Steve Collinson’s career story is unique
Steve Collinson’s career story is unique
OUT OF THE 216 SENIOR HR LEADERS WE HAVE INTERVIEWED, SINCE LEAVING SCHOOL AT 16, HE HAS WORKED FOR THE SAME ORGANISATION AND, FROM DEALING WITH CUSTOMER COMPLAINTS TO BECOMING HR DIRECTOR, HE HAS BEEN A PART OF THE SEISMIC CHANGES IN FINANCIAL SERVICES FOR MORE THAN 30 YEARS. IT’S A REMINDER THAT STAYING WITH ONE ORGANISATION DOESN’T HAVE TO MEAN CAREER INERTIA.
I’m a proud Mancunian, the product of a typical working-class upbringing. My dad worked in a factory and on the railways, my mum was a shop worker and everyone around me exemplified the importance of hard work. If I look back to my school education, I was probably always more about words than numbers. I was on the school council and even campaigned against the closure of my secondary school, so I always had a pretty strong sense of right and wrong. In the 1980s recession, when I was 16 and leaving school, my dad lost his job, so I decided that I needed to contribute to the household income. College or university was not an option for me and frankly, like most 16 years olds, I didn’t have much in the way of skills. I always felt I was less practical than my dad and I knew that, unlike my brother, a career in the armed forces did not appeal. So, like many people, I entered the world of work and it just so happened to be financial services and insurance. That was a long time ago now and today, I’m a proudly out gay man, a dad to two boys and recently a grandad. My partner is an NHS doctor, who never fails to provide a no-hold-barred perspective on reality.
Back to the beginning, I started work in Eagle Star – which later merged with Zurich – where I’ve just celebrated my 34th anniversary. I did a bit of motor underwriting and hands on frontline work, before moving into the finance team and then into credit control, banking and cashiering. I spent an awful lot of my early days handwriting cheques to policy holders and claimants, reconciling them all manually with an adding machine. We had one computer and a phone between four of us and it was a very different world, a hectic paperchase and quite a traditional hierarchical structure that was so typical of the time. I spent a lot of time talking to customers on the phone or face-toface, some of whom had lost everything in say a fire or flood and this really built in me a sense of empathy and understanding and the importance of how kind and encouraging words can help people in a bad spot. This early experience grounded me in the true purpose of insurance and I’m really proud, even in my current role, to understand what people in the frontline of our organisation do for our customers every day. It made me a better HR leader and along the way, I have always been fascinated by peoples’ behaviour and I’ve carried that through my life and career.
I eventually moved away from customerfacing roles, but I’ve never forgotten the importance of the customer, even though it’s very easy to lose sight of that in this digital world. Those early work years were great, I was working in a supportive business, I had no responsibilities, no bills or mortgage and a lot of freedom. There were certainly no leadership responsibilities at the time and I pretty much loved every day, learning on the job. Early in my career, although I was working in operational finance and still nowhere near HR, I was spending an awful lot of time alongside people creating the future vision for our business and engaging people in prospects and opportunities ahead. Looking back, this was the gateway to my eventual route into HR. I really relished being involved in change – both IT and business change – and having the opportunity to automate manual processes and build efficiencies, in a variety of project and programme management roles. Now I look back, I can see how all that experience helped shape my future career. I remember I was fascinated by how incoming technologies were revolutionising the way businesses operated and how that impacted on people. It was a catalyst era, as the workplace started to move from oldschool mainframes to PCs .and there were emerging elements of what we would now call automation. Looking forward, practically all job roles are now being impacted by automation and machine learning to some degree. We’re looking at a significant reinvention of the world of work. I remind people that there have been three previous work revolutions and we’ve survived those. The fourth offers great potential for those that are willing to adapt and be agile. You cannot stop change and an important focus for me now is on reskilling, upskilling and creating a culture in which people are open to new opportunities.
