HR future leader of the month: Catherine Simmons


HR magazine speaks to the future leaders of the industry to discover what makes them tick

I started out on the graduate scheme rotating through project management and operational manager roles. The most pivotal for me was my first line manager role with a team of 24 field-based telecommunications engineers. This is where I really cut my teeth, learnt a great deal about the business and strengthened my personal resilience through some challenging times.

The profession needs to be more focused on the wider operations of the business. A previous line manager once commented I was ‘too operational’ to succeed in HR – I fundamentally believe that to be a successful strategic business partner understanding business operations is a necessity. It allows you to challenge, contribute and understand the employee experience. I find my conversations with business partners are as much operational as they are HR-focused, and that’s what works best for me.

I’m currently reading Sophia Amoruso’s #GIRLBOSS, all about how one young woman built her business empire from scratch. I believe strong male and female role models inside and outside of the workplace are really important. And in a male-dominated environment the importance of female role models is even more critical. The work I am involved in – boot camps for young people and helping them to develop skills – is how we are going to attract more women into careers like engineering.

I’ve stayed in HR because I’ve never stopped learning. I’ve had countless opportunities working in HR. While juggling numerous stakeholders and projects can be time pressured, it’s rewarding when you know you’ve played a part in improving the employee experience – whether that’s wholescale change or one individual.

The most challenging thing about my job is the size and dynamic of the teams I partner. We have more than 4,000 engineers out in the field every day, working from their vans and interacting with customers. This means that the way we land change, deliver messages and check in on how people are doing becomes really important.

Never stop challenging and asking people ‘why’. For me it’s the most powerful word. It not only gives people the space and time to really consider why they are doing something – whether because they’ve always done it or because they feel they have to – but it’s also pivotal in ensuring employees understand the reasons behind business and operational decisions. People don’t have to agree with everything an organisation chooses to do, but if they understand why those decisions have been made it goes a long way to making the changes successful.

Catherine Simmons is HR business partner – London and South East at Openreach

This piece appeared in the April 2019 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk