed every learning opportunity. I carried on with accountancy for a couple of years and then took a new role heading up payroll in a retail organisation called Ethel Austin’s. They had about 120 shops and were going through a huge period of growth. In this organisation, Payroll was in the HR function, and I started to realise that working with people as well as numbers was more aligned to my skillset, and I absolutely loved it.

And retail was an early innovator in developing careers and people for management roles, wasn’t it.  

Yes, and I continued where I left off in the old firm and gained as many qualifications as I had the time for, and I also met my husband who was working for Ethel Austin’s. He stayed on, but I felt that I had plateaued, career-wise and realised I needed to deal with my personal insecurities of not having any formal qualifications, so I decided to go back to university whilst still working. I studied for my business degree alongside working for Miller and Salthouse, an upmarket, national opticians as a Personnel Officer – I had a great boss there who sponsored my studies but it was a tough time! I stayed there for about four years and learnt everything I could about the whole HR spectrum and I decided that this profession would be my chosen career path. The opticians were taken over by Boots, and I was offered the opportunity to relocate to Nottingham, but as we’d just recently married, I declined. I left and applied for a role in a large aluminium manufacturer called Kawneer (now Alcoa) as Employee Relations Manager. I defy anyone to find a starker difference in firms and environments. I joined and was instantly out of my depth – it was a heavily trade unionised manufacturing site, a completely alien environment to me. The real reason I took the job was, the person who interviewed me – I knew was leaving soon, and I thought I could fill his shoes. After the initial shock, I went on to stay for eight years there and it was the most fantastic time in my career. As Employee Relations Manager (ERM), I had my first strike action in the first week and arguably experienced the full roster of ERM experiences in short order – it was the 1980s after all… testing times!

Often in interviews, HR practitioners are surprisingly positive about their experiences with unions, they seem to have gained an appreciation of perspectives that stays with them.  

I would concur with that and I’m an advocate for employees having a voice. Employee relations was an environment I really thrived in and, as expected, my boss left the company and they took a risk on me and appointed me at age 25 to be Personnel Manager for the whole site. To help me make the leap and adjust, I was appointed a business mentor from the States, who was fundamental to my ongoing success in that role. I remember that experience clearly and have advocated for the power of mentorship ever since. After three years I was back to thinking “what next?”! I had a meeting with my mentor and he advised me that I’d probably climbed as far as I could with my experience and, in a kind of Yoda-like way, urged me to move on and even to try “something completely new”. A difficult conversation as what he was saying was; “if you want to really reach your potential in work you should consider giving up your status and look at a sideways or even lesser role to develop and grow”. That really resonated, and I applied for a Quality Role and it catapulted me into a completely different work environment and world, leading to three years working across Europe – spending my time in Holland, France and Poland, doing six-to-eight-month stints in plants and working on; production, logistics and customer services. It proved to be a phenomenal time of my career, where I learned so much about business and people and led to me being offered a role as Head of Customer Services in the US, to be based in Atlanta. So, with my husband, we decided to take the biggest plunge of our lives. We sold our house and, just as we were about to leave, my Dad died and being an only child and very close to him, it poleaxed me. The company was phenomenal, so supportive and understanding and I experienced personally what well planned health and wellbeing support can mean to people in need. I realised I couldn’t simply up sticks and leave my Mum unsupported, so we decided to stay and, it was suggested I move to a role in a small plant in Wales, which would mean I could go home to Liverpool regularly.

Tell us about your next career move.  

Well, for the first time in my life I was headhunted – for a role at British Airways, which was in the process of moving its heavy maintenance facilities from Heathrow to Cardiff. The role was to set up as a subsidiary of BA, and the role was HR Director. We were settled in Cardiff and loved it, and I immediately felt at home in a big corporate organisation and, being a BA subsidiary, from an HR perspective, I had freedom, but also the support of a large corporate group. Two thousand people on site – the unions were prominent at BA at the time, but I was lucky that the business I was in had their own recognition agreements and a fantastic Trade Union Forum, so we were able to innovate in terms of the people agenda. So, a certain level of autonomy and a great place for growing accustomed to the higher echelons of the HR Director role. Then, 9/11 happened. Of course, it rocked the whole world on its heels and in aviation, the impact was colossal. BA responded with incredible preparedness and resilience. Then came the aftershock, the commercial impact and it was unprecedented. But with well-planned contingency and good old human stoicism, somehow – like everyone else – we soldiered on through, and time passed. Then the Production Director (PD) left BA and this presented me with another opportunity to try something new, as the HR unit was fully operational. I took on the role on a caretaker basis and became the first female and first non-engineer to take a PD job at BA… a double event! Then, finally after 14 years of marriage and at 37, we had a baby daughter!

