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Interview

In this digitally saturated world, where insurers vie for attention through algorithms, the human touch diminishes. Founded in 1912, the year Titanic sank, D&G has legacy to call on but, above all, it has determinedly maintained that important human link. Whilst its unlikely to find employees passionate about broken washerdryers, recruiting for compassion, mindfulness and understanding is proving a core differentiator.

Nick, tell us about your early life, and why you decided to study HR at university?  

I’ve been asking myself that question ever since! It would be great if I could say it was part of a strategy well executed. But the reality is, I finished my A-levels and, at the last minute, went through clearing and just had enough points to do a personnel management degree. New term started, and I immediately felt out of my depth. I had no corporate credentials in my family to reference and I really struggled with the subject and the University format. I was just on the verge of dropping out when somebody suggested I take a year out to do an industrial placement at Cap Gemini. “Perhaps what I needed was a more structured and practical environment”? Was the hopeful  suggestion. How lucky I was to take this advice, I felt right at home and it all started to click. I had an incredible experience! That was 20 years ago now and I will never forget my time there. I was in a team led by Michaela Burr and her input and impact made a real and lasting impression and, fortunately, I had enough sense to watch, listen and learn. CG had just merged the IT consultancy with Ernst & Young and concurrently, it was rolling out some progressive HR concepts, like self-service – so very early adopters – always exploring the edges and I learnt a great deal, and fast. I went back to university and the difference was immediate – ostensibly, I found I could now understand the subject matter and could apply real-life experience to the theory – and from then on, I progressed in leaps and bounds. University was a big stretch for me financially – my family weren’t in a position to help out. So, I used to work at Cap Gemini one day a week, and the rest of the time, I fitted studying around a job at a local supermarket. It was tough, but I graduated with a first, and I put that down to the experience I’d gained at Cap Gemini.

Where was your first role, post-graduation?  

 I applied for a variety of roles and was finally successful in landing a job at Churchill Insurance, as an HR advisor in the call centres. Above all, this was a fast-moving, and always changing business, underpinned by a lot of hiring and firing. And it was about the time that HR went through a period of being critical of those day-to-day skills, in favour of a more strategic influence, and was somewhat dismissive about the real nitty-gritty that drives your average business… I really disagree with that! In fact, some of the skills I learnt at Churchill I still call upon today, and I really benefited from some strong technical training, which has helped me to be credible since. The bottom line is, HR is a profession that shouldn’t be ashamed of some heavy lifting.

At the time, insurance and, very much Churchill, seemed to be in super-growth and M&A mode.  

Yes, I was young and this was a big business with big ambitions, and it gave me the opportunity to move to different roles and have my own client group. I really enjoyed my time at Churchill, but when it was acquired by RBS, I felt the whole acquisition was very heavyhanded. Churchill had a vibrant and strong culture, but being a small part of an even larger organisation, where insurance wasn’t their daily activity, you become a less significant part of the business and, with your influence, your flame diminishes too. Consequently, myself and many other colleagues felt lost in it. But like everything, there were lessons to be learnt from the experience. I spent some time thinking about where to go next, and this lead me to apply for a role at First Data, American owned and with a very American culture – flat and entrepreneurial – and the business wanted to expand and diversify. I was young, single and mobile and here, I found plenty of opportunity to go and do interesting projects and operate at a more senior level. It was my first insight into a truly global business in a very pacy organisation.

us about this more strategy-led activity that you were involved in?  

It was in the very first project that I really felt I had built up some credibility. I worked on a big programme to change the terms and conditions in the UK and manage through a cultural shift right across the business. It worked, it was delivered, and to my surprise, it rippled right to the top being recognised by the President of International Business. Confidence buoyed, next I helped set up an HR service centre in Costa Rica, followed by working at a high level developing and introducing HR self-service in Germany. This cascaded into a list of pretty impactful projects and I really felt that I was beginning to operate on a leader level and much more strategically at that. I duly came back to the UK and was offered the post of HR Director for the UK business and, at this time, the business was acquired by KKR and became a private equity portfolio business. The acquisition was heavily-focussed on stripping costs out of the international business, and I was involved in the restructuring, including the consolidation of data centres and re-calibrating the business to be as lean as possible.

