Back to basics with Direct Line CPO Vicky Wallis

After a challenging few years, Direct Line Group’s CPO is focused on developing core skills to build confidence and capability in an uncertain world, finds Jo Gallacher.

After Vicky Wallis left her HR director role at Santander, she expected a few relaxing months of gardening leave. With spring on the horizon, it offered the perfect opportunity to learn a new hobby or meet up with old friends. But 2020 had other plans, and Wallis was drafted in, earlier than expected, to become chief people officer at Direct Line Group (DLG) in April 2020.

The first lockdown was in full swing, and there was no knowing how long the pandemic would go on for. Four years later, Wallis remains at the helm of HR at the insurance provider. Despite the well-documented HR challenges of the pandemic, Wallis is determined to ensure the lessons learned won’t be forgotten.

She says: “Admitting you don’t have all the answers and having to work through in a period of uncertainty was one of the biggest things people had to learn. When you think about what’s happened since, for example hyperinflation, that’s something a lot of people hadn’t experienced and is unpredictable.

“How to feel comfortable in that uncomfortable context is something we’re now pushing our leaders at DLG to make sure they are increasingly on board with. That ambiguity and understanding of how to manage through turbulent times is vital.”

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With uncertainty now a business norm, Wallis argues the best leaders will begin to embrace not knowing all the answers.

She says: “We need to show people that we will navigate through uncertain times, and that sends such a strong message down into the organisation. Things aren’t as certain as they used to be, so your people need to know you’ve got the right people on the ship, guiding it.”

Wallis’ focus on uncertainty is not without reason. DLG saw its fair share of negative news headlines last year, with its CEO Penny James stepping down in January citing “considerable headwinds” for the business.

The company’s share price had almost halved since 2021, and the business was ordered to spend £30 million on refunds after overcharging customers. But Wallis is keen to not shy away from DLG’s shortcomings.

She says: “Last year was quite challenging. We’ve had a change of CEO and a challenging business performance. So maintaining good engagement, ensuring we’re attracting people, ensuring that we’re developing people and focusing on our diversity and inclusion (D&I) agenda in that context has been tough.”

DLG swiftly announced that Jon Greenwood would step up as its acting CEO, and for Wallis it was vital that he began communicating with employees right away on what his priorities would be.

She says: “We’ve had tough conversations this year, much tougher because we are really holding our leaders to account and saying: ‘What you thought was outstanding in the past is just really fully achieving.’”

Wallis’ extensive experience proves she is up to the challenge. Her CV includes roles at an impressive array of blue chips including Santander, Royal Bank of Scotland, Vodafone and EDF. She has been responsible for hundreds of employees throughout her career.

“I’d like to say I had a master plan at the beginning but no one does,” she says.

“I ended up navigating towards the City because I lived in south London. I literally thought: ‘I’m just going to get on the train and find a job in the City.’ I’ve no idea how I thought that was going to happen. But it did. I ended up in banking, and it sort of went from there.”

Read more: Moving on up: Where next on the HR career ladder?

Wallis has taken on a string of HR roles at different levels, as well as a stint in running her own business. The City is filled with big egos, high wages and sometimes some abhorrent behaviour. So, what’s the appeal?

She says: “The D&I agenda in banking and insurance has moved on exponentially in the last few years, and being part of that movement was brilliant. In any business area where you’ve got commercial leaders, I quite like the challenge of getting them to see the importance of the people agenda.

“It’s always been a big part of what wakes me up in the morning. In banking and insurance, you’re constantly trying to remind leaders of the fact they’ve got to balance the commercials and the people. Sometimes they are in tension with each other.”

Balancing commercial pulls with the people agenda is certainly not a new challenge for HR, but the growing skills gap has meant businesses are having to marry the two.

The government’s latest Employer Skills Survey found 10% of employers had a skill shortage vacancy in 2023 – which is defined as a hard to fill vacancy due to a lack of skills, qualifications or experience among applications. This has increased by 6% since 2017.

Given the fast pace of technological change, organisations are now grappling with how to predict the skills they will need in the future. So how can HR advise on training and learning and development, without knowing what’s to come?

“It’s really hard to do because there’s some crystal ball stuff in terms of what we might need in a few years’ time, and how we make sure we’re always plugging that gap,” says Wallis.

“DLG has highly specialised skills, but they’re all evolving with the use of technology. Now, increasingly even in the last year with AI, we’re asking: How do we keep ahead of it? And how do we help our leaders know what good is going to look like in terms of performance?”

Wallis admits the skills agenda is one of the hardest aspects of her role, but she insists progress can be made by switching the focus from skills gaps to attitudes towards training.

She says: “Some of it comes down more towards mindset than skills. Most skills, if you’re in the tech environment, probably can be evolved and learned if you keep up. But if you’re closed to the idea of constant learning, and the mental agility needed for this, that’s more of a problem than the skills themselves.”

Wallis has witnessed a revolution in the way HR is viewed, but she’s keen to make sure the function now maintains its strategic focus.

She says: “We stepped into people’s lives [during the pandemic] in a way that was never going to be sustainable in organisations. HR, and line managers, ended up being counsellors and a listening ear for people who maybe had nobody else. But of course, we haven’t got the capacity to retain and maintain that position post-pandemic. So I think we have to get the balance back again.

“But when we sit down in the executive committee meetings and discuss the challenges and priorities for the business, there is an immediate link to skills and capabilities, and the HR function. That connection is much more automatic than it used to be.”

With a challenging year out of the way, Wallis is intent on DLG refocusing its commitment to invest in its people. She says: “We’re going to be doubling down on what I would class as back to basics stuff, but with a modern twist. So leadership development is absolutely critical. And raising the bar in terms of leadership capability and expectation, and also people manager development.

“Because we’ve had a tough year and everybody’s been heads down, it’s time for us to invest in our people more than we have been. So, we’ll be focusing on leadership and helping our people managers. That role is super complicated now, it’s much, much harder than it ever used to be.

“My team needs to make sure the HR agenda isn’t too demanding of the business but still be quite vocal about where we think we absolutely have to invest.”

Business leaders now expect HR to lead on strategic decisions while simultaneously dealing with admin tasks such as filling out holiday requests. It’s easy to let the responsibilities stack up and potentially consume you – a balancing act that Wallis hasn’t always got right.

“I realised probably about five years ago how important it is to make sure you look after yourself if you’re in these types of roles, so I exercise, eat well, and try to sleep well,” she says.

“If you’re going to try and run with an engine, you need to make sure you’re fuelling it properly. I say that to the whole HR function – you need to get the balance right.”

DLG, like many businesses, faces a challenging year ahead. But there’s no doubt that people professionals such as Wallis will continue to prove just how vital the HR function is.


This article first appeared in the January/February 2024 print issue of HR magazine.

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