Sharon, tell us about your early life and how you strayed onto the path to a career in HR?
I was born into an Irish family, grew up between Dublin and Birmingham and left home fairly early. I put myself through college, then university and started my career in retail with Marks & Spencer and then Kingfisher, in HR-related training roles. Retail was really vibrant back then and highly revered as a top destination for great training and career progression. Kingfisher also gave me my first international work experience and I was involved in opening stores and distribution units across Europe and as far afield as China. So, as early experience goes, I could not have hoped for better. This led to an opportunity to move into consulting at PwC where I was involved in a mix of internal and consultancy work, primarily in learning management systems; change management, functional specs, technology and shared services.
PwC gave me great exposure to how different businesses operated. I was fully engaged when, somebody I had worked with at Kingfisher, Priscilla Vacassin – who became a mentor and dear friend – suggested I try for a post at BAA, where she was HR Director. They had just begun a not-insignificant project, which turned out to be Heathrow’s Terminal 5 (T5). The project had already taken 12 years to gain planning permission – caught up in red tape – a huge undertaking bedevilled by protracted, frustrating delay. So, I came in as this £4 billion project was finally underway, with a new Chief Executive, new senior team and first on the agenda, was to build the various teams from the top down. This was my first HR Director role, aged 31, with responsibility for 60,000 people over a six-year project. There were thousands of companies and contractors involved, a small fraction being BAA employees, and we worked an integrated team model.
In living memory, the UK had witnessed some large scale projects collapsing, going massively over budget as well as delays, strikes and cancellations that fuelled many a press headline. So right from the start, it was assumed T5 would be a big white elephant. With that as a backdrop, we set out to create a different model called the T5 Agreement, where BAA held the risk, rather than contractors having to assume it. In return for that safety, we wanted to know that the right people were put on the job and if there was a problem, that the contractors worked together, actually collaborated rather than bringing the lawyers and unions in to fight it out. It was a ground-breaking commercial contract that set the tone for a different operating model. It was also a massive undertaking and I would say, organisational development became my superpower. During the course of the project, something like a thousand people were joining and leaving every month, as the project moved through the stages, requiring a gargantuan amount of employee relations work. We also had to do a significant amount of value re-engineering to stay in budget. Despite the general negative tone of the media’s reporting, T5 had a great reputation with trade unions because we had great healthcare, clear communications, very good canteens, decent pay and we worked site-wide to keep everyone onboard. Because of scale, we had to be strategic, but we kept a close eye on employee relations and constantly ran simulations to the end of the project and back, so that we could understand where the risks were.
You then moved on to be HR Director of Heathrow Airport as well, how did that come about?
I had two years working on T5 specifically and the next six years with one foot in T5 and the other in Heathrow. It was a massive responsibility – in terms of revenue, Heathrow represented one percent of the entire UK GDP and the airport’s 250,000 employees were largely from the locality. It’s like managing a big town, 24/7! During my tenure, there was the terrorist attempt at Glasgow airport, but it was the liquid terrorist crisis which really impacted. I remember we had a call, around two or three in the morning saying, “there’s a real and immediate threat”. So, in terms of security and screening, 70,000 personnel had to adopt new policies and procedures in real-time, which meant informing the 200,000 passengers who passed through the airport each day, about the new procedure for liquids, which we now accept as the norm. This was against a backdrop of the airlines saying that there was too much security already and, suddenly, we needed a thousand more people recruited, screened and trained rapidly. At the same time, we were working at a 99.9 percent capacity, processing and training people, with a constantly moving agenda. Every day the Home Office was on the phone, the media was in a frenzy and, at one point, I remember saying; “do you think we should bring the Army in?” As lessons in resilience go, this one topped the list. It was the most amazing time of my career and a brilliant team to have been a part of.
It sounds incredible, but you weren't sucked in for life, you moved on... why, and where to?
Ferrovial acquired and took over BAA and there were significant changes to the top-level management team. With six months to go before T5 opened, Ferrovial was under the most intense spotlight, and I watched it from afar. It didn’t open well and that was disappointing for those of us who had been there when the original footings were dug. Years later, it’s won awards and is viewed as one of the best airports in the world. I went on to write a book about the building of T5, called: Heathrow’s Terminal 5: History in the Making, if your readers would like to read the whole story!
Tell us what happened next on your career journey?