From what you're saying, you can really see how your experience-set was increasing, a really pivotal time for your career and professional capability.  

 I look back and see that I made the most headway when I was most out of my depth and pressurised – if you’re treading water, you can stay in the same place for ages without making any progress. This time really exposed the biggest gap in my capability and I was determined to fill that gap, and quickly. First Data was quite paternalistic – there was a safety blanket, perhaps a little too much – in fact, I actually think I wanted a post that was a bit more on an edge, a bit more risky and as I seemed to be outgrowing the international business, I applied to HSBC. It was a case of “be careful what you wish for”. I found HSBC a difficult business to engage with, very large, and lots of groups, so I found it daunting to navigate around. Initially, I felt I had made a terrible mistake and it wasn’t right for me, so different to the paternalistic culture at First Data. I struggled to work out how it all worked – I was even offered a job back at First Data, and it was tempting! But I knew that was being defeatist, so I decided to give it my best shot.

Then the financial crisis hit, and HSBC – and, indeed, much of the financial sector – had to rapidly restructure and reorganise. Sometimes it takes a forest fire to clear the landscape and enable new shoots to show through and from what I could see from an HR point of view, for all the destruction, it gave HR a platform, to seize an important role in the business and right across banking. The profession seemed to step up to a pivotal role that represented the necessity to drive change into cultures and values, and crucially to find the checks and balances that would work, in a risk-orientated world. There’s no doubt HR played a critical role and if you look across the sector, it’s a very different culture landscape, with accountability, sound values and crucially, increasingly more inclusive and diverse. HR became the custodian to a more mindful way of operating, which was something that the sector obviously needed. But for me it was not solely a moral issue – it wasn’t that the sector lacked a moral compass, as a whole, I think they had crucially forgotten the importance of a strong culture. Now, if I hear anybody  casting doubt on HR as an impactful profession, I point them to this outcome. All in all, I had nine years at HSBC and saw first-hand the changes that came in, and the HSBC I left was a very different business to the one I joined, for much wider reasons than my input, of course.

Tell us what happened next.  

 Post HSBC, I felt that I really wanted something different to take my career to the next stage and I wanted to avoid falling into another large corporation. It was a case of looking for a business that was just the right size, agile and quick to change, in which I could make a bigger, more strategic impact. And it was Domestic & General that ticked those boxes. I met the CEO, Ian Mason, via a mutual contact, and we connected straightaway. In sounds a cliché, I know, but he really understood the importance of people in his strategy. Let’s face it, if you’re in HR and the CEO doesn’t rate the people agenda as important, you just walk on by. Plus, I really felt the role would be intellectually stimulating and a whole new set of different experiences. As it happens, I was the CEO’s first hire in the leadership team, and I joined as Group HR Director. There was no honeymoon period, and from day one, we started to develop the plans which were focussed on culture at the beating heart of the business, where the most prominent attribute was loyalty for our colleagues and customers. It was a simple plan, but fundamental, as it had started to be overlooked by the business, and in a world that is more sensitive to values such as; authenticity and trustworthiness, it underpins the modern expectations of a business. The HR function I inherited at D&G was huge, and transactional in nature. I set about recalibrating and repositioning the function to focus on a few key things, to ensure we had a programme to link to this strategy and to be customer-centric. I also wanted to re-position the HR function, so that it was supporting the leadership function more effectively.

How were you aligning the HR strategy to meet the business objectives?  

 One of the best examples was the interrelationship between the cultural programme and our products. When we were launching our culture programme, we didn’t want it to sit as an HR initiative on the side. The entire product change programme was called Customer First which is one of our values, and it is a value we focussed on most during the first year of launch. Part of that was a clear action to remove certain elements of the products that customers didn’t like. We wanted to make life better for our customers, so that we could show our people that we were serious about changing culture for the business. HR can be the fulcrum of change, but without  bringing people into the picture, it can be a lonely place from which to operate. It’s easy to be distracted, to be destabilised by people with a drag agenda. It’s about awareness, information delivered in the right way, and effective L&D, and an understanding you can never force change. The key is for people to take ownership and responsibility for their own part in change.

Indeed, a more collaborative way of working is the hot trend, the big must-have, but you can’t just decide that you want that this afternoon.  

