WE TAKE 24/SEVEN CONNECTIVITY FOR GRANTED – ALMOST A BASIC HUMAN RIGHT – SO, WHENEVER WE HAVE LIMITED CONNECTION, THAT’S A SERIOUS PROBLEM. WE WONDER HOW – IN THE UK OF ALL PLACES – THIS CAN HAPPEN. EVERY “NEW G” LAUNCHED PROMISES TO REMEDY THE PROBLEM, FOLLOWED BY AN EMBARRASSED, COLLECTIVE INDUSTRY SHOULDER SHRUG. NOW, ONE COMPANY IS OUT TO DISRUPT THIS LETHARGY.
CHIEF PEOPLE OFFICER , VITRIFI & ALLPOINTS FIBRE
WE TAKE 24/SEVEN CONNECTIVITY FOR GRANTED – ALMOST A BASIC HUMAN RIGHT
When I reflect on all the different choices I’ve made in my life and career, there’s always been a common thread, people. My initial aspiration was to become a barrister and my subject choices at school were geared towards studying law at the University of Queensland in Australia. In my final year of high school, my work experience was at a legal firm and, by the end of the first week, I knew that a career in law was not for me. Subsequently at University, I dropped the law component and focused on political science and psychology for my undergraduate and I couldn’t have picked better subjects for my future career. I graduated from university and decided that I wanted to go on a big adventure. Back then, the majority of Australian grads would head over to the United Kingdom and have their adventure in London. But I’ve always done things a little bit differently, so I decided to go to Japan instead. I had studied Japanese and so had always had a fascination, as it is a completely different culture to Australia. So, with a basic grasp of the language, embarked on what became a totally immersive and character building experience. I was working for an organisation called Nova Group, the largest private education company across Japan and Taiwan, teaching six languages, along with a travel agency side to the business. At its peak, there were 10,000 branches across Japan and Taiwan. I started as an English teacher and I was really fortunate to be mentored by my boss, another Australian expat, who had been in Japan for some time. He sponsored me to join company leadership programmes and I was promoted incredibly quickly, which in Japan was unusual then, because the culture was very conventional, particularly in the workplace. So, a young, white female climbing the career ladder quickly did not go unnoticed and this rapid ascension led to me becoming VP of HR and Business Operations.
From an HR grounding perspective, it could not have been a better early set of experiences – working with multiple nationalities and supporting countless contingent workers certainly expanded my knowledge of international HR regulations around the world. It also gave me a great appreciation of the necessity of streamlining processes whenever possible. We had a contingent workforce, along with permanent international staff that were making Japan their home, teaching hundreds of thousands of students across Japan and Taiwan. I initially thought I would be in Japan for six months, but I ended up staying for a decade. When I moved back to Australia I soon realised that the scale of the role I’d grown accustomed to in Tokyo, couldn’t really be replicated in Australia. So, I decided to move into consultancy, mainly because I wanted to experience a variety of HR challenges in as many different organisations as possible. I focused on HR, organisational development, change management and transformation and these have been my core focus ever since. As planned, I really did work with a wide range of sectors and companies in Australia and New Zealand, ranging from international blue chip to more early stage companies, or startups as we now call them. But I quickly realised that what I had learned in terms of HR strategy and interventions in Japan, Australia really wasn’t ready for and I experienced what can only be described as reverse culture shock! I did a lot of work with the treasury department – which is part of the Queensland Government – on transformation and removal of one of their public service arms into a corporate offering. That company was QSuper and it managed the superannuation and pensions of all public sector employees and state politicians across Queensland. This was a highly unionised workforce and so a shift of a public sector department to commercial private sector organisation that would ultimately go up for IPO, was some undertaking. But it was an incredibly successful transformation programme that I was part of in many different roles and we were able to extract that public sector organisation as planned. We were fortunate in that, for it to occur, we had to gain a ballot vote of 80 percent union member agreement and we achieved 95 percent. Since then, it’s recently merged with one of the other large superannuation funds in Australia, so it’s on that commercial journey.
We had to sell the advantages of this change to our staff, primarily that this was going to really open up career opportunities. Similar to the UK, there can be a bit of an old boys’ network in Australia, particularly in the public sector and so this change went on to provide more opportunities to a much more diverse range of employees. The other key improvement was, instead of only having wage rises based on the CPI index, we introduced more opportunity to reward high performance more frequently. When you are part of the public sector, you must be mindful that it’s public money and, of course, the way that you spend it is always publicly scrutinized. So the move to private sector presented an opportunity to trial some cutting-edge approaches to developing staff and rewarding people appropriately, based on their input and contributions.
