CHIEF PEOPLE OFFICER , KIER GROUP PLC
With intense pressure, cut-throat competition and constant scrutiny, construction is a volatile business.
HELEN, TAKE US BACK TO YOUR EARLY LIFE AND HOW YOU FOUND THE PATH TO A CAREER IN HR.
I grew up in Hertfordshire and had a very traditional, middle-England upbringing. My parents really supported and encouraged me throughout my education and instilled my strong work ethic. I have great memories of that time and I was thrilled to be able to move back to my home village with my family about ten years ago. My children attend the same primary school that I went to and happily, it’s retained that same village community. Like most kids, I didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career, but I had worked at Sainsbury’s at weekends since I was 15 and absolutely loved retail and working with customers. However, I found myself working at North Hertfordshire College – by complete chance, in the HR department – where I was involved in recruitment and generalist HR administration and had the opportunity to study for my CIPD and put theoretical learning into practice. I fell in love with HR and I’m a huge advocate for the profession, because you can transfer across sectors and, in my experience, it’s been a challenging and exciting place to be. The people agenda has, over my career, progressed to become an integral strategic imperative for every business. An opportunity came up for an HR training programme at Sainsbury’s and I would say that’s where I really started to experience HR in a more commercial sense. There was a new CEO in Justin King and it was great timing to be involved with a company that was really at the leading edge of people management.
One of the great things at Sainsbury’s was that you were moved around from one challenge to the next and the approach to talent management in that sense was very advanced. I was a troubleshooter, moving around different stores, implementing a number of HR initiatives. I look back and there was such a good buzz and great camaraderie – the company was changing and evolving under Justin King’s stewardship – and he was a very inspiring chief executive who focused on people and engagement. HR was always closely involved in the way that the organisation was changing. Managing supermarkets is like running a mini town, all life is there and they are representative of the communities they serve. There is no better place for an HR practitioner to gain broad experience fast, because it’s all about people and relationships, from colleagues and customers, right through the supply chain. It’s about dealing with different types of people, engaging with them in an appropriate way and customer service is so dynamic. I was working at Sainsbury’s at the height of supermarket competition, along with the emergence of the cheaper end disruptors, so there was this culture and intent to go the extra mile, to delight the customer and have that commercial edge. Unlike many organisations, where change is something that is feared, people were trained in various disciplines and could move on quite quickly, so there was this momentum, with great career and leadership development. Eventually, I came to a crossroads and had to decide whether to take a general practice or functional route. I decided to stick with the latter and I completed my time at Sainsbury’s in a regional role, which had a very operational lens. I managed a programme called Lean Store Operations, which was about finding efficiencies and balances and reviewing people processes across operations. It was all a brilliant opportunity for someone like me, beginning their career, working through transformation and cultural alignment, implementing new values, mission and vision. But it came to a point where I had to decide whether to stay at Sainsbury’s or expand my skillset with new experiences and, by coincidence, I was approached about a role working at Wolseley PLC – now Ferguson Group – a distributor of plumbing and heating supplies, at that point to the building trade.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR NEXT MOVE.
It was a move from B2C to B2B – but this was about to change for the business – and in fact, my first role at Wolseley was with a company called Bathstore which had been acquired as a B2C business – in essence, a retail acquisition for the group. The entrepreneurial founder, Nico, was still very involved, even though it was now a PLC and although it was a very different type of business, I felt really confident bringing the skill and best practice I had developed at Sainsbury’s, as the business was very store and customer-centric. I led an upskilling programme across the business and as part of the move to B2C, introduced things like mystery shopping, along with a more customer-focused sales training. In many respects, it was familiar territory, visiting stores, which were UK based and speaking to store managers and salespeople, because particularly in retail, you find out things that you cannot see in the data and analytics. I eventually progressed from Lead HR Business Partner, to Head of HR, working with the senior leadership team. I then moved over to Wolseley, where my initial focus was on employee resourcing, relations and talent, so very specialist from what had been a generalist career. Nevertheless, it was fascinating work, as we were early to the game in a culture to hire for the right behaviours and attitudes as opposed to just focusing on technical competence and relevant experience. This approach expanded to leadership development. Other areas of work included structuring the talent development programmes and strengthening employee relations, which needed more structure and support, developing an efficient upskilling programme and centralising a shared service desk for employee relations. I was central to some significant change in a business that hadn’t changed much for years. The business had been struggling and this called for two leaders coming in to turn things around and here, I had the opportunity to see and learn from Ian Meakins and John Martin. Their focus was on efficiency, customer service, USPs and developing the strategy for the Group and HR was aligned with some quick and timely change around accountability. All-in-all, the new initiatives began to right the ship. The business also embarked on a divestment programme, so once again, this was new ground for me as I was involved in massive due diligence. It was a very intense period for the business.