I firmly believe that if you take the fear out of change, people begin to be more pragmatic. A few years ago, we carried out a trailblazing trial – working with an external AI organisation – to help us understand which roles in our company were at the most threat from automation and robotics, which led us to some interesting conclusions. It can be all too easy to be insular and it really pays dividends to collaborate with external parties in work such as this and to take their input on board. It provides a completely different perspective on your business operations. The first conclusion we drew from the collaboration, you won’t be surprised to learn, was that we needed more data and automation skills. Although already on a trajectory to embrace change, like many organisations we wrestled with a multitude of legacy systems and we needed to be able to bring insight to our data in new ways and to automate legacy processes for the benefit of our customers. It was clear though that these skills were both scarce in the market and expensive to buy in. So, we decided to take a different approach, creating our own data and continuous improvement academies to upskill existing employees, many of whom were in frontline roles. In terms of continuous improvement, we’ve worked with people at all stages of their career from across the organisation and set them on course to be automation consultants, finding pain points and automating them away. It was nothing short of revolutionary, because we had created an internal pipeline of digital skills – so we weren’t as reliant on external resources – and crucially many of the people in these roles knew our organisation and our customers deeply. To this day, the academies – and other new ones we’ve added – are equipping people with impressive skills and, as a result, we are confident we have the right skills going forward. This initial AI work has spurred us on to create different academies to help our people develop skills for the future, which certainly helps our colleagues to be positive about what the future might hold for them. Yes, automation or robotics can be seen as a threat, but with the right workforce planning, it can be a huge opportunity, not only for a business and its customers, but for employees too.
We’re dealing with centuries of societal perception, culture and stereotyping across a number of diversity characteristics. These are incredibly difficult to move, but I think at some point you must be courageous and place diversity and inclusivity front and centre in your business. For me, there are two things that make the biggest difference: The first is visible role-modelling – the mantra “if I can see it, I can be it” really is more than words. Secondly, when you’re hiring – internally or externally – you must attract applications from the most diverse population into the recruitment process. If you don’t attract a diverse range of candidates in the first place, you’re not going to move the dial. So going the extra mile in sourcing candidates, both inside and outside of your organisation, is worth willing to use every tool at your disposal and work with organisations who can help you. A few years ago, we partnered with the Behavioural Insights Team (‘BIT’) who are behavioural specialists and deploy ‘nudge theory’ to bring about change. They approached us to help move the dial on the gender pay gap and evolved an hypothesis that lack of access to flexible working – especially part-time arrangements – was holding women back in their career and contributing to the gender pay gap. Applying incredibly smart analysis to our own data, BIT asked us to deploy a nudge – changing a handful of words in every job advertisement to show ‘part-time, job share and full-time’ – essentially switching the default away from the traditional full-time role. This simple nudge – which of course required buy-in right from the top of our organisation – has transformed outcomes, with more people applying to work part-time here. Now we have more women in senior leadership positions and overall more people applying for roles. It’s also led to something of a culture change, where less-than-full-time working is much more accepted in our firm and where our existing part-time colleagues tell us they feel a greater sense of belonging. As for our gender pay gap, whilst still too high, has continued to improve. Metaphorically speaking, it’s all about putting your head above the parapet and saying, “there’s a home for everybody here” and knowing what you mean when you say, “we aspire to be a diverse organisation”, because diversity is so much more than just levelling up the gender balance. It’s important that we can keep talking about diversity and inclusion and continue to create slide decks and discussion papers, but it’s action that brings about change.
In many ways, it comes back to role-modelling. Take the Lionesses’ inspirational win at the Euros, for example, which has cut through societal divides and should prove to be a huge motivational force in levelling out gender inequality in sport. Sometimes, one event can do more than years of chipping away could ever do. Although none of us can change the world overnight, we do have the capacity to create a great place to work and one that better reflects the society we live and work in. I have tried throughout my tenure in this role to really listen to what employees are saying and to give them a route to share their lived experiences and to use those stories as a driving force for change. With this, we can all shape a better future, but you have to grasp the nettle and sometimes have some frank conversations including those about discrimination, bias and privilege, which can be uncomfortable topics.
