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Interview

Janet Dawson
Group HR Director , Carillion

The construction sector, a hard, tough world of steel and concrete is, paradoxically, ultra sensitive to ebbs and flows, be that economies or key skills shortages. Carillion, one of the world’s big players is thinking laterally, and working hard to attract the broadest demographic to fill the skills gaps, which represent a severe crisis in STEM-related industries. For a sector that lives in long lag, prescience and planning, in a volatile and unpredictable world, these are critical components for the future.

Janet give us an idea of your early life and why you decided on HR?  

I was born in Edinburgh where my parents lived at the time. My father’s career as an electrical engineer meant that we moved around a good deal, particularly during my secondary school phase, so I was used to changes in schools, which surprisingly didn’t faze or disrupt me at all. In fact it helped me gain the ability to get to know people quickly as I had plenty of practice being the “new girl”. I left school after my A Levels and decided that I didn’t want to go to university. Looking back on how my career has gone, I believe that was the right decision for me. I actually took a secretarial course and that allowed me, quite by accident, to enter a career in pension administration and then pension management which has made up the majority of my working life.

Tell us how you left the world of pensions and finally moved across to HR?  

I joined Carillion specifically to set up the pension schemes to receive the transfers from the Tarmac schemes when Carillion demerged from the Tarmac group. I was very fortunate to have an HR Director, Susan Morton, who challenged me to think about broadening my horizons and I went on to set up and run the reward function for the organisation, as a structure to support other benefits. That took a couple of years, setting up a team to manage the benefits and rewards of the business, which was a huge undertaking for 15,000 people. I was then invited to take the post of HR Director for our Group Services. This was a fantastic opportunity to start to get to grips with operational HR and strategy, rather than just doing a technical role and, as a result, I was able to gradually develop my HR remit. I am still responsible overall for the management of pensions so I have not really left them behind. They are still a key element of the reward proposition and, as with any company that has legacy defined benefit pension liabilities, the careful management of these remains a high priority. For instance, the increased flexibility around pensions following the decline in defined benefit provides an opportunity to think about careers a little differently. This however is only of value if it is taken in the context of a generally more flexible and inclusive approach to how people of all ages work.

When I was asked to take on the Group HR role in 2013, it was probably less to do with my HR experience and more to do with my knowledge of the business, ability to navigate the corporate landscape and being seen as a trusted advisor. I found the role both exciting and a challenging transition, because for the first time in many years of my career, I was dealing with a number of unfamiliar areas. It was somewhat difficult to know where and how to position myself as I had always rolled my sleeves up and been a part of the team delivering technical and policy support, but this role was different. It was daunting and at the same time liberating as I had the opportunity to decide what sort of HR leader I wanted to be and what I wanted to be known for.

Paint a picture of what Carillion is as an organisation, what it gets involved with and why you came into a group role with limited experience and how you got to grips with it?  

Carillion is so diverse. We have more than 20,000 employees in the UK and 46,000 worldwide. We are an international integrated support services business, so we do everything from major construction and infrastructure projects to providing the services needed to manage places which are vital to local communities – such as hospitals and schools. It’s a complete range of services, which requires a countless variety of skills and capabilities, so navigating around and understanding the lay of the land is vital to the role. It’s fast moving, constantly changing and hugely complex. But that’s what makes it an exciting place to work, no two days are ever the same. Prior knowledge of the organisation gives you a head-start, so the amount of time I’d already been at Carillion proved a real advantage. I had built up credit in the organisation, with existing relationships across all parts of the business, and I had an understanding of both the operational and people issues that needed attention. This was vital in order to build trust and authenticity. I think initially people thought I was there to police the status quo, but really my main objective was a change of culture, specifically around engagement and interaction within the business. I set out my stall and said “these are the things I want to change”. In an organisation so big, so diverse and spread over many territories, changing culture, which is an ethereal as opposed to a physical element – is a monumental undertaking. It certainly is, but while there is incredible diversity in the scale and breadth of what we do in our different sectors and geographies, in the communities where we operate and amongst our people there are some things that remain consistent – specifically our shared values. A lot of businesses talk values, but we really live and breathe them. We always have done, which means that there was already a strong culture to build from when I took my current role. We refreshed, updated and simplified these values, so that they are absolutely right for today. For example, we wanted to ensure that our organisation was well set-up for a push on diversity, and this has been a key focus. Initially, this was around the issue of gender, but we’ve extended that over into a much wider remit.

