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Kirstin Furber

Once-upon-a-time, there were only three channels in the UK, a time when little and large drew 18 million viewers

Once-upon-a-time, there were only three channels in the UK, a time when little and large drew 18 million viewers


Once-upon-a-time, there were only three channels in the UK, a time when little and large drew 18 million viewers. When channel 4 launched in 1982, it hijacked the beige family saloon car that was dawdling down the middle of the road and with its foot to the floor, drove it through the death of video, the rise of the ubiquitous internet, the ups and downs of DVD, the meteoric orbit of gaming, the birth of Netflix and countless satellite channels. All along that joyride, 4 kept innovating, mold breaking and outraging.

Kirstin, tell us about the early part of your life and how you found the path to a career in HR.  

I grew up in Bath and then studied for my business degree in Sheffield and, curiously, HR was – for as long as I can remember – an ambition. I seemed to always gravitate towards the people-orientated aspects of the course and psychology really fascinated me; our perceptions, reactions and what influences us. After University, it was a tough job market and I applied for a job at BBC Magazines, selling advertising space. It was great experience, with very good training and an invaluable insight into the cut-and-thrust of commerce. You learn things that a degree course can never teach, finding out how people interact, how different departments work, the synergies and the flashpoints. It galvanised what was a fascination with people into a really compelling ambition. I wasn’t the best salesperson, but I learnt so much and I remained committed to pursuing HR as a career. From here, I moved to Laser, the sales house for Granada Media group – in my first personnel role – initially in a contract position, which became permanent. I took every opportunity to become more involved and created a role that had the core admin HR tasks – payroll, contracts, recruitment and interviewing – I also began studying for my CIPD.

Your determination speaks volumes, but the hr elements you were involved in seem pretty run of the mill, did that not dissuade you?  

I could see the need for creativity and innovation, about how important trust and integrity are, how volatile the balance is and how a great initiative can fail because of miscommunication. It’s a fascinating and dynamic profession and I felt I was on the edge of a massively compelling and exciting prospect. It felt like my purpose was clear and I wanted to make a difference. HR is so reflective of the organisation, whereby there are some businesses where it’s perceived as the police, with hard and fast policies, with no flexibility. Compare those companies with the more enlightened, relationship[1]driven and supportive cultures, where individuals have the confidence to thrive and there is the clear difference that inspired HR can bring. It’s become something of an HR cliché, but my ethos is unavoidably people-centric, today I call myself the People Director and my team is in place to support people. Regardless of skillset and experience, we’re all human and different and that provides both challenge and opportunity.

Looking back, where do you think the first major step changes were in terms of your professional development?  

I look back at my career in three phases; the first was the fast learning in the beginning, but the next big phase was international experience, which began when I worked at Ziff Davis and later Discovery Channel. This time of my life was constant international travel. I relished gaining an understanding of different cultures, interpreting situations and adjusting to the incredible diversity. The more I saw, the more I wanted to expand my global experiences and I think this is so key to great HR. I always encourage people in the profession to seize international opportunities, because the learning is so rich, memorable and translatable. At Discovery, it was my responsibility to hire and develop talent as the business expanded globally and so it was a hectic time. But it honed my ability to resource, develop and mobilise teams quickly and install team members who were empowered and confident to continue autonomously.

It was about building very trusting and capable HR teams with the capacity to be flexible and tuned into the local culture, building frameworks and relationships for them to be self-sustainable, wherever they are in the world. I look back at that phase and it exercised my ability to quickly see situations with clarity and pragmatism – important not to be dragged into the minutiae – but to bring people into the frame that are adaptable, confident and resilient. It’s a combination of localised talent, but also utilising centralised skills and moving talent around in a global company and building a culture where people can share knowledge and build relationships, experience what it’s like locally, rather than from a centralised HQ perspective and you cross-pollinate those different skills and experiences.

Recent experiences during the pandemic are bound to impact on operations going forward and technology is writing the future, what is your take on this?  

No question that COVID has accelerated change and tech has filled voids that convention could not fill. In so many ways, I see digital as a hugely significant new phase personally, for the profession and the world of work as a whole. I look back at my time at Ziff Davis which was during the dotcom bubble and this situation that has appeared in the wake of COVID seems a long time coming, but it is unquestionably an important catalyst. Back then, the fear was that good solid businesses could be washed away by digital and, of course, many were. But others made radical shifts and survived and thrived and I think it will be similar during this massive change, where there will be organisations that make the right calls and others will flounder.

There’s always change, so what’s so different now compared to the past?  

