KEVIN, TAKE US BACK TO YOUR EARLY LIFE AND HOW YOU FOUND THE PATH TO A CAREER IN HR.
I come from a working-class background, we lived in a council flat and I always did quite well at school, had a bit of talent and the expectation was that I would be the first in our family to go to university. However, that didn’t quite work out, because although I had academic potential, that wasn’t backed up by much commitment. I was much more focused on sport and things came to a head when the school invited my parents to a meeting, during which my lack of attendance and commitment were the main discussion points: “The reality is, we just don’t think there’s any point in Kevin being here.” My Dad said to me, “well that’s fine, if you’re not going to go to university, you need to go and get a job.” So, after applying for a number of roles I eventually joined a local authority, working in the Planning department. Over the next three or four years, I was still focusing on athletics, however, I was promoted a few times and I had a great boss, who saw potential in me and I moved on to a role within economic development. I was asked to lead on working with businesses on the people side of their operations, helping set up initiatives such as the YTS scheme. Time was moving on and my manager suggested that if I wanted to progress, I would have to study for some qualifications. So, I enrolled in a BTEC National, then a Higher National – which is an HNC – at Kingston University. It was about this time that I made up my mind that a career in HR was my primary aim. I have to say, my Dad really influenced this decision too, as he had gone from a shopfloor job and progressed to a foreman and I remember him saying in fairly straightforward terms that, “to get the best out of people, you’ve got to motivate them, make them feel good about themselves and the company and they will pay you back in effort and productivity.” I went on to study for my CIPD and so the die was cast, HR it would be… after about ten years of working! Then someone I knew invited me to apply for a role in a consulting firm – predominantly focusing on HR issues for SMEs – which was a fantastic learning experience. By this stage – and not yet 30 – the Managing Director stepped aside and the non-exec directors asked me if I would take over. I took the opportunity and my tenure lasted 14 years – during which, my Finance Director and I bought out the nonexecutives – and over this period, we grew the business and managed to win some fantastic clients, such as; Orange, Unilever and the Cabinet Office. We carried out some pretty sophisticated transformation and change projects, we always focused on the human centric approach and I was completely absorbed, building a really successful and dynamic consultancy business. One of my clients was BAE systems and their group HR Director Tony McCarthy left to become the Group HR Director at Royal Mail – at the time when Alan Leighton and Adam Crozier had been appointed by the Blair Government. Royal Mail was on the threshold of being insolvent as the business was losing £1.5 million a day. Tony asked me to come over and do a consultancy project to help him restructure and improve the HR function. This led to me being appointed to the role of Chief Learning Officer at Royal Mail and was definitely a pivotal moment in my career. I realised that this was what I wanted to do and this was my opportunity to go into a great British institution that was in the middle of a huge transformation and play an important part in the design and delivery of something significant.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR ROLE AND WHAT YOU EXPERIENCED AT THIS CHALLENGING AND PIVOTAL TIME FOR ROYAL MAIL.
As the Chief Learning Officer, I was responsible for learning & development, the OD and change team. However, within six months, I was made HR Director of Operations, which was basically the whole of the Letters operation. This was a massive business, with 71 mail centres, 2000 delivery offices and close to 200,000 people. The objective was to try and turn this huge loss-making operation into a cost-effective and profitable business. The internet had made a significant impact in terms of falling numbers of letters being sent, but it was also an area of the business that had suffered from years of under-investment and complacency. So, trying to find some positivity to build momentum for change was a hard ask. During my tenure, we reduced the size of the workforce by 35,000 people – but we didn’t make anyone compulsorily redundant – people left with good packages and we improved employee engagement at the same time. We aimed to empower line managers to lead the change, what was then required was changes to practices and ways of working, which were right to heart of the Royal Mail operating model. A classic example was the Second Post, which was costing the business 20 percent of its overall cost base to run, but accounted for only three percent of the mail delivered on any given day. To give you an idea of scale and complexity, there was a change team of nearly 450 people working on this project for 14 years, during which time they tried to map every walk from all 2000 delivery offices. Historically, change was managed top down and the inertia was clear for all to see and so the new leadership team had to prove that change could be made bottom up, so building communication and trust was fundamental to empowering local managers. As you can imagine, the tabloids had a field day with us “scrapping the Second Post”, but it was essential if the business was going to survive.
EXPLAIN WHAT THE ORGANISATIONAL RE-DESIGN LOOKED LIKE.