IT SEEMS THAT HR’S ROLE IN MODERN BUSINESS IS ABOUT CONSTANT CHANGE. IT MUST BE A CONSTANT STATE OF FLUX.
Change is inevitable and requires pragmatism, optimism and bringing people on the journey, even when there is frustration and reluctance. It’s a challenge and I don’t think there has been a time in my career where the water is still. I look back at Wolseley (now Ferguson) and again, appreciate what an opportunity it was to see the best in action. I experienced so much career progression that has really propelled me, but I knew the next stage in my career plan was going to be a leap. Ever since I fell in love with HR, I knew straight away that my ultimate objective was to be an HR Director. All along, I have self-evaluated how my career was going and questioning whether I was staying in a role for convenience or safety. It’s not the same for everyone, but I’ve pushed for every single opportunity and I pledged to work really, really hard and do the best that I possibly can. If you love what you do and you really want to make a difference, the rest will follow on. The whole idea of a job for life is completely untenable now. I am a real advocate for HR as a career and when people ask what the key is to progressing, I advise, don’t be complacent, take every opportunity that makes sense, be active in asking for opportunities and, above all, learn every day. That of course goes for everybody – no matter what career they’re in – it’s that curiosity and willingness to take on new ideas. I was experiencing a fulfilling career at Wolseley when I was approached about a role at Kier.
TELL US WHAT APPEALED ABOUT KIER AND THE ROLE THAT YOU WERE OFFERED.
Our main client is the Government, primarily education, transport, healthcare and justice. We’re involved in construction, highways, utilities, major infrastructure projects, property, FM and housing maintenance. We undertake projects of varying size – all sorts, from a typical smaller project building a school – through to much bigger projects like, HMP Five Wells in Wellingborough. I love the variety of what we do. In terms of our main infrastructure projects, we’re working on the Luton Dart, connecting the airport to the rail station – which will fundamentally change the whole town – and we’re also working on HS2. Construction aside, I describe Kier as connecting people – whether that’s through travel, telecoms or communications. During COVID, we helped keep the country going, from supporting hospitals to keeping the road network moving and, all-in-all, we have a big impact on the end-to-end infrastructure of the UK.
IT SOUNDS LIKE AN INCREDIBLY DYNAMIC ORGANISATION, TAKE US THROUGH THE HR OBJECTIVES.
Well first, I feel incredibly privileged to have this role and really appreciate the responsibility I have. It’s humbling to visit our sites and see the sheer scale and complexity. Our people are, as you would expect, incredibly knowledgeable and technical, but what is really striking is how engaged and passionate they are about the projects they’re delivering. From an HR perspective, the complexity and variety are compelling, but also hugely challenging. In an unwritten way, we really are an essential service. During COVID, our people carried on, keeping the highways safe and hospitals operating. We were front-and-centre in the construction of the Nightingale hospitals and, as a business, we haven’t stopped. However, the pandemic has raised some pressing issues and one significant concern for my HR teams is the skills shortage, which is a challenge in engineering, construction and infrastructure. It is a challenge, but I like to look at the positives and I can see the most fantastic opportunity to make a difference in this sector, by opening up opportunities to the widest possible diversity of background and demographic, while demonstrating that we’re a changing sector. I have to say that my own experience of joining the business ten years ago was a rude awakening. I was one of the only female leaders across Kier and certainly the youngest. It was clear that things had to change and I take the responsibility of playing my part in that change very seriously
There’s no point in trying to put a positive spin on it, the whole of the engineering and construction sector had an image for being white and male dominated. Two weeks into the role I thought, what have I done? I knew it was going to be a tough environment – it was so male-dominated – but I thought the worst thing I could do was walk away.
If I had taken the easy way out, how would anything change? I was determined to make a difference and not to give up. When I was expecting my first child, I couldn’t find the maternity policy. I just sat there thinking, this is a sector with a skills shortage and an ageing workforce and a business with such an amazing opportunity to contribute to the country, with the potential for so many diverse opportunities for people with transferrable skills. I realised that, with so few women in the business, the maternity policy would rarely see the light of day. In frustration, I began to join the dots.
AT THAT POINT, KIER WENT THROUGH A DIFFICULT TIME, IN THE WAKE OF CARILLION’S DEMISE. WITH ALL EYES ON SURVIVAL, TRYING TO BRING IN MATERNITY MEASURES MUST HAVE FELT LIKE AN ISOLATING POSITION.
