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Interview

Will Davies
HR Director, Ordnance Survey

There are organisations with long histories and rich heritages, but no business can rely on past glories for survival. For more than two centuries, Ordnance Survey has shaped our lands, and now it is mapping its future, determined to be as relevant, relied upon and revered as it always has been.

Will tell us about your early life and why you decided on a career in HR.  

I went to Swansea University and studied for a degree in psychology in politics, which was actually more compelling than it sounds, and it really gave me an early insight into what makes people tick, and in the pressures of political spheres – we’ve all heard that a week in politics is a long time – the pressure and dynamism are multiplied significantly. After university my intension was to carry on and do a masters in occupational psychology. So I applied for different courses, and somebody – I forget who – said “do you know Will, take my advice and go and get some real-world experience and come back later”. That was a bit of a shocker, but it gave me plenty to think about, and I applied for numerous roles, trying to shoehorn my qualifications and limited experiences into various potentials, and was successful in getting a job at oil giant Burmah Castrol, so the psychology degree ended up being a really useful calling card after all. I started off in the pensions department and I made it pretty clear right from the start that I really wanted to pursue a career in HR, and my boss said; “come and work for me in pensions for a year and I promise I’ll get you into HR”. Meanwhile there was plenty to do, as you can imagine. At this time Castrol was acquired by BP, and this instantly catapulted me into a central HR role, playing a part in a massive piece of work on integration. I knew it would be a massive and complex piece of learning, but as first roles go, it couldn’t have been better. I became an HR adviser, with the key challenge of bringing together people from very distinctly different cultures in historically rival corporations – Mobil, BP and Castrol. They always say culture is central to any organisation, and I can attest to that fact, and it has to be the biggest challenge bar none in M&As, especially with rival organisations in the mix.

I was with BP for seven years and one of the stand out roles was HR support for the Williams F1 team, recruiting people from inside and outside the F1 fraternity, making sure that the myriad of skilled roles were covered with the best people available, to travel around in this extraordinary bubble, and one of the shocking elements of this that I dealt with was the speed of emotional and physical burnout, whereby fit and tough people would say “I’ve had it, it’s killing me”, and I’d think they’ve got the most amazing job, but there you go. It’s a completely energy absorbing and emotionally shredding environment. I also worked in the industrial lubricants solution sector of the business, which was as gritty and industrial as it sounds, but an absolutely tremendous place to get to see the full spectrum of HR. It was a dangerous and volatile place too, so in terms of safety and wellbeing, it was a massive challenge. Indeed, I left just as the spill in Texas and in the Gulf of Mexico happened, and it made you realise how fragile everything is, in man’s pursuit to keep moving, but also, with the knowledge that such things could happen, how an incredible organisation with unbelievable capabilities and resources could get it so wrong on all platforms.

With an organisation like BP, anyone could easily spend their entire career, there's obvious advantages in that, but also the possibility of ending up asking "what if...?"  

That was it for me. It was an incredible organisation to work for, but I knew I had to move. I joined Wolters Kluwer, the massive B2B information firm, run as lots of international bodies such as CCH and Croner. So massive, with 20,000 frontline professionals alone, and my role was head of HR for the Croner brand, where I was one of 700 HR professionals. At that point in 2006, Croner was in the process of realising that significant parts of the business needed to be modernised quickly, not least the provision of business information B-to-B. It was dawning on the company that many businesses were able to obtain related information like this for free and startlingly for this most traditional and hard copy-based provider, businesses were beginning to receive information digitally. This was a typical Kodak situation, responding late in the day with a fundamental element of the business. Clearly, what was needed was a massive full-scale business transformation process. Most of your readers will have had the familiar blue folder at some time and indeed, this represented a staggering 70 percent of overall revenue. The next five years for me and my colleagues was a whirl of activity as the organisation practically re-invented itself and HR’s part of the daunting challenge was to get to grips with the myriad of tech skills and capabilities required across the piece, with the equally daunting challenge of imagining all this being achieved via completely different cost models, of which we knew very little and could to a great extent only surmise. This was a textbook-typical HR programme of change, which needed to bestride existing expertise with new platforms of delivery, and what was particularly perplexing  was how the all-encompassing, incoming change was impacting on the incumbent staff. We quickly realised that retaining core skills and knowledge was going to be as exhausting and resource absorbing as getting new skills in.

