Progress comes through challenging conversations
Progress comes through challenging conversations
OF ALL THE REASONS TO CHOOSE A CAREER, LIVED EXPERIENCE IS MOST PROFOUND. FROM AN EARLY AGE, JAMES MILLER DISCOVERED THAT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FEELING GREAT AND AWFUL AT WORK DEPENDED UPON PEOPLE, MINDSETS, CULTURES AND BEHAVIOURS. THAT HE THEN DECIDED TO DEDICATE HIS LIFE TO MAKING THE FUTURE OF WORK BETTER THAN THE PAST FOR EVERYONE, IS COMPELLING AND COMMENDABLE. HERE’S HIS STORY.
I have an older brother and we were always competitive – I think it made me ambitious – and my parents always taught me the value of hard work. If I wanted something, I had to buy it myself and I had a great Saturday job when I was a young teenager, in a garden centre. But a moment that really stands out in my mind was when there was a change of General Manager and the whole culture of the place shifted and I didn’t like it anymore, so I left a job that I absolutely loved. I wrote to the owners, pointing out where a lot of negative changes had been brought in with the new management and they invited me in to talk to them, which resulted in a whole load of changes within the organisation, to address the situation and I returned to the job for a couple more years. It was only later that I realised as a previously somewhat naïve teenager, what had happened at the garden centre. It was discrimination – although I didn’t think it was discrimination at the time – but I look back and now know that it absolutely was. The name-calling and the tasks I was assigned, it was clear that I was being treated unfairly and it didn’t make me feel good. But it was during the course of my time at Tesco later on in my teen years, that I came across “the people function” and realised jobs existed to stop my previous experience happening to others. Supporting people to reach their potential and enjoy their time at work, in a safe, fair and inclusive environment, has been important to me ever since. I decided to study for a business and finance HND, because I wanted a rounded business experience, but I knew that I wanted to pursue HR as a career. It isn’t always nice work, but ultimately, it’s very purposeful and you can really influence the livelihoods of a lot of people. That’s why I’m passionate about the overall employee experience, but also the importance of inclusion, which has always been a thread for me.
I was the first person in my family to go into higher education and that gave me real impetus to make the most of my studies. I studied for two years for my HND, as well as a top-up degree focusing on HR modules and had the choice to take an unplanned year out. An opportunity came up at Tesco’s head office, in what was called the European Personnel Department. At the time, the strategy was to expand Tesco stores overseas and the head of my course at university encouraged me to grasp the opportunity. I came into contact with people from all sorts of cultures and backgrounds across central Europe and Asia and it was quite a high-profile function that the Tesco Board was investing time in. So, when I returned back to my studies, I had garnered some incredibly useful experience and contacts. I finished my degree and went back to Tesco in a similar role, but after a short time, as part of their “talent spotting” programmes, I was encouraged to apply for a vacancy as a Training Manager, which again, gave me great exposure to a broad group of people across the business and set me on my way. I could see myself at Tesco for life; it’s such a big organisation and I felt confident in my capability, to the point that when the international HR Director said, “what’s your ambition?” I answered, “your job in five years’ time!” I think that sums up the tone for the ambition and the energy I was putting into my career. But I remember delivering some training one day to a group of managers and saying: “Hi, I’m James and I’ve been at Tesco for about a third of my life.” It was tongue in cheek, but also a moment of realisation and I was training people who had been with the organisation for a lot longer and I thought, is that what I want? There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you want. I guess that’s the tough calls you make in your career, when you’re feeling comfortable, maybe that’s the time to jump.
I thought that I wanted to test myself with a shock move, as opposed to safe, incremental change that typified my career path so far with Tesco. An opportunity came up with the Thresher Group – a sizable venture capital backed business at the time, with around 2000 shops – but I didn’t know too much about the company. However, the remit of the role was a huge step up, responsible for all generic training across the group, in areas such as performance management and product knowledge. They were surprisingly contrite; there was so much focus on profit and none on the employee experience. This led to very high staff attrition, which meant that the training wasn’t improving customer experience. So, it dawned on me quickly that no matter what training I delivered, there was a lot of inconsistency and I realised that I’d made a mistake with that move. I chalked it up as one of life’s experiences and decided to move on.
