Interviews

The CEO's view: Dianne Thompson - Been there, got the T-shirt

Rhymer Rigby , 08 Sep 2008

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Camelot's CEO, Dianne Thompson, is one of a rare breed: a leader whose personal experiences help her to identify with her staff and appreciate good HR when she sees it.

For journalists and women's business networks alike, the story of Dianne Thompson, chief executive of Camelot, Britain's most successful entrepreneur (and 2005 Verve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year award winner), is of a modern day role-model: how this single mum has, and how others can, succeed in their work and family life in a business world dominated by men (there are only three female CEOs in the FTSE 100). Her well-documented 'sacrifices, but not regrets' - such as missing her daughter's school sports days - have become standard fare for biographers and interviewers. But behind these stories are the sorts of experiences that make this particular CEO a leader who knows how to demonstrate and appreciate good HR when she sees it.

"I agree wholeheartedly," she asserts quickly when asked whether she believes the HR mantra "people are our greatest asset" or that "people are the only capital that doesn't depreciate". In fact when specifically asked who is responsible for HR, she is even more definite. "I am," she says clearly. "We don't manufacture anything, so on our balance sheet people are the biggest asset we have. The HR director is not on the board, but reports directly to me.' (See the HRD's view, p36).

It's a surprising statement but one that actually makes perfect sense. Today, Camelot is on The Times and Guardian's best employer lists as well numerous others. Its particularly enlightened approach to women - generous maternity leave, childcare vouchers and flexible working - is almost deliberately at odds with her own experience. "I have a daughter who is now 23 but earlier on in my career I didn't get the balance right at all," she says. "I was the MD of a Swedish steel company and my ex and I separated because I was away all the time I just wasn't there. Jo was only seven.

"When you're a single parent," she continues, "you become very conscious of childcare arrangements and the crises that can happen. What I hated was being dependent on the slip of a girl who came to look after my child. You'd get called at 7.45am with the line 'I've got a headache and I don't think I can make it today ...'. It's a nightmare, so having been through all that myself I'm more understanding."

Thompson says her previous employers were not always so tolerant. She recalls one particularly primitive former boss who, when she said she had to go to a funeral, asked her: "How close is the relative?" "Grandmother," she replied. "Take it as holiday," he said.

A role model for HRDs

Perhaps because of these experiences Thompson displays many of the characteristics of the best HR directors. She prefers staff to call her by her first name and says anyone can come up and talk to her any time. She describes her worst ever moment in business as the time she stood before her staff to tell them Camelot had lost (or so she thought at the time) the National Lottery licence in 2000, at a time when a permanent sword of Damocles seemed to hover above all of her employees.

The pain of going through a regular tender process, and the prospect of losing it, has had an impact on the CEO. "The Lottery is the company's sole reason for existing. No licence, no company," she says. "Every so often we fight a bid and it's life or death, so how you look after your people is crucial. It's very much at the heart of what we do."

Just before she took over as CEO in 2000 it really did look like there was not going to be a company. In August that year Camelot lost the bid to Sir Richard Branson's People's Lottery but then fought back and ultimately won via a judicial review in December that year. Yet even then the business had no idea whether or not Branson would ask for his own review. In fact there was no celebrating and no final closure until early 2001 when he announced that he was not going to fight on. It was, she recalls, a very tough, exhausting time. "By May 2001, we'd lost a third of the staff," she says. "While I was out there fighting with the team, a lot of them were looking for a new job because they thought we'd lost."

A battle-weary workforce

It had been agreed that, if Camelot won the licence, Thompson would becomeCEO (she was commercial operations director). The upshot was that she took over a company where 500 people were doing the job of 800 - and they were "battle-weary, scarred and stressed". Once Camelot knew it had won the bid - she says telling staff was her "greatest business memory" - Thompson admits she knew there had to be a major culture change.

This culture change was carried out with the help of a company called Life that also worked on the 2012 Olympic bid. "We created a two-day programme that identified our values as a business and the behaviours we needed to live those values," she says. Managers were put on this programme in groups of 20 to 25; the whole company was then put into groups of 70 where "we created the values by doing all sorts of exercises and team-building".

She adds: "The advantage was that although 500 people had to go through the programme we were recruiting at the same time, so we could say to the new recruits: 'Look, this is our culture' and they never knew any different."

Transparency and openness

The end result, she says, is a very transparent, open company, but even today she says this requires constant work. "If you'd asked me at the time 'Can you change a culture overnight?', I'd have said 'No, it's impossible'. But the question is actually 'Can you sustain the new culture?'" The answer would appear to be yes: in 2003, the elected staff consultative board helped the company draft its redundancy procedures when it made its first round of cuts.