We spent a long time assessing and re-training our front-line managers, because we knew, in a disparate organisation, change had to be led locally across the organisation, right up to the leaders need to innovate and collaborate. So during that period, we also overhauled our leadership structure and improved training, with much more focus on our culture and values. The thought process was that if our managers could support our frontline staff through change, we knew we had a chance. Not just operational change, we looked at tangible change such as the uniforms, based on feedback from what our Posties wanted to wear in the course of their duties. At the same time, we were having difficult conversations with our owner, the Government and we had the new regulator Postcom to consider, which was deregulating the postal market. This meant competitors took the highly profitable corporate work, while the Royal Mail were still doing the final mile. All in all, there was huge amounts of change going on – and some well-documented industrial action – and my five years went by in a flash, during which time my family hardly saw me. I just felt that it was one of those moments where you’re involved in something significant and I learned a lot about myself and how to lead a transformation in a legacy business. It was absorbing, hectic and sometimes adversarial and at the end of a particularly difficult period of industrial action, I knew it was time for me to leave. The plan was to take a year off and recover, but three months in, a head-hunter called with an opportunity that was impossible for me to turn down. They said: “It’s sort of in the people space… but not really an HR Director role.” Intrigued, I applied and I was appointed as the Chief Exec at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) – which is the professional body for the £33bn recruitment industry – and I went on to lead that organisation for a decade.
THIS COMES ACROSS AS AN UNUSUAL CAREER MOVE BUT THE LENGTH OF TENURE SUGGESTS IT WAS A VALID ONE.
What appealed most was that the recruitment industry was in need of repositioning and so yet again this was a big change role. It also gave me a chance to lead from the top again, this time in an organisation of just 100 people, which was a massive contrast Royal Mail. When I arrived, the REC was a worthy, cerebral organisation, but also a bit dusty and I could see immediately that it needed to reflect the more forward-looking and dynamic sector it represented. I also became something of a spokesperson on the labour market and was a regular contributor to TV and Radio. This was a tumultuous time for the economy, with the country in the grip of a protracted and deep recession. Having reflected, this role really played to my strengths and we turned the organisation round, but after a decade at the helm, it was time to leave and explore other possibilities, I left in early 2018 and I decided to go ‘plural’ with four non-exec jobs and a couple of strategic advisor roles. I also set about writing a business book that I had long wanted to do, called Competitive People Strategy, which was focused on how to develop a people strategy. It was nominated for Business Book of the Year in 2020. Then of course COVID struck and I was asked to help First Bus (part of FirstGroup), to restructure and I was asked to act as Interim Chief People Officer. During this period, I worked with the fantastic HR team at First Bus, to develop a new people strategy, after which I was asked if I would stay as permanent CPO. I thought I had done my last corporate role, but something about transforming a legacy business drew me back in.
TELL US ABOUT FIRST BUS AND BEYOND THE PEOPLE STRATEGY?
This was another legacy business – full of real, salt-of-the-earth people – with 9,000 bus drivers and 2000 plus engineers, operating in pretty much the same way as they had done for the past 25 years. But with the world changing around it in so many ways, this was an organisation that needed to change. It’s a £1 billion business operating from 60 depots across the whole of the UK and Ireland. Clearly, this was an organisation in great need of modernisation and my experience and skillset was a good match. The MD Janette Bell, a great leader, had gathered together a strong leadership team and my responsibility has since been to drive the people and cultural transformation. It’s been fascinating – now two years into a five-year transformation – the shift from an asset business – where it was all about buses and timetables, to a service business with people and customers at the centre – is really taking shape. That sounds easy, but it’s a business that had been obsessed with efficiency, on-time performance, lost mileage and the primary focus was operational efficiency and cost management. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic hit us hard in many ways, but none more so than the tragic loss of 16 of our bus drivers, who died from COVID.
We were contractually bound to keep running the services – with funding from Government – but customer numbers went down to 14 percent. In light of what happened, I truly consider our drivers and frontline managers as essential workers and their bravery was astonishing. After COVID, many of our older drivers decided that they wanted to take early retirement and in 2021, our driver turnover went up to 42 percent, which represented a cost to the business of £30 million a year. So, in a very short time, we went from one crisis to another and it was time to stop, consolidate and consider our future direction, which included doubling down on the people change. We introduced regular engagement surveys – four times a year – and undertook focus groups, to really gauge the feelings and mindset of our employees across the organisation. All-in-all, the results in the data didn’t make great reading, as people felt hugely unappreciated and negative about their job. There was lots of talk about work/life balance, in a world where this was difficult to operate and so we agreed that if we wanted to reduce attrition, we had to make First Bus a great place to work in and that became the objective of our People Strategy.
