Tanith what was it that made you decide that HR was your career destiny?
Funnily enough, the reasons I first got into HR are not the same reasons that would encourage me to advise someone to pursue a career in HR today. My route in was via my academic studies – I did a four year sandwich degree in Business Studies, sponsored by British Aerospace. In my third year, having covered marketing, economics and finance, I specialised in employment law. This area of study excited me much more than the prospect of a career in aeronautical engineering which would have been a very different destiny! so I began an evening diploma in HR to supplement my studies.
My first HR role was with Prudential Financial Services and this early part of my career remained focussed on employment law and employee relations. At this point in time, the industry was heavily unionised, so as a young graduate it offered me a really exciting, albeit challenging, opportunity to put into practice the theory I’d read about for the past four years. However, if a young graduate or school-leaver was to ask me today, “why HR”? I would tell them that it offers a career full of opportunities. The real beauty of HR is that it allows you to work in any sector. I’ve been very fortunate to work in; financial services, FMCG, hospitality and retail, both in the UK and internationally. It’s such a transferable skill. When I started 30 years ago, HR was more about the management of day-to-day staff matters. Now, working in HR places you right at the heart of a business – as you have a fundamental role to play in supporting the delivery of the business strategy through the People Agenda.
When did the more strategic elements of HR start to interest you?
About five years into my career, the perception of HR began to change within businesses. For the first time HR was starting to be seen as a key business partner. Employers started to shift their thinking – seeing HR not simply as an administrative or legislative requirement but as a tool that could make a positive difference to business performance. Areas such as employee reward, employee engagement, training and development, for example, we’re no longer just ‘tick box’ activities and the focus for HR professionals was instead to deliver real return on investment for these programmes. I relished this change in focus and believe this was a real turning point for the profession, putting HR on the agenda at the most senior levels of business. Of course, this was only the beginning and each of these areas – indeed the whole HR agenda – has advanced, embedded and grown increasingly sophisticated along the way. The businesses that really ‘get’ HR, in terms of adding value to the bottom line, are the organisations that have really grown and prospered – especially in difficult economic times. For me, the day that HR doesn’t add that value, you have to question, why does it even exist?
How did you find negotiating with unions, as a young woman, not long graduated?
Like everything, progressing in this area was all about building relationships – developing good rapport and trust with employees and trade union representatives, delivering clear communications and promoting the feeling that people are involved. If you crack that, you can make a difference and it eventually gets easier as you develop your ability to empathise, whilst at the same time holding the lines for what the business needs to achieve. Sure it was tough going, but I very much believe that with challenge comes opportunity. Working in this field in the 1980s, a time when unions were incredibly vocal and industrial action was high on the political agenda, meant my area of responsibility was under the spotlight, really helping me develop skills that would become invaluable later in my career.
There was a lot of change happening in the financial sector at this time, from an HR point of view, a crash course?
It was incredibly fast paced, yes, but the growing recognition of the role HR could play in areas such as mergers and acquisitions meant that, to a degree, HR was pushing on an open door. This increasing acknowledgment of HR’s value was happening at a time of rapid expansion for Prudential – when the business was making entry into emerging markets in Asia, moving into Australia and further into mainland Europe. Being part of the HR set up gave me access to different business units across Prudential, and gave me my first taste of international experience.
Again, a daunting career prospect, how did you prepare for such a massive responsibility?
It was a steep learning curve, most certainly. There were the basics to learn, such as the particular customs associated with doing business in different cultures. It was a real eye opener but you quickly learn to respect and operate within these parameters. Of course, there were bigger, more complex HR challenges associated with working in multiple markets, especially when you consider that this was over 20 years ago. Take for example, how you manage compensation benefits. Every country follows different employment rules and regulations and is subject to different tax laws, so everything has to be tailored to the specific market. During this period of my career I was, quite understandably, doing a vast amount of international travel, incurring flight and hotel costs. The company culture at the time placed a real emphasis on justifying your expense and showing a real return on the investment made in you. I think this was a very good grounding for my future career, where to this day, I place real importance on demonstrating value for money.
