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Jean Tomlin

"The-chance-of-a-lifetime" is perhaps an over-used phrase, but for those involved in delivering the Olympic Games in 2012, it works on every level. When Jean Tomlin was contemplating the prospect of taking the role of HR Director, she had to consider the magnitude of the task ahead, to take the HR helm of the single largest mobilisation of a workforce, since World War II. As 2012 moves into its final stages, Jason Spiller interviews Jean at the Canary Wharf HQ.

Jean Tomlin is HR Director of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, with responsibility for HR preparation, organisation, logistics and delivery. She was interviewed by Jason Spiller and photographed by Gary Batchelor at the Olympic Games 2012 headquarters in Canary Wharf.

“The-chance-of-a-lifetime” is perhaps an over-used phrase, but for those involved in delivering the Olympic Games in 2012, it works on every level. When Jean Tomlin was contemplating the prospect of taking the role of HR Director, she had to consider the magnitude of the task ahead, to take the HR helm of the single largest mobilisation of a workforce, since World War II. As 2012 moves into its final stages, Jason Spiller interviews Jean at the Canary Wharf HQ.

Jean, take us back to your early career. When I graduated in the late 1970s, I joined the Ford motor company. That was a fantastic grounding in industrial relations at its height, exposed to everything. After that I went and worked at the Prudential for about 16 years. When I joined the Pru, I actually moved out of HR and moved into project management, very big change programmes. It was really the first time Prudential looked at economies and efficiencies against a backdrop of the financial services act, which had just kicked in at 86/87, so it was a great time to move across and actually develop new skills. I then moved to work as the HR director for Egg, created by ten people at the Prudential, and that was useful experience for this job. I stayed there for a good four years and then following that went to be the HR director for Marks & Spencer. M&S was phenomenal, again a huge period of change, with different working practices, sourcing approaches, and the business was going through a rapid period of reinvention, so a lot of change management activity. After my tenure at Marks & Spencer, I thought I'd had about 30 odd years doing a variety of things, and I set up my own business which I ran for a year or so and it was then that I got a call asking whether or not I'd be interested with this job, heading up HR for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG). I'd been to university and I love sport, so I thought, oh yes! The phrase “an opportunity of a life-time” is probably an over used phrase… but this really is that.

The importance and enormity of the role must have hit you immediately. The call was an interesting one, because I wasn't sure that I wanted to move back into a big corporate environment, so that was the question for me at the time, and again the Olympics was such a pull so I came in to have a chat with the CEO, Paul Deighton, and as soon as he described the role, I wanted the job even more and went for it full on! I had a pre-conceived idea that it would be very much like any other business start up – getting people on board, putting structures in place, setting policies, and creating a bespoke culture, but actually it's a very different world. The world of the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games is an opportunity to provide a service to your country, and to get engaged with the Olympics at any level, was something I hadn't thought about at all, but it soon dawned on me that this was incredibly powerful and could inspire lasting change – that's not something that many of us get to be a part of, and so the whole proposition was incredibly compelling.

The question everyone will want to ask is, where do you start? First, I needed to decide how I was going to build my HR team – at the same time as building everyone else's teams, from director level down. As soon as the other department directors were onboard, we had to move quickly to recruit. I also set my mind to projects that could make a difference immediately, to create momentum. We created a school leaver programme, and got it up and running in about four months. We invited school leavers to apply to take full-time roles – truly an opportunity of a lifetime – people who wouldn't have even dreamt of working for the Olympics team – from the five closest boroughs in London and outer London, from diverse backgrounds. This set the platform for diversity and equality across the piece. Thirdly, was to set the protocol of being involved. It's a whole different language – the protocols, the international Olympics committee and the international Paralympics committee have unique ways of working, so it's not just like going to another company, and with this raw energy that was coming, I knew that we would really need experience, so I brought in some Olympic experience, which I think was a good move. It was perhaps the only time that we would have the opportunity to look strategically, 360 degrees, at how the organisation would evolve and how it would go through three major stages, from start up to a rapid ride through maturity – what most companies do in 50 years we were to do in five.

In those initial stages, looking at each of the objectives that you were to achieve at HR level, what would you say were the key challenges? Crucially, it was not to look at the Olympics as an ordinary organisation, we had to bring policies which were appropriate for the task, of course, but this had to be movable, we had to build a structure that was fleet-of-foot, flexible, enabling people to join us with their skills set, and we had to be very clear about the message of why people should join – experience and attitude were key components, but also the full and clear understanding that and this was an opportunity of a lifetime, to absolutely represent and serve the country. And that it was going to be intense, very hard work, that we needed people who were good at working in teams, fully self-motivated, and that they weren't going to get rich, but the trade off had to be clear. Of course, our reward and compensation packages are appropriately benchmarked, but baring in mind the task in hand, the reward that you get working here is something quite different to financial reward. Also, career development would be entirely different than you would find in other organisations, because obviously it's a finite lifecycle. But ultimately, it's about pride, to showcase the country on the world stage, and being at the heart of that. For me, nothing really happens without people, and so the whole proposition had to be clear.

