Julia Dell

For England, New Zealand 2011 was a World Cup campaign that is best forgotten, but it can’t be. For the RFU, the cumulative reasons that led to the disappointment, and a World Cup to host in 2015, means big challenges are being met head on. Julia Dell, new to the role of HR Director, is in the thick of it. Jason Spiller interviews.


For England, New Zealand 2011 was a World Cup campaign that is best forgotten, but it can’t be. For the RFU, the cumulative reasons that led to the disappointment, and a World Cup to host in 2015, means big challenges are being met head on. Julia Dell, new to the role of HR Director, is in the thick of it. Jason Spiller interviews.

Julia, give us an idea of your early life and career and what it was about HR that inspired you?  

Like a number of HR professionals, I ended up in HR by accident. I studied law and fully intended to be a lawyer, but after a short period in a legal practice, quickly concluded that it wasn’t for me. So I went travelling to America, stayed there for almost a year until I knew that I needed to come back to the real world to consider my career options. My law credentials got me into a temping HR role and I immediately felt a synergy and a connection with the legal piece, obviously an area of expertise for all HR professionals. Unquestionably though for me, it was really the people agenda that inspired me, together with having that holistic knowledge across an organisation, and an empathy with each function. I really felt it was a privileged position to be in. I decided to study for my CIPD and looked for a role in HR, and my first permanent post was in a company called Innovations, which became part of the Burton, then Arcadia group. This is where I built the foundations of my career and I was lucky to make the best of some great training, worked with some fantastic people, faced big challenges and was fortunate enough to get significant exposure in all aspects of HR.

From an HR perspective what was the big agenda in retail at that time?  

It sounds obvious but retail is a highly commercial, fast-moving environment, and it is imperative that you to know the trade. To be credible you have to be business-minded and to understand, not just the people aspects of the role, but just as importantly the brand, the product and all of the trading details. It was a great platform and it developed my commercial acumen, which has been essential throughout my career. At Arcadia, first thing every Monday morning, I attended trading meetings, which covered the details of what was selling and what was not, and it was crucial to understand the numbers and the logistics of the operation: HR was a fully-integrated part of the business and looking back, without doubt, I couldn’t have had a better starting place.

Conscious that my career up to to that date was in retail, I felt I needed to build my portfolio and experience in a new industry, so I made a move into media, with Showtime, a Viacom company, involved with the distribution of western and American TV into the Middle East. I then continued in media with a move to Channel 5, and I was there during significant change and relished the highly- commercial and competitive environment. The majority of revenue was advertising sales, but there was significant diversification in the market and it was rapidly and radically shifting. It was becoming increasingly competitive with a growing number of channels and an expansion in the way content was distributed. We launched two new digital channels and were resourcing and managing the drive in online and digital content and, towards the end of my career at Channel 5, the business was being prepared for sale. There were serious change management issues as well as preparing the business to think differently about its content and delivery. It was a real challenge in re-education, development and talent resourcing.

And talent will forever be the taxing issue for HR in any organisation.  

Yes, particularly one in a fast- moving, technology-driven market. You have to think creatively about your talent pool, traditional talent management does not work. As well as feverishly developing your internal pool, you have to ensure your attractiveness to talent in the market to ensure you can retain that creativity.

Of all the things you had learnt so far in your career what was the one attribute that helped you achieve?  

Without doubt, from a personal, as well as a business and HR perspective, it was about being creative; understanding the creative and innovative expectations of the market place, which was constantly changing, keeping ahead of the market place and importantly being mindful of the next big thing. As always, content was king, platform delivery key, and it was about meeting those demands through talent development and attraction and recruitment. Following four great years at Channel 5, I decided to develop my personal portfolio further and made the move into consultancy. I have a family and decided it was a good time to take stock.

I’ve heard it often said about HR consultancy, that you see things clearer as an outsider, coming into an organisation without huge emotional attachment. Has that been your experience?  