I also carried out some interesting work with some of the motoring clubs across Australia. Each state has its own member body and I was involved with RACQ in Queensland, RAC in Western Australia and RAA in South Australia, which also looked after Northern Territory and Tasmania after hours. I travelled a lot with that role and my input was part of a strategy to build a national consortium, to look at how they could leverage their outstanding brands. These bodies are some of the most trusted brands in Australia and the changes would go on to provide opportunities to further improve customer service. There were some interesting external dynamics too – for example, a drastic reduction nationally in young licenced drivers – and so the membership base was decreasing accordingly. So, there was a strategy to commercialise other non-motoring opportunities, such as insurance and introducing home assistance – for example plumbing emergencies or a locksmith, at home – you would just call an RACQ approved quality tradesperson, capitalising on the renowned reliable brand.
I’ve always been an early adopter, an experimenter and I like to try things before they’re common. The fact that I went to Japan to work before it was a popular thing to do for young Australians typified that. I tend to look for organisations in which I believed in, even though I wasn’t contemplating becoming a permanent employee, because I do my best work when I absolutely feel in tune with the values, purpose and business strategy. Reward for me is seeing my capability and experience making a lasting and positive impact. For example, I worked with Westpac – one of the top four banks in Australia – and they were early to digital banking and, from an HR point of view, I was seconded in to carry out some work, to enable key staff to work remotely. This really was cuttingedge in the financial sector at this time, because of the key concerns surrounding security and so I draw some interesting comparisons now as we transition en masse to remote working, seven years on from my time there.
Again, another blue chip brand, an airline internationally renowned for its standards and reliability. I was involved in the personalisation transformation of their breadth of services. Like most airlines, they had diversified into other non-flight services, including lucrative loyalty programmes, shopping and banking. We delivered a machine learning engine, utilising artificial intelligence – to collate all customer and member information – to ensure communication and marketing activities were delivered seamlessly towards more personalised approaches. It was an enormous undertaking fine-tuning the algorithm, to really understand customers and stay competitive across the sector. From an HR perspective, the range of roles across Qantas are quite extraordinary and you couldn’t help but be impressed by the passion of Qantas staff and this was reciprocated by unprecedented engagement figures. It’s a massive organisation with tens of thousands of employees globally and there was a lot of cross-fertilisation between functions, multiple brands and areas. What impressed me was, for such a large company, there were limited siloes, people were well-informed and everyone was committed and focused on making sure the brand lived up to its reputation. Above all, the camaraderie and respect was hugely compelling and it was a lot of fun. Concurrently, I’ve also lectured at two Australian universities, University of Sydney & Griffith University in HR, Project Management and Leadership courses – to both undergraduate and postgraduate cohorts – building up the next generation of practitioners, conveying my love for the profession and hopefully making more students excited about people management as a career. I’ve also carried out a lot of transformation work specialising in programme and change director roles, including establishing change practices from scratch in university and higher education functions including Griffith University in Queensland, the University of Sydney – which is Australia’s oldest university – and TAFE NSW. My most recent work at the University of Sydney was an enterprise customer service transformation programme, across multiple years, focused on improving the student experience for all – onsite, offsite, international, domestic, undergraduate and postgraduate cohorts. One workstream was focused on curriculum enhancement, to ensure the University degrees were meeting the requirements of employers, through including cohesive work integration, learning components and technology improvements. This enabled students to optimise their studies, as well as supporting academics and other support staff to deliver cutting-edge learning.
The advice that I always share is to make sure that you understand the business you are supporting, don’t just look at it through an HR lens. The most effective practitioners have multidisciplinary, multi-department and multi-industry experience and I look back at the role that originally propelled me into HR – where I was an operations manager – as well as the HR manager. I had responsibility for the P&L accountability for the region and that broadened my understanding of how business is run and how you can effectively improve the people practices, to deliver even more profit, if that’s the kind of organisation that you’re working for. While it’s pleasing that so many universities around the world now offer HR specific degrees, including other disciplines through dual degrees does make for a richer and more rounded HR practitioner.
I was in lockdown in Sydney, due to the pandemic and I was remote working on several projects in the Asia-Pacific area. I was approached about a Chief People Officer role to help establish a software start-up company from scratch, based in the UK, which at the time, was also in lockdown. The founding CEO and CTO both realised the people and talent element was fundamental and so wanted to bring in a Chief People Officer at the earliest point. This was a compelling reason for me, because a good deal of my recent consulting work was transforming long established organisations and so the brief at Vitrifi was perfect. From day one, it was clear they valued the people element deeply and gave me the greenlight to establish the people function in the most effective manner, which made up for the fact that I was giving up my flexible consulting life. To give you an idea about Vitrifi as a business, it was created to empower the UK wholesale fibre broadband market, using next generation tooling, which reduces the cost to serve and will provide a data-driven customer experience. We’re a disruptor in the broadband infrastructure sector, with the core objective, to overcome the poor connectivity in black spots around the country. The reality is that good access to internet connectivity is a basic human right now – you simply can’t live your life without having really good connectivity. So, I see this as an opportunity, to do some nation building across the UK and provide an essential service that generations after are going to benefit and capitalise on.