Do you think it’s easier for women with a career in full flight, to consider starting a family?  

It’s slightly better now but, yes, it’s still that dichotomy for women with careers, of watching two clocks. More recently I’ve reflected on it, and asked, “did I consciously delay having a child when I was developing my career”? And I think the answer is probably, yes… and I’m not particularly proud of that. Having said that, if I hadn’t experienced and achieved what I had up to that point, perhaps I  wouldn’t have felt so certain and happy. Is there ever a right time? Fortunately, I was well supported and was able to integrate back in at a senior level, on a part-time basis. This was back in 2000, so that would have been unusual then.

What happened next on your journey? For personal and family reasons – I wanted my Mum to play a bigger part in our daughter’s life – I needed to move closer to Liverpool. I also wanted to take my foot off the pedal for a while and went for a lower level post at Royal Mail in the North-west, as a regional HR business partner. It was good to be back doing good old honest, hands-on HR. Nevertheless, a trait of mine is that I ended up being absorbed in a job and it wouldn’t matter what I was doing – vacuuming the floor – it would have to be the cleanest floor possible, and I’d end up working long hours and still feeling guilty. So, after a while I thought “this is defeating the purpose”, taking a lower rung role and so I went for a post, heading up HR at Parcel Force, with the head office in Milton Keynes. I ended up commuting up to 12 hours a week sometimes, stuck it out for four years and left. To be honest, for so many reasons, it was the lowest point in my career, and I knew I had to put things back on track.

I decided to leave, take stock and really think about my next move. Then, out of the blue came a call about an HR Director post at BAE Systems for their Air support business and I started in 2008. I joined a fantastic organisation just when I needed it, and I was back, totally absorbed and passionate for the people and the product – military aircraft – and, within a few years, I was HR Director of the Air Combat business. BAE Systems was, and remains, a pioneer in developing people – diversity and inclusion run in their DNA – and it was way ahead in terms of investment in people and health and wellbeing. Was it bureaucratic? Yes. Did it frustrate and were there too many layers? Absolutely! But it was a price worth paying for having the elbow room to be innovative with far-reaching HR initiatives on a grand scale. There were excellent systems in place to demonstrate where investment in HR was resulting in improved performance, or better attrition, and it was roundly acknowledged and appreciated, which helps write the story. The best bit of my role was overseeing HR, which has a seat at the very big table and being totally central to the business agenda. At BAE systems, the people piece was fundamental to competitiveness. For me, it was a hugely expansive role, including setting up operations in Oman and getting to grips with some seriously eyebrow-raising cultural differences. This was 2011, and we had the first ever females working in the office in Saudi Arabia, albeit working behind closed doors. I left in 2018, and there were 70 to 80 women in the workplace. It’s a little victory in the great scheme of things, but I feel I played a small part. I must refer here to my fantastic HR team – I fundamentally believe in surrounding yourself with as diverse a team as you can and with people who are better than yourself!

I've interviewed somebody who worked at BAE Systems who said, "you're on your induction for the first ten years...”. Is that fair?  

Yes, I can relate to that. At about year eight I felt like I’d stagnated and increasingly, my rebellious nature was manifesting itself a bit too often. There’s positive disruption and it’s the flip side of a coin to negative. So, it was time for me to move on. Now in my fifties, with an eye-catching portfolio, the question was, should I become a consultant? Then I was surprised to receive a call about a new HR director role at the National Nuclear Laboratory. It sounded like I’d need a lab coat… I was intrigued, was interviewed and here I am.

The word "nuclear" immediately throws powerful pictures in the mind, with many different connotations, so what was the appeal for you and explain the role of the NNL?  