I think it’s fair to say that you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube now. Many people – not all of course – have become used to a different way of working, but there’s a certain ambiguity about what the hybrid work model really is. It’s important that organisations continue to trial, listen, adjust and find the right balance. One thing is clear, the end customer must always come first and where the customer needs us is where we have to be. Aligning that with a level of flexibility that works for the role and the organisation is then crucial. Ultimately, we all want to feel a sense of belonging to the organisation we are part of and for me there are times when being physically together is the very best way to achieve that. Like many organisations, we’re on the journey of working this out together, but we are clear that being together in the workplace, with flexibility to work from elsewhere, is a powerful and an important part of the future. Collaboration, learning and growing as individuals and as teams, sharing information, checking in with colleagues and your manager face-to-face and simply having fun together, are all as important now as they ever have been. Will there be some challenges along the way? Yes, but this doesn’t mean there has to be a disconnect between leaders and employees, the answer is in open dialogue.
There is and will continue to be a very clear place for the physical workplace in the future but, undoubtedly, we will use it differently. In fact, we’re about to open a new building for our nearly 900-strong population in Swindon and we’ve adapted the space and how we intend to use it. The objective is to give people a fantastic new workplace, which will really encourage them to spend time together. For me, when you’re thinking about big change issues like hybrid-working, or any people-related challenge, matching a business problem with an HR solution is the right way to do it. Imposing an HR solution on a business problem is always going to be a pointless exercise. We’re clear on our ambition and the goals of our UK business and our purpose is simple; we want to create a brighter future for our customers, our employees and all of our stakeholders. We’ve set ourselves big goals and having the right skills in the right place, in order to be able to deal with what’s in front of us right now. The physical workplace will be as important in the future as it always has been, but I’m sure for different reasons.
It’s why having a great employee proposition and having the basics right is so essential and that means listening to employees and building benefits that they want and value, not ones we in HR think they want and value. There is so much more we can do and not always at huge cost, especially in this current cost-of-living challenge. In the past, we’ve listened to our people and equalised family leave, we’ve taken benefits ideas on the road to understand which ones our people value, we’ve built a menopause policy – including support and education for colleagues and line managers – to make sure that our proposition is compelling in this competitive market. That a one-size-fitsall approach doesn’t cut it, will be increasingly apparent, that’s for certain. Providing a proposition that caters to the needs of every generation – from new entrants to the workplace to those who’ve given their skills and energy to us for many years – is essential, along with a compelling approach to doing social good. But it’s fair to say that many of the leaders in businesses, me included, haven’t led in this kind of economic environment before and it’s going to be important for us to be alert, to look left and right for emerging trends or challenges as well as being ready for what’s coming down the track – and that ‘fierce job market’ will keep us all on our toes.
The popular opinion is that the next generation are looking for portfolio careers and some are less focused on long-term opportunities with the same employer. This is true for some, but plenty are looking to build a sustainable career and I see some fantastic integration between the generations and some incredible opportunities. For example, we’re deploying the apprenticeship levy smartly and have well over 300 apprentices in our workforce, from new entrants to professionals who’ve been with us their whole career. We work hard at talent management and succession planning and I see a real hunger out there from people who want to reach the next level of the organisation. There is plenty of ambition right across the whole demographic and what I see is people looking around them for a cause to be passionate about and asking themselves how they want to invest more of their time and energy in a role or an organisation. I think the state of limbo that COVID caused, has changed people’s perception of time and work and many are valuing a different work-life blend. I spoke with a leader recently who said: “I’ve loved the fact that for most of the past two and a half years, I’ve had dinner with my kids.” So, whilst there’s plenty of ambition to progress, people are definitely evaluating the importance of their own time. As HR leaders, we need to think about the tools we have at our disposal to bring the next generation successfully into our business and to retain our experienced colleagues. This might mean helping the organisation to design inherent flexibility into roles, building jobs differently – so that levels of responsibility are distributed differently – and investing time and energy in making them successful, amongst many other things.
One of the most important and powerful tools that we have at our disposal right now is flexibility and the ability for people to retain some control over what, when and how they work. If I have a conversation with somebody who says: “I’m not sure I want to take on that level of responsibility”, then let’s think about designing the job differently. There is that opportunity right across the workforce and that’s the power of the job share, which is underutilised. Presently, there are some fantastic examples of this already working, but they are in the minority. As leaders and HR practitioners, we need to find creative solutions to allow people to advance their career, but there’s a risk of a mismatch between historical jobs and organisation design, versus the workforce of the future and what people expect their work/life balance to look like. This requires agility and adaptability and I think we are just beginning to collectively understand what that means. I was talking to a leader a couple of weeks ago who was thinking about whether they could make a job share in their organisation work and I encouraged them to think of it as having access to two brains in one job, which has obvious advantages. I also think that, when it comes to future careers, it’s going to be incumbent on organisations to provide something different, to cater for people’s needs in a very wide sense of the word, including wellbeing and interventional support. But we should also remember that we don’t have to find all the solutions ourselves. Our supply chain and network should be challenged to bring ideas and disruptive solutions to the party as well.