I took some time out. I’ve completed a few property renovations over the years and I took another one on, while I thought about the next move. It turns out a couple of months ripping out an old kitchen, plumbing and tiling was exactly what I needed – I absolutely love that sort of work – then through someone I know, I was approached about a temporary job at Heal’s, the luxury home furnishings retailer. Although I was enjoying the building work, there’s always that paranoia that the world is moving on without you and so I gratefully accepted a role responsible for rolling out management training, as well as improving their HR systems and processes. It soon became a full-time role and I really enjoyed this well organised and great cultured business, helped along by Heal’s being a brand that I absolutely loved. In fact, I was so happy there that I stayed much longer than planned. But there was something niggling me about my career and finally it dawned on me that it was entirely founded in retail and I then realised that should be the concentrate of my next change. I also knew that I wanted to focus on being a standalone HR practitioner for the first time and an opportunity came along at i-level, one of the most prominent and renowned digital media agencies at the time. The Group MD had previously put in place HR policies and practices and I became the first HR practitioner in the business. i-level, at the time, was fastgrowing, servicing all sorts of well-known brands, with digital advertising, pay-perclick and SEO media – which was all new at the time – and the business had rapidly doubled in size. I had the opportunity to influence the HR practice across the company and be involved in management and strategic business decisions, which was a great all-round experience. But there was a lot of volatility around the tech markets and because i-level was so ambitious, it was reliant on equity funding and suddenly, the writing was on the wall. The CEO called me early one morning and he said, “we need to bring everyone in the office, there’s bad news… the business will shut” and we closed the agency down that day. We had 165 great people in the room and after sharing the news we said, “this agency has a brilliant reputation, don’t go to the pub, even though that’s what you want to do right now”. We invited our competitors in and held what was effectively a careers fair, to find places for our fantastic people. I’m proud that within a week of the agency collapsing, about half the team had secured new roles in other agencies.
There’s nothing to be recommended about watching something you’ve built up collapse, but it’s all about taking the rough with the smooth and I’m proud that we looked after our people. For me, I needed time to reflect and also decide on the future and I realised that I wanted to stay in the tech market. Then a strange thing happened, I interviewed with a startup and thought that it would come to fruition when the MD said, “we can’t actually offer you the job and I’m not sure I can tell you why.” That was interesting and I took an interim role. Then Adobe was in touch and said, “we’ve acquired this business that you interviewed with once, they speak very highly of you and we would like to consider you for a role.” Subsequently, I joined Adobe at a time of great change for the business, recalibrating the operations and resizing the organisation in Southern Europe. During my interviews they enquired about my future ambition and I said I’d love to work in the US. Then just as I was beginning to find my feet in the business the CHRO said, “would you consider a new role in California?” The offer was in a very different area of the business – going from the digital media side to the creative product part. The timing was great because my then partner – now husband – also had the opportunity to relocate with his business, so it felt like this happened for a reason. So, we moved to California and loved it out there, but I found it more challenging in a head office environment of a business, where there were so many layers of hierarchy, which could be frustrating. I was more used to freedom and autonomy and leaders that didn’t want to be bogged down with the minutiae, so this was a different work culture. Then during a visit home, I found out that my Dad was unwell and having previously had a similar experience with my Mum too, this culminated in me thinking that I needed to move home to be closer to them. We loved our California adventure and Adobe was a great company to work for, but I knew Mum and Dad needed me.
My partner Jon and I said our goodbyes for the time being and Jon was due to follow on back to the UK a couple of months later. I’ve probably not said this enough, but I am so grateful for his support in my career. I flew from California on a Friday and started at GBG the following Monday. This was 2015 and from then until now, the company has transformed from a small to a mid-size company. It’s a business about building trust around digital for consumers and brands, through identity verification, fraud prevention and location intelligence. Up to this point, the company was a Northwest-only business, but had been through a number of acquisitions, building an international operation through expansion and growth. So, in the first seven weeks, I travelled around many countries and met about half the team, just to listen to the challenges they were experiencing and I was somewhat relieved that the issues were the practical HR staples around recruitment and resourcing, reward, the need to improve L&D and communications. My focus was on the foundations to bring some quick results and win trust and kudos. Beyond that, the business had never had a people plan, plus it had quite a transactional, HR function which was renowned for being quite bureaucratic. There was a lot of HR policy on the shelf when I arrived, most of which was scrapped and before long, I was standing before the Board presenting the People Plan and they greenlighted it there and then.