I took three months off, wrote the book, and that was a cathartic time for me. I felt like I’d been running at full pace for over 15 years. Time passed and I heard that some of my T5 colleagues had taken posts at one of the biggest construction firms, Laing O’Rourke, which went on to play a big part in the construction of the London Olympics. I joined the team as the Group HR Director and the next couple of years were a whirlwind. I was involved in London 2012 and the construction on Al Raha Beach in Dubai, which was a £20 billion project. Within six months we had built up a new workforce, but it then had to be halved as a result of the 2008 economic crisis. This was my first experience as a senior leader, managing rapid transition in reverse.
Your next move was to Vodafone. The telecoms market at that time was certainly volatile, were you not looking for a sector that was a bit more stable?
Is there one? I’m not sure there is… I joined as HR Director for Technology, not really planning a long tenure, but went on to spend ten years at Vodafone. The first four or five years I was running the technology division, which employed 30,000 people and, during this time, I had my son. In the latter five years, I was Talent and Organisational Effectiveness Director and led most of the centres of expertise, including people workstreams across three important transformation programmes – focused on customer service, digital transformation and creating a “purpose-led” Vodafone. I had worked on some large projects prior to that but, in terms of scale, this was something else – 130,000 people, £44 billion revenue – there was never a time when there wasn’t a business shift. The experience also illustrated how accelerating technology and digital would force the agenda for all. We were never working to reach a destination, only planning and constantly adapting for the future and that is the challenge.
What happened next in your journey and tell us about Finastra and what you found so compelling about the business?
I was very fortunate that I had a few opportunities to consider as I was leaving Vodafone – a mix of FTSE listed organisations and the rare breed of scaled software companies in Europe. As I reflected on the future of work and where the world was going, I wanted to move out of a company being disrupted and into a company that was a disruptor. Software is the future and I was keen to get hands on experience of building a platform as well as more exposure to a US footprint. Finastra is the result of two companies, Misys and D+H, coming together about two years ago and anyone in financial services software would have been very familiar with the two entities. The combination created the Finastra brand and, before that, as is so often the case in software companies, it was a company that had grown mainly through acquisition of small niche development firms, with a desired speciality here and a technical capability here. The result is that Finastra is now one of the world’s largest fintechs. Our core business focus is developing mission critical software for financial institutions and, of the 15,000 businesses in that sector, our current customer base is 8,600. Despite tech’s reputation for being transitionary, customer relations are very long term, and so it is a balance of disrupting markets with technical progression, whilst creating a semblance of steady reliability. In terms of scale – compared to what I’m used to – the headcount is smaller, at 10,000 and our people are based across the 40 countries in which we operate. Our major hubs are in London, Paris, Bucharest, New York, Toronto and Orlando, with further hubs in India, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Singapore, so we have a truly global footprint. We launched a new open platform – FusionFabric.cloud – in May that enables developers and other fintechs to collaborate through open APIs, connecting into our core products and, ultimately, our customer base. As an example, a large bank will have its own infrastructure but, with access to the platform, they are able to plug into external innovation super-fast, in some cases adding new services in weeks or months, rather than years. Most people outside the sector think that financial services is an area that can’t be disrupted, reliant on legacy technology and so heavily regulated after 2008. But times are changing! The rise of challenger banks in the UK is a good example.
What is your biggest focus for the business in this sector?
I’m focused on the driving need for critical skills in a dynamic and agile sector. From the talent attraction to the hire and onto retaining people for as long as possible, it’s all about creating an environment that optimises. If you look at our entire cost base, around 70 percent is people – that gives you an idea of how important the right skills are to our business. Regardless of sector, most employers say the same thing – the war for skills and talent has been the killer for years and, for players in the tech industry, that belief has historically been even more pronounced. In my view, this goes right back to the mid-1990s when McKinsey coined the phrase “war for talent”. But I don’t think there really was a ‘war’ for talent, if you were a decent organisation that people wanted to work for, right up until now. What has changed most recently is a very high cadre of skills, a certain calibre that makes all the difference that tech firms are fully focused on attracting at all costs. We’re talking a different level of skill that’s termed “10x talent”. The people are not just developers, or UX people or data scientists, they’re the ones who really understand how you take the technical skills and put those in a business context – particularly for us as a vertical business. They’re the people with the domain expertise and the functional skills. Finding people with the aptitude for both of these is what adds value for customers. The pursuit of “10x talent” I would say is my number one challenge. Best case scenario, you can probably have two or three people at this level out of 100, and those few will create significant value. As the Chief People Officer, I have to create a really vibrant environment with a competitive employee value proposition, whilst also keeping existing employees, including those people with years of experience, who are essential to understanding the financial industry, engaged. It takes years to learn about the intricate mechanisms and that knowledge is essential to creating software. This bears testament to the fact that diversity of age, knowledge and thought is essential. Leadership too, is key and one of the compelling reasons I joined Finastra was Simon Paris, CEO, who is an outstanding, modern leader. Ex SAP and McKinsey, he’s a coach, a visionary and a leader with true purpose. Finastra has been in existence for just over two years and the people ambition set out by the team really resonated with me; “to be the most loved and inclusive employer in fintech”. I thought, as people and ambition go, that’s something I can work towards. It’s a very compelling statement of intent.