We needed to make change happen quickly and build the links between our employees and our customers. We started an intervention called People Centricity, a design thinking project, based on the ideas and suggestions of front-line staff. Some 300 hundred initiatives were whittled down to 30, covering issues such as; new uniforms, manager development, improved facilities, better induction and free tea and coffee for all. This all sounds easy, but trust me, at this scale it’s not. This was a business which always focussed on efficiency and so this move to a more people centric approach was a massive cultural shift. As part of People Centricity, we significantly changed the role of frontline managers and took out nonvalue elements of their jobs, so they could spend more time with their people. Our ratio of manager to frontline staff is 50:1 and managers would only see a bus driver for a few minutes a day in the morning before the run out or when they brought the bus back at the end of the day. So, we set about changing many things and one example was performance management, which was old fashioned and clunky. We had something called a “job chat” which was a 14-page form, which line managers had to go through with a bus driver. It covered collision ratios, disciplinaries and attendance record, so it had a very negative bias and, as with everything, it was very much compliance-driven and didn’t touch engagement or wellbeing. Our drivers were treated as a commodity and we focused almost entirely on compliance with the rules. “Break the rules and you will be disciplined!” We knew that had to change this urgently. After line manager training, we have now implemented “catch-ups”, which are a 20-minute human conversation between frontline manager and our drivers and engineers. The focus is now on: “How are things for you? Is all well at home? What could we do to make your life better here? What should we do to improve the environment? How could we make it a better place to work?” These 20 minutes, informal conversations are helping change the culture and we now have a better understanding of what’s on our peoples minds. We’ve completed five waves of catch ups with increasing participation each time – the most recent wave saw over 82 percent of our frontline staff voluntary participating – and so a great result.
WHERE ARE YOU NOW IN TERMS OF ROLLOUT AND HOW ARE YOU GAUGING IMPACTS?
The People Centricity programme is two thirds complete, but many of the activities like Catch Ups are being rolled out nationally. Through our now quarterly engagement surveys, the results are highlighting the rapid improvements we’re making. When we started 18 months ago, engagement was at 41 percent and in our most recent survey, that had risen to 57 percent – a 16 percent improvement in an 18-month period. This is unparalleled and it’s an encouraging sign that the work we’re doing is making a positive impact. Secondly, within that survey, we also ask people how they are feeling and this data is providing us with much more emotional insight into our workforce. When we first started collecting this data, 50 percent of our people were saying they didn’t like the job or the organisation and that’s been reduced to 32 percent and we now have the majority of our people saying they feel positive about First Bus. We’re really pleased with the results so far, but we’re not standing still. All this change activity comes at a cost and so we also have to demonstrate that all this effort is delivering for the business. We can see that while engagement is strong, this has contributed to attrition halving and absence being significantly reduced. This means we have more bus drivers available each day and so we can run more services. So a better service for our customers and increased revenue, which shows positive improvements that can be achieved by using the Customer Service profit chain.
HOW ARE YOU PERFORMING IN TERMS OF DEI?
Traditionally, this has been a white, male-dominated business, but we are making good progress, in terms of gender and race. We’re redesigning jobs and creating more part-time roles, to enable greater flexibility and to attract more women in the organisation. As I joined, we had received a report from Green Park on diversity and inclusion and it revealed we had a toxic culture and there was a high level of harassment and bullying claims. We’ve had to implement a lot to change to counter this and one of my first moves was to hire a Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Gareth Hind, who came from Asda and is now leading on this work. Additionally, we’ve trained all of our managers in celebrating difference and acknowledging the benefits of diversity and, slowly and surely, through creating the right environment and education, we are transforming First Bus and how people behave. We are now more representative and we are currently bringing in new leaders, with diversity central to this selection, as we restructure the business from ten leadership teams to six. We have focused on attracting people from different industries with diverse experience, as well as more women, so that we find the right balance.
CHANGE IS NOTORIOUSLY DIFFICULT, PARTICULARLY WHEN IT THREATENS - A CASE IN POINT IS THE STRIKE ACTION ON THE TRAINS.
No question change is hard – particularly when reducing the workforce, or changing terms and conditions, as we had to do at Royal Mail. Again, the only strategy that is going to work long term is to improve your relationship with your people and, for this to happen, you need to change tangible things for your people and again that’s why I favour the bottom up approach. I believe strongly that the best combination is a mixture of hard and soft change, while insuring that you communicate every step of the way. The focus, certainly at the start of any transformation, is understanding and agreeing the reasons that a business has to change. A good example is, we negotiate with trade unions in 73 bargaining units – so that equates to 73 different pay rates and as many sets of terms and conditions. I’d like to simplify that, but that can only happen through building a partnership with our trade union colleagues. We still have the odd skirmish, but we are working to modernise the relationship, so that the union is working with us to help transform this business, by focusing on the important shared objectives of; treating people well, giving them respect, making sure the job fits their lives and enabling employees to grow, develop and progress within the organisation. All of those are objectives that I think the trade unions should be supportive of. I think the other big driver in transformation is to measure the end results and in our case, that’s customer experience. Importantly, when you start to make an impact on customer satisfaction, sharing that positivity has an amazing impact on employee engagement, because employees want to do a good job.
WHAT ABOUT NEW TECHNOLOGY, HOW IS THAT IMPACTING OPERATIONS AND THE BUSINESS?