This was the first time I was in charge of a plan that would directly influence change within a business of very passionate people. Engagement wasn’t just talked about, it was how we operated and, for the first time, I experienced that fundamentally important dynamic between the CEO, CFO and CHRO. My time between then and now, has been about rolling out this plan and now it really is a completely different business. We’ve gone from 400 team members, mainly based in the UK, to over 1200, with the majority mainly outside the UK. The whole business proposition has shifted, as well as the revenue profile, over the eight years I’ve been here.
To a degree yes, but it was important not to be UK-centric and mired in policy. In a quick-changing environment like this sector, everything needs to be agile and ready to evolve. If everyone perceives HR operations as a fixed rulebook, it’s going to constrain and delay thinking and response time and that’s something a business like this cannot afford. For me, it’s not about providing an HR function, it’s about bringing the employee experience to life, incorporating talent, recruitment, physical and virtual spaces, the tools that people need and use day-to-day and the way we communicate. All of those things and more are encompassed within the function, to provide that experience. This approach enables us to present things in a different way and the need to change is not just because there’s a legislative or policy change, it’s always informed by the focus on the employee experience.
Eight years ago, when I first joined GBG, there wasn’t the shared relationship and management behaviour that was needed to support meaningful momentum in DEI. There was a desire to improve the situation, but no real action and so we first introduced a proper focus on diversity and inclusion about five years ago. We already had the first phase of our People Plan completed and incorporated the DEI plan within the overall Employee Experience plan called be@GBG – be/ hired, be/developed, be/rewarded and be/ connected – these were the pillars of the original plan – now along with the all-important be/yourself, which underpins everything and is a message you can see everywhere at GBG. As part of the overall Employee Experience, we have introduced actual inclusion programmes, opening up conversations across a lot of cultures internationally, which was challenging. For example, we have a large development centre in Kuala Lumpur, where diversity and inclusion wasn’t on the agenda for a conversation five years ago and although it was frustrating, we knew that any progress can only be made through challenging conversations, being respectful of differences in cultures and unambiguous about values and objectives for DEI. Fundamentally, a rich mix of culture and experience is essential to the dynamics of a competitive business today and it is essential we’re representing the communities we are serving, as an identity business. It’s important that we understand that identities differ for everyone and those characteristics are significant.
We’ve teams in China and across Southeast Asia, so we could see the sentiment and the concern building before the media started alerting the public in the UK. We were listening to our teams, about their concerns from what they were seeing, hearing and experiencing. We had already decided as a leadership team that we were going to go fully remote before any Government announcements about working from home. As we built the people plan, one of the principles we put in place was that recruitment tools, onboarding, learning and development, should be accessible to all, irrespective of location, in preparation for our global expansion plan. Our tools and processes had to be digital for that to work and above all, everything needed flexibility. So, when we decided to go fully remote, we literally flicked the switch overnight. Communication was key and Chris Clark, the CEO and I had always held monthly live webinars – because of the time zones in the business we do them at different times in the day – so all team members have the opportunity to attend. But when the pandemic hit, we decided to make them weekly and post-pandemic, we are still holding these webinars to date. We also completely changed our approach to work flexibility and our team members were looking for reassurance that we would not revert to what were now seen as outdated ways of working. We provided this reassurance through our ‘Work When & Where You Want’ policy, which provides just that to all team members – flexibility on timing and place of work – irrespective of role or employment location. It’s all centred on trusting our team to deliver.