Presumably, you are also responsible for people outside the Olympic project teams, that in itself must be a vast undertaking. Yes, beyond my accountabilities for Human Resources, I'm also responsible for the many and varied accreditations – thousands of people, who will get accredited at Games-time, such as families of the Olympic and Paralympic Games members, and that includes background checks and all the measures required to get the right people, the right training and uniforming. All the visible and behind the scenes things that are required to mobilise a truly vast and diverse workforce. You will know that we recently opened up opportunities for volunteering, the games will be hugely dependant on having well trained volunteers to deliver a spectacular outcome. The overall headcount will reach 200,000, and we have over a 100,000 contractors from cleaning and waste management to catering. It is the largest mobilisation of a work force since the Second World War. And of course when the Games close, you have to say goodbye to everyone in close order, very promptly, because their job is done, and it is then that the all-important “legacy” is realised. We've put together a journey, integral to the employee engagement strategy. Also key was mapping out the peaks and troughs, right from the Beijing Games, a euphoric, and wonderful learning experience, down to the reality of knowing that the weight and expectation of the world for the next Games, was on our collective shoulders. The mood and spirit of any organisation changes, ebbs and flows, and so it's a case of knowing what to do to lift the spirit, or to manage expectation and anticipate the next wave. It's partly traditional employee engagement stuff, clarity of communication and accurate messaging, and managing mood and tempo. As we get closer to the Games, we're at a critical moment now, we start to move from our functional areas, to working as part of integrated teams, and the planning is a must. The third thing would be what we're thinking about now is developing policies that actually migrate individuals from current roles to Games time roles. What we won't do is let people go and recruit new people, we look at the skill sets of who has been recruited and see what roles they could go into at Games time. There are some real strategic points where you have to shift the direction.

At every stage, with so much going on, how do you make sure everyone remains on cue, and not going off on personal tangents? From a structural point of view, we have a series of business partners, and for every module, you have individuals in the HR function dedicated to particular parts of the operation. Importantly, we keep the messages very simple, common and understood. Everyone is briefed on the tasks in hand, the messages go out, and we do employee surveys called “Your Say” which we run every six months, and this is an effective barometer for us. We do consistently have high net positive scores, but it also helps us to identify trouble spots, such as fatigue, because it's full on. We have healthy weeks where we go to the sports centre, have medical checks and so on, and despite the frenetic pace and constant pressure, we do have a caring approach and make sure that when people join, they know what to expect. It's a huge bubble and it is relentless, but it's also a lot of fun and hugely compelling – and we all regard it as a great privilege. But by the same token, it's something that if uncontrolled will make people ill, and we're very clear in our policies to nurture people and make sure we do the best we can.

The Beijing Olympics looked spectacular, but it is unlikely to be remembered for its credentials in diversity and equality? How are you ensuring that diversity and equality is observed in the 2012 Olympics, across the piece? Beijing was phenomenal! Experiencing a new culture, the games were fantastic, on an unprecedented scale. And yes, it was staged on a very different cultural backcloth. We weren't daunted, but we were reflective. We realised that in the UK we have different assets, objectives and in some important senses, values. Britain is a diverse country. And we started out very early on with our strategy to work with the fundamental strands of diversity: ethnicity, disability, gender, faith and more. We monitor those numbers every month, and we have an extensive programme which covers all of those strands. We are and will be securing a significant amount of outsourced services, so we must ensure there is diverse engagement throughout. We work very closely with the recruiting teams to ensure diversity, we monitor the number for diversity, and we really have the processes in place to see where they are getting through, and the diversity and inclusion ratings are published, so that's the second strand. In terms of service delivery, we have 22 projects which are owned by the business and each of these projects have diversity and inclusion aspects about them. For example, we make sure every disabled person who applies gets an automatic interview, ensuring they meet the criteria. So we really make sure the business owns diversity and inclusion, and we have diversity on the board – we make sure were very in touch with the London forum, and we also have a youth panel. Then we have the schools programme, engaging thousands of schools across the country, and the young people's programmes we run are very extensive. Finally, I would say from a volunteering point of you, we are launching the Young Games Maker programme in July 2011, where we will have a bespoke programme to ensure people under 18 will be chaperoned with suitable shifts, it's a very special programme we put a lot of effort in. I am convinced we will be able to demonstrate on a very large scale that diversity and equality in the workplace is something that is achievable and realistic, despite the rigidity of law and the overall size of the undertaking.

How do you keep people fixed on the end objective, namely the Games themselves… and then the inevitable end of the project, namely the closing of the Games? There is the transition timeline, and we're focused on helping people understand this is a secure journey – they will be there at Games time, and we make sure we train people properly to do their games time role. Taking people on that journey is critical, if you don't you will end up with chaos, as individuals will go into open markets, so it's a very controlled process. We're at the beginning of the process now, with workshops over the next month to educate about the journey.

And in terms of the Games themselves, does HR's reach include this? Completely, yes. I work very closely with the Director of Games Operations who has done lots of Games before, and what we have to do is make sure HR fully understands the delivery schedule, so we're delivering the entire thing and testing simultaneously and it all has to be done superbly well. We segment the workforce to make sure the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games are delivered in an integrated way, so I have both responsibilities, we keep people focused on the objectives, we use project management to ensure we're on time and delivering to a high standard. I think the third area is, we work closely with our partners, and the Government, and our sponsors play a critical role. So making sure the communication is both internally and externally focused. We sit inside a huge extended family and without the family getting on it won't work.

