· 8 min read · Features

Interview with Dave Bradley, HR director at QinetiQ

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The new HR chief at defence and security provider QinetiQ has warned against HR directors "working in a bubble" as employees deal with the current economic climate.

Dave Bradley, who joins the FTSE 250 company direct from Royal Bank of Scotland, is responsible for 11,000 employees worldwide as QinetiQ continues a cultural change programme to grow the business.

Bradley argues HR Directors need to "engage" employees fearing the worst as the economy continues to creak under the strain of recession and concerns over the Eurozone.

Bradley, 48, said: "During recession, it's not just about where you work, it's about family, what's going on outside the workplace and what's happening in the world. All these factors influence how engaged people are."

"People have got to keep grounded. This is really important in QinetiQ as we are a people business, they are our point of difference with their specialist domain knowledge and capability being the reason that customers come to us. They are the people who know how.

"Leaders can't work in a bubble in an organisation; you've got to think about how you can engage employees and find out what's on their minds.

"The recession has affected lots of different roles, including the HR function in many organisations.

"It has put the company and HR function on a more short-term agenda but it's important you still have a vision or direction, as you can't live hand to mouth all the time and keep your market position."

Bradley brings a wealth of experience. When it comes to gritty roles, he has experienced life at the coal-face.

Joining Exxon in the year its Valdez oil tanker ran aground is just one key note that leaps out from an impressive CV, as are stints at Ernst and Young and ASDA.

But it is the job in hand at QinetiQ - the FTSE 250 firm that has just undergone a two-year self-help programme to transform the business - which is now top of his agenda.

"I haven't come here to sit in an ivory tower," says straight-talking Lancastrian, who began work as QinetiQ's Group HR Director in May.

"What I have learned elsewhere is that you might work at a HQ but you have to be mindful of what's going on around the business. HQ has a dual responsibility of setting strategy as well as supporting the various operating businesses.

"Yes, my role is about setting the direction for the organisation but also how do you support the business in different locations.

"You have got to get out there to understand people, what it's like for them, and ask 'what are the issues people are facing?' You've got to roll your sleeves up.

"I have walked away from job opportunities which have been much more conceptual, where you are sat in head office - in that ivory tower - because the way I am wired up is that I am very much a people person, get your sleeves rolled up and get on with it.

"I get my energy from meeting, talking to and listening to people to be able to make a difference. I can't sit there writing papers and proposals in isolation. You have got to get out there to understand what it's about. People are generally very open to giving feedback and this is critical to developing and implementing the People Agenda.

"You get a bloody nose sometimes - but that goes with the territory."

QinetiQ is best known for its cutting edge defence and aerospace equipment - robots, sniper detection, hi-tech kit which helps protects assets and saves lives - although the majority of the business provides services such as software engineering, safety assurance, training and simulation to name a few of the capability areas.

The revamp of the business has been inspired by CEO Leo Quinn and has involved planning for the future with its Vision 2015, the next stage of its development. The key strategy is to transform the company into a more customer-focused, commercial organisation while cutting debt, costs and engaging with employees. The cultural change programme has been in full flow for the past two years but remains ongoing.

Bradley's HR role is to help oversee these changes and how they affect the workforce while working with both the executive team and the company's new UK Employee Engagement Group which represents 5,500 employees in the UK.

The EEG, an employee representation and consultative group, has been formed after 60 per cent of UK employees from across QinetiQ's numerous sites, participated in elections to nominate their employee representative to be the focus for their voice.

Rugby-fan Bradley, who says he is a "good listener and observer", was hired with a wealth of international and business transformation experience under his belt. He says: "A lot of people come into organisations and throw the baby out with the bath water. I am not like that. There are always excellent things going on and it's just about digging away to find out what there is there, joining the dots and finding out exactly how things can be improved while introducing new ideas.

"Organisations are rarely broken - there are always pockets of excellence going on. You ignore that at your peril. It's about getting people's thoughts and ideas to come out."

The EEG - formed following QinetiQ termination of its voluntary collective bargaining agreement with its four main unions back in March held its first ever meeting this month - is something which excites Bradley.

But he knows the road will not be without its twists and turns.

He says: "There are big challenges around the EEG. It is something that is new.

"The EEG is much broader in its approach than you see in other consultation groups that can often be very conservative and wary of leading. "Its agenda is exciting and I think the EEG can really get its teeth into some meaty issues which help the business deliver to customers. It's a body that will represent all of our UK workforce, giving everyone a voice, a forum that is truly representative of our people. But it's early days and we need to let the EEG reps settle in and give them a chance to get their feet under the table. Early signs are that the EEG have a healthy appetite and are ready for the challenge. I have already met a number of reps who have great ideas and feedback on how we can improve the business.