We established Vitrifi as a UK company in January 2021 – we three were the first hires – and since then, we’ve now successfully scaled the business up to 55 permanent staff. We have a contingent roster of primarily DevOps software superstars, that rotates between ten-to-20 each quarter – depending on requirements – to scale out different capability levels. Moving to this stage was not without challenges, I was still in Sydney in lockdown for the first seven months of operation, which meant I was carrying out recruitment screening and candidate interviews in the middle of the night in Australia. It was quite an extraordinary time to be looking at recruiting staff into an unknown brand – and we were in stealth mode – so there were some very long days and equally long nights in the early stages. Finally, I was able to travel to the UK and it was fantastic to be in the same time zone as our directors, leaders, colleagues and candidates!
We then established a second startup organisation in August 2021, AllPoints Fibre, a wholesale fibre broadband provider that is transforming internet connectivity in the UK, with a new deployment method that minimises customer disruption and streamlines the fibre installation process. AllPoints Fibre will be using Vitrifi’s software to achieve this. We’re based in the West Midlands in Warwickshire and our investors, Fern Fibre Trading Limited, have recently announced that they are bringing together their retail and wholesale fibre businesses to accelerate UK full-fibre delivery. This is a critical launchpad for the next stage and it means that now, instead of Vitrifi only providing their software to an area in the West Midlands, we can support the existing fibre companies under the Fern Trading umbrella, which covers from Devon all the way up to Yorkshire. Not surprisingly, the development teams within Vitrifi are thrilled about this new opportunity, because they can continue to work on a much larger, national scale. To say the least, these are hugely exciting times.
From day one, my primary focus has been on building our employee lifecycle and experimenting with different approaches, including remote, hybrid and asynchronous working models, to both attract and retain diverse talent. I’ve also prioritised implementing just-in-time processes – avoiding being overly bureaucratic – to make sure that we can identify, recruit and onboard the talent we need as quickly as possible, mindful that process lag is frustrating for candidates and likely to lead to them snapping up opportunities elsewhere in this candidate-led market. As our organisations are maturing, I’ve also brought in HR, learning & development, talent acquisition and safety practitioners, as we start to build out other areas of the employee lifecycle and our operations. We have designed and delivered a bespoke in-house Modern Manager leadership programme across both organisations, with our first cohort of staff recently graduating. We’ve also put considerable effort into experimenting with cutting-edge technology and developing bleeding-edge learning and HR approaches, to equip our managers to effectively address the challenges of a multigenerational workforce and changing workforce demands. That we’ve been able to do all of this within two years, partly during lockdown, is something I’m immensely proud of and it really shows what can be achieved, even in challenging circumstances.
Our long-term business plan was to go national, so as I designed my HR function and support model across our organisation, as I was always mindful that we would need to scale and quickly. When you’re in an early-stage start-up, moving rapidly is fundamental for your people, processes and product/services. What this means is, you need to think about what are the most essential elements that need to be in place to support growth and ensure they are easily completed and that nothing disrupts progress across the business. The reality in start-ups is that you have people filling multiple roles – it really is all-hands-on-deck – as you try and fix a problem and hand that partial solution over to the next person to support. If you’re coming in with the mindset of: “I’m only going to do HR,” it’s not going to work in a start-up environment. As we continue to scale and mature, that’s when the opportunity will come for people to focus and specialise more on their core competencies. As startups scale and mature, there’s a mindset shift required from early-stage employees to integrate new staff, new approaches and new ideas and that certainly creates some interesting cultural changes and challenges! The dynamics of including contingent workers and the often short tenures in tech, along with streamlining knowledge transfer and knowledge succession, has been a real focus for my HR team, to build that capability within and across the business.
