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Interview

At BT’s HQ, there’s a timeline in pictures, telling a story of incredible change at unbelievable speed, from a little yellow Bedford van, inherited from the GPO, to a satellite. Now the organisation is entering a new era, an ambitious foray into the world of sport broadcasting and, although the launch was marked with a confident fanfare, there is a fundamental difference, insomuch as BT doesn’t “own” this arena, as it has the telecoms market for a lifetime. Jason Spiller interviews Clare Chapman, Group People Director of BT Group plc.

Clare, tell us about your early career and what it was about HR that caught your interest.  

I originally intended to be a journalist, but that wasn’t to be! So, after completing my first degree, I trained as a buyer in Harrods. In retrospect, I don’t think I ever really decided to go into HR, it’s just every time I went into a big line job, they would ask me if I could take on the personnel side, so perhaps I did show an early leaning towards HR. One thing is sure, I got some fantastic experience and this led to a great position at Quaker Oats, at a time when there was a huge amount going on, movement, mergers and acquisitions in the sector. My first piece of work involved reorganising the sales force. It was really challenging to find solutions that worked for the business, our customers and our people and so I was hooked. I went and did a Masters’ degree and became UK HR Director for Quaker Oats.

At an early stage, your career path seemed to accelerate quickly.  

It helps that I have always been quite bold in saying “yes”, when opportunities come my way, and when I was offered the chance to work in the US, I didn’t hesitate. This led to a whole variety of different experiences which prepared me well to take on more. This happened when I was appointed in PepsiCo as HR Vice President for PepsiCo’s soft drinks operations in Europe. This turned out to be a great assignment, not only did I learn a lot about working in Europe and Central Asia but Pepsi was in the middle of a share and cost war with Coke. This taught me much about marketing and cost management. I built on this when I was appointed as Group HR Director, at Tesco, since at that stage Tesco’s challenge was all about growth. So I look at where I am now at BT, and I realise that I am using all of the experience gained earlier in my career. With BT shifting from turnaround to growth, I feel that even if I don’t always have the answers, I do know the territory. I think of myself as being very lucky, because all the organisations I’ve worked in have had very high expectations of HR. They were environments of ambition, where the business needed a big contribution from HR people.

During the course of my career I have been asked a number of times to consider moving back into a line role. I have always turned this down. For me, HR wins every time, essentially because it is a role that is unique, impactful and connective. Case in point, I learnt at Tesco that the customer experience and staff experience is an end to end process, once you know what customers want you can go into the staff experience and find out what they need in order to succeed. This often cuts across many functions. We had “customer promises” that were owned by Marketing and Sales and “people promises” that were owned by HR and Operations. HR’s role is also hugely impactful when the business strategy involves lots of change. When I was at Tesco we went from being largely a food business to expanding also into non-food and retailing services such as banking. There was also considerable overseas expansion. By the time I left we’d gone from having almost no space overseas to having more floor space overseas than in the UK.

This was a wonderful opportunity for HR to rise to the challenge and learn, not only how to develop thousands of new leaders, but also to figure out how to do it fast. Traditionally it took us 12 years to grow a store manager and so we had to learn new techniques fast. We looked at similar case studies from the past, and part of the research looked at the beginning of World War II. I got in touch with the officer responsible for the design for training the officers at the early stages of the war, spent some time with him, and learnt so much about accelerating development.

When you get so involved in a success story, it must be difficult to leave, when another opportunity presents itself?  

Yes it is a dilemma, moral and otherwise, and loyalty matters to me greatly. So leaving somewhere for another job is a big decision for me, and when I look back on my career it looks a rational career ladder, but it rarely was. I think the best advice I can give with regards to career development is never take the easy route, go for the big challenges.

Your next move definitely backs that claim up: into the public sector and the NHS, no less.  

Indeed! Part of my motivation was that I realised that either I’d be at Tesco for the rest of my life or I’d test myself still further. I’ve also long believed that we all have a responsibility to “give back” during the course of a career and so the opportunity in the NHS and Social Care was both a huge and professional challenge and a change to make a difference. One of the most satisfying programmes I was involved with was the development of the NHS Constitution. This defined for the first time what the citizen could expect from the health service in return for taxes paid. And it also defined the purpose and values of the NHS to provide some common-shared purpose to all of the different organisations that make up the health sector. It reinforces values, such as compassion, which is an ambition in the NHS which has never left the spotlight over recent years. The big challenge, as always, is how to reliably deliver it. Unquestionably, this experience in the NHS made me a much better executive and leader. I quickly learned that private sector organisations can get stuff done so much more easily. There were multiple secretaries of state during my time there and if businesses changed their CEO as frequently there would be a real challenge to achieve alignment. Also the NHS is made up of multiple, individually-governed organisations – it’s a sector of its own, rather than a unitary organisation. All this demands more of its leaders.

You must have watched the recent travails of the health service with some concern.  

