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Interview

PAM WALKDEN
GROUP HEAD, HUMAN RESOURCES , STANDARD CHARTERED

Canary Wharf shrouded by cloud post-crash was, to all intents, was Ground Zero for banks. Never again would it be the same for the sector’s capacity to self-regulate and operate with impunity. But now there is a growing voice of concern that the level of control and red tape is seriously curtailing risk, which in turn is threatening the competitiveness of the UK economy, just at a time when what is needed is courage and confidence.

Pam, tell us about how your career began and how you eventually took the path into HR.  

I have been in banking for about 30 years and, for approximately half of that time, I’ve been in relationship management – working with clients. I’ve also ventured off piste into all manner of roles – notably, none of them had anything to do with HR. I’ve always been prepared to take a chance and show willing and, in this sector, that can lead to all sorts of things. To give you an example, I’ve been involved with; asset liability management, corporate affairs, I’ve been Treasurer and, more recently, I gamely took on the mantle of interim Chief Risk Officer. So really, I’ve always been willing to take a chance and I’ve been rewarded with a hectic but varied clutch of experiences, which I believe has been beneficial for my career, and I think positioned me well to take on my current role of HR Director. There really is no substitute for experience at the end of the day! Nevertheless, nobody was more surprised than me when I was offered the HR lead, but that is the type of business Standard Chartered is. I say I was surprised because, classically, I was the type of person that had a pretty low perception and expectation of what HR represented and what it delivered. Now I’m in the hot seat and I realise that view was dreadfully wrong! Happily though, we have a Chief Executive and a Chairman that wholeheartedly puts HR at the fulcrum of the business, and a seat at the table, which makes it very exciting.

In the 30 years you've been at Standard Chartered, you must have seen great change, not only in this organisation, but also the sector as a whole, so much has happened and changed in that time.  

No question of that, it was fundamentally a very different organisation and very different times back then. I joined in the mid-1980s and, at that time, Standard Chartered was a small bank. Quite early on, I travelled to South Korea, and the idea of a woman working there was almost unheard of. I look back over this time, and I’ve seen the organisation go through many phases; growth, diversification, consolidation and tough times. It’s been a journey for sure, and the scale of the business now bears little resemblance to the bank I joined. However, because of my intimate understanding of the way the business ticks, I can still see elements and qualities that are retained from our small bank status, and that is quite comforting in this day and age. Importantly too, it has grown to become a thrillingly diverse organisation, which is one of the core reasons I am still compelled by it. In terms of the sector as a whole, some appalling behaviour by the few had a very destructive outcome for many, which has obviously been well documented, and the not- surprising result is, we now live and operate in a much more regulated industry.

But surely the sector as a whole has to accept a collective responsibility, whether they were responsible for wrongdoing or not, in order to failsafe against a repeat of history.  

I don’t think many would disagree with that, and I don’t think any bank would genuinely hold their hands up and say they had always been a perfect paragon of virtue. The point is, that you don’t just pay lip service to the “lessons have been learnt” mantra, that you really learn from those lessons and change cultures to support standards of personal and corporate behaviour. Surely that is the path forward, not constantly apologising and running scared? Greater transparency and more openness are the driving influences now, and I feel there is an increasing need for supporting and encouraging that on all levels. I think that against the grain of technological change and reduced presence of banks on the high street, there is a case for bringing banking back to the basics of tradition. Solid, reliable and customer caring, when the bank manager was the person that everybody recognised and whose opinion was valued and trusted. Is it a case of viewing the past through rose-tinted glasses? Perhaps yes, but there are fundamental values that should remain a constant, whatever happens. Plus, there is the wider role of the financial services industry in stimulating GDP and economic growth in uncertain times. What is needed is the confidence to take risks and innovate. Encouragingly and increasingly, people are joining with a healthy appetite to make a positive impact on the world.

You have come to HR late in your career – your tenure as HR Director began two years ago - what was said in the interview that made you decide that this was for you?  