"Now I am here I need to go out and visit key locations and learn more about the business.

"But that is the tip of the iceberg. Once you have done it. You can't think that's it. You can't just do the world tour and think you've cracked it. You've got to keep doing it."

Bradley continues: "In whatever organisation you are in, there needs to be some broad framework that gives the employee a voice.

"You cannot have a minority of people looking after a selective population group and ignoring all the others.

"It becomes divisive. Good people leave because they say: 'I have a voice but it's not being heard.'

"Employees want to know they have a voice on a broad range of subjects such as pay, pensions, corporate responsibility, diversity, communication etc and that is what I like about the philosophy of our EEG. The reps really want to get involved and make a difference. It has a voice, and it's broad…that's what I like about the EEG culture.

Taking QinetiQ's 11,000 workforce on the transformation journey doesn't faze Bradley, but he is realistic.

He says: "It takes time. It's not all an overnight quick win at all. For me it's looking at different parts of the organisation and prioritising and sequencing the most important challenges. One of the key areas is first line managers. You live or die by the emphasis you put on that team - their development, support and confidence is vital.

"They are the people who are at the coal-face, who really do motivate and ensure our people do a good job. That comes back to the pride of working for an organisation. If you don't rate your manager, it is more of an uphill struggle to keep you on board.

"Part of it is the ownership people feel of the company they work for. You have got to spend time at the top with senior leaders. That sets the tone. But you have to put time in with first-line managers as well."

Working with Leo Quinn is a big part of the role. "He brings that big picture of the vision ahead, but he's very pragmatic, very action orientated," says Bradley of Quinn "I think that appeals to such a diverse workforce. You have highly-qualified scientists, technical people who just don't want to get spun around things, and you have people out on the ranges who say 'just tell us how it is.'

"He's very good at articulating where he sees issues and how he sees it. No management speak, no HR nonsense…"

There is no HR spin evident on Bradley's CV either. A quick look reveals the qualities which encouraged Leo Quinn and his team hire him.

After leaving his home town Accrington in 1982, Bradley landed his first HR job at Lucas Aerospace in 1989.

But a downturn in new contracts meant he was "always making people redundant or closing sites". "I was 24 or 25 and dealing with really hard-nosed stuff .

From there he left for Exxon, landing the role the same year the Valdez struck a reef in Alaska, spilling up to 750,000 barrels of crude oil. His time spent at Exxon was one of his "biggest learning curves", particularly working in a global organisation.

Later, Allan Leighton recruited him at ASDA, where he worked with other retail powerhouse characters like Andy Clarke and Archie Norman..

"There I think I really learned the pace of retailing - it is a low-margin business and boy, you had to be very quick to stay ahead of the competition. Also, the value of teamworking was critical and ASDA are experts in this area.

Bradley's seven-and-half years at Ernst and Young saw him instigate and drive a cross-border staff resources programme which once saw him stage a near sit in at an embassy in Karachi over the non-production of work visas.

"Working for E&Y and the project we had in place was like working for the UN with all the different nationalities we had. So many people from such different background really made a difference with clients.

"I am a HR generalist at heart, but because of different challenges I faced, I have significant experience in international mobility and learning and development.

"I know that really makes a difference.

"The learning and development team at QinetiQ will have a tough time with me because I know what works and I know what delivers to the bottom line.

"Things can always be done, there is always a solution."

"There are a lot of very bright, very equipped people here who really want to make a difference.

"It is about bringing that together under the QinetiQ family, how you get more collaboration so you win more customers as well.

"People processes - how HR can make a difference with the business - are about how we can make situations more effective and more efficient so the key internal processes, such as appraisals are done well so we have more time particularly for customer facing people to be out there.

"This is either by holding on to business we have, winning new business from current contracts and winning new business as well.

"You will never take everyone with you. It's not a popularity contest but as long as I think I have positive intent, am doing the right thing for the business and the people of the organisation, then we can flourish.

"It is about pride in QinetiQ, and when employees are with family and friends, when there is banter down the pub, or representing the company at an event that they are proud to say they work for QinetiQ

"One of the things that attracted me here, despite all the changes in the economy, is that there is an opportunity here to generate new customers. That's all down to having our people in the right frame of mind out there and going for it.

"There are so many changes in the Ministry of Defence and Department of Defense, in the commercial landscape and it is about how we can leverage that - and it will be through our people. It's no coincidence that we talk about QinetiQ - people who know how. We have teams of people at QinetiQ who really do know how and know how to crack some of the trickiest problems that the likes of Governments and companies face. "