In terms of HR, the UK must have been considerably more advanced than the emerging markets in which you were getting involved?
You have to remember we are talking about the late 1980’s. So yes, the UK model was certainly more advanced in terms of employment structure. Working in less developed markets meant we had to adopt a self-efficient attitude – quickly installing robust employment policy and building local HR capabilities.
You've now worked in retail for around ten years – first with WH Smith?
Yes. Like finance, retail was another fast-paced sector. My switch to retail certainly shows the transferable nature of HR, but I have to admit there were similarities with financial services. Once again, I joined at a moment of real change for the business. When I joined in 2003, WH Smith had a global presence but, like many other businesses, it had been affected by the global market downturn of the early noughties and of course, the impact of the 9/11 events. WH Smith had a strong hold in travel hubs too – with shops in airports and hotels. However, the business required a retraction from its international plans to focus on the domestic, UK business. It was a challenging people agenda – not only moving away from the more international business but at the same time completing the demerger of the publishing business and the news distribution business.
So why then M&S, – what were you looking for?
M&S holds a special place in the affections of the British public – it's an incredible brand and has been on the High Street for a 127 years. Within the business we often refer to it as a 'taxi driver' business, i.e. it's one of the few brands that everyone has an opinion on – for good or bad. This also means there are high expectations attached to M&S from both our customers and our people. I joined Marks & Spencer nearly four years ago in 2008. Like many of our employees, part of the attraction was working for a brand with such a longstanding reputation of putting its people first, but the challenge that comes from working for a company that is under continual public scrutiny also appealed to me.
There are certain things, like employee loyalty, commitment and pride in the brand, which are part of the Marks & Spencer DNA and we have to ensure they don’t change. Our founder, Michael Marks, built the business culture on a simple belief that: “a happier workforce is a more productive workforce”. It sounds obvious but it is something to keep striving for and during my time here has underpinned our areas of focus. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the responsibility M&S feels towards its people and the communities it operates within is in Plan A – our eco and ethical plan. We know that, increasingly, employees want to feel that their employer cares not only about them as individuals, but about wider society. Based on seven pillars – from being a fair partner to encouraging health & well-being – we use Plan A to ensure our people are emotionally engaged in social responsibility and understand our operational impact on the environment.
Whilst employee engagement is sometimes a bit of a buzzword, for M&S it really is about living the brand, another well-worn phrase, but nevertheless crucial. As well as promoting our ethos through Plan A, there has to be an onus on product and understanding customer needs and expectations. You can have great product in stores, but if your people are not engaged, it significantly undermines good customer experience. It’s also important that people understand the needs and goals of the business. Every employee should have the chance to understand the role they play in delivering these plans so they feel aligned and committed to a shared ambition. That’s really key for us, and we invest in measuring levels of staff engagement and understanding through an annual employee opinion survey our ‘Your Say Survey’.
Generally, in terms of high-calibre recruiting, retail has never been perceived as a desirable career platform.
I couldn’t disagree more! I think the perception of retail as a career has changed significantly over recent years. For example, this year we had over 11,500 applicants for approximately 200 graduate places. Today, retail is one of the top employers in the UK, in terms of size and numbers. Increasingly people are recognising the career prospects it offers ? with more international focus and opportunities arising through advancement in technology and new shopping channels, such as mobile commerce. We’re attracting high calibre candidates. For instance, I’ve met candidates from our school leaver – trainee management programme, joining us with straight A’s at A-level, opting for a career in retail over a redbrick university. We’ve also introduced an MBA programme working with the London Business School.
Over recent years, there’s been a drive from the industry to promote retail as a career, particularly the progression that is available. Within M&S, there are countless examples of people who have risen right through the ranks, including John Dixon, a current M&S Board Director, who joined as a school leaver over 20 years ago. It’s such a diverse industry, offering roles you would not imagine from social media specialists, through to food product development. It’s all about giving people the right opportunity. Whether you join on a degree programme, an MBA or through the customer assistant route, there is a structured route for progression. At the end of the day it’s about the individual desire to progress and providing the right platform to facilitate that happening. It’s essential that we continue to look ahead to ensure we have a pipeline of talent to help us achieve our long? term goals. Attracting and retaining capable and engaged people is part of this talent agenda.