I have found consultancy very liberating; it enables you to apply your expertise in a clear and concise way. The rules of engagement in consultancy mean that you’re contracted on the basis of your expertise, so your specialisms are what you bring to an organisation. The relationship, from point one, is the ability to maintain complete objectivity. As an internal HR professional, you can become entrenched in your organisation, no matter how much you try to maintain your objectivity, but as a consultant it’s really powerful for keeping that clarity of vision. You understand the issues but don’t get into the politics of the organisation, and it gives you a huge amount of confidence and autonomy to influence and demonstrate your value in the business. Also, from a career point of view, consultancy does expose you to a huge range of opportunities. In consultancy, quite often the brief you start with is not the brief you end up working with, developing and agreeing the brief with the client is essential to ensuring you deliver what the client actually wants. But that’s the challenge, to determine what is really required. One of my last consultancy posts was at Arsenal Football club which was fascinating.

And it was as a consultant that you came into the RFU, with some very obvious HR challenges to deal with, not to mention a World Cup to host in 2015.  

Originally, it was a six month contract, but being a rugby fan and experiencing the passion and commitment to the game from those you work with, I felt it was a unique place to work and an easy place to fall in love with! Clearly the organisation has some challenges but then so does every organisation and I was brought in to help with those. My decision to become permanent was simply to do with the unique remit of the organisation. The RFU is more than about making money, it is a National Governing Body with an obligation to developing the game of Rugby in England, increasing participation and enjoyment of the game from grass roots up. Staging one of the biggest sporting events in the world as hosts of the 2015 Rugby World Cup is pretty attractive too. When you take all of that into consideration, I felt privileged to be offered the role.

How did you begin to assimilate the detail within the organisation, its set up, and decide on the course of objectives?  

As with all roles, I learnt about the business of the organisation by getting involved in all areas and understanding the priorities for the role of HR. If there was a list of importance, first up was that there was no permanent CEO. I joined just as an acting CEO was appointed, the previous CEO had recently left the business and there needed to be some clarity around the business as to why this had happened. It was necessary to provide an open and honest explanation, to set the scene for the way the new leadership team intended to behave and authentic leadership has been key in re-engaging our employees and demonstrating a new way of working together.

And the debacle of the England team at the World Cup in New Zealand must not have been helpful, but I guess it brought it all to a head.  

Obviously, things didn’t go how anyone would have hoped they would, but it was important to focus on the positives, namely the passion of this organisation and the commitment and engagement of the employees, as well as more than 40,000 volunteers involved across the game. It is this that brings the changes and improvements necessary to get back on track, and we will get over these challenges. What you see in the press clearly does not represent the scale and depth of the organisation. The press focus on the senior men’s squad, but we have a national women’s team who were finalists in the women’s World Cup last year. We have Sevens squads, under 20s, under 18s and Saxons. We have a wide range of players who have an enormous commitment to the RFU. We have over 2000 clubs which the RFU work with, as well as our huge army of volunteers. So if you look at the organisation as a whole, it’s very complex and so we have to ensure the basics are in place, that the foundations are sound. I’m comfortable we are making great progress and have some incredible opportunities to set the pace and credentials for the future. Rugby Union is one of the biggest sports in our country and of course, we have a huge opportunity and responsibility to plan for the World Cup in 2015. We expect peak performance on and off the pitch and our focus is all about high performance throughout the organisation.

And as you said, you have to get the grassroots right.  

Most definitely, we have a dedicated development team promoting participation, including 120 RFU-appointed rugby coaches, as well as another 50 Regional Rugby Development Officers across England. These work with clubs, schools and universities, coaching and educating people about the game of rugby. All our coaches are nationally qualified and are not just teaching rugby skills but are also training life skills. They work with an extensive range of people, from university graduates to vulnerable adults, as well as young offenders. We’re very confident about the ability of our coaches and our intention is to build and galvanise this, so as the game develops, we have a really solid and professional developmental approach. Shared learning is essential and so, with this in mind, we have introduced a knowledge exchange programme that means all learning at both ends of the game, grassroots to professional, share any learning and development, and we in turn share this with the game. We also work with other rugby nations and are sharing experiences worldwide, which further grows the game.

I am sure you don’t want to dwell on the past, but is it not important to establish what went wrong, and put measures in place to ensure they don’t happen again?  

I think our challenges are obvious, they have been well documented. We are, in media terms, in a goldfish bowl and the spotlight is always on the organisation. We’re all aware of that I assure you. To start to deal with the issues, we had to acknowledge what went wrong and importantly, apologise. We had some difficulties in New Zealand, that’s for sure, and I think recognising and apologising to the nation was an important step, we apologised to our employees and volunteers as well. But part of apologising is to interline a sense of accountability and clear the way to move on. Internally it bears testament to the organisation’s passion and engagement that there is the complete appetite to forgive and progress. We are rebuilding trust and confidence and I think we have made a good start.

