AS WE GROW ACCUSTOMED TO “LIVING WITH COVID”, MEMORIES OF LIVED EXPERIENCE FADE AND WE FORGET THAT PRE-VACCINE, THIS WAS A FRIGHTENINGLY SINISTER SPECTER. STREETS DESERTED, WE APPLAUDED FRONTLINE WORKERS ON OUR DOORSTEPS, BUT IT WASN’T JUST THE EMERGENCY SERVICES, EVERYDAY PEOPLE SHOWED EXTRAORDINARY COURAGE AND KEPT THE LIGHTS ON AND COMMUNITIES GOING. WILKO AND ITS STAFF TYPIFIED THAT FORTITUDE AND SPIRIT.
GROUP HR DIRECTOR , WILKO
“PEOPLE ARE LESS TOLERANT OF HIERARCHY”
I was brought up in Chelmsford in Essex, attended a local catholic primary school and was lucky enough to pass the 11-plus, which took me to grammar school. I was fortunate to have a great education, with some inspirational teachers. My parents instilled in me from a young age a strong work ethic. Mum was a journalist and my Dad ran a small, family metalwork business and they really drilled into me from a very early age, that there was no substitute for hard work. So from around 14, most of my weekends were taken up either studying or working in the village tearooms. When exam time came, I managed to do well in enough to gain a place at Downing college in Cambridge University, where I studied Geography. I was the first in my family to go to university, so it was a really proud moment. With a decent grasp of French and German languages, I had the opportunity to travel and I studied elements of the subject in more depth and was really compelled by the different identities, cultures and personalities around the globe. So, I guess that’s where I began to develop a real fascination in people. When I left Cambridge, I did the milkround, but was really uncertain about which career path to join, but I definitely knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer or an accountant. Unilever ran a well regarded graduate scheme and I looked into it and found out about this fascinating business, with an impressive heritage and corporate values. I put myself forward for a post and joined the HR graduate scheme. I was based at Unilever House, a magnificent building on the Thames at Blackfriars and that’s where my HR career began.
I was very fortunate to be in the same circle as some very impressive people whom, to this day, are role models who made a great impression on me. One particular HR leader was a working Mum and responsible for a massive transition to shared services at Unilever. It was a complex project, bringing together all the HR transactional work across all of the global sites, into one base just outside London. She stood out as extraordinary because, back then, women generally had careers or families and rarely achieved both at once whilst still being happy in themselves. It said something about Unilever at this time, as well as her incredible energy and tenacity, of course. I remember at our first meeting, she shocked me when she said, ”would you mentor me?” This was long before reverse mentoring was a widely-known concept and, of all the great guidance she gave, one piece of advice stands out, “don’t let your career hold you back if you want to have children.” A good sign that an organisation has a great culture is that leaders and managers involve you, stretch you and give you enough opportunity to make mistakes. A case in point, within a year, I was offered an opportunity in a factory in Alfreton in Derbyshire. I felt at home working in London, but I was ambitious and wanted to take on every opportunity. So, just after Christmas, I have memories of driving up the M1 in a snowstorm, to start my new assignment as HR Manager of an industrial cleaning factory. It was a slice of reality, people working with really strong chemicals, making formulating chemical cleaning products in a manufacturing environment that was heavily unionised. This became home for the next two years and a no-holds-barred induction in factory life ensued. I was very young and the majority of the employees were older men, so the environment was tough for someone championing new ways of working and, somewhat inevitably, I did face some discrimination. It took some resilience and determination, but I slowly began to turn the tide, mainly through the L&D agenda and I had a great mentor in the regional HR manager who said “Nine out of ten times Kate, when you contribute something, it will be spot on and you’ll be listened to. So don’t dwell on the one when you’re not.” I was then seconded back to HQ in Surrey, where I managed one HR shared services team of about 30 in the contact centre and it was about this time that I was headhunted for a role at Molson Coors. I had been with Unilever for five years – and could have spent the rest of my career there, as many do – but the world of beer beckoned, the opportunity was compelling and I became HR Manager at the Burton upon Trent Brewery, the second largest beer brewery in Europe at the time.
