Joanne Regan Iles
Executive HR Director EMEA , TTEC
TTEC is a massive, global leader in CX, with 50,000 employees and operating in 24 countries. Nothing about the scale of the business suggests a capacity for customer care, but if care was not at the fulcrum of TTEC, its growth, success, reputation and longevity would never have been realised. But radiating empathy out is an impossibility unless it exists, with sustained authenticity from within.
Jo, tell us about your early years and how you found the path onto a career in HR.
I studied at Nottingham University Business School for my Degree in Business Economics, followed by a Master’s Degree in Strategic International HR at Manchester University, so nobody was under any illusions about my early career intentions. After graduating, I looked around for graduate places and spied a great opportunity with BT, which ticked all the boxes, so I applied, was accepted and absolutely loved it. My first role was in the contact centre, customer services staff and so primarily recruitment, onboarding and training, always hectic and great fun. I was promoted a few times in this department and then was selected for a variety of change projects, down in London, which really took me out of my comfort zone and involved me in more strategic future planning work, including a sojourn into the engineering side of BT. This really broadened my knowledge set and typically, I’d be looking after the gangs of BT engineers on sites, which led onto a site leadership role. BT was always going through big change and at this time, amongst many other events, was in the process of closing down 50-plus small contact centres and integrating them into four “super sites”, one based in the Midlands and so I moved again and became Site Leader.
We were marked out as a really effective change team and I began to wonder whether I should carry on winning BT badges or use my accrued experience to look at other opportunities. I researched the jobs market for posts that my experience set would suit and came across one at Vodafone, based in Newbury Oxfordshire, but this role as Senior Learning and Development Manager, leading the L&D team, would be located in Birmingham. At first, I was leading at a massive “Pay as you Talk” contact centre, but this led very quickly to being asked to look after the whole of the North West. This was a regional role which included a number of cultural change programmes, based around empowering people at all levels, supporting a more autonomous confidence, which led with a significant change in the relationship between managers and employees. It was quite a ground-breaking piece for the time, flattening the organisational framework and encouraging innovation and knowledge sharing at all levels. Such was the speed of growth and dynamism at Vodafone, I blinked and fifteen years had gone by. At this point, I was relocated to Cheshire and I was managing seven outsourcers in the North West and Scotland, primarily involved in building relationships and making sure our HR strategies were aligned – essentially strengthening partnerships – and finally I ended my time there at Newbury HQ in a HR Business Partnering Role. I took stock and thought about my experience set, realised that I really had earned my stripes and decided that it was time to make a push for a more senior HR role which was more strategic and business partner led. I also thought that, as brilliant as it had been, it was time to leave Vodafone. I really didn’t have a target landing site, but the relationships that I had built up in the outsourcing community, were about to open a door of opportunity.
Tell us about your next move.
At this time, the telecoms market was a hive of M&A activity and this particular company, called Teleperformance, had just made an audacious grab for a rival business, MM Direct. My role was to align the merging firms with a single forward strategy and culture, which marked my first experience in leading organisational redesign. Teleperformance was and is one of the big global BPOs and I was lucky enough to work with the then CEO, Jeff Smith and his management board and they were so supportive of HR. The Executive were fully behind the fact that HR’s big challenge was to engage people, to optimise performance and that people were central to success, even in a business dominated by tech. I knew I had the support of the board and I channelled that into the HR value add. Telecoms was really the pioneer sector of the modern face of outsourcing – indeed, this was an outsource organisation. The biggest priority was to address the massive cost of attrition and as I was responsible for 4000 plus employees across the UK, Northern Ireland and in South Africa, this was a considerable challenge, on top of many others. I travelled frequently, fell in love with South Africa and I was also involved with the HR teams across Europe and really came to understand how different cultures impact on operations. This was also the time where I really gained an understanding of data and analytics and led the organisation’s first global employee surveys, which really began to inform the board on strategy and business planning – understanding the differences between Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines was fundamental – but I was more surprised by the differences between the UK and its closest neighbours, Germany, France and Spain. It was a time where I was constantly travelling, absorbing all of these different cultures and totally embroiled in a complex restructuring.