Whilst new trends emerge, the fundamentals of HR remain broadly the same – our core focus is on doing the things that matter most to people within the organisation, both collectively and as individuals. We manage tens of thousands of people internationally and you need that strong culture to be relevant to them, so the messages have to be precise, consistent, succinct and clear. We work very closely with our Corporate Communications colleagues to develop our messaging and communication to ensure it is effective at engaging our people and driving a strong culture.  Externally we have done a lot of work to build our employer brand and we are now one of the most looked at companies on LinkedIn so our work is paying off. We have also developed our website significantly as this really is an opportunity to spread the word worldwide. Attracting talent is a huge priority and so we have to ensure when people see us on the outside, they see a consistent picture radiating from the inside.

There isn’t a business in the western world that isn’t looking at diversity, we often hear about the issue of attracting females into engineering. That must be an area you want to stimulate?  

Yes indeed, and we have a lot of women engineers working in the business today. I’mreally keen that the playing field is level so every option is available to meet everybody’s ambitions. We created a network – the Support Network for Operational Women in Engineering (SNOWE) – in 2014, which has been very successful. SNOWE is just one example though; we have a number of sector leading programmes which we are investing in to drive diversity, especially within leadership roles where we are bringing in people from all backgrounds. As we all know, there is a deficit of skills in STEM. You can set that against the perennial frustration that girls are consistently better in science than boys at GCSE, but then there’s a big drop off in the number of girls taking Maths and science at A Level. Is it the role of employers to change this? Yes, but it is a much wider societal issue which is about deep-seated cultures – pretending it will sort itself out is not an option. We know we need to play a part in tackling this, which is one of the reasons why we are the sector sponsor of the Your Life campaign, which is designed to increase the numbers of young people, particularly girls, studying Maths and Physics. With our input and leadership, we hope this will help influence better outcomes for both students and employers.

It’s not just about reaching people those classified traditionally as ‘high achievers’, school leavers are really important and we’ve invested in our apprentice scheme for a long time to drive the talent pipeline. We are proud to be the UK’s largest private sector provider of construction apprenticeships with 2,000 apprentices in training at our network of 11 training centres each year. We recruit apprentices across our business – rail, civil, mechanical and electrical engineering, general maintenance and business administration, and we work to encourage women to apply for all of our schemes. How we approach our apprentice scheme is not just restricted to those coming out of education. We believe the changes to the apprenticeship structure, and specifically the removal of the age limit, presents a huge opportunity to consider the development of people at different career stages.

It’s a long time coming, do you really think this is going to make a dent?  

Well you have to start somewhere. For years, we have all been saying that intervention comes too late in terms of influencing career decisions, so I’m really pleased that Carillion is putting its weight behind an initiative that targets students and gives their teachers quality information and a toolkit to assist with making this a reality. We offer six days paid volunteering leave to all of our people each year and actively encourage them to focus on young people and schools, helping hard to-reach groups build the skills needed for employment. In 2015, we volunteered over 8,000 hours in schools, equating to a £208,000 investment. Teachers are crucial, as they influence thousands of children throughout their careers, so we really believe in opening up our doors to invite them in and see the range of jobs that can come from studying physics or maths. This helps them to inspire young people.

It's a tough time for schools, a lot of change with academisation and now grammar, and their fixation for a couple of decades has been on the success rate of feeding Universities.  

With academies it’s like anything else; well-run ones will succeed, poorly managed ones will flounder. I think the grammar school argument is a distraction, and really education shouldn’t be politicised – but of course the reality is, it always be will. But really, whether it’s grammar or comprehensive schools, what really matters is great teachers and facilities. Universities aren’t for everybody, although I am very proud to be an Independent Governor on the Board of Manchester Metropolitan University and they perform a vital role in improving employability outcomes. It is also important that Universities and employers support improved school careers advice delivered at the right stage in a child’s decision making process.

Another problem for your sector particularly is the ageing workforce demographic.  