First and foremost, our purpose is to disrupt the market, absolutely, but we’re very much about improving the industry and market too. Certainly, what has worked for us in attracting and retaining staff is focussing on the opportunity they have to work on pioneering architecture and software that really will positively disrupt our sector. We’ve stayed committed to our end goal of improving wholesale fibre connectivity across the UK and we still have a lot of work to do. As a disruptor, we remained in stealth mode for about 18 months, which increased our recruitment challenges in a candidate-led market considerably. It required real innovation and channeling the right messages to pique candidate interest, without giving the game away to the rest of the sector and our potential competitors. Of course, the reality is there is a global talent shortage, particularly in tech, but it’s experienced in different ways in different locations. The world of work is constantly changing and it’s been shifting recently at such a pace that businesses and whole sectors are having to shift and transform their recruitment and retention practices.
When I was teaching in Australian universities, students would frequently ask me: “Will my studies and qualifications still be valid when I graduate? Will this career I’m studying for still exist”? The reality school leavers and university graduates are facing is, the jobs they will have in ten years haven’t been invented yet. We should be approaching this dilemma as an opportunity to teach all our students how to learn and foster a lifelong love of learning and relearning. This is a global issue and partly down to the failures of successive governments around the world, to provide education that does more than teach students how to pass tests. What’s needed is an integrated skills-based curricula, that enable students to know how to learn and how to improve, rather than only looking at a specific skill for a specific job. Additionally, the UK is facing a lack of mathematics capability and indeed, the UK Government has been recently proposing that students must do mathematics until they finish school – which is the case in Australia, by the way. In our sector, software-development and the ability to code, is based on math and so a lack of a good foundation in this essential discipline is reducing opportunities and negatively impacting our future digital talent pipeline. But it takes more than words from politicians and, from my observations as an expat here, there needs to be some fundamental changes at the curriculum stage, because the UK schooling system appears to pigeonhole students early on in their development and without targeted support, lower achieving students are rarely exposed to the richness of the math curriculum as older students. To fix this, it’s going to take cross-party support and implementation and it will likely take years for this kind of curriculum change to be fully implemented. I firmly believe that we have an obligation to educate our children to fully optimise their potential and be successful in the future and strong math skills are a key part of this.
For us, timing is one challenge – having the right skills in place when we’re ready to roll on a project – but the real challenge is that, as a scaling organisation, your brand is not widely known and so when competing for talent with the likes of Amazon, Facebook and Google, we can’t win on salary or perks. What we can offer is an interesting problem to solve and the opportunity to create pioneering technology, which is a very powerful magnet in this market. There is no doubt that there’s a shortage of STEM skills and, as we’ve discussed, education has a major part to play. But also, I think it’s about being really clear to students and their parents early on about the impact of GCSE subject choices on future career paths.
I do and it’s interesting to draw some parallels as I recall my own career in this interview and the importance of agility for both companies and workers. I spent a decade working in Japan – which was very much a job-for-life country – and when I moved back to Australia, I was a contingent worker through a range of different areas and now I’m in a permanent role in the UK. The flexibility that contingent workforces provide cannot be underestimated – it’s not just about availability – it’s about the variety of skillsets, experience and diversity of thinking that they bring to an organisation. It makes sense that, the most effective staff are those that have experienced a wide range of industries and companies, so they can bring those different perspectives, enhanced skillset and their high performance into an organisation. Businesses will have to continue to be pragmatic because, while we train people and they will often go on to work for competitors, that talent may subsequently return to your business with even more skills. I’m a big supporter of utilising contingent labour, I know that it has played a significant role in my own career and I think increasingly, the type of experience that I’ve had will be increasingly the norm.
Well, I’m still very heavily focused on scaling our business and maturing our HR practices, to really address the challenges that the future of work is presenting. I’m incredibly passionate about DEI and ensuring that our HR practices meet or exceed requirements, to create a truly inclusive and diverse workforce. We have a neurodiverse workforce and that provides immense opportunities for learning for our leaders and staff, on how to create work approaches that support our people and enable them to deliver their best work for us in an environment that works for them. The two defining elements that inform me in everything that we create in HR practices, is collaboration and experimentation into new approaches, in the quest to deliver effective outcomes for our staff and our businesses. Pleasingly, there is an increased employer focus on a collective effort across the telco sector, to address gender parity and provide targeted programmes to support diverse candidates to role model. The objective is, unequivocally, that anyone can have a career in software, fibre and telecommunications. I’ve recently taken on an additional new role as Chair of the Labour and Skills Special Interest Group with INCA, which is the Independent Networks Cooperative Association in the UK. It’s a membership-based organisation and it represents a real opportunity to influence how employers, community groups, councils and the UK Government, can continue to work together to encourage and support diverse talent to consider a career in the telecommunications sector. I’m determined to play my part in creating a groundswell, to make fibre a real example in the tech sphere, as an area that has DEI at its heart, showcasing the widest possible variety of talented people in this exciting area of tech.
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