The National Nuclear Laboratory works with its partners and stakeholders to deliver innovative solutions and expertise, across the whole of the nuclear lifecycle. It’s Government owned – although it receives no direct grant funding from government, so it generates revenue through its commercial operations and then fully reinvests all its earnings into science and technology and future capabilities. We have a range of customers, both private and public sector – Sellafield Limited, Westinghouse, EDF Energy and Rolls Royce to name but a few. As the National Lab, we have a role in promoting and educating wider society that nuclear is one of the few carbon free energy sources which, going forward, will play a significant part of the blended approach to the world’s ongoing and increasing energy needs. Here too was a chance to really have personalised input, supporting, at present circa 1000 people. Also, there’s not the rigid hierarchy and bureaucracy that tends to build around big corporates.

What is the future picture and what is expected from HR?  

NNL has gone through a massive change transformation programme and has realigned itself to be a much more customerfocused business. The organisation has also recently restructured and is well positioned for growth both in the public and private arena. In the last few months, it has been about re-stating and re-positioning our strategic purpose. A significant part of that is profile and brand, making our people feel proud to describe what we do, and not seeming like we’re involved in something secret, which is pivotal to us attracting talent and skills into our industry. To me that’s a core calling card, which is not being played to its full advantage. So, being loud and proud and clear on ‘why nuclear’? is fundamental. We continue to enable our people to connect to how they are directly contributing to wider society and continue to build passion and engagement by demonstrating results through contribution. We’re also moving into new markets with some exciting prospects and being able to visualise is helping us with attraction and retention of essential skills. It’s also important that our commercial ambitions are not to the detriment of our public sector and legacy obligation, but the future is very exciting, and now I’m confident that the organisation is ready to capitalise on the potential presenting itself.

I would have thought trying to convince locals about nuclear power plants down the road, isn't going to be a popular development, even with the promise of local jobs.  

It’s a challenge but you only need to look at Cumbria to see how the local community support and embrace the industry, recognising its contribution to the area through providing highly skilled jobs. Hinkley Point C – the new nuclear plant being built by EDF Energy in Somerset – is well on its way, and the industry is beginning to win plaudits and public opinion. One of the main challenges we face is that nuclear is very expensive to set up and operate, so one of our focuses is to innovate to bring down costs, to enable quicker development, to make nuclear a part of the landscape of the future and a major contributor to the energy mix.

In terms of Government making decisions, the public is more than justified for thinking that parliament couldn't decide whether to have white or brown bread for sandwiches. What chance nuclear power?  

The major political parties are all committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions over the coming decades. For us to achieve this target one thing is clear – nuclear must form part of the energy mix. NNL along with its stakeholders needs to disrupt and innovate to ensure we can reduce the cost of investment required. We’re making real progress working collaboratively across the public and private sector to look at new ways of working in the areas of small reactors, robotics and the like. We in the nuclear sector need to drive the government agenda and bring the public along with us, and that’s an ongoing challenge that is best addressed by providing affordable energy with far less ecological impact than any energy ever derived in the modern era. The reality is, to meet the world’s future energy needs, nuclear is essential to the energy mix, and we’re determined to drive and achieve our very ambitious clean energy targets.

What do you see as the next big challenges from an HR perspective?  

I could fill the magazine and I know it sounds a bit trite but it’s about how we attract and retain the skills and capabilities that NNL and the industry need now and in the future, and how we do this in line with our values. We need to innovate and we need the mindset and skillset to build on the knowledge and capability from a science and technology perspective to drive change. It starts at the beginning – we need to do more to bring the education system onstream and promoting the environmental advantages to younger people is fundamental to meeting the skills of the future and encouraging more students to take STEM subjects at higher levels, and that includes a real drive to encourage more females into science and engineering. It continues through the employee life cycle investing in people’s health and wellbeing, personal development and really reckoning the personal contribution that everyone can make. I am passionate about making sure we not only align our HR strategy to the needs of the business but also to the needs of our people. I think you can live on a legacy, but to be “future-ready” you must define yourself and have the courage for change, even when you know it could be uncomfortable, disruptive and unnerving.

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