Traditionally, technology was seen as a disruptor, but now with the introduction of customer apps, which enable customers to plan their journeys and buy tickets digitally, everyone is seeing tech making a big difference to our services. Missing a bus and standing at a wet bus stop can now be avoided! The other big change is decarbonisation, which has a big part to play in the move to clean air and reducing car travel. In fact, this is one of the main reasons why I joined First Bus, because of the important role it will play in the modal shift of public transport and the environment. If we’re going to hit our environmental targets – which is to be carbon free by 2035 – we have to entice people out of their cars and onto public transport. As a bus operator, we are way ahead of our competitors and there is an organisational understanding that it’s the right thing to do and is aligned with the necessity to be clean and sustainable. Right now, 14 percent of our fleet is fully electric – an electric bus costs nearly twice as much as a diesel engine bus – so that’s a big investment. The math tells its own story, we made £57 million profit last year and spent £100 million on electric buses and we are on a schedule to repeat this for the next ten years. This is being supported by raising customer awareness and education, because many people haven’t been on a bus since they were at school or university and so we have to change the perception of bus travel in compelling ways, including convenience and safety. In addition to electric, we’re also using hydrogen in Aberdeen and our customers – particularly young people – are very strong advocates of this and we need to continue to drive those messages.
THERE ARE SO MANY AREAS TO FOCUS ON, HOW DO YOU PRIORITISE AND MAINTAIN MOMENTUM AND ENGAGEMENT FROM ALL STAKEHOLDERS?
Encouragingly, our buses are busier now than they were before COVID, which is due to the measures we are taking to improve the service we provide. But of course, it’s also a result of societal changes, such as restrictions on polluting vehicles and a greater interest in climate change. In terms of customer attraction, now there is good momentum and the signs are that more customers are using the bus for different journeys, with leisure now being the most popular reason. This was the first part of our strategy called Recover Bus, which was essentially to attract more people onto our buses after the pandemic and progress is strong The second strategic pillar is Better Bus, which is aimed at customer experience, NPS, people centric culture and decarbonisation. We have made lots of trade-offs, but at the centre of all of this work and activity is our purpose, “your journey is our everything”, which works for both our customers and our people.
TELL US ABOUT THE BUSINESS AND ITS AMBITIONS AND OPPORTUNITIES.
Alongside all of the transformation, there is a lot of M&A and growth activities. In the past few years, we’ve sold our American businesses for £3.3 billion and we used the proceeds to remove debt and our pension deficit. In the bus business, there have been three small acquisitions with more to come and we are also looking at our three growth businesses to become bigger, such as Air Coach, which is a coach business in Ireland, SPS – which transports all of the staff to and from Hinckley Point – and a business called FTS, which provides travel solutions to events such as the Olympics and Glastonbury. Those three businesses are growing rapidly and so our growth strategy is based on a combination of organic and M&A. Then beyond the bus is about investing in new adjacent opportunities. The Government is investing £3 billion in buses and local authorities are putting in bus lanes, improving the infrastructure and so the direction of travel is clear, buses are a part of the future vision. With all of this innovation and diversification, we have invested in leadership capability, so that we can deliver on all of these opportunities. A case in point is we have just recently appointed a new Chief Growth Officer, Gary Hitchmough, who came from Sodexo and we have recruited other senior people from DHL and P&O. We’re also mindful that, we’re not just running a public service, we have to be profitable and this requires a blend of great bus experience and new private sector expertise. What’s great is we have a real social purpose and what we do matters, which is really at the heart of everything.
WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES AND PREDICTIONS FOR FIRST BUS AS YOU LOOK AHEAD TO THE NEXT FEW YEARS?
That we achieve our objectives and completely transform the business. As I said, 14 percent of our fleet is currently EV and in the next couple of years, we’ll be up to 30 percent and that will continue over the next decade, so that we meet our commitment to zero carbon by 2035. I think from a cultural and people perspective, we have a lot of work still to do, but we have momentum and we can see that by doing what’s right, we are gaining positive results. Our people are coming with us on this journey, as we work to make our jobs more flexible and attractive to the widest possible demographic. But to do that, we know that we need to change the culture. I think engagement will continue to improve and we’re determined to be seen as a great place to work – and show that we are be able to differentiate ourselves from other transport companies. Putting the customer at the centre will create opportunities to segment and attract different customers to use the buses. So, the future is very bright for First Bus and it’s a really exciting place to be. I have at least a few more years completing this cultural transformation and making sure we have the talent to make our ambition a reality. I suspect I will then wander off and go back to my plural activity and perhaps write my second book! This is a challenging role and it’s an opportunity that excites me, because these opportunities come along so rarely. I love a big challenge and of course I realise that there’s always difficulty in big transformation. But I am as engaged and absorbed now as I was at the beginning of this journey and making progress is driving momentum.
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