Most organisations would tell you there is a succession gap somewhere in their structure. We do have people with long service and great skills; when you look beyond them there is a gap and you have to ask how we can help those people further down the organisation to step up and fill the critical roles? Succession planning is important, it’s something I’m focused on, but so too is retaining and supporting an older workforce and their invaluable skills. We invest time in looking at how we can help people work more flexibly, so that it is possible to work part time, even in senior leadership roles. As part of an overall evaluation of our approach to diversity and inclusion, we concluded that we needed to think differently about age in the workplace. Increasingly, we have people working for us well beyond what you might traditionally view as the ‘normal retirement age’. We have some notable examples, where someone’s experience and networks are critical to role delivery, and the key for us is to ensure that we have others coming up through the ranks behind them who bring similar life experiences but will want to work further into the future. To ensure that people have an opportunity at any age to broaden and enrich their experience, we encourage our people to take non-executive roles in other organisations – ranging from businesses to schools, universities, NHS Trusts and Housing Associations. Experiences such as these are mutually beneficial – they can help boost perceptions of current roles, help people further their careers, or allow them to rethink their current role in new, positive ways that brings valuable new insights. There are also a lot of people in the workforce who are returners with great skills but struggling to find work. We want to open doors, not close off opportunities to bring in talent. One of the things we have focused on is hard-to-reach groups, for example through the Ready to Work scheme which focuses on helping people from disadvantaged groups, including the homeless, into work. We’re proud to have helped 400 people into jobs through this scheme, and what’s really encouraging is proving that we’re good at working with people who are making significant life changes. Further to this, we have trained over 100 volunteers within the business to be job coaches – this includes 20 female employees mentoring eight long-term unemployed women. Another campaign we support is “Ban the Box” which encourages employers to remove from their application forms the check box that asks applicants if they have a criminal record. This has produced some real success stories. We are also keen on attracting ex-service people – the advantages there are obvious, given the large number of people with engineering and technical skills we employ, but also because of the great teamwork and leadership capability they are able to bring to our business.

That is the crux of diversity, not taking people at face value, trying to understand what has brought them to where they are and their motivations to change their lives.  

Agreed, and this year we have run a programme called Think Difference – which is about addressing unconscious bias, in turn helping us to embrace diversity and inclusion. The intention is that as an organisation, we get better at making good hiring and promotion decisions by concentrating on what people can do and how they do it, rather than allowing any actions to be influenced by any unconscious response to a person’s gender, age, or any of the other factors. Think Difference is the best attended programme we have ever run, with over 750 leaders attending and more sessions planned. What encourages me most is that, a few years ago, we could never have run these courses, let alone have the sponsorship to do so. You have to do things at the right time, use your judgement about what a business is ready for, set your agenda out and provide the tools to start the process. Think Difference is about getting over those biases that we all have. This also ties in with what we were discussing about getting girls into science and engineering – it’s difficult to break the mould, with prejudices and stereotypical traits in place for generations. The Your Life programme we are involved with undertook some research that showed a career as a beautician is still higher up the list as a career choice for girls than being a scientist or an engineer. It’s the same as it was 30 or 40 years ago. Increasingly we are using role models to change these preconceptions and we have some great case studies in our business.

Let’s look at the next five to 15 years for a business like this. What do you see as being the impacts and challenges.  

We will have the challenge of ensuring that the business continues to have access to people with the skills that we need to support the longer-term development and success of the business. This is as relevant in the context of growth in international and adjacent markets as it is in a post-Brexit world. We also need to respond to the changes that will come to our sector through the expansion of digital technology. This will require our people to work differently in certain roles particularly in service delivery.

One thing's for sure, it won't be boring... alarming maybe. You said this may be your last role. Give us an idea of the things you hope to achieve?  

Certainly this will be my last executive role in HR. I have had the privilege to do this role at Carillion and couldn’t imagine doing it anywhere else. I’ve been here 17 years and while everyone has difficult days, I’ve never had a boring one! There are many things I would like to achieve around talent management, people development, engagement and so on – all the things that matter to any HR Director. If you asked me what I wanted my legacy to be it would be that equality and inclusion was completely embedded in the way we do business – not as something run by HR, but self-sustaining within the business, and we are beginning to get there. When I talk about diversity it’s not just about women – but everyone. We have our Working Mums Network – which is now 200-strong and has volunteered some 990 hours to support gender diversity initiatives – but also Connect, our LGBT network, both of which were set-up by our people rather than invented by the business. Whilst promoting equality and fairness around sexual orientation and gender identity is clearly a good thing, the construction industry and other sectors can also benefit significantly from LBGT integration in terms of talent recruitment and professional development. Recently, our CEO Richard Howson and I also attended the launch of our Working Dad’s network which provides a place for Dads to go and talk about issues that men don’t usually talk about at work, such as childcare and work/life balance. I am delighted that the two parents’ networks have just won an award – The Best for Family Support at the Top Employers’ Awards. I’ll also be interested to see the next steps on employee representation on boards. A quarter of our Board members at Carillion are women, and we have a target to increase this to 30 percent by 2020 looking ahead to the future I’m optimistic that it will continue to be a great place for people to thrive and be their best at work.