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Sir Robert McAlpine celebrated its 150th anniversary as a British, family-owned business in its 5th generation. It has a proud, hard-won reputation for delivering on time and budget and never walking away. Today, the sector seriously lacks diversity and this is a company determined to lead the way to true equality and inclusion, opening up […]

Sir Robert McAlpine celebrated its 150th anniversary as a British, family-owned business in its 5th generation. It has a proud, hard-won reputation for delivering on time and budget and never walking away. Today, the sector seriously lacks diversity and this is a company determined to lead the way to true equality and inclusion, opening up construction engineering to the widest possible demographic, diversity of thought and background.

Karen, take us back to your early life and why you decided upon a career in HR.  

I guarantee this will be a first for theHRDIRECTOR… I was running a wet fish shop and a greengrocer’s in the West Midlands. I married early, had two children and, what with rising competition from supermarkets and generally feeling unfulfilled, I decided I needed an alternative career. I applied for an advert in Pertemps for a post in the personnel office of a company called Allied Maples, a furnishings and carpets firm. It was a six-month contract covering the staple day-to-day personnel tasks, but they must have thought I was pretty useful, as they asked me to stay permanently. This included the opportunity to study for my IPM, the equivalent of CIPD back then. I eventually ended up as Personnel Officer across sixty-five stores, everything north of Stoke up to Edinburgh, looking after a mix of retail, warehouse and administration staff across multiple outlets and the headquarters. From a standing start to that level of responsibility was pretty unheard of and, after just over five years and hitting a bit of a career ceiling, I applied for a role at ITT World Directories, which had the sales contract for Yellow Pages, obviously huge for the business. However, shortly after me joining, the contract for Yellow Pages was withdrawn and we migrated to Yellow Pages Sales Ltd. There was a real determination to build the business, so my role on joining was about consolidation and merging the businesses together and driving efficiencies wherever possible.

We also had to be more responsive to change – agile, as we call it these days, of course – with something we called Project Fusion which, with hindsight, does sound very 1980s. But the business really capitalised on what was a real heyday for this style of publication, pre-internet of course. It was an intense sales and commercial environment, so I really won my HR stripes managing people in this frenetic, fast-moving business. At the time, it was a pretty generalist role, working in Birmingham across two regions, but I seized an opportunity for a more specialist assignment in resourcing, followed by L&D and this eventually led to me becoming Head of HR Operations for the whole company nationally. I was there for 14 years and I really look back at that time as very significant to my career.

So far, each of your career moves was to a very different sector - was that the case for your next role?  

You could say that, since I moved from directories to nuclear engineering construction, with a company called AMEC, as HR Director. In my experience, I would classify each organisation as either intellectually or emotionally intelligent. My long tenure with the directories was around people driven by sales and commission – but AMEC was the complete polar opposite, very much in intellectual intelligence territory. The company was populated, as you would imagine, by people with multiple degrees in science and so for me to take on a senior people role was quite a big adjustment. Prior to me joining, the firm was run by the National Nuclear Corporation and had been through a management buyout to become an independent business. This was subsequently sold to AMEC to be part of its nuclear engineering division, so had something of a mixed history. It was a very different environment and experience and this was my world for the next four years, until I was approached by Buying Solutions – which went on to become Crown Commercial Services. It was a procurement organisation that operated as a trading fund for the Cabinet Office, on behalf of local and central government. I wasn’t expecting or planning a move into the public sector, but my new role as HR Director would see me in civil service central, liaising between the Cabinet Office and Whitehall.

Your career could be described as eclectic, was it a determined effort to have new work experiences at every move?  

I’d love to say there was a carefully formulated plan but there was none. I think it’s really important to be switched on at work, be excited and interested, otherwise you’re not doing anyone any favours, least of all yourself. If I fear anything, it’s when a role becomes stale and stagnant; I am very tuned into that with other people. For me HR is HR – regardless of the type or size of business – and that is one of the big pluses of the profession… you can afford to explore. It’s an interesting dynamic to go into a completely new sector with some fresh ideas, perspectives and opinions, it can really cut some sway. But it’s important not to assume that a model that worked well “there” will work “here”, you have to be adaptable and not try and hammer a square peg into a round hole, as they say… being adaptable is key.

Indeed, people are people, but different mindsets and cultures can present all kinds of different challenges. Tell us about your work in the Cabinet Office.  