Concurrently, I restructured the HR departments to manage the international growth, implemented a new HR model and streamlined the recruitment across the organisation. Then there was TUPE, a lot of TUPE – great and small – and I would say that I became something of a specialist. But of all the things I achieved at Teleperformance, it was my involvement in the highly-successful programme, Women in Leadership. With two young daughters myself, I really want to make sure that I can make some positive progress in levelling the playing field for women and their careers and I’m really proud to be involved in mentoring and role modelling. I’ve worked for some amazing people, men and women and I count myself really fortunate that I have never been impeded in my career. But I know that is not the case for everyone and so I feel really compelled to help make those changes. They are happening, but too slowly. Teleperformance, was a really open and inclusive culture and that was really appreciated by this working mum. I was at there for six years and, quite by chance, I found out about an opportunity at Sitel, another BPO organisation, with a massive global footprint. I applied and was offered the role, which was heading up the Northern European function as HR Director.
What compelled you to switch from one BPO to another similar organisation when up to this point, you had looked to diversify?
The role, I felt, was perfect for me at that point in my career, but equally it was the broad exposure to different parts of Europe that appealed and the chance to be involved in a massive re-structure. Sitel had just lost a major client and so they had capacity and my remit was to support growth into new business and implement a new HR strategy. There was also the usual problem with this sector, of attrition and so I led a massive root and branch survey and research effort, to really gain a grip on the problem. It was the first time for me being able to call on some real qualitative data to inform on decision making and, I have to say, I have been a data advocate ever since. Turning the tables on the attrition problem and making quick changes to employee engagement across the business, won some important kudos for HR, which enabled us to bring some more innovative approaches to the business. Memorably too, I carried out my biggest TUPE, a large telecoms firm in Denmark, which was a very complex and drawn out process that should have dampened my interest in TUPE, but strangely didn’t. I also worked very closely with McKinsey during this time and that was great learning for me… and another seven years flew by.
You held a very senior board role, responsible for a massive territory, what was it that you were looking for in your next career move?
Throughout my career, I’ve always stayed in roles for quite a long time and it comes to a point when I say to myself, “I could stay here for good, but I really should look for a new challenge, something new that I could learn and experience”. People generally see change as a challenge, but because there is so much of it, a constant feeling of foreboding isn’t good for anyone. It is a mindset principal and for me, maintaining the status quo and not rocking the boat is the very worst possible job to be in – not that this was the case at Sitel – on the contrary, I had a really rewarding time there. I was approached by TTEC two years ago and I joined as Executive Director for HR and Talent Acquisition. We’re a global organisation, headquartered in Denver and the plan was to expand into Europe. Along with the VP of International Markets, Iain Banks – and a really great executive team – I have been working on setting up operations across Europe and I’m now responsible for the sites that we have in; Bulgaria, Poland, Greece and in Southern and Northern Ireland. I’m also responsible for a large site out in Adilabad in India and have recently set up a contact centre in Leeds, following a contract win with Volkswagen Group UK.
Tell us more about TTEC the company.
We’re a digital, global customer experience technology and services company and our focus is the design, implementation and delivery of transformative solutions for many of the world’s most iconic and disruptive brands. Globally we have 49,000 employees and a massive network of contact centres world-wide, plus a huge digital transformation team. In terms of our business plans, Europe is poised for massive growth now as the pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation agenda for many organisations. Brands across many customer oriented sectors such as; travel, tech, automotive and financial services, are urgently looking at different channels and use of AI and messaging, which can involve less effort and cost, but still deliver a great customer experience. I’ve also recently taken up responsibility for our Adilabad site in India – around 3500 people across a large geographical area – and that is proving to be really interesting from an HR leadership viewpoint. From my previous experience, I knew it was important to set up a HR model for every territory, because different employment law and culture really demands for localised understanding, as opposed to central command from a completely different territory. In my opinion, local understanding and knowledge of local schools and colleges for example, is crucial to recruitment. I’ve built a new HR team and across the new European territories and we are now carrying out our own recruitment, which we feel is the right direction for us. Now, along with the teams, we’re implementing frameworks around employee engagement, corporate social responsibility and culture. Of course, like everybody else, we have been impacted on many different levels by the pandemic, but we haven’t been blown off course and are, at this time, planning our staged return to normality.
Give us an idea of how you are aligning what you're doing in HR with the business objectives and future planning, as we go forward through the pandemic and into the future.
Looking after employees’ mental health and wellbeing has been our key concern during this pandemic and I know I am not alone on that. At this stage, the ongoing challenge is managing anxieties about going back to the workplace, so we are adapting our employee engagement programme and HR policies to ensure support at all times, with additional training, coaching and flexible contracts. We also have a bot called “Louis”, who is in constant contact with employees, to rate their wellbeing, as well as gain feedback on any concerns they may have. The focus from a HR perspective is making sure that our employees are working in safe conditions, ensuring that, as we move forward, we carry out a skills analysis on what capabilities we will need in the future. Right now, we’re reviewing our HR policies and also considering some of our processes – some of the practicals that will need to be modified to fit the new normal – whilst keeping a close eye on the emotional side of this transition, with the focus being on returning safely. But it’s not all about the immediate concerns, we are just in the process of opening a new site in Leeds, so we have an ambitious eye on the future. I just hope that everyone can return safely and that those industries, where people have been made redundant, can take on new opportunities, re-train, learn new skills and go into different sectors that emerge strong and new ones that are emerging.