Compared to Unilever, it was a big change in operation and business, of course. But the most obvious difference was the true passion throughout, as I had HR responsibility for the people in the brewery itself and their devotion to the quality of the product was something I had never experienced. From the technical people to the beer tasters, the combination of skills and the driving cooperation between the people that formulated the beer, on to the logistics of moving it across the UK and beyond, was driven through absolute love and tenacity that goes into bringing a great quality pint of beer to customers. I worked at Molson Coors for about six years and it was a memorable time for other reasons as well, as I also had my two daughters during this time. It was a great business and very well managed, with a fantastic culture, enabling me to combine my work responsibilities with raising a young family, without that constant guilt. It was also a great learning experience in HR business partnering across the operation, in logistics and the complete production side of beer. In fact, I had the opportunity to business partner every team and gained an incredible understanding of the end-to-end journey of the business and the people within it.
Very much so and during my tenure, we merged to become Molson Coors – as opposed to just Coors, which was the US originated brewer. This was a major undertaking and, when the dust had settled, this very traditional brewery, also had the Canadian influence from Molson and a bigger portfolio of American and Canadian beer brands, alongside Carling which at the time was the largest beer brand in the UK. It was a very competitive time – as it obviously is now – to be in the beer industry, along with changing trends, which saw people not visiting pubs as much. Then supermarkets were selling beer as a loss leader, rather than a reputable brand with a good margin. It became a very cost-conscious sector that demanded incredible efficiencies, to ensure every pint made a profit. Like Unilever, Molson Coors led on its people proposition with great development opportunities and had a really effective talent process, which supported ambition and kept attrition manageable. Succession planning was seen as an imperative and people were supported to talk about their talent plan regularly and take ownership of their careers. That was tremendously compelling and has become part of my DNA as an HR professional. Talent mapping is so important and I brought in a career development programme for all of our junior-to-middle managers – as well as those with high potential across the organisation – and equipped them the tools to manage their own careers, develop their skills, self-awareness and fulfill their career aspirations. I look back with a sense of pride that we introduced some phenomenal leadership development in Molson Coors, unlocking the unconscious part of minds to impact relationships with colleagues. That was quite a pivotal experience and the realisation of a genuine passion for HR which, at its best, can make such a positive impact on people and fulfill their potential.
I was headhunted by Boots whilst I still was at Molson Coors and the timing could not have been better, as I was definitely spending too much time travelling away from my family. I was accepted for the role at Boots and headed up HR for the Boots Brands & Exclusive part of the business which, over time, ended up becoming its own division, particularly when we merged with Walgreens. It was a very exciting place to be as an HR professional, because it was all about growth, investment and bringing in FMCG brand leaders from places like; P&G, L’Oréal and Unilever to come and run the Boots brands and break into the US and other markets. A standout project for me was setting up a robust knowledge, skills and behaviour framework, so that people – no matter where they were in Global Brands – could manage their careers and be aware of what skills they required, should they wish to move on to their next role. Working for Boots at a strategic level at this momentous time was a real privilege and fuelled by a lot of backing and confidence, the pace of growth was phenomenal. From an HR perspective, Boots was way ahead of the curve in terms of developing people, buoyed by a leadership that had real faith in HR, which has subsequently stabilised and supported this much-loved brand through the subsequent retail challenges that followed.
I think the fact that I’ve always had a leaning towards developing others, meant that I have regularly had conversation with colleagues, about how they want to develop in their careers. Consequently, this has made me listen to myself and ask: “What do I want to do next and how can I be better?” But when I was approached by Wilco, I have to be honest that initially, I wasn’t sure that it was the right time. I felt I was in a comfort zone, I had really good relationships, I knew I was credible and, the notion of moving to a smaller organisation – which was in a very different market – took some processing. But when I met the owner of the business and was introduced to the people working there, it made me realise what I had been missing at Boots and that is not to denigrate in the slightest, what was and still is, a wonderful company. But here at Wilco, there was an immediacy, a direct connectivity that working in a family business brings, where the owner could call you at any moment. I was also really attracted by the customer proposition, values and culture of the organisation, which is motivated to make a difference to the everyday people that shop in Wilco stores. That felt very meaningful and very direct and the fact that this peoplecentricity radiated around the organisation and out into the wider world, was massively compelling. From a purely HR perspective, I was really switched on to the authenticity surrounding people being the most valuable asset in the business model equation and it was clearly a very definite USP. It’s a customer-facing brand located in both traditional high street environments as well as newer shopping centre and retail parks and it deals in the realities and challenges facing people and families in these tough cost-of-living times. Personally, I felt really excited by the opportunity to make a bigger difference here than at any other point in my career.