Without doubt its pace of change and uncertainty. Back then, you could plan a business strategy ten years ahead. Now there is no point in setting things in stone, only to have your finely-balanced equilibrium sent reeling. There needs to be continuous evolution and everyone should feel the compunction to stay curious, keep asking questions, knowledge share, constantly challenge and experiment.

Tell us about the next stage of your career.  

The digital transition was in full swing and this aligned with the next phase of my career. I was hired as HR Director, EMEA for 20th Century Fox, managing the theatrical distribution of films and DVD across Europe. It was an offer that I couldn’t refuse, such an iconic company and the market was so vibrant and changing fast. As I reflect now, it was such a momentous time because the whole industry was in digital transition, from how films were distributed to moving from physical DVDs to downloading content to own. HR was having to ask some big questions about skills and capability across the sector, so this was a time establishing what skills we needed to recruit for and develop. As part of the senior management team, workforce planning was top of the agenda, in order to capitalise on the accelerating digital commercial potential. Technology was accelerating faster and faster and there was no point being all skilled up to late. I realised that I had to have clarity of thought that wasn’t bogged down with the technology, which became a useful foil in a roomful of sector experts, all agreeing. It really demonstrated to me that having the widest possible range of perspectives is essential to competitiveness, rather than a room of people nodding approval at each other on everything. That does, however, present big HR challenges, but there is no side-stepping the fact that, diversity will be the defining factor for every business in all sectors.

And then you moved from one iconic company and joined another.  

Everything seemed to be happening so fast. As I recall this time, I think of this next stage as entering the third phase of my career transformation, as I became the People Director for BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC. With a strategy for driving international growth, we needed to understand consumer and distributor needs and adapt. This was more broadscale strategy than I had ever encountered, being part of an entire ‘system’ working together. Having a decentralised regional structure, synergy and cohesion was about listening and adapting to local consumer needs, setting up two-way communication between regional and central functions, combined with shaping culture to support the growth strategy. Culture can be a very loose term, but in this instance, it was about engaging with everyone across the company – how to work together, respecting the past that has brought success and looking to what is needed to support the future – then making it real, by embedding the change through the employee life cycle. In partnership with leaders across the organisation, we needed to start ‘living’ what we said we were going to achieve rapidly, in order to gain momentum and trust. My time at BBC Worldwide was definitely a significant career definer, but I felt that I needed to be stretched more and challenged.

Your next move will surprise, you moved from BBC worldwide to join a start-up. What was the career rationale in that decision and how was the experience different?  

I came across ClearScore, a leading UK Fintech, by chance and I saw a new business that was exciting, passionate and ambitious to scale. Instantly, I could see the challenge I was looking for from a career and HR point view, as it was almost the proverbial blank sheet of paper, from an HR perspective. This meant, for the first time, I would be working on strategic HR from scratch, as well as with investors, heading up the people element of a very ambitious expansion plan. With a startup, it’s certainly different, much more raw, immediate and less protocol than you experience in established companies. That makes for a compelling mix of excitement and fast pace but, at the end of the day, whether you’re looking after a team of ten or a workforce of 10,000, people are people and the HR basics are essentially the same. The big differentiator for me was that, with a start-up, there is no legacy for people to hark back to and compare and no precedence, so every decision is new and untried and there’s no layers of management and buffers to absorb mistakes, so confidence and conviction are bolted on necessities. By any standards, it was pretty aggressive, scaling across Europe and Asia and, as fast as we could recruit and resource, the business grew faster. Speed and scale teaches you that there’s no room for ambiguity and when you’re growing internationally, at such pace, you have to keep cultures and values front of mind and be consistent.

The financial services market is so competitive, changeable and highly restricted and scrutinised, it must have been a lot of pressure to establish your hr mark when the entire business is preoccupied with growth and market share.  

I was creating and embedding all the processes, from the standard basics through to the mandatory regulatory and bespoke elements. The focus was to adapt to speed of change. As the market continued to change, we were constantly adjusting and balancing process, because you don’t want to overwhelm an organisation under stress from the rigours of growth, to the point that you can incapacitate with too much process. You need to be acutely aware of the parameters and, when people are under so much pressure, you need a clear and practical approach to wellbeing. It was exciting but draining. I look back at this time as being exhilarating – tough, in many ways – my HR career bootcamp. I set my mind on some benchmark achievements for when I passed the baton on to somebody else to run with and I joined Kantar, a research and analytics company, which was a massive contrast of culture and style. Well established, foot-sure and with a global of 20,000 plus employees. But it wasn’t a role that simply needed an assured hand on the tiller and steady-as-you-go, it was a very interesting and challenging time. There were big changes for the business, which was just coming out of WPP. I set my sights on a forward-looking HR plan, when the pandemic hit. The best laid plans of mice and men, to coin a phrase and like all your readers, the plans were brushed to one side and myself and the HR teams became crisis support, in unprecedented circumstances, trying to work out how the business could continue operating. The oxygen was the rapid opening of channels of communication as people dispersed making sure there was a network in place to support and reassure and guide people in the right directions. All of a sudden, the leadership team was debating massive, existential issues; where does this leave the business strategy? Can we carry on? Can we connect the leadership team with the dispersed teams? It was a wild mix of emotions and trying to form some sort of semblance of normality in very abnormal times was quite surreal. Amazingly, however, it was during lockdown that an opportunity came my way that I simply could not turn away from. I began talks with Channel 4 to become the new People Director.

