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The sonorous tremors that shook the canyons of Canary Wharf may have abated, but the world’s most powerful financial institutions that reside there face the greatest challenges yet; how to operate in the blinding light of publicity, rebuild trust and stay globally competitive. Jason Spiller interviews Lynne Atkin, HR Director, Personal and Corporate Banking and Global Head of Employee Relations – Barclays Bank.

Lynne, tell us about your early life and career, and why you decided on HR as a career.  

I left school and went to college, and did one year of a social work course. I didn’t have the infrastructure in terms of family support, both my parents were alcoholics, so no career advice or support, but a couple of my friends enrolled on this course, so I joined them, and I very quickly realised it wasn’t for me. Then I got a job with the local authority in Harrogate, North Yorkshire and I actually stayed there for seven years, and this included six years funded day release, in which I did the BTEC National and Higher National, which were general business studies, followed by the CIPD. Working in personnel, my interest in HR just grew and grew. I moved on to a HR Manager role at Yorkshire Electricity, which was, at that time, going through privatisation, and within my first year there, I was promoted and was heading up HR for the high street retail aspect of the business, supporting about 1000 employees. This was a really fantastic introduction, not only to many of the key HR disciplines, but also a very customer-orientated role, and commercial, working closely with the sales management team. The business was multi-trade union influenced, and it was very much about turning a utility into a retailer, so it gave me a broad range of experience. It also introduced me to the challenges of change, in terms of employment contracts, terms and conditions, and means of operation. A couple of years into my tenure, Yorkshire Electricity embarked on a joint venture with Midland Electricity, which again exposed me to the challenges of merger, and this was a very tough and complex period of change. In what must have been about four years, I really experienced the whole-nine-yards of what business can throw at HR; from leading an HR team, to implementing and managing payroll, spiced up with the tricky politics between the business and the trade unions. From a commercial, business point of view, this was a tough world, but in terms of gaining invaluable experience, I couldn’t have had a more rewarding and useful start in the real world of business and HR’s place in it, culminating in what turned out to be the closing down of the business. We were unable to make a retail business commercially viable. We didn’t have the scale as a regional operator to compete with the large national electrical goods retailers, so the larger more attractive stores were sold and the rest unfortunately closed.

So no time for reflection, you were hit with the full volley of HR-related responsibility.  

Well, there was no hiding place, but it equipped me with some very strong technical skills, and a tremendous grounding in HR all-round. I worked on everything from recruitment, to developing sales leadership and reward, in particular we introduced highly-motivated incentives and productivity-based schemes, and because it was a small business, it was all-hands-ondeck. I was straight in with the leadership team, and I had to get to grips with the rawness and reality of sales and the bottom line. It really was very exciting and, looking back, I really enjoyed that environment. When the retail business closed, I returned to the Head Office and worked in the electricity supply side, which I found equally absorbing, because again it was about ringing the changes, turning a utility into an energy seller and trader.

And you were the only woman on the Board, at a time when this was rarer than it is today, and in a traditionally, male-dominated arena. How did you respond to that?  

My boss, Bill Wilkinson, MD for the supply business, was an engineer by trade, and at first, he didn’t get me at all. In fact, when I first started I don’t think he got HR either. Given my broader role, I found myself having more conversations with him about cleaning contracts than things like engagement and reward, for example. But I worked with him for three years, and it came to a point when he said he finally got it. For someone who’d spent a career building power stations that was progress, I enjoyed working with him.

The energy sector has been merging and changing for years, I guess the complexity here is how to set long-term strategy, and picturing your own future.  

Indeed, it was not long before more change came my way, as we were eventually bought out by Npower and I decided it was a good opportunity to make a career change. I was in my mid-thirties, I was HR Director and sometimes, you instinctively know when you’re ready for the next chapter. I went for it and was offered the position of Head of HR at Norwich Union, which became AVIVA, itself the subject of a great deal of change. It was not my intention to slow down or take an easy post, but this move was a big shock to the system, the business had just been through many acquisitions and integrations, and I spent the first month being introduced to people and told which organisation they had come from. This was my first senior move, where I realised there is a level where your network is very important, and I missed that. I wasn’t on the HR leadership team; but I was looking after customer services, and I went through those first 90 days saying to myself “you cannot give up”, although there were occasions when I questioned what I had done. I never quite settled, and I left within three years. Why? Well I certainly learnt a lot from the business, but even more-so about myself. Bear in mind this is pre 2008 and the economic crash, there was a lot of dynamism in the business, but I felt the HR function could have been anywhere, the business was very generic about their practices at that time, and, above all, what I realised was, I missed being HR’s representative at the senior management table.

Tell us about your move to Barclays, you weren't detracted by the fact this was in the same sector.  