Give us a snapshot of the recruitment and training programmes for the actual Games? The mobilisation of a 200,000 strong workforce is a daunting prospect. We have gone live this summer with the programme, and we will be selecting people across the country, from January to February next year, right up to 2012. We then start to train individuals, close to delivery time, around January 2012, and will take that through to July. We will train 70,000 volunteers, and will make sure people's schedules are correct and they have the right backup. They have three key levels of training, specific training; venue training and a general orientation of the games for everyone. The contractors, will come in closer to Games time – 100,000 contractors will start work at the venues, three to four weeks before the games. Unquestionably, this will be hugely intensive, having everyone in one place. What could go wrong? The biggest mobilised workforce since Word war II, athletes, trainers, entourage and press coming in from all corners of the world and, on a practical level, we have the duty to make sure they are informed, equipped, accommodated, transported, validated and that all security requirements are in place.

What could possibly go wrong? How do you know that people are in the right place, doing the right thing at the right time? We talked to the organisers of the Sydney Olympics and they admitted that this was a big unknown, because, they ran the logistics, time and motions manually. We knew that this could not be the case for 2012, so we have systemised everything. We know where every person is located, and we go through dot planning exercises, durations of shifts, making sure people are checked in, fed and watered, managed and fully briefed.

Despite the initial negativity about the brand design, there appears to be nothing but good will for the Games, and even the recession has done little to dent the project? Physically, what you can see, I think the venues are coming together magnificently. In terms of backroom organisation, I think the recruiting programme has been exemplary, as have been good practices. We've also been clear that this is a Games for everyone, and we put a lot of effort into that. You asked earlier whether I felt we were to leave a sort of legacy of what's possible. With people management, I believe we will do that. I think, overall, it's always going to be a team effort, but I would say we have a very firm foundation here, plotting the journey and being ahead of the curve has worked so far. I'm never complacent, but I do celebrate the wins we've had so far, but I believe delivering a spectacular Games is the prize.

Corporate and social responsibility is a growing HR concern, what is the local impact of the Games, and how is it perceived with regards to the legacy? It's one of our key major themes, the green credential, sponsors, third-party suppliers and that the Games are eco friendly. It is a massive undertaking but absolute necessity. The development of the valley at the venue is quite fantastic, considering it was a landfill site. We of course comply with all the ecological requirements, but I think we are leaving a huge legacy, in terms of how people will reflect upon the Games. We will be the first Games delivered in an eco friendly way, and I have huge amounts of confidence that it is one of the key strands of commitments we made. We’ve stuck to that, and there's a culture here which abides by those principles.

What about the spectre of drugs in athletics, can you ever be fully prepared? We recruit the right people, we make sure we do all the right things to ensure the right individuals come through the door, with regards to anti-doping, that's more in the hands of the sports department. It's very specific, we have doctors, medical teams here already, so I don't get involved with the detail. In terms of who is employed here, we ensure they are not involved with that. It's important we deliver a clean Games and that's one of our key objectives, and I make sure the people hired comply with that.

How do you prepare the people closest to the operation, for the void that will inevitably open, once all is said and done on the Games? We have, for some time now, been planning how we will release people. We are providing support in preparing CVs, and the whole placement piece is something were putting a lot of time into. We are setting up networks with the equivalent of Facebook, and we plan to give people time off on the lead up to the Games. But prior to that we give people time off to go to interviews, so they will leave the games knowing they can have a month with their family and have secured a role, so we're looking to put that facility into place. I think everyone will know the Olympics will come to an end, but we need to put it out there that people are available and know they are good.

Jean, what have you learn't about HR during this gigantic undertaking? I think the first thing I'd say is, the HR function really comes into its own, and it works hand-in-glove with operations. My career has taken me into many sectors, and I think HR really should accept nothing less than being at the top table and having a voice, and showing the added value it truly can deliver. I'm delighted in the way HR has been positioned and what it has delivered, and will go on to deliver. It's not always easy, you can't always say yes, this is a very commercial environment, but I'm a commercial individual. As for people? They don't change, there is a clear understanding of what they have to do, getting ahead of the curve, and taking responsibility, we are human beings, we have the same basic needs, it's non hierarchical here, it's very respectful. It's tough, and we do expect a lot, but it's open and transparent.

And Jean, what are your personal expectations of 2012, and beyond? I think I would like to do more giving back. I think this job has enabled me to do things I wouldn't have done in the past, making a difference for Londoners, I've been able to play into the other part of me, giving back, creating opportunities and I'd like to continue that, working in the community and using my experience to help others achieve their goals and I will do more and more of that. And another thing about me, if I'm not busy I will get restless, I will always have something goal driven be that with family or commercial enterprise.

And your hopes for the Games 2012? I would like to reflect on the Games, and think we did the best we could and in doing that, we delivered something the nation was proud of. I really want us to do a superb job, we can make a difference.

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