I had a meeting with Bill Winters, our Group CEO, and it was clear that he wanted HR to have a voice at the top table and he described a root and branch cultural transformation, with HR driving it. For me, having invested 30 years of my life in the company, represented an amazing opportunity.

You took your seat at the table, the spotlight fell on HR and your board colleagues turned their attention to you…  

Yes, that was a moment! In terms of priorities, I have four – building a diverse, internal pipeline offering exciting careers; helping Standard Chartered to become more efficient in the way we operate in an increasingly regulated industry; driving cultural transformation in the Bank; and, last but not least, automating and improving the efficiency of HR itself. For someone who has been with the Bank so long, I really want to make progress on developing and promoting from within to create a diverse leadership team that truly represented the organisation as a whole, with diversity driven not by quotas, but by organic development. It’s that balance between retention and bringing in new blood that you have to get absolutely right. To support this, we have changed our maternity and paternity leave; implementing a minimum standard to support working parents no matter where they are across the Bank. We increased our fully-paid maternity leave to a minimum of 20 calendar weeks, paid parental leave for spouses or partners from a minimum of two days to a minimum of two calendar weeks, and also paid adoption leave to two calendar weeks. The world of work is changing, driven by new technology, office spaces and attitudes to work/life balance. We want to be part of this change and we are committed to make our people’s time at work simpler and happier. The Bank is a great place to work and we want to continue to attract new talent, embrace improved, flexible ways of working, improve the culture and create a compelling place to work. One of the areas where we do this very well is our graduate programme. We now recruit graduates for all areas of the Bank into a very exciting programme. Some of them have bravely just finished climbing Mount Kilimanjaro! I also wanted to do more about the Diversity & Inclusion agenda – this is core to a bank like us with our international presence. Looking at our top management team, we have one person from Greater China, we don’t have a single African on that team. I want to change that.

Your career is a good example of the importance of giving people opportunity outside of their comfort zone, is that an important element in your plans?  

In my book, this is key. I look back and realise that my career progression accelerated every time I was challenged. I’ve been really lucky and I hope we can do more of that. This sits within our leadership development and succession strategy and we’re seeing our staff engagement results going up. But for me the real excitement right now is around our cultural transformation. It’s been a hard nut to crack, but things are changing. We have made great progress in transitioning our Bank. For the next step of our transformation, we need to change the way we operate and how we behave to achieve our purpose. Believe it or not, one of the more clunky areas was around flexible working – in a traditional business like ours, you really have to get over the deep-seated perceptions of what that actually means.

And diversity too, the overriding perception of banking is that it is white, male and middleage dominated. Do you think this is changing?  

There are fundamental changes happening right now. When I left university, I started with a bank – which shall remain nameless – and on my first day in the office, I was told to report to the manager, and he said, “you have to understand, I hate graduates and women”. Today, you would be sued for saying that. It’s behaviour we simply wouldn’t tolerate now, but back then, nobody batted an eyelid. Our senior management team is a healthy 50-50 male and female balance. Because of our geographical spread, we have over 90 different nationalities. I have friends all over the world, that is what makes it fun!

You've spoken about the importance on an organic system for succession, and yet quotas were brought in to almost force businesses to face up to equality. In many ways, tokenism is even worse.  

Tokenism is a hiding to nothing. If I had a choice between a man and a woman applying for a role, success would wholly be about merit and suitability for the role. I generally don’t like targets and the idea of forcing equality to hide a deeper seated problem. However, right now, I think we have to face facts that change.

It's hard not to be cynical about what is happening generally. It does seem like one step forward and two steps back.  

It is cultures that businesses struggle to get their heads around and make positive impacts on. It is a cultural fact that, in many societies, women have traditionally been sandwiched between child care and elder care, whilst it’s been seen as natural that men should strive to succeed in their careers, untethered and unhindered. In many respects, if you think of the wasted opportunity and unfulfilled potential, it’s a tragedy. But looking for the positives, with technology and more flexible working arrangements, there has never been a better time for HR to make the strongest case for equal opportunity and for organisations to truly support this wholeheartedly. The problem is, it will take time, but the momentum is clearly there.

What gives you the confidence that momentum is taking this perennial conundrum in the right direction?  