We needed a positive change in leadership and Andrew Davies joined as CEO. There needed to be some really tough measures, implemented quickly and we spent a year doing that. We spent the first year reducing the cost base – predominantly headcount related – and although we knew it was for the greater good, it was, inevitably, tough going. What we were really focused on at that point was developing a people strategy that was going to address some of the HR issues that had been neglected. Bringing the story up to now, we’ve just implemented eight weeks paid leave for paternity – previously set at two weeks statutory – and we’re above many businesses’ maternity leave offers, with 26 weeks paid leave. We’re also the first in our sector to implement a pregnancy loss policy and in bringing this in, I worked with an incredible woman who tragically went through her own pregnancy loss when her daughter was born 13 weeks early. We sat down, talked and together developed a policy to bring the right support for people who need it. We also now have a support policy for the menopause, as well as providing digital GP access to all Kier employees and their immediate families. This is all part of a wide-ranging familyfriendly offering. COVID accelerated agile working, but we were already on that journey. Last year, we undertook a deep-dive diversity and inclusion audit, including our first Group-wide diversity and inclusion survey. The survey really held a mirror up to all of us about what it feels like to work in Kier, particularly those not in the dominant group, which is white middle-aged men. It told us that some things were not great. My view on life is, if you know what you’re dealing with, you can address it and you can put actions in place to make changes.
We’ve set out a very robust diversity and inclusion roadmap, which we’ve published on our website. We’re determined to be transparent and set our targets and objectives. We have implemented our Expect Respect campaign, which is based around five core principles of respect and we see this as integral to the business in the same way as we do safety, both physical and psychological. Along with diversity, equity and creating a truly inclusive workplace, these are now my core objectives and priorities. Encouragingly, this is resonating positively across the organisation and now we’re going further by launching our I’m Proud campaign, which is about attracting more diversity, not only into Kier, but the sector as a whole. We wanted employees to talk about what they’re proud about working for Kier and it’s employee advocacy that is really helping with everything we do. We have had thousands of our people posting about the career opportunities, that we support families, that we embrace diversity and that we are involved in some amazing and exciting projects. The feedback makes it feel that all our hard work is paying off, but this is only the beginning. There’s much more that I want to do.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY ARE THE ESSENTIAL ATTRIBUTES TO BRINGING THIS LEVEL OF CHANGE THROUGH?
Belief, authenticity and buy in from everyone. If you are trying to change the face of a company – never mind the whole sector, as we’re trying to do – you have to live and breathe the culture of inclusion on a daily basis. As I reflect now, I see that the conversation within the business has changed so much since I joined. We now have people talking about sexuality and saying; “this is a business where I feel really comfortable to tell people who I am and bring my whole self to work”. I just can’t emphasise enough that, for anyone who perhaps has not considered a career in this sector before, being part of this transformation is inspirational. Dare I call it, the construction sector’s revolution? It’s a societal thing, but it’s also generational. Younger generations are well informed, they question everything and don’t accept things on face value. This means organisations like us must be doing more than ticking boxes when it comes to things like reducing our carbon footprint because, of course, our sector is a big contributor. We have to demonstrate good progress and a future vision that balances better outcomes, against what is practical. There are many other levels that we need to focus on including; social values, giving back to the communities that we operate within and, of course, with our diversity and inclusion credentials there really is no room for compromise. If we don’t lead with values, if we’re not ahead of the curve, we won’t attract talent, we won’t retain talent and we won’t win work that we bid for. We have our charitable foundation, Kier Foundation and are partnering with End Youth Homelessness, where we’re able to make a real difference to the lives of young people. The volume of donations that we receive from our employees and the participation in charitable events shows that people really value what we’re doing. Employee buy-in is crucial to bringing through that level of change.
We support serving prisoners and prison leavers into employment through our Making Ground programme and I was talking to a prison leaver on site recently, who was so impassioned about the opportunity he’s been given. When people leave prison they’re given a travel voucher and no real support to find a worthwhile job to help turn their lives around. It’s little wonder that the reoffending rate is so high. If we don’t reach out and help people in all areas of society, things will never change. If we can give meaningful employment to people in a sector that has a skills shortage, the benefits are surely there for all to see. The big picture goes way beyond gender diversity, which incidentally, despite the pandemic, improved across nearly every grade. Our early careers programmes are showing significant improvements in gender balance and representation from diverse groups. We also have our Empower programme, a management development programme for diverse groups in Kier. I’m proud to say we’re on a journey and our objective is to change the face of a sector that has for so long needed to change.
HOW DO YOU ENCAPSULATE THE LAST COUPLE OF YEARS AND WHAT LEARNING CAN WE TAKE FROM THESE CHALLENGING TIMES?