It was fascinating and my role was part of a real root-and-branch reorganisation and major restructuring of the whole organisation, introducing new processes and management systems. There were redundancies too, which meant managing people who had been in the civil service for decades in many cases and, of course, the unions were ever-present in marshalling that. It was the biggest change in management programme that I had ever experienced, right from the departure of the old Director General and the introduction of a new one, down and throughout the organisation. I was responsible for the series of complex changes across three main hubs: Whitehall in London, of course, but also Liverpool and Norwich. So, I was travelling and staying away from home a great deal and it was an enduring four years. I was just about ready for a change when by chance, I was approached by WYG, which people will remember as White, Young and Green. So, I joined Paul Hamer, who was CEO of the company, as Director of People and Infrastructure. At the point of me joining, the business had previously been through some big acquisitions and were at a point where they had thousands of employees from the various acquired and merged firms, but very little synergies or cohesion and the organisation as a whole was in serious trouble. The only solution to survival was to radically downsize to probably its lowest possible running number, in order to continue, consolidate and re-think the whole strategy. So, mass redundancies and a huge change programme were ahead.

The obvious question is, why would you join a business in this much trouble?  

I was aware of the huge task ahead and it was not for the faint of heart. Sure, the fundamentals were in place, but beyond that it was a mess, a real brownfield site, but from a purely personal point of view, I saw it as an opportunity to really make my mark. Recovery is an interesting challenge – it’s almost like a start-up – but with legacy, good and bad. This called for core HR, because we had to re-engage people and bring them along the journey after a sustained period where they had been left to their own devices and in a sort of limbo. Trying to sell the idea of the phoenix rising from the ashes is a tall order under such circumstances. It was a very international role demanding, again, a lot of travel. One stand-out memory is when we were supporting the Royal Engineers in Afghanistan and I visited Camp Bastion, went to Kandahar and really experienced the impacts on local communities.

What was the model for the organisation and business to make it future relevant?  

From a business perspective, it was about demonstrating value as opposed to commoditising, about cementing the core purpose of the business and focusing on core strengths, particularly in terms of looking for future opportunities in both the public and private sectors. So, it was a real programme of consolidation and focus. In terms of the government and defence elements of the business, we had to really demonstrate our worth under rising scrutiny and there really were no half measures or hiding places. Increasingly, the role of the organisation was putting security, justice and defence systems back in place after conflict, rebuilding frameworks to enable the impacted areas to recover after the war and putting structure back in place. From a people and HRmanagement perspective, I’m sure you can imagine the amount of preparation and control that needed to be in place to make seconded colleagues as safe as possible in these very volatile places. For example, transportation required a vehicle ahead and one behind, looking out for mines and snipers and the threat of abduction was never far away.

Tell us about the next stage of your career journey, which brought you to your current role at Sir Robert McAlpine.  

Paul Hamer resigned as WYG’s CEO and took up a new role at Sir Robert McAlpine. We had worked really closely together for five years and a smart head hunter contacted me and invited me to come along for a chat about a potential position here. It wasn’t until the third meeting that I realised it was the same company that Paul had joined. My first impressions were that this was a business steeped in history – last year was its 150th anniversary – and its achievements have been massively important to the infrastructure of the UK as we know it today. From its inception in Glasgow, it remains a family business, now on the fifth generation, with Ed McAlpine as Chairman and Hector McAlpine as Executive Partner. They sit on the board with Alison Cox – who is the recently appointed Director of Engineering and Technical Services – and myself. Then there is Leighton More, who is CFO. I was the first female on the board in its history and now, having Alison at the table is a further step in the right direction as we work towards greater diversity in the boardroom, an objective that is projected through the entire organisation.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of greater diversity and inclusion. It is a very traditional construction business and, whilst the number of females within the business is growing quickly, it has always been predominantly white and male like the whole construction industry. Gender inequality is a big focus, but there is clearly an obvious lack of diversity when it comes to ethnic minorities and LGBT+ people right across the industry. We are determined to have full representation and greater inclusion. It’s not just that it is the right thing to do morally, but that diversity of thought, experience and perspective from the widest possible pool of people will be essential for the future of business competition and success. I was quite shocked by how little HR infrastructure there was in this organisation, but despite this, it was a very successful company. I think this is testament to the fact that it’s a very moral firm, based on really sound values that were lived by the family, board and leaders, which radiates right out across the organisation. I was thinking that, with a really sound HR infrastructure and great diversity, the future looked very exciting! It also has a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit and again, I knew that with the right support, this could be even more prominent as a driving factor for the business.

The demographics of the sector are well recorded - older, predominantly white male - but with indispensable knowledge and experience. It must be a challenge to make those changes.  