From an HR point of view, fundamental change of this scale always starts with getting acknowledgement and agreement of the new business model, the new way of operating, and what was needed to support that. Initially, there are always elements of disagreement at that fundamental stage, so this can often be frustrating spadework, before any real progress is made. Then it’s identifying the skills you need and behaviours, customer knowledge and, of course, the culture you need to achieve transformation. For example, in this instance, I spent a lot of time with the sales team, ensuring they were driving the right behaviours, and you have to make sure that the incumbent people are showing the behaviours that you are recruiting for, as you go about build that internal or external pipeline. To achieve symmetry, all the pressure is on the leading team and it is hugely absorbing and requires enduring commitment, because progress and frustration come along in equal measure. This was route and branch stuff and, as we progressed, we built a competency framework to support it all; policies and procedures etc.

Sometimes it's easier to demolish the house completely, rather than renovate it, what sustains the people that are right in the middle of this?  

That is a good question and one which I have thought about a lot. I believe it’s purpose, but it needs to be a commonlyshared purpose, otherwise you are scuppered from the start. In my experience, purpose is one of the cornerstones of HR, and good HR is good at championing it. With it, you can create an unstoppable wave, without it you may as well forget it. HR has had a bad rep that it’s had to struggle with. But you know, who gets sent in first for a restructure, who has to face up to people when there’s bad news – I have certainly done my fair share of that. Some of the more powerful stuff is necessary behind the scenes, whereby HR’s role is getting senior teams fired up and onside, so HR’s also the motivator. Nowhere in any of that do I see HR not being relevant, but if somebody thinks it is then I’m willing to have a chat with them.

Tell us about your next career move.  

At the end of five years with Croner, I really felt I was ready to step up to an HR director role, and I successfully achieved that ambition at Teach First. When I started, there were 90 employees and revenues of circa 11 million and during my five years there, that rose to nearly 700, with revenues of 70 million. So a hectic and packed growth project and a classic Wallace and Gromit moment, laying the tracks in front of you, trying to make sure the train doesn’t derail as it hurtles along. Teach First’s business was to fill the gap in the teacher supply model and based on research, the biggest thing you can do to close the gap in the standard of education available to all demographics is to deliver outstanding teachers, but only a quarter of outstanding teachers are prepared to work in a challenging school, so that was the driving force for Teach First. The process was rigorous, centred around graduate recruitment, recruiting again for behaviour, equal to academic achievement. We recruited and put them through a six week programme before placing them into challenging schools. In my time with Teach First, we grew from recruiting 460 new teachers a year to just shy of 2000 in 2015, making us the biggest graduate recruiter in the UK. I believe that to scale at this pace goes back to capabilities, you have to be clear about what organisation you are building, talent also plays a big part of course, but fundamentally, as with any business, the key to success is attracting the brightest and the best, and the real challenge is hanging on to your superstars. Keeping going, and meeting supply and demand was heavily reliant on building the right competency framework, underpinned by meaningful values and building a reliable, free-flowing talent pipeline. Without those two elements the whole business would fall flat on its face. I was passionate about the business, and it would need to be something special to lure me but sure enough something very special did. When I got the call from OS, I didn’t hesitate. I was driving down this morning thinking about what I was going to say in the interview, and it all boils down to this, I have been put in charge of the people that run this incredible, world renowned organisation, established for 224 years, and I’ve been brought in to help realise a great opportunity and potential built on its long and illustrious history. It is poised for significant change, and I had been given the honour of playing a lead role in that. Everything is opening up for OS, if people’s knowledge of what the company is was a road map in the car seat pocket, they’re in for a shock.

It is an extraordinary organisation and, road maps aside, something of an enigma, so what were your first impressions of OS when you joined?  

First was that unmistakable sense that what was driving the business was passion and complete engagement, and that is very well summed up by the fact that, nearly half of our employees have been here longer than 15 years. They have grown up here and come through the various departments as surveyors or cartographers, for example. Three people in my team have been with OS for 30 years plus, one even came to her interview in her school uniform – she was a cartographer and has moved on to different roles, like L&D. I then saw a business that was in so many ways traditional, but with the driving aspiration to be a totally forward-looking, modern business. And in every respect, this is indeed a business in transition and evolution as it has been since its inception in the 18th century, moving with the times, an essential source of geographical information for a myriad of reasons. I was totally intrigued to learn about the business behind the maps and essentially, this is a data business, built around a phenomenal data set of Great Britain. You listen to the people passionate about their work and you start to unlock this phenomenal and unique organisation and what its capabilities and potential are. There are so many emerging examples, but a headliner was the work OS carried out in the 2012 Olympics, with traffic flow management feeding into the design and management around the Olympic park. Part of the reality now and forward ambition is to look at all opportunities that OS’ capabilities utilise commercially across digital platforms. For example there’s an app for your phone which allows users to track where they are and plan leisure routes along footpaths and rights of way with an intelligent off road sat nav tool. In a meeting the other day, a colleague made a profound comment, along the lines of: “it’s the use of finite space”. We’re also working with the NHS to eradicate bed blocking problems and using data to assist in patient flow. If you can compare this business in this incredible HQ which has housed OS for four years, it used to be based in an ageing block with vast warehouses holding all the hard copy data, and you look at the potential which is opening up to this organisation, and it could have so easily become a dinosaur, like Kodak. Sure it’s a traditional business, known famously for a certain thing, but the whole world is truly opening up for it. It’s literally a blank canvas, and our research and development is looking into driverless cars, the weather, logistics, immigration – you name it and increasingly every day OS is becoming more known as a digital data business, rather than a map maker, and that is the key to the world.