A return to your media roots, tell us about how the Channel 4 opportunity came about and what the appeal was at this stage of your career?  

I genuinely feel that everything that has happened has led to becoming People Director at Channel 4. During my initial interviews – as we discussed the massive challenges ahead for television – the passion and determination was deeply compelling and the strong purpose, to not just be a broadcaster that thrives, but one which defines the future, was a thrilling prospect. The remit is absolutely clear, it’s a public service broadcaster with incredible innovation and bravery, that sets out to break molds, set agendas and have impact. It’s a reputation built upon being first to set trends and test the boundaries of convention. From point one, I knew that this was going to be an exciting proposition. When you’re in discussion with people and the direction of talk is about being different, unconventional and distinctive, with your HR head on, you can see opportunity and potential for great diversity and inclusion. So, the HR agenda would need to align, in terms of being innovative and unconventional and pushing the boundaries, that are making us think about things in a different way. Having the different voices heard across the UK is really exciting. Channel 4 is, of course, in a sector that must ask some massive questions about itself and what it represents. To coin the HR clichés, it must flex, be agile and adapt to an ever-changing threat from technology and how content is consumed. It’s about the pressing agenda of technology, but also changing trends, mindsets, habits and cultural drivers. Channel 4 has always been a force of change, a box shaker and very progressive, but for that to be allowed to happen, the HR infrastructure must support it. I knew I had to bring all of my experiences to the task in hand.

Explain what the main challenges are for channel 4 and what the network’s plans are for the future are.  

The pandemic and lockdowns have definitely impacted our viewing habits, not surprisingly. Of course, we’ve been watching more TV and it has heated up the home entertainment content market even more. If we take a look at Netflix and Amazon, the subscription and pay-per-view streams have been redefined and the content has attracted a massive audience. However, so did Public Service Broadcasters, which UK viewers relied upon not just for entertainment and escapism, but also to connect with content which reflected their lived experience and for news they could trust. Obviously, the current discussions about the future ownership of Channel 4 are deep, but it exists to serve the UK. Yes, it’s a commercial business funded by advertising – as is Google and Facebook – but it has a clear remit. Its raison d’être is to be unique, which is its most important USP and that is being driven by independent and exciting content that walks – as we have all seen, a fine line sometimes – but is invariably compelling and stimulates debate. My joining coincided with the launch of the new strategy, which had been in the planning for quite a long time. We call it Future4, which is essentially Channel 4’s transformation into a digital first PSB, which puts viewers at the heart of decision making. It provides a strong platform from which we can deliver the evolving needs of audiences, which grows our streaming and social platforms, whilst maintaining our linear schedule and diversifying new revenue streams.

Where did you position yourself and HR in general?  

Immediately, I defined my role as People Director to assess what was needed from the people function, to support the challenges ahead and the ambitious plans. I identified that this lands in three areas and that was the basis on which I set my people strategy. Firstly, everyone had to clear on what their role was, both individually and collectively. That sounds obvious, but during the pandemic, having that clarity has been essential to continuity and connectivity has been and will remain key. But above all else, we have to be this creative world’s equal through innovative HR. People need space, guardrails and confidence to keep pushing boundaries with confidence, even when things looked bleak during the pandemic. So that there are no obstacles to knowledge share, we needed to empower people to make decisions, without passing everything up the chain and losing momentum and so we are pushing down decision making. Finally and most importantly, we have extended and strengthened our support for wellbeing. It’s been a tough time maintaining continuity 24/seven in these tough times and we have taken feedback from across the organisation, about how people have been coping. In many ways the pandemic has made organisations look closer at the whole wellbeing piece. Before pandemic, burnout and suffering mental health was a massive concern for all and the pandemic has switched a telling light on the necessity to make positive and meaningful changes in the transition to more normal times. Part of what we’ve introduced is making downtime a positive, we’ve introduced meeting free Fridays, both virtual and physical, we have no meetings during lunchtimes and we’re encouraging people to take time out to exercise and reflect and think about their mental and physical energy. We’re also listening very closely to employees about elements of their lives that employers have not traditionally supported. An example of this is, we launched our pregnancy loss policy. There is a definite move towards a closer, more transparent and proactive employer and employee relationship which I believe will be fundamental to outcome in the future. I think the pandemic has been a leveler and it’s also opened people’s worlds up to us and there is a definite rise in empathy and understanding, which I hope will survive the transition.