Indeed, a couple of years ago we undertook some research with our employees to understand what they needed from us to remove obstacles to building a sustainable career. As a result, we equalised parental leave across Zurich UK and implemented – alongside existing adoption leave – a carer policy, paid IVF leave, a premature baby policy, paid leave for those suffering from miscarriage or baby loss and wider family bereavement leave. Before we made the changes, it was striking that our family policies looked pretty similar to how they had 15 years before. So, in support of the ED&I imperative we’ve created policies that support our ambition to make our organisation the best place to work for the widest range of people. When it comes to ED&I, the important thing is for us is not to stand still. Whenever you do something that’s big, different – or perhaps a bit ahead of its time – like advertising all your roles as part-time or turning your benefits proposition on its head – it’s really easy in HR to say, “well that’s done, we can move on now”. But we should never stand back and admire our handywork… well, maybe briefly! The reality is, challenging the status quo requires an approach based on trialing new things, tweaking, changing, adapting and not settling for second best. HR has had a bad rap for fence sitting, but that’s easy to change.
Fundamentally, I’m focused on helping our business meet its goals by building outstanding people solutions. While our market and customer needs will continually evolve, our ongoing success is built on the skills of our workforce, so connecting business strategy with people solutions is at the core of my team’s objectives. The key things on my mind are probably fourfold: Continuing to evolve the employee proposition, so that we attract and retain great people, building highly-skilled leaders who deploy creative and innovative people practices and are at the forefront of engaging their team, continuing to take diversity and inclusivity out of PowerPoint and into real-life experience to make a demonstrable change to our workforce. For me, all of this is underpinned with a really strong culture of employee listening. I remember I once said to a group of senior leaders: “If you had a few thousand pieces of customer feedback, you would immerse yourselves in it for days, weeks and probably months, trying to source that finite detail about your customers’ needs”. So, when we spend time and money on something like engagement surveys, we have to do the same with the insight they bring, shaking every ounce of insight from the data and employee comments. There is no doubt in my mind that employee listening is integral to business success. It’s as true as ever that the most effective HR practice keeps a commercial balance, recognising that there are competing priorities and that the biggest cost and greatest asset in any organisation is people. Ultimately, being a commercial HR leader, who is connected to the organisation’s customers, is what gives you the best chance of landing innovative people practices and making them successful. Keeping a laser-sharp focus on our own customers and using credible data, is integral to delivering the same quality of customer experience to the people in our organisation. This means closing feedback loops and continuing to listen, even when it’s things you would rather not hear. The bottom line is, customer focus doesn’t end with the end customer.
I guess growing up and spending your career in just one organisation is pretty rare these days, but throughout my time here, the journey has been all about adapting to change, upskilling and reskilling. Going forward, this will increasingly be the case across the world of work and the notion of learning one set of skills for life is dead and gone. So, I would encourage those starting out in their careers to embrace change as it comes as a natural part of life and not shy away from it. On a similar note, you don’t have to be HR born and bred coming into the role, it’s about understanding people, their motivations and their needs. I had many different roles in my early career before I came to HR and all of them gave me different knowledge and skillsets, that helped my career further down the line. If you’re coming from a different role into HR, you may be able to bring unique ideas and a fresh perspective that your team may not have had otherwise. Finally, I would urge people to remember that the workforce is a company’s greatest asset and that it should never be a one-way conversation. We all know the inescapable truth is that engaged employees drive better outcomes for customers, shareholders and business results. Achieving great engagement hinges on innovative and creative approaches to everything we do and it’s all too easy to let that slip down your agenda, so it should be kept constantly in mind. Your employees are best placed to tell you what it’s like to work in your firm and fostering a listening culture, that encourages the workforce to be part of a conversation, pays huge dividends.
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