Well, I can’t think of a better example than the number of women now in senior positions. For sure, that needs to continue to rise, but we have to keep going, not stand back and admire our handy work. I genuinely believe that in our business, we are doing the right things. We are trying hard to make it happen. Two years into my tenure – and relating to my key objective – I can see women in our organisation that are feeling more confident about their career momentum, and the value of flexible working is something that our leadership is totally on board with. It’s clearly driving greater engagement and a sense of self-responsibility and ownership. If there’s a negative, it’s not flagging itself to me. Trust is, of course, a two-way street. If people are sitting at home, feet up on the sofa doing nothing all day, they will be found out pretty quickly, and I think that sense of responsibility sits well with the majority. People work harder to prove that they can make it work.

There's the perception that there is still this necessity for presenteeism, particularly in city firms like this.  

I do still think there is an element of that, but I think generational change is making all the difference. There is no doubt that it’s a more natural fit for the younger generation coming through. But it’s very easy to sit here and say that in the UK, of course it’s possible for people to work from home. But for example, we have employees working in Angola and, of course, they might not have the facilities to work remotely. The tricky bit is, the policies and practices you bring in have to be appropriate and work for everybody. An important part of the cultural work is engaging with people, hearing their views and opinions. In fact, we have asked for and accrued feedback from the majority of our 89 thousand staff. It’s a phenomenal collection of data.

What’s next on your agenda?  

Still, the big thing on my mind is cultural transformation, we have literally just scratched the surface. With what our organisation stands for and against the backdrop of the travails of the sector and the resultant financial crisis, we are constantly challenging what we do, how we do it and what we represent. It’s a colossal work-inprogress, and it’s success or failure relies on lining up the brand, our people and, crucially, customers. What we stand for is the poster for why people want to work for us, and why people want to stay with us. If we need to fill a key senior role, and we have the choice of candidates within that fit the bill, as opposed to always recruiting for specific skills and experience externally – then that is an outcome that we can really hang our hat on.

There's the notion of a flatter business structure and also there's an argument to say that the ambition for leadership is somewhat tarnished. The younger generations has grown up with a perception on what leadership is about, many of them have had wide experience with living and working with other cultures and have a more open mind. In terms of what people expect out of their careers, do you take that on board?  

My experience with the graduates is, that they want to work for a company that makes a difference in the world. One of the things we do well in the bank is our community projects, we have global projects around bringing girls into the workforce using sport, and helping protect children in Africa from Malaria. There are things we do that help them feel the difference, and that role in the community is important. I think we also understand very well what people want in their careers. There are people that want to get up to the top but also, I want to focus on people who love doing their job and do it incredibly well. Providing those people with a happy working environment is very important. We have information about what people want to do and want people to be open about their expectations. We are not an open feedback culture yet, we are too nice, and when we ask for feedback we always say really nice things about everybody, we need to change that and really give people the confidence to challenge everybody and everything.

What would you say now to the interviewer in your first job who didn't seem to like anybody particularly?  

There’s plenty I could say for sure! I think if I’d had the wit and confidence that only experience can bring you, I would have referred him to the statement on the recruitment advert that won my attention, which said something along the lines of: “An exciting career in banking for all is just an interview away!” The irony didn’t evade me and my friends then, and today, the importance of correlating what you say and what you do is even more important. Also, I want to build the importance of enjoying the place you work in. A strong control environment is, of course, massively important, but stifling innovation and risk can be detrimental. I’m also determined to reward great work with better and better working arrangements, which is really proving to be the route forward for equality and inclusion. And to encourage the endeavour, to strive for a sense of greater purpose. This is absolutely key to winning back customer confidence. We’re fully focused on re-establishing that connection again.

What is your perception of HR now?  

It has clearly been perceived as the Aunt Sally of the piece, a very easy target to say “it’s broken, it must be HR’s fault”! But now I’m hugely encouraged by HR’s capacity to take the lead on fundamental change and I’m immensely proud of the HR function here. It’s a great time to be involved in a period of incredible change and to be able to make a difference.