Fortunately, last time round the Lottery bidding process was a little smoother. Camelot was up against an Indian consortium and the win was clear-cut and final. It knew in the morning that it had won and so had time to arrange celebratory drinks at the local golf club for that evening. And this time the licence is for longer - until 2019, which will see out Thompson: she has said that she'll step down in 2012.

But until then, she is keen that her people focus will remain. As a company with a female CEO and a 45:55 male/female split it is an usually good place to work as a woman - something she wants to continue: "I think having a female CEO, who's been there and got the T-shirt and understands, does help," she says. "Of course, the gender balance varies and there are places I call female ghettoes" (The HR department is one of these). "HR is predominantly female, but there are very male-oriented areas such as IT."

Camelot's progressive people policies are not just down to having a female CEO though. Thompson says that the company's relative youth (14 years) is also a major factor. "My predecessor could sit down with a blank sheet of paper and decide what sort of company we wanted to be and really go for state-of-the-art working practices." But, she adds, this sort of thing does have to pay its way: "It's about retaining experience and expertise - so it's a win-win."

But perhaps the $64,000 question is this: does she think people actually like working for Camelot? "Yes," she says. "They do. We're passionate about what we do. We've raised £21 billion for good causes. In the last staff survey 86% of people said they were either proud or very proud to work here." She adds: "We get to make Britain a better place - it sounds a bit nauseating, but that's what it is."

CAMELOT - THE HR PERSPECTIVE

- Camelot is ranked in the top 30 in Business In The Community's Social Responsibility Index - and is first in its leisure category

- Camelot comes third in the Guardian's list of Britain's Top Employers 2008, up from 13th position in 2007

- Camelot has appeared in the Sunday Times' 100 Best Companies to Work For list for the past four years, most recently in 2008

- Dianne Thompson chairs Camelot's social responsibility board which champions corporate social responsibility throughout the company

DIANNE THOMPSON'S CAMELOT - IN BRIEF

1997: Joined Camelot as commercial operations director

2000: Took over as chief executive when Camelot wins its second licence to operate the National Lottery

2001: Thompson is named Marketer of the Year by the Marketing Society

2003-2006: Camelot sees the longest period of growth in the history of the National Lottery, with year-on-year increases in sales

2006: Thompson is appointed non-executive director of Domino's Pizza and is awarded a CBE for services to business. She is also awarded the Chartered Management Institute's Gold Medal for her strategic direction and leadership

2008: Thompson leads the company to its third successful bid to operate the National Lottery. The third licence commences on 1 February 2009 and runs until 2019. She is also named fourth most influential person in marketing by Marketing magazine

Before Camelot Thompson worked in marketing for a variety of companies such as ICI Paints (1974-1979), Sterling Roncraft (1986-1988) and Signet Group (1994-1997). She was director of marketing at Woolworths (1992-1994), and a lecturer at Manchester Polytechnic for seven years (1979-1986). During this time she founded and ran her own advertising agency and was managing director of Sandvik Saws and Tools (1988-1992)

STEVE THOMPSON HR AND FACILITIES DIRECTOR

Steve Thompson is Camelot's HR and facilities director. Describing his CEO, he says: "It is excellent to have a leader who is so passionate about its people, especially one who leads from the front." But he is quick to point out that it is the HR team that remains focused on the day-to-day HR activity.

"She is aware there is a big difference between leading, and leading HR," he says. "Dianne knows to leave the operational elements of HR to me, although the company has a weekly operations board meeting where all relevant parties update her on the detail of what goes on."

The HRD admits that, despite the CEO being pulled in many directions, she is still "more interested than most" in looking at the detail of the HR function. "She is incredibly keen on knowing performance against all of our KPIs - attrition, time to recruit and absence." He adds: "What differs I think is her personal interest. Everyone can come and talk to her. She sets a tone, an environment in which is it very easy for HR to operate."

Thompson has worked at Camelot for the past 10 years, and has a background in retail management in John Lewis - qualities that he knows the CEO respects. "If one thing is clear in Camelot it is the fact that she wants an incredibly commercial HR function. She requires that me and my team are totally tuned into the business, which means dealing with the hard stuff as well as all the good things around motivation and benefits."

The HRD says his main focus is staffing Camelot as it makes the transition from its second to third licence. Some of this includes hiring enough short-term project managers. He says the key to his successful relationship with his CEO is through honest and open conversation. "It is our openness and transparency that works, as it is what we each demand of each other," he says. "There are times when I have to tell her the things that aren't good news," he adds, "but that's the essence of the strength of our relationship. You absolutely need to respect the person that works alongside you."

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