When I came to Barclays; most people were more interested in my Yorkshire Electricity experience than Norwich Union/Aviva, as this is where I really got my commercial grounding. I came to Barclays in 2005 and looked after the back office operations, lots of site consolidation. It was a steep learning curve, and I was very clear around the need to access the network, so the first thing I did was research the business strategy, in order to get a grip of where this business was heading. Armed with this knowledge, I quickly grew in confidence, and I was very grateful that I’d been given this opportunity, so I was determined to make an impact.

How did you perceive the culture of the business and how it operated?  

It was definitely more traditional than I anticipated, and I was expecting it to be more technically progressive. I spent the first few years, from an operations perspective, getting teams to gel and work together. This alone was a sizable undertaking, as there were literally hundreds of sites and so operationally, it needed more resources in the middle, lynch pins, and fewer top level, centralised managers – more management capacity on the ground. It was a very long journey, but a massive advantage was that the business felt very connected.

Millions of words have been written about how banks got it wrong, in terms of reward culture. Looking back, do you believe you got it right?  

I think we set out with the right intentions, with the objective to create a retail culture, but the goalposts changed in terms of the economy. Do I think there was rampant selling at Barclays? No I don’t. There are always going to be people who have a view on what is right and what isn’t, and I think we, and the banking industry as a whole, has learnt a lot. When Antony Jenkins became CEO at the bank, he introduced the Barclays values: Respect, Integrity, Services, Excellence and Stewardship and, with these values, we work hard to make the bank the best it can be for everyone, both colleagues and customers. We’ve made some meaningful changes, from banning staff sales incentives to publishing our results every quarter – we don’t have to do this, no one requires this from us – we do it to be as open as possible, and it’s the right thing to do.

There is a lot of debate and analysis about the engagement and happiness of employees in the financial sector, hit by the economic crisis, and how it has played out in the media, that must be a critical concern.  

It’s an area that we’re acutely aware of, and which I am passionate about. Any business that, for example, does a big scale redundancy programme without real thought, compassion and best practice can only expect the worst. This is something which is just not in our makeup, where organisations leave people feeling powerless, badly treated and not communicated with, and yet still expect them to be fully engaged. Well you don’t need to guess at what such businesses can expect. Fairness and good practice is core to why I’m in HR. When we had to deal with redundancies, we dealt with people on an individual basis, and we spent a lot of time thinking about giving colleagues information. We built a colleague portal where they could find out exactly what was going on and how they might be effected, and we used real innovation, introducing a training allowance, enabling people to re-skill or skill up, or indeed move in a completely different direction, such as teacher training. It says something that even when those sorts of decisions have to be made, that the employee surveys and colleague feedback really reflect an appreciation of this informative and transparent approach.

Banking's image has changed from the high street pillar of respectively, the sector is damaged as a whole. Whatever Barclays may or may not have done, how do you think this will shape the future of the financial sector?  

Antony (Jenkins, Group Chief Executive of Barclays) has been very vocal about the bank’s need to change; there is a big focus on conduct and sustainability. Coupled with this, I think banking, and what customers want and expect as a whole, is changing and we’re evolving to meet these needs, with digital technology proving to be one of the biggest and fastest changes we’re seeing in the sector. People want different things, some customers prefer to manage their money online, while others prefer to go into a branch and speak to someone. As a result, we’ve made some changes to the way we do things, from; introducing free Wi-Fi in branches and creating Pingit – the free Barclays payment app, to banning premium rate numbers, so our customers can contact us free of charge. Over the generations, technology has been changing how customers and businesses interact, but now this is really accelerating. However, for the long foreseeable future, I think bricks and mortar high street branches may be fewer, but they will have their place, there is no real substitute for human contact.

How is HR shaping up to meet these future needs on new and old platforms?  

This is top of mind for me and my teams, pivotal to keeping colleagues up-to-date, relevant, trained and developed. Equally, keeping up with technology will be a constant work-inprogress, as consumer-driven capability and expectation is non-stop. So unlike the old days, where you could take a long-range view of your technology, that is no longer the case, and so that will continue to be a platform where colleagues must be shoulder-to-shoulder with customers. Colleagues have iPad’s now and a part of this is an internal team we call Digital Eagles. These are tech-savvy colleagues that keep pushing the boundaries and asking questions, so that we never get left on the back foot. They go out and train colleagues and help customers as well, so they’re passionate about passing on their knowhow.

How effective has the apprenticeship programme been for the business?  