COVID was a really tough time for many people. I think for Kier, it has accelerated many of the programmes that we were already working on and it’s informed the development of our wellbeing strategy, as it became clear that wellbeing is multifaceted beyond physical and mental health and we are determined to provide more support and help across a wider remit. We have to be honest in areas where perhaps we’re not doing so well, hold up a mirror and constantly evolve our culture. We are looking at how we can improve and it’s important to focus on the areas where we need to be tuned in. It’s a tragedy that the construction sector has such a high suicide rate compared to other sectors and we need to make sure our people feel safe, supported and able to talk about how they’re feeling or know where to go to get support. Having my children – and they were fairly tricky pregnancies, which was tough at the time – raised my game in understanding and empathising with what people go through in life. I take that responsibility very seriously and I want people to feel that they belong and that they are supported. I’m acutely aware that role modeling is essential from leaders in particular and that they walk the walk. The pandemic has been an extraordinary learning experience and now we’re beginning to move towards living with COVID, it’s about embracing the good bits and saying, ‘we need to hold onto those’ and not just go back to old habits and old ways of working.
YOU SIT ON KIER’S EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE, HOW DOES THAT INFORM YOU IN WHAT YOU ARE WORKING TO ACHIEVE AT KIER?
Without leaders informed and on side, trying to achieve anything is an uphill battle and being on ExCo lets me look at other organisations across sectors and compare and contrast experiences. This helps me on internal programmes such as our D&I committee, which I co-chair with Andrew Davies, Kier’s CEO. It’s vital that we’re joined up in our thinking and not doing things in isolation. Sticking with our D&I committee and employee networks, all employee network leads report into us to make sure our actions are joined up. I also sit on the Gender Inclusion Network as an executive member. This gives our people the confidence that we’re driving inclusion from the highest level and personally it’s incredibly helpful, because gaining diverse opinions and views is essential if we’re going to offer a truly inclusive workplace. Recently, a couple of single parents attended the Gender Inclusion Network and raised that we really need to up our game on supporting single parents. Another contributor spoke of supporting people with cancer and with one-in-two people in the UK being diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, it is imperative that we support them. The Kier Inclusion Network, where we have hundreds of people contributing, is our umbrella network, where our people can share their experiences and drive D&I across the company. If we want to truly turn the tables on the war for talent, we need to make sure that as a sector, we’re not repelling people. Trying to find the balance on all of this is the tricky bit, but it answers a lot of the issues around the shortage in skills. We need to improve how we support women and others back into work after career breaks, so that their knowledge and skillset is not lost.
IS SEGMENTING PEOPLE INTO THE EMPLOYEE NETWORKS, THE MOST EFFECTIVE WAY OF GAINING FEEDBACK, DOES IT NOT CREATE SILOS?
The only way to make sure everybody’s points of view are represented is to bring them into the conversation and turn the key issues into actions. Just because something seems hard to correct or improve, doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to make a difference. HR works in a world of innovation and curiosity – not everything lands and not everything succeeds – but we should never give up or be afraid to give something a go. If it works, great and if it doesn’t, move on and try a different approach. Culture is essential, but it is not a destination, it’s a journey.
WHAT ARE YOU FOCUSING ON GOING FORWARD AND WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE NEXT?
We’re continuing to focus on our people strategy and embedding diversity and inclusion. I could talk about this all day, but will pick out a few highlights! We’ll continue to invest in our apprenticeships and early careers populations and will be moving to the next phase of our Expect Respect campaign. In April last year, we rolled out the Real Living Wage to all direct Kier employees and we have a clear plan to expand that to indirect employees; we want everyone who works at Kier to have a consistent experience. We’ll continue to collaborate with the business during the work-winning phase to make sure that, from an HR point of view, we really add value, and we’re committed to continuing to grow our own talent. We want to do more with our Making Ground programme and our work with Armed Forces veterans and reservists. From an ESG point of view, we’re embarking on a behaviours programme. Again, we’ve done some really good things across the Group, but we’re going to be introducing a Group-wide behaviours programme and I think it will be the glue that brings everything together. It links to a very wellbeing-led health and safety strategy and it’s about how we really take that to the next level. Looking ahead at skills, we’re on our digital and automation journey later than some, but the sector does need to change how it works to meet what technology is changing in construction. If you go on to a construction site and compare it to 30 years ago, the differences are stark and innovation keeps coming. We need to embrace modern methods of construction and keep on track with our de-carbonisation targets. We need to be realistic about our sector is going to look like in ten-to-15 years and we need to take people on that journey now and really think about strategic workforce planning that’s going to help us deliver what we need in the future.
FINALLY, HELEN YOU HAVE BEEN NOMINATED TO INVOLVE'S LIST OF GLOBAL ROLE MODELS, TELL US MORE.
I was absolutely thrilled to make it onto the list, to be honest! It’s really around the D&I work we’re doing at Kier, holding up that mirror and being very open about what we’re good at and where we need to improve and come up with a plan. I feel very proud that I was the only person in the construction sector to be on the list. It’s testament, I think, to our attitude and that we are embracing inclusion and diversity so wholeheartedly. I see the list as representing the progress and achievement in our organisation and the influence that we’re having more generally across the sector and I’m honoured to represent that.