The Health Service will always be a work-inprogress with constant evolution. Improvements will be hard won and often not even acknowledged. There are a lot of talented and dedicated people working hard for these improvements, and if you take a look over the years, the quality of service has steadily improved. But the inescapable facts are that patient expectations and clinical breakthroughs are making the service more expensive than we can afford so choices will need to be made.

And then came the opportunity at BT.  

Did it intrigue you that a company that had gone through so much change, was still focused on growth? Growth was one of the things that attracted me to BT. Over the past few years the share price has grown 160 percent, while the FTSE grew 45 percent. The business has been through an impressive period of turnaround and the challenge I took on was how we could develop a culture for growth. The other thing that attracted me to BT was its heritage. I believe that post banking crisis in particular, corporations have a responsibility, not only to grow and make healthy returns, but also to play their part. BT’s track record in making a difference to communities is well established which connected well to my personal values.

How difficult it is to make sure that you are covering all bases, so that the focus isn't too narrow and concentrated, at the detriment to other areas?  

That’s where the power of strong teams comes in. We quickly laid out a change programme to improve our organisational health and performance and we got our leaders involved. We also clarified our values and leadership behaviours, since these are so much more powerful than rules. Furthermore, we shone a light on our capability, to see where we needed to invest in skills and development on the frontline. This is a really important piece of work because we needed to make the connection between our services and our customer and the capability needed to deliver and improve. It was important that we didn’t just mess around with the edges but get straight to the heart of the issues and take direct and deliberate actions.

It sounds as if there was a lot of operational and cultural change, that's never easy.  

It is a work-in-progress and we’re still working on it. But this is a great business and technology moves quickly which creates its own energy. A terrific example is that there were more Tweets sent on a single day during London 2012 Olympics than during the entire Beijing Olympics, and that gives you a very good picture of the massive increases in capacity and demand on technology in just four years.

Tell us about BT Sport and the other platforms that are planned.  

We’re shaking up the market and we’re returning sport to grassroots fans. For the first time in more than 20 years, weekly live matches from the Barclays Premier League are free to watch. Our three channels, BT Sport 1, BT Sport 2, and ESPN, will be packed with world class sport. We have some great talent lined up for BT Sport including; Jake Humphrey, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen, Lawrence Dallaglio and others. We think this is the most exciting change in the UK TV marketplace for 20 years. It’s a longterm investment for us, and we’re absolutely committed to making it a success.

How are you up-skilling and re-skilling to meet the needs of the new and future platforms?  

It’s well reported that there is a lack of engineering skills, has this presented a problem for BT recruiting for this capability? There’s lots you can do, for instance, during turnaround, BT established a Transition Centre, and within five years around 21,000 people have been through the Centre. We have focused on up-skilling, retraining and redeploying them into new roles. This has been a huge investment in BT people, which is appropriate, because we have a lot to do. As it stands, we currently have one of the fastest fibre rollouts in the world. Our network now covers about 16 million premises. A big part of achieving, maintaining and growing that is obviously, to equip the workforce and ensure we have enough engineers. Part of the solution for us has been to partner with the armed forces and hire engineers from there. The recruitment and development of apprentices has always been an important part of our recruitment activity.

Give us an idea about the plans of extending BT’s reach internationally?  

BT already has a significant presence outside of the UK, and most of our lines of business have employees across the world. While our largest presence has historically been in Europe, we are seeing expansion in the growing economies, such as Asia and Latam. BT has been strongest in supporting large global corporations and ensuring their connectivity across the world, as most of our key clients can testify. However, recently we have also been able to take some of our deep expertise in the UK – such as our work with the health sector – and apply it to countries like Australia and Singapore. Our international presence will continue to be customer centric and drive internal improvements in how we do business in our expanding world, driving quality gains, speed and reducing costs, alongside our focus in maximising our customers’ time, be it professionally or personally.

Every business is international in some shape or form these days, and the innovations above are keeping BT at the cutting edge, becoming a bigger and bigger player in the industry has naturally had a profound impact on the way we work, and on our HR function: we are operating in a truly global environment and, as a function, we are striving to keep abreast of the biggest demographic and employment trends, to ensure that we can keep serving our global customers in the best way. Communications is all about contact with people remote from yourself, and our business is making both our customers and our employees feel that there is no real distance between them at all.

What are you doing to make sure HR is in shape to serve the business, as it embarks on these significant challenges?  

We’ve just invested over £60m in developing new HR and systems and capability. This will give us a fantastic opportunity to modernise and speed up what we do, so we can be more responsive to what the business needs from us. As Group HR Director, it must be tough to keep an eye on the small detail, when so much is going on at one time, on such a gigantic scale. This is where it would be wrong to over-emphasise my role. What I do is to provide leadership to great people and teams. I believe we have the opportunity to be standard setters for what is possible in HR and some of the early results are proving that it’s right to be aiming high. There’s more to do but we’re well up for it.