Do you think that the pandemic has caused, for want of a better phrase, an “employee spring”?  

It’s given people time to reflect and think about what work means to them and it’s presented them with choice. But we must be mindful that all the new freedoms wrapped up in the so-called hybrid framework come with caveats and self-responsibility. But it’s a real opportunity for us all to work towards a better future that supports sustainable work-life balance and opens up opportunity for all. We’ve all seen into each other’s lives more and it’s shown that we are all individuals with different pressures and responsibilities and those real-life issues should not be used as reasons for being side-stepped for opportunities. How we approach the transition in the coming months will be really important to outcomes. We all need to be flexible and adapt, but you do need guidelines and framework, to avoid everything descending into chaos. We have introduced a 50-50 Manifesto, which means people will in general spend about half the time in the office and half at home. But we’ve been very clear, this isn’t a policy that we’re putting in place, we’re going to be trialing it in the autumn and we will adjust accordingly, which demonstrates my point about adaptability.

What has been the important learning from managing in such a disruptive crisis as the pandemic and how do you think it will impact the future of work?  

The most important outcome is that, we may not have been ready for a pandemic, but like most businesses – and thanks to technology – we’ve been able to continue operating. I acknowledge that this hasn’t been the case for all sectors, but we’re fortunate to be a country with strong infrastructure and governance. We all hope for a speedy return to normality, but what we’ve learned about COVID, is that we’re going to have to become accustomed to living with it and none of us can plan too far ahead, because it’s a volatile and changeable situation. It’s not a time to set, rigid plans and policies in place, to try and galvanise the future of work operations, we have to see what happens. We will need to be pragmatic and ready to adapt. Most importantly, we need to be mindful of how this time has impacted on people. It’s not just the threat of COVID, it’s the changed mindset and the notion that, much of what we took for granted as convention has changed. The commute, the nine-to[1]five, the contract between employer and employee – both physical and psychological – has radically changed in a very short timeframe. It’s an important opportunity and we must be aware that it’s a big responsibility for all of us. There are elements of the past that remain fundamental to the future and I’m talking about trust, values, culture, shared purpose and vision. One of the founding core elements of Future4 was to support people to be able to do their best work in a supportive environment, that embraces and celebrates difference and supports people to be individuals, confident and energised. The pandemic is not something that any of us will look back on with relish, but it has focused minds on what really matters that, aligned with running a successful business, wellness and happiness are essential components to the future. Importantly and thankfully, the last taboos and stigmas surrounding mental health have finally diminished and the connection with work and mental health is more readily understood and most organisations acknowledge where their responsibilities lie.

What are the next big plans for Channel 4 and how are you preparing hr to meet its commitments to the future challenges?  

After the disruptions, all of our minds are focused on being future-ready. For the industry as a whole, it’s been a disruptive and volatile time, as it has been for so many and we are committed to supporting the creative and production sector. We are interested in mindset, not just skillset. We have a profile where people are confident because they are well supported, but also agile and resilient, so that we can all move quickly to respond to changing and different markets. With all this in consideration, we’re constantly thinking about our partnerships, ensuring that the people we do business with share our values and we have always had an unforced, organic approach to having different voices and faces within our content.

Looking ahead, where do you see the big challenges personally, for HR and for Channel 4 as a whole?  

For Channel 4 our ambition is deliver on our Future 4 strategy against a competitive, fast-moving market that is going through incredible change. Personally, for me this is partnering with your leaders to support this change through embedding the people strategy, building a high performing diverse, culture, building leading edge capability and having an organisation that is agile and responsive, importantly evolving the foundations of the great brand and culture that already exists. I believe HR leaders need to be data savvy, have leadership presence be authentic and open to listen and make decisions in the moment, whilst delivering against a longer-term plan. In the swirl of change and disruption, most importantly, we must never forget we are all human and that means looking after our mental wellbeing so we can do our best job. As leaders, we must acknowledge our great responsibility in role model that and to reflect authentically and wholeheartedly the values and motivations of the whole organisation and that includes looking after ourselves. It has been a tough time through this pandemic, but as we all learn to live with COVID and move into a new era, there is much to be excited about and we are ready and prepared for the future.

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