And there is a great deal of change in graduate recruitment and an increasing emphasis on apprenticeship programmes.
At M&S we offer a long-standing graduate scheme, as well as a trainee management scheme for school leavers. However, as with many employers, I think the biggest challenge we face in recruitment is a misunderstanding of what the world of work looks like. Businesses need to work closely with educational institutions to help bridge the gap between academia and the work place, to give students practical opportunities to develop business-relevant skills. Many young people say they learn best outside the classroom – and businesses should open their doors to students – it’s in everyone’s interest. We offer over 2500 work experience and business placements to students every year – allowing them two weeks with us, to get some hands-on insight and find out more about the work place. Making work experience opportunities inspiring and insightful, also benefits businesses. Getting involved in education brings development opportunities for existing staff, improves links with the local community and offers another route to attract talent to our business.
As a customer, there is a discernable quality in customer service that you don’t get in many high street brand outlets.
Service is one of our core values at M&S and, as you would expect, we take customer service seriously and invest in training programmes. Importantly, we recognise and reward great service, through programmes such as our ‘spot-light awards, which provides on-the-spot recognition in store, through to our annual great service awards, which is always a highlight on the calendar for me. Generally, I believe people are proud to work for M&S and so you get that follow-through. As I said earlier, given the affection felt for M&S, people expect high standards and employees genuinely want to uphold its reputation.
And what needs to be done now, in terms of the business plan?
Last November, we set out our ambitions to grow M&S to become a truly international, multi-channel retailer. We said at the time – though we have over 360 stores in around 42 countries – we have essentially been a UK retailer that exports. Over the last year we have begun work to change that thinking and build a structure that supports a more international outlook, for example integrating our international buying teams into our central buying function. We are also expanding internationally, this Autumn we will return to France and will continue our growth in priority markets such as India and the Shanghai region of China. We are also focused on building skills in our growth areas, particularly multi-channel and in February this year we recruited Laura Wade-Gery as Executive Director, Multi-channel Ecommerce. HR now needs to continue to ensure we have the right people and skills in place to deliver our plans.
And HR remains integral to achieving these international aspirations.
Absolutely, in each market we operate we need to ensure we have the right local talent, inspired with clear business goals. When working across multiple international markets there isn’t one prescriptive way of embedding HR into different countries. However, there has to be a practical approach that identifies best practice. As we progress into a more internationally?minded organisation – it is not only about bringing more international talent into the business and developing internal talent, it’s about good communication too. We work closely with our employee communications teams, to ensure all employees are engaged in the business plans – establishing the right rhythm and the routine, with direction on what needs to be done and the context of why we are doing things. Ultimately, it’s a very exciting time to be part of the business.
Do staff use networking in any official or unofficial medium?
At a more formal level, we have an employee involvement group called “BIG” (business involvement group). This is a group of 3500 elected employee representatives – who we regularly meet to discuss general business matters and consult with them on various topics when needed. We also host a regular retail conference to bring together our store managers to talk through the priorities for the trading period ahead. There is also more informal networking – I suppose team building really – as we encourage bonding through activities like our annual fundraising challenge. We promote groups to work together, with matched fundraising when more than five M&S employees are involved. In addition we offer volunteer days – which teams often choose to take collectively.
Why do you think that you have managed to carve a successful career in HR?
I suppose it’s ultimately because I see myself as a business person who is genuinely interested in people. A business cannot operate without its people and that’s what makes working in HR so exciting for me. It’s not ‘HR’ per say, it’s simply the people side of the business. I also strongly believe that the responsibility for people does not lie solely with HR. I’ve long been an advocate that managers, wherever they work in a business, must promote the people agenda. HR practitioners must build the platform and tools to deliver good practice, but we’re all responsible for developing and engaging our people.