Another passion of mine is playing a role in improving the prospects of the so-called NEETs. Before our apprentice programme, started in April 2013, we had nobody under the age of 18 in the business. We introduced apprenticeships as part of an overall initiative, to develop an early career talent pool. And when we were designing the programme, I could quite easily have insisted on five GCSEs for entry, but we saw this as a potential to get to hard-to-reach young people too, working, for example, in this area (East End of London), charities and young people’s support groups, purposely engaging school leavers, who simply did not engage with education at school, for reasons such as a lack of family support. And as I set out at the beginning of this interview, this is something I could personally identify with. I found my way through because some people took a chance on me. The engagement and retention in this profile is 80-90 percent and the pride and sense of achievement across the business, in the branches, is magnificent. The individuals themselves have a great work ethic, and really appreciate the opportunities. An example, I spoke to a new joiner, from a London Borough, where he could see the Canary Wharf skyline – he said “it might as well have been in another galaxy”. There’s a lot of talk about this sort of thing, but I am passionate about getting it done, and we have achieved a great deal, and we’re being recognised for it. We’ve won a number of youth initiative awards such as the recent one from personnel today. This sort of work draws a distinct and straight line between these young people and leadership, it’s indelible and it’s critical to the future of this business.

There's much talk about gender in terms of equal career opportunities - quotas on boards and five generations in the workplace. Opportunities and challenges in equal measure, you must be on that journey.  

In some ways, retail banking has been a trailblazer, in terms of providing opportunities for women. Indeed, we’re 70 percent female in our high street branches, and we have a lot of people that work part-time; and very many of our maternity workers come back into the business. The oldest person we employ is 87 and the youngest is 16, so we are very mindful of setting that culture dedicated to creating a colleague proposition that works for everyone. We’ve started looking at reward and childcare vouchers, and really looking at every conceivable way of impacting positively on improving personal situations. We have 35,000 colleagues that all need some form of flexibility and we’re working hard to be inclusive and fair in this.

In terms of recruitment, we’re enforcing a 50/50 gender split at interview stage, and a part of that is getting our external agencies working harder in this instance. Another initiative is giving women the opportunity to stretch themselves and reach their potential, because in my experience, it is much harder to get women out of thinking that their current role is the be-all-and-end-all of their career prospects. I find myself talking to many senior position women who don’t think they’re job is finished, and feel compelled to stay where they are. A part of that is family responsibilities too and not being able to move. Men tend to be more flexible with that proposition, so that is a part of a culture change, about empowerment, and communicating that message in compelling ways. We’re working on it! I’m also working on changing this culture of people hiring in their likeness, that will change too.

What's next for Barclays as a business and how are you shaping HR to meet its needs?  

As you said, it’s a journey we’re still on. We’ve had a strategy in place for three, coming up for four years, and I’ve touched on some of the key issues – the contact points with customers and interaction and engagement with the business. Internally, for me it’s about embedding the values, and there’s still a lot of work to do on performance management, it’s a new dawn and a new opportunity to get this right. From an HR perspective, we have built a future-looking infrastructure, which is supporting our recruitment and optimising resourcing, with the right people, and developing the right skills and expertise. Recruitment is nothing short of revolutionary, and in the last two years, we’ve moved a large proportion online, with values and online assessment. So where we were handling 250,000 CVs per year, we’re now working with 80,000 CVs, that improvement in candidate quality means that our interview-to-offer rate has moved from eight-to-one, to two-to-one. Our process has improved and our costs have come down.

To reinforce that the quality of hire has improved, we look at performance, and have classic ratings, and we’re finding that 80 percent of our new hires are in the high performance rating. It’s more efficient and measures alignment to our values much more accurately. We still need to step up to the plate with cost effectiveness, but we are determined to improve. There is more of that in the HR space, particularly globally. We need to work on improving the talent base, which a big culture change challenge that the HR is central to. We are now on that cliff edge of technology and we live up to high expectation by delivering a great HR set of processes. In all ways, it’s about straight-through processing and transparency, and freeing up teams to have more time to focus on more strategic work, rather than, say, ploughing through thousands of applicant CVs, and we feel more in control. As said, in terms of the services we provide, we cannot afford to be passengers; we have to be drivers, so no complacency.

Lynne, as you described, you didn't have the best start in life. In that context, you must look at where you are now with some amazement.  

Having to get self-motivated has served me very well. I certainly don’t dwell on the past, my role here and now is crystal clear. But I have the big learning points saved to memory and a part of that has been about opportunity, and people seeing some values and potential in me. For that I will always be grateful, and this is a big incentive for me to give back, to give others opportunity. I feel very fortunate and privileged, but it’s a strong sense of stewardship responsibility, that I intend to do my utmost to improve the business for those that will inherit it in the future. If I can help to inspire that mind-set and ambition in others, along with my colleagues, that will be a worthwhile achievement.

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