Of course, it’s about acknowledgment and more importantly the route forward. There was a robust World Cup Review and part of that review was about addressing what we didn’t get right and why, and it was acknowledged that some of the behaviours at the World Cup were unacceptable, of course. And it’s a question of how do build from that. We have appointed an interim head coach who has taken stock, looked with a fresh pair of eyes and has learnt from things in the past that we could have done differently. Stuart Lancaster is a character who’s very sound and grounded and pragmatic in his approach, and will select people on the basis of being team players. He’s been very well received, as have some of the measures he’s looking at. But it’s not just the senior team, it’s the coaching and development as well, it’s important to learn and benefit from all aspects of the World Cup. Although the media spotlight is on the senior team, that is far from our sole purpose. Every organisation has its difficulties; it’s how they respond that matters. Obviously, such intense media attention is an extra challenge.

There is also a lot of media attention on the senior management at the RFU. Can you appraise us of the situation on the formulation of the new Board?  

The senior management is a newly- formed team. In terms of longer established members, we have Rob Andrew, who is the Professional Rugby Director, Karena Vleck RFU Legal & Governance Director, Richard Knight, our Stadium Director, and our new executives are Sophie Goldschmidt CCO, Steve Grainger, the Rugby Development Director and Steven Brown, the CFO and our acting CEO. The agenda for the executive team is all about capability and enabling a high performing organisation. It’s also the 2015 World Cup and demonstrating collaborative leadership aligned with the values.

So what are the next stages and how will HR contribute to the challenges of stabilisation, moving on and planning for 2015?  

Top of the list is the integration of the new Chief Executive into the organisation and working with the newly- formed executive team, alignment, agreement on objectives and meeting our governing body responsibilities. We’ve been through some of the challenges and we’re far more robust and prepared for what needs to be done. We need to find a permanent head coach which is one of our key objectives and it’s essential to get that right. Encouragingly, I think what have been perceived as challenges are now seen as opportunities, and that is a far better perspective. It’s about listening to our stakeholders because they’re critical to our success, and building on our solid foundations towards 2015 and beyond. And of course we have 2015 is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the RFU, but it is a company in its own right. It has its own board and Chief Executive. The HQ is in Webb Ellis House, located across the road from the Twickenham stadium, and they are very much focused on living, breathing and building the brand. The objective for England Rugby 2015 is clear: to ensure that the “best ever” Rugby World Cup tournament is delivered to world class standards and the legacy beyond 2015 will be fundamental to the success of the game going forward.

And what is your mantra as you go forward and your best hopes for the future of the organisation?  

It’s simply about the RFU being a high performing team, and the 2015 World Cup is a significant focal point of that objective. We are also aiming to win and equally, we are working on a winning strategy off the field. We have a massive opportunity with 2015, we have a new Chief Executive, a newly-formed executive team, a passionate, committed and loyal employees and huge amount of stakeholder involvement. That all makes a firm foundation on which to build.

And taking stock of your role and HR responsibilities, moving from a consultancy perspective to being fully immersed in the organisation.  

I’ve always loved the game and the values it develops in life. Rugby is addictive and I have not experienced this level of passion anywhere else in my career, working with an inspirational group of people on all levels. I think the focus of the organisation and the undaunted commitment is incredibly compelling. Exciting plans are underway over the course of the next few years and our focus is about developing strong leadership and high performance. I have no doubt that we can retain our talent, and we have a massively committed workforce who love what they do.

And a big part of these opportunities is to make the sport available to all, regardless of background or race.  

There is a perception about the profile of the people who play rugby, but I think that’s changing and there is greater awareness that rugby is a sport for all. A diverse participation is essential for the game’s growth and we recognise that. It’s perfectly possible, for example, for a woman to be head coach of the senior squad, if she was the best candidate, no question. Looking back, you cannot overestimate the positive impact of South Africa winning the World Cup as hosts back in 1995. If England wins the Webb Ellis Cup in 2015, it would be such a positive on so many levels. In terms of my own career footnote, if I can play a part in that, and play a role in overcoming some of the other challenges ahead, fantastic!

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