There is no doubt that certainly younger tech workers become very frustrated with being micro-managed by managers that "don't get it"!
I used to think Vodafone was fast-paced… and it was, but Finastra is ten times that! No matter how high the calibre of skills, if the business is dragging an anchor, such as speed of decision making, the game is up quickly. You have to calibrate just right. We’re mindful that we’re serving the financial services market, which is more regulated than many other industries and so the right measure of framework robustness is unavoidable – procedures have to be adhered to, monitored and benchmarked at all times. Those aren’t words that you would naturally associate with the necessity for speed and agility, but you can’t leave reams of red tape and obstacles strewn in the path of progress. Also, this is a sizable business and, when you grow to 10,000 plus employees, you’re more corporate and industrialised, whereas fintechs in general are small and agile, so we have to be calibrated precisely.
Legacy and the tried and trusted used to be valued assets, now they seem to be corporate killers. That's a stark reality.
Agreed, the balance of power and angle of perspective keeps shifting. Along with that, generations before us, stuck to the same brands for life – they drank a certain tea and used the same bank from first pay packet to retirement. Now, although brand is important, we have grown accustomed to the fact that there is less brand loyalty. You don’t need a long meeting with the bank manager to switch mortgage providers. It’s the same for all aspects of our lives, including employment. Essentially, HR’s purpose is to create this open movement. A lot of people join us from the big tech companies, and so you have to ask, why are they here? Are we doing something different? They tell us we’re big enough to make real impact, and agile enough that they can make a difference
What is the one thing that you believe a business cannot do without, in terms of people input?
Purpose! You can have all the talent in the world but without purpose, you won’t have them for very long. The two things have actually come together more closely, which I believe is a product of the changes in workplace framework, more autonomy and selfresponsibility, but you cannot take anything for granted. The rules of engagement are no longer black and white and that requires a very different approach from HR. The other word is diversity which, along with inclusion, is the source code for purpose.
It strikes me that knowledge sharing is something that captains of industry from the past would have labelled “the tail wagging the dog”.
More power is with the most talented individuals, not necessarily organisations. We are all in a moment of discontinuous change, whereas it used to be incremental and transformational. In the past, a business would try to control things. Now what we’re trying to do is influence a culture, and that’s why we’ve created a movement. You need to align your organisation to something because you cannot oversee people in your organisation in quite the way you used to, with stringent contract policies and procedures. Of course, you can use analytics to understand what your workforce is doing to a much greater extent. But even so, you have to win hearts and minds in order to have people pointed in the right direction for the journey. Twenty years ago, you told employees what needed to be done and how to do it and that simply won’t work now. The next stage is even more obtuse, as rather than machines working for people, now they are collaborating. When I started work, the focus was how to re-engineer businesses to adopt computers. Now it’s the actual workforce that needs re-engineering, to see where people add most value, as automation takes an increasing burden of work.
What is next for the business and what is scribbled on your white board?
The mindset that the future isn’t down the road… it’s now, it just hasn’t been industrialised yet. Technically, there’s the potential to move much faster now. So, looking at my white board, my first objective was to really understand the business and to get all the base processes, the building blocks, in place. Next, I looked at hiring the team we think should be with us on the journey. Also, our company’s goal of being the most inclusive, most loved employer in fintech is my foundation. That’s part of a massive cultural transformation, because the technology industry is not known for being inclusive – many brands say that they want to be inclusive, but evidence shows that they can’t help but keep hiring the same type of people. So, I really want to explore how we can enrich our world with the widest pool of talent, to enable a wider diversity of thought into our ecosystem.