What do you think HR in general needs to bring to its game, in order to come through this crisis in good shape?
It’s important to adapt to the challenges and not set everything in stone. Be flexible and agile and make sure that values are lived and be watchful and mindful of what is happening locally in other countries, as opposed to operating in a bubble. Here, setting up the local HR leadership in each of the sites has proved to be significant in our ability to manage through the pandemic and maintain a level of operational equilibrium. But also, you need to keep momentum in future business planning. Brexit presented challenges to all businesses and now COVID-19 has, of course, added massive complexity. But we’re forging ahead, continuing to expand and always hungry for skills and talent internationally. As an example, we identified Athens as a major tech hub and strategically important to our reach and access to the talent we need – with Brexit preparations in mind – and it has already been hugely successful for us. Again, we set up a management framework locally, with a Greek HR Manager and HR team and, importantly, localised recruiters, which is the model we are using right across Europe. We now have over 600 people working in Athens and we’re preparing the pathway out of the pandemic, so that we’re ready to seize the opportunities in 2021 and beyond.
In so many ways, the paternal ethos of the employer/employee contract is looking increasingly archaic. But do you think that the increasingly dispersed and diverse operational framework brings challenges?
The way that we are today, I don’t think we could ever have imagined it even twenty years ago. The digital revolution has both created and supported an increasingly remote and disparate workforce. But it has enabled businesses like ours to tap into other economies and talent hubs and so the positives and opportunities massively outweigh the challenges. There is no doubt that it will increasingly require different approaches, but I think this will be organic and evolutionary – it will be a case of, which organisations adapt and perform well and which do not – so the same rules apply. But there is no doubt in my mind that, for all the disruption and tragedy that the coronavirus has caused, the circumstances in which we find ourselves has brought humanity into sharp focus. It’s also shown us that the way that businesses have been operating has always impacted on people’s lives and the rigidity of the nine-to-five presenteeism has contributed to generations of pressurised people, living nonstop, hectic lives. I hope that we can move out of this crisis with ways of operating which are much more compatible with supporting people’s lives.
That it took a massive spanner in the works to realise the strain of commuting, the impact on the environment and the brain drain, as young people leave their home towns to go to city employment hubs, says a lot about us as a society.
It’s easy to accept the status quo, because radical change is so disruptive. That this crisis has provided time to reflect cannot be squandered. This is really challenging, but we have a massive, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to at the very least recalibrate and forge important changes, that could achieve unprecedented levels of equality and inclusion, achieve sustainable work/life balance and support a future that cultivates innovation and knowledge share. It is unprecedented, but that has never been a reason not to do something and we can capitalise on the opportunities that the future brings, if we think innovatively and courageously on key issues like equality. However, in the meantime, we are faced with the biggest challenge in generations. There is not one industry or sector that has not been impacted by this crisis and the redundancy and significant job losses is the most critical issue that we now collectively face.
For years, we have been debating how AI and robotics, will impact human work. Perhaps this is a time to reimagine the future? Robots don't spread diseases and they don't have to commute… this is surely a catalyst.
We cannot just pull a lever and hope everything comes to a grinding halt, then restart and expect everything to be future-ready. This next stage will require full cohesion and cooperation across the business and political worlds and people must be fully onboard to make the changes and capitalise on the next normal – as opposed to back to normal – which presupposes a return to old ways.
We’ve also seen the best and worst of humanity over this crisis. Do you think this time will mark a change to a more caring and mindful behavioural culture?
That is a big ask, but this time has definitely made people think about themselves and the world around them. As leaders of people in organisations, in the round, greater empathy is definitely the forward momentum and areas such as more flexible employment arrangements, should provide people with a more realistic work/life balance, which should pay back, in terms of engagement and performance and also happiness. That is why this next stage of events, towards a more normal way of life and working is so important. We must really take heed of our learning and experience in our approach to this return and make sure that people are the focus of the decision making. Although it has been a trying and challenging time, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to make some improvements that could define the future. If HR ever had a more important purpose, I cannot recall what it is and I’m proud to be a part of it.