Initially, I joined as Head of Talent, Learning and Reward, which was an area of the business that required some professionalisation. I hasten to add that it wasn’t a broken system – it was more of a case of introducing some modern approaches and bringing my learning and experience to build on what was already there. Firstly, I sought to understand the organisation and the people that made it work at all levels and departments. Then about a year in, the incumbent HR Director was set to retire and I was invited to step up to that role – which was both exciting and daunting – and, from that moment to now, it has stretched and challenged me more than at any time in my career. Prior to the pandemic, Wilco had clear and well-realised commercial ambitions to expand, with a hectic schedule of store openings, growing the retail footprint of the organisation. We were also formulating our strategy to 2030, which was around developing our digital and product business. However, we were then forced to re-evaluate our plans – not because our strategy was reactionary and based on not well thought through decisions – but ostensibly and obviously, because of the pandemic which, on top of tough market conditions on the high street, meant we had to consolidate and close some stores.
There always has been ebbs and flows in business and most importantly, it’s about honesty, transparency and trust. If people can see the challenges and the reasons for strategy are well communicated and plausible, they will dig in. It was important to keep our commitment to our customers central to the vision and the importance of living our values every day was undiminished. We also continued to invest in what we call our Power 2030 Strategy, in which we have taken every team member through an experience, to see what 2030 will look like for them and the business, to look at our markets now and then and the end-to-end customer experience we want to offer. It’s about sharing that North Star with people, so we all know where we’re heading. In the past year, we have also rolled out a new learning platform, called Be Your Best, which allows all of our team members to have access to learning at their fingertips. It’s a really intuitive learning digital platform, that provides the basics, in terms of policies and procedures, but also encourages team members to be curious around their learning and, for example, deepen their understanding of our products. In my mind, if you give people the appropriate tools and the support to use them, they will want to make that difference.
None of us are quite the same as a result of the pandemic. From the business perspective, back at the very start of it, there was some confusion as to whether we were an essential retailer. We gained clarification that we were the very next day, but we were worried that our team members might not turn up, because of the Prime Minister and medical colleagues gave such a grim assessment. However, all of our people turned up for work and they kept that up, day in, day out, 15,000 people across our then 420 shops. At the same time, almost overnight, our 1000 support centre team members started working from home and my HR team stepped up to keep everyone advised, motivated and productive and supported communication and collaboration to fill the void. Across the entire organisation, our people adapted really quickly and kept the business running… it was absolutely phenomenal! Looking ahead, from an agile perspective, we are bringing the best of those experiences during that incredibly challenging time, to build the foundations of our future people framework and business direction. Trust is, unquestionably, at the core of this and in terms of our approach to hybrid and flexible working, we are supporting people to use their own judgement around when they go to a Wilco site and when they work from home. For our team members in stores, for team members who are able to work remotely, there is an absolute appreciation of their everyday commitment to making sure the shops are open and the shelves are stacked with the essentials that our customers need and rely on. The pandemic forced quick decisionmaking and flexibility and there is no doubt that it’s made us clearer and braver and, right across the organisation, people stepped up to the plate and gave a great account of themselves and showed amazing resilience.
Physical and mental health wellbeing has become an even more important focus and during the pandemic, we kept reminding people of the provision and support that they could access if and when they needed to. We also introduced online counselling, as well as mental health first aiders, right across the business and we’re keeping up this momentum, I’m totally convinced about the positive impacts of effective wellbeing support in work. My ambition is that we end up having one per Wilco site – both retail outlets and offices – incorporating physical with mental first aid. We also now have a great wellbeing forum, which is a network of people that can share experiences and support people, checking in on team members and not being afraid to ask how they really are. The other essential element is DE&I. The tragic death of George Floyd in May 2020 must act as a catalyst for change and a roadmap for direction. I am determined that at the heart of it is commitment to try even harder to be more relevant for our employees and our customers, through increasing diversity, so that our stores are truly representative of an inclusive culture that reflects every customer that walks into our stores.