Unquestionably! It is a fact that the organisation and the wider industry is predominantly male and there are many with 35, 40 and even 45 years of service. In fact, Boyd McFee, Director of Engineering and Technical Services – who will be retiring in August 2020 – came through the ranks as an apprentice. But we stand at a crossroads for our business and the industry. Yes, in terms of essential skillsets, traditional construction engineering is the foundation. But increasingly, technology is set to revolutionise the industry and that demands an entirely new set of digital skills and a fresh perspective to being competitive.

Engineering is marked as a sector with a short supply of talent and tech too is in that category. That presents a double challenge for you in the future.  

For sure, it’s a challenge and if we went about it in the same way as we always have done, we would fail. We’ve been talking about diversity and I’m convinced that this is the solution to the STEM skills gap. In terms of attracting talent, I believe it’s important to accentuate the many positives. We’re a very honourable business and we’ve gained that reputation by always delivering on our promises, in a sector that is renowned for failure to deliver on time and within budget. At point one, I think that honourability covers a lot of ground for us as a business and as an employer and we need to emphasise that value. I also think our entrepreneurial spirit is in tune with younger aspirations. Beyond that, I go back to inclusion, where we are striving to create the right culture and environment for everyone, regardless of background, with a level playing field and a supportive and exciting environment for a fulfilling career.

It's about perception - the picture of white men in hard hats and hi-viz, digging ditches and pouring concrete. That's a tough image to change.  

It is tough, but it is also feasible. A big part of changing perceptions is about education, diversity of thought and building an infrastructure across generations of knowledge sharing – pairing invaluable experience and knowledge from the past with the innovation and digital skills of the future. There’s always talk about older generations not respecting the integrity of the young and Millennials perceiving older people as irrelevant to the future. That changes instantly when there is collaboration across generations. The other key considerations are empathy and communication – not just across the organisation, but also with partner businesses and, of course, the customer. There is a definite sea change in this dynamic and it’s compelling.

The construction industry is bitterly competitive and projects that have come adrift in some way, are staple tabloid fodder. From a business and HR perspective, what differentiates Sir Robert McAlpine in the sector?  

That goes back to our pledge of never walking away from a job, whatever happens and that is down to integrity in competing for the project in the first place. Plus, I would say we’re pretty unique in the sector in being totally debt-free and with cash in the bank. From an HR point of view, we’re aiming to build the reputation of being the best place to work in the construction sector and I think we’re well on our way to achieving that. We’ve put the basic foundation blocks from a people perspective in place. For example, we have just launched SRM Pulse, our engagement platform, which is really helping HR to build a picture of how people are feeling, answer people’s concerns and work towards improving things. We’re about two months in and already have a significant amount of data from across the organisation, which is helping to inform decision-making. The great thing is that this could be about anything from the layout of onsite cabins, which we can physically change, to career paths, whereby we’ve introduced a framework and now run workshops to help people plan their careers. These are all pieces of the jigsaw and if you can identify issues, you have to do something about them.

How prevalent is AI and robotics in the construction sector?  

Very! There is new technology coming in constantly and, looking ahead, there’s no question that robotics and AI will change construction and so, as we’ve discussed today, the necessity for diversity of thought and a focus on new skillsets and capability is paramount. Modularisation, for example, typifies the type of incoming change that we’ll need to adapt to. One thing is sure, human ingenuity and innovation will always be a critical part of construction; it’s just the way we operate that will be radically different.

What are you hoping to achieve personally, a sort of legacy of your endeavours?  

Unquestionably, it goes back to equality and inclusion. It’s a problem that isn’t going to go away by itself and I’m determined to make a dent in it. We’ve discussed the challenges of gender, ethnicity and LGBT+ representation and providing careers for disabled people that don’t have ceilings, I will put everything into turning the tide on those issues. But increasingly, it’s also about diversity of thought and approach. A case in point is my involvement in improving the outlook for ex-offenders who are facing the challenge of wanting to change their lives and embark on really worthwhile career paths. It’s not a great picture at the moment and if we want to improve outcomes for individuals, the prison system and society at large, employers have to change their perspectives. One plan I have been working on goes back to modularisation. If we could involve prisons in the construction of modular parts – therefore bringing skills and proper learning and development into prisons – and then map people into the sector on their release, that could make a huge difference to outcomes. It could also form part of the answer to the skills deficit and diversity issues. Increasingly for me, finding solutions to problems is about joined-up thinking. In the broader sense, it’s also about building a skillset that is transferable, which I think will really change the perception of construction and STEM as a whole and really demonstrate to people what diverse and exciting careers can be found in our industry.

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