Unfortunately, not. I do think that being a leader today is a lot harder than it was when my career began 20-plus years ago. Organisations are flatter, employees rightly have a voice to be heard. Back in the day, employees were told what to do, but it’s more complex now. There is a lot of integration and you have to pay attention. Digital may be appearing to take over the role of HR, but the truth is, people still want that facetime and to know that you’ll follow-up on their concerns and suggestions. The culture of working and the expectation of leaders is very different.

A fluidity of ideas, a meritocracy is exciting, but it can be chaotic and disruptive.  

Yes, it has the potential for that. But disruption can also be good and is often a catalyst for change. And if you compare the immediacy of our communication today to the way we communicated in the past, senior leaders dictating the route forward with Powerpoint presentation, you can see how far we’ve come and why change in general is accelerating from this collaborative crucible of ideas and opinions. I don’t think there has been a time before where young people can enter the workforce, and their more experienced colleagues take heed of their opinions and capabilities. You now have a role reversal going on. People are coming into firms with lots of data, connections, insight and views. If you cannot offer that platform, they will go somewhere else. They don’t envisage their career being at just one organisation – we all know that.

It’s that buzzword, disruption. Within this “chaos” is the answer to the future and you have to harness that.  

You have to stay connected, to listen and take note of everything that is happening internally and externally. That connection to the frontline, for example, is integral. A case in point, is the much-debated war for skills and talent. If as a business you are not on the radar, you will struggle. If as an employer you’re falling behind competitor companies, that message is out there and is easily picked up upon. When I think back to when we were developing the digital channel at HSBC, we ran a roundtable of people in their 20s who had rejected the opportunity to work in a corporate environment and all of them wanted more autonomy, individualism and to have a more creative role in the business. Move the clock forward, and that’s no longer a specific group, it’s the culture and mindset of an entire generation. If attracting the freshest ideas and the brightest talent is all about providing the environment to let people express themselves, who in their right mind would not do that?

There’s a lot of talk about employer brand, with a firm like D&G, you have to accept that you’re not, say, Nike.  

 It’s unlikely you will find anyone that is passionate about insurance for tumble dryers. But if you can find people with compassion and consideration for others – for customers that are in a difficult situation – then an important connection is made, whether you’re talking about customer facing frontline or IT support staff. Sure, the product might lack glamour, but there are stories that people can connect to. And then having the capacity to sort things out is an important reward that underpins what we do as a business. Encouragingly, this really resonates with the younger colleagues coming into the business.

I guess you can overthink the employee offer. There are certain things people look for in a business - they want a certain level of reliability, but the whistles and bells can be a distraction.  

Yes, I agree, you of course offer flexibility and we do provide a diverse range of benefits, but these days, the real connection is more intrinsic, less contractual and more mindful and organic and able to move with the business. You also need to understand the needs and aspirations of the individual, rather than trying to appeal to as many people as possible. There is much talk about recruiting for mindfulness, attitude and aptitude and I think that goes for both the employee and the culture in the organisation. We are seeing that in the strong social stories that the younger generations are in tune with, and as I have said, you need to be in tune with that. I don’t think I have interviewed one candidate that can’t do the job, but it’s those non-technical qualities that make the difference.

What do you think the future holds for HR as a profession, how do you think it has served D&G, and how would you sum up your career so far?  

 I see a profession that continues to grow in strength and prominence and, throughout my career, I have personally witnessed HR to be a courageous force for change and values, and I’m really proud of that. I think as a practice, we should be encouraged and proud of that achievement and to have faith in our credibility. At D&G, along with my colleagues, the HR function sits peer-to-peer with every other part of the business. We are now roughly halfway through deploying our people strategy and the culture change programme has been the flagship of that. I would like us to do a better job of engaging with our frontline employees, and really make sure that we use every opportunity to engage, as I truly believe engagement is the most important part of our business and shines a light right through the organisation to our customers. As for me personally, I look back to the time when I almost gave up on University and HR as my subject of choice, and how having time out in the real world really changed my mindset. I’m forever thankful to the people that gave me a chance and took the time out to advise and guide, and I intend to do the same and pass on my own experience and lessons learned. As a career, it’s been more exciting than I ever thought possible. The time has gone so fast.

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