What is HR's key roles in all this?  

Nothing can come from nothing, and the creators of capability and innovation are people, and HR is about people, so it couldn’t be more central. All these things come back to talent and also to look beyond what we know. We will never move from producing the high quality data we specialise in, and the high tech world in which we live doesn’t change at all that fundamental need for skills and talent in the skills of mapping, and our geographic information specialists are working in unison with our IT specialists. One of the many areas that I am concentrating on is OS’ employer brand, and a good example of how we’re now reaching our talent potential is the mapping of Minecraft which has become one of the biggest downloads of all time and places OS perfectly for attracting software engineers and IT skills. As I said, this organisation is in a process of continued evolution and where people are passionate about mapping and that is the bedrock, but you get a great sense that people know this is a massive opportunity, and the pressure is definitely on regarding winning that all-important talent. So far we have gone through the “Proctor and Gamble” way of doing it, we’ve mapped it out and the next step is aligning ourselves to optimise the opportunities. We’ve done a lot of work around our graduate brand and we’re in the process of screening applications for the graduate placements. We’re also recruiting IT trainees, supporting their development so we’re not at the mercy of the external market, and we have just launched a new employee brand targeting graduates and apprenticeships. We need technologists, software engineers, futurologists, we have a series of apprentices in our Geo Hub. Those are the types of people we need, the GI technologies with basic software engineering skills. In fact it was one of our graduates that was responsible for the Minecraft project.

With OS being very British-centric and the ambitions to be international, that will require a lot of momentum.  

We did some research of our perception of OS internationally and the brand was well represented, so international ambitions are realistic. I was talking to one of our teams which is working on a 3D model Bahrain, and we are busily setting up a leadership team including an MD, focused on our international business. In terms of loyalty much has been said about gen Y changing jobs regularly, if you get used to people sticking around a long time, mapping a career for people with a different mind-set is a challenge. We had a few of our operations guys retire, 120 years of experience walked out the building. That could cause sleepless nights, but we’re looking to introduce phased retirement, so that we don’t cut off that incredibly valuable knowledge and capability. If you talk to people who have been here for 40 years, have had ten different jobs here. Gen Y wants to feel challenged, and OS can provide that. You can be challenged and pushed, so formalising that is where I want to get to. My philosophy about talent is surround people with great people. You have to put frameworks around it but that works well here.

OS has a likeness to NASA in a way, for employees, it’s their life, their driving motivation, and as you have said sky's the limit.  

You could say it’s much easier to have people passionate about what we do here, than say a factory turning out tinned fish. But whether you’re at NASA or John West’s, people respond to being pushed and developed and we’re going through a talent profiling programme at the moment. The people at the top right of the talent box have moved around the organisation and are restless. If you combine that restlessness with a purpose, it’s very powerful. I’m working on a plan about how the organisation will develop over the next couple of years and there are some game changers and unknowns in there. We are now a Gov Co. and we have a new strategy, which is built on public heritage. We have to set up the business to be really commercially minded and in that instance, we are looking at introducing a total reward framework, and we have much more commercial freedom now, so we can be more competitive with our pay, and also greater freedoms on how we use the assets. We have to ensure that we build the business we want, what the organisational structure is, the purpose, value and mission and bring it all together. People are proud of the organisation but are also excited for the future. It’s every HR practitioner’s dream to have an opportunity like this, and I feel exceptionally privileged. I talk about a place to play in the HR world, and getting to play with stuff like this is incredible. I’m reassured by the strong HR function around me, and there’s no doubt I will need their knowledge and expertise. What really thrills me is, at this stage of my career, I’m part of an extraordinary organisation with an unrivalled heritage and a fascinating history, that is totally open to change, and hugely ambitious. We’re marking our time in dog years, whereby every year is now worth seven, there’s much to do but it’s going to be a very exciting journey.