In terms of supporting our leadership, remembering my own experiences, we are launching reverse mentoring for all of our senior leaders, to be set up with a mentor, who will be someone from an ethnically diverse background from them and mostly junior. We clearly need to work on our ethnic diversity and so having our senior leaders holding up a mirror will develop self-awareness and build an inclusive leadership so that we can build better teams around us. We can now use the right data to do that, so that we can integrate across the whole business model. We clearly want to pay people well for the role that they do, but just as importantly, we want to make sure that we provide really good benefits, a really great environment where people can come and feel fulfilled and in which they can build a career, not just a job, that enables them to manage their home life too. Additionally, with the cost-of-living crisis we are in, we are supporting team members with access to good financial wellbeing support. They can access money through a salary finance scheme so that they can draw down their salary earlier, if they need to pay bills for example. We are also supporting financial wellbeing too and providing advice and education around personal finance. We also have an employee trust that our team members can apply to if they are really struggling, or if, for example, they want to help a child through university. There’s also a brilliant team member discount, which makes a tangible difference when buying products in store and recently we’ve increased this from 20-to-30 percent for the seasonal period. I think for HR, it’s about being in the moment, listening to what people need, being creative and adaptable. The headwinds are hitting us, people are struggling, and things are not likely to improve for some time and so if there is support that we are able to provide and afford, as employers, we absolutely should.
The situation for traditional retail outlets has been tough for more than a decade. Online shopping, of course, has impacted, but there is incredible resilience in the sector and despite the downturn, there are signs that towns are primed for regeneration, providing a whole new set of experiences for visitors and customers and retail can play an integral part in that future vision. In the meantime, our objectives remain intact, to support our customers with the best value for money across their essential purchases and continue to be a reliable support for people that are having to make do with less, due to the cost-of-living. There’s no doubt in our minds that the local high street is essential to the fabric of local communities, people’s sense of belonging and of course employment. We are determined that Wilco will continue to be a part of that important society foundation. But the high street needs to work together – as retailers, we can’t do it alone – we have to collaborate with local councils with the vision and objective to provide vibrant and safe areas for recreation, for people to come to socialise and shop, with a different range of experiences and better access. I think the British Retail Consortium is trying to positively lobby Government and make changes and I think working with consortiums, such as the BRC, as leaders of businesses, we need to be connected and cohesive in our approach and actions towards a brighter future for our towns and shopping centers. The company is a 92-year-old business and I feel very privileged to be working for such an established and well regarded business and, along with my colleagues in leadership, we’re determined to make positive impacts that lay the foundations to a brighter future. We will need to continue to adapt to continuous change, be insight-led and tuned into what future generations are aspiring to. We need to develop a strong omni-channel customer proposition, bringing the virtual along with the physical retail presence, to complement not compete against each other. Although that will be very challenging, I’m optimistic.
I would say, without question, our biggest challenge is offering the best value that we can to our customers, whilst attracting and retaining the best talent that we can to support this. That is always guaranteed to be a tough call when there is a lot of volatility and we are having to factor in extra financial burdens being forced on the business due to increasing freight and energy costs, to name but two. This will need the most careful financial stewardship across the business, managing the everyday realities and balancing the books, whilst predicting future changes that are coming down the line. When it comes to the labour market, the strength of our employment brand has never been so important, making sure that we are seen as a great place, where people want to come and work not just for salary, but for a career, whatever their ambitions. I think we can offer people a great work culture, underpinned by our Wilco values which are integral to how we behave on a day-to-day basis, how we respect each other whilst enjoying being at work. Whether that be finding the right shift patterns, so people can manage their lives outside of work, or providing brilliant benefits to help them.
From an HR strategic perspective, the future HR vision is about calibrating the business for change and adjustment at every step of the way and focusing and always improving the employment brand. We have to keep on working on how we are perceived by the wider world and there is no room for complacency. It’s a simple vision, but I want people to come to work at Wilco and really feel that they can be at their best and that they can be their true selves. Our team member promise consists of really clear diversity inclusion commitments. Our priority at the moment is being actively anti-racist. We want people to stand up to the small-mindedness that they see. We want them to call out wrongdoing when they see it and we need to make sure that we integrate some strong diversity and inclusion principles in the business, so that we really build that into team members’ voices. We are collaborating with our employee forum and our recognised union and making sure that we have cohesion and understanding across the business. We are also working on building a much stronger listening culture, making sure that when there are concerns highlighted, that action is always taken and communicated back. I think people are less tolerant of hierarchy and we need to work hard as leaders, to make sure that there are no barriers and to demonstrate authentically that we will respond with empathy and understanding. This all sounds easy to say, but of course actions speak louder than words and we’re committed as a leadership, to move forward with confidence and ambition and always strive to be a better organisation for people to want to join and stay.
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