We have a strong mandate in employee voice being integral to the meritocracy within employee experience and we’ve a very open-minded approach to our people giving their honest opinion and feedback, which you have to accept with a certain amount of pragmatism. There are a broad range of perspectives globally on sensitive issues but, of course, you do have to call out when someone is being disrespectful and that has to be balanced with openness to listen and answer questions. However, you have to set boundaries and make it clear what you do and don’t accept, in terms of commentary around certain topics. It’s an understanding that openness, communication and transparency comes with responsibility. As a rapidly growing, international organisation across a number of territories with a wide variety of cultures and beliefs, if and when we see inequality and injustice, whether that be racial or gender inequality, we always act. It’s an area that I’m passionate about and the teams know that as I’m the chair of our committee for DEI in the business. They raise concerns and issues and we regularly arrange for external speakers. I recently invited someone in to talk about their own experience of being transgender and out in the workplace. You might assume that only certain people in certain cultures would be interested in joining a webinar like that, but we found that people across the business chose to join, because people are open to those perspectives and to their own education around these matters. It’s important that this isn’t some sort of preachy morality tale, it’s about giving people balanced information for them to make their own discoveries, opinions and behaviours. Many of the topics we deal with are complex human issues, which cannot be sorted out with wise words on a wall, people need to interact and contribute to make real progress in DEI. The capacity to be yourself underpins everything that we are and as I said earlier, helps in building trust in a digital world. It all starts with trusting our teams and building their trust and that relies upon open conversations and strength of relationships.
I am pleased that there’s more open conversation and a platform to make progress, which was very different to when I joined the workplace 25 years ago. I’m mindful of this when I do talks at different companies and I reflect back to my early experiences at Tesco, where there were other people who I knew were gay, but thought it would be best not to talk about it. That can never be right and I’m certain that probably pushed me back a long way, but it’s made me more determined to try and make a difference. At GBG, we carry out a voluntary data collection exercise across the business on all sorts of characteristics, including LGBTQ+. Roughly half our team globally have chosen to voluntarily provide us with their data and that’s extremely powerful and we are very respectful of this. So, as with all things in life, I’m optimistic about the steps forward, but also mindful and somewhat frustrated with the rainbow-washing you see with some organisations and brands. It’s one thing to announce that you celebrate Pride Month and raise a rainbow flag, but the crux is, do the principles of those businesses hold up? So, I’m pleased that there’s more discussion and respectful conversation, but unquestionably, there’s an awful lot more to do. The UK is going back on a number of indices, in comparison to other countries, which is concerning. That’s not necessarily because our Government is taking away rights, but actually, they’re not improving them either. By comparison, other countries are advancing quicker than us and the UK needs to be a recognised leader.
GBG as a business is very fortunate, because there is massive growth and increasing complexity in the digital security markets. Our expertise and services are critical to the safety of banks and other financial services, insurers and other tech firms. So, there is a lot of growth and new market opportunities opening up. In some respects, it’s a challenge for us to make the right choices and prioritisations and we have to adjust to being a mid-sized and growing business, now competing against small, nimble and very wellfunded startups that don’t need to be profitable. We’re also mindful that there are some bigger businesses in our markets, that have been left behind, unable to pivot and manoeuvre. We’re a pure play business and we see lots of opportunities and we are only too aware that talented people are the designers of tomorrow and that is why we are so determined to make the employee experience as comprehensive and attractive as we can. I feel very positive about that, but there is no room for complacency. Treating everyone as individuals, recognising that one-size-doesn’t-fit-all and being very authentic in our leadership is paramount to ensuring people, however dispersed physically they might be, mentally connect with their work and the organisation. People want to feel the purpose of what they’re doing and I think GBG has an opportunity to give people very purposeful work at the cutting edge of technology. In HR, I believe it’s our job to make sure they understand that connection.
Employee engagement is increasingly important in changing the way we’re all working, as it’s more than just creating a happy workforce. We need our team members to feel the mental and emotional connection towards what they do and the businesses they work for. Having purposeful work is extremely important to everyone and it goes beyond rewards and remuneration. As the world recovers from the pandemic and we face more uncertain futures, for a number of reasons, we do have an opportunity to build and sustain really good employee engagement, create inclusive workplaces, a safe working environment and culture that enables everyone to thrive and not have to hide their true, authentic selves. Diversity, equality and inclusion are more than just a few principles in a set of stated values, they need to underpin everything in an engagement strategy. It needs to build into other programmes and strategies, be clear and open, well communicated from the top down and be authentic and aligned around values that give people freedom and opportunity. This leads to the right overall employee experience which has been a golden thread for us. As we evolve and grow as a business, the importance of listening to our teams and building on the feedback they provide us day-to-day, so our programmes and our policies focus on the things that are important to them, as well as the business, is fundamental.
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