· 8 min read · Features

Interview with Deborah Baker, director of people at Sky


No-one working in the media could fail to be impressed by the brand personality Sky exudes and I was no exception when I visited Sky’s director of people, Deborah Baker, last month.

I fell into the excitement I enjoyed, on work experience as a student, looking around editing suites and buzzing newsrooms, seeing film crews and reporters heading off to break an exclusive.

Making news as much as it is breaking news, the broadcasting giant has come a long way from its humble origins as Sky TV in 1989. After merging with British Satellite Broadcasting in 1990, it became British Sky Broadcasting Group. Commonly known as BskyB, but trading as Sky, it is the largest pay-TV broadcaster in the UK, with more than 10 million subscribers.

And, while walking around the Sky HQ near Isleworth in West London, it is hard to believe the small town that makes up its studios and offices was, only 22 years ago, nothing more than a port-a-cabin in an industrial estate. Some of the estate warehouses and outlets remain dotted about the complex, as the TV behemoth engulfs it.

But Sky has been hitting the headlines itself, as media mogul Rupert Murdoch spent most of 2010 and 2011 attempting to increase his company News Corporation's 39.1% stake in Sky to 100%. He withdrew in July this year.

HR magazine mused as to whether staff at Sky would have breathed a sigh of relief, contrasting the cultures of the apparently unethical News International, with Sky's transparent, accountable and 'fun' work environment.

When I repeat it to her, Baker - ever the corporate diplomat - thinks carefully before she responds to the statement.

"People here are very confident about Sky. The bid happened, but now it's business as usual for us. It always was," she explains. "Staff were aware of what was going on - but the people who work here know what Sky is about. They are comfortable with our strategy."

And does she have her own view on the proposals? This time she answers immediately. "We are our own plc and we didn't have anything to do with [the bid]," she explains. "If I were HR director at News Corporation, I would have certainly been involved, though."

Addressing the idea of cultures, Baker admits she can't comment on News Corp, but waxes lyrical about Sky: "It was the people that attracted me to come and work here. The job is not irrelevant, but I would put the people first and at Sky I know our people are passionate about what they do. It's not just about the individual here. It's about the team." She pauses, then smiles: "Sky's tagline is 'believe in better' and we don't just use it on our advertising. It is our value for staff. I have to admit that when I joined Sky, I thought, 'what's all this about?' But the longer I have worked here, I have come to realise it is about what we do: we want our staff to achieve greater things, we want to improve - not just our company, but our environment. I hate HR jargon - so just give me simple-speak such as this."

With a history of working in fashion (Burberry and Laura Ashley are on the CV), it is no surprise Baker is chic and stylish. In her office, it is impossible to miss a large photograph of another style icon, Audrey Hepburn, posing with a cigarette à la Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Emblazoned across the image, it reads: 'Believe in better.' So it is safe to assume Baker is now on board with the slogan.

The reward programmes work to incentivise ideas of 'being better' and teamwork, and engage staff with what Sky is moving towards.

Engagement is a priority, says Baker. Its employee engagement and benefits programmes include free Sky TV, broadband and telephone usage for all employees (working out at £270 per year) and a pension plan into which the company contributes 8% worth of staff salary.Staff also have access to an exclusive 'Sky Insider' facility, where they can view shows weeks before they are available on other Sky channels.

Baker is emphatic on the importance of engagement in the business and transparent discussions with employees. "We measure levels of employee engagement in our people survey - and we are taking the results to benchmark against high-performing organisations. At the end of the surveys, we ask staff to tell us one great thing about working at Sky - and also something they would like to change.

"This year, we had 22,000 comments from 16,500 staff - and I want to hear them. It is always useful to have this open discussion. I have a bi-weekly meeting with the CEO and I talk about these issues - it helps us prepare our plans for what might happen in the industry." But 'the industry' means different things to different people. For some, such as me, it is breaking news; for some, it is sports coverage, or films; and for yet others, Sky is about home broadband or telecommunications.

Company performance isn't too shabby. Annual results to 30 June 2011, showed a reported profit after tax of £896 million - its highest ever. Alongside the launch on 1 February this year of entertainment channel Sky Atlantic, Sky announced it was shunting its own channels further up the listings of its electronic programming guide (EPG), marking the biggest reshuffle in EPG places for over a decade, with MTV, Comedy Central, Universal, Syfy, FX, and 40 of its HD channels moving to more prominent places. That's before even thinking about the arrival of Sky Sports in 3D… And as Sky continues to grow, Baker hopes to recruit based on these attitudes and cultural fit, rather than skills, which, to an extent at least, she believes can be taught.

Sky employs approximately 16,500 members of staff and in January it pledged to create 1,500 new jobs in the regions. "We are on a recruitment drive for our contact centres across the country," says Baker. "Primarily, we are looking for engineers and sales agents in the field and trying out new methods of recruitment. One is sending texts to people near one of our sites, telling them about opportunities."

But in a competitive recruitment market, the threat of transient staff looms over the company as it recruits for roles. "Candidates are very demanding of employers now," says Baker. "They are interested in company values, how we will develop their careers and CSR - and we are transparent with them on all these.

"We start our financial year in July, so I am already thinking about things we could do better - we are not perfect yet. So I want to increase cross-functional moves, finish transferring staff to new locations and I have a lot of work planned around diversity. I really want to increase the numbers of women in senior positions here."

But in spite of the growth Sky has experienced over the past year, the recent News Corporation fiasco has rocked the company, with reports as HR went to press that Sky CEO Jeremy Darroch had invested £348,670 in Sky company shares. Analysts have commented that the decision was a grand gesture - a vote of confidence in Sky's share price. This has plummeted 25% since News Corp (its biggest shareholder) dropped its bid to buy the 60.9% of stock it didn't already own, following a public outcry over phone hacking. Darroch has led the firm through the recent encouraging results, but as the developments of the past few months serve to illustrate, nothing is certain in the media.

In light of the unpredictable future, how is Baker, who is responsible for business sustainability, preparing her company for the next phase?

She has set in place an objective to grow and develop leaders who have the ability to drive Sky's competitive advantage and follow up with management development programmes to source and nurture leaders of the future.

The company's 'CEO programme', launched in February, selects 15 people from across the business who are either one step away from executive or new to this level. The nine-month-long programme seeks to challenge their thinking in bringing new ideas to the business.

For the next level down, the Sky 'leadership development programme' works with 25 direct reports to executives or potential heads of department for a year, in a mentoring programme, building relationships with the management team as part of their development. The company also provides shorter programmes for line managers, frontline staff and customer service managers.

Every Sky employee agrees an annual personal development plan with their manager and as part of this there are bespoke training courses and qualifications to help them develop their potential. Formal training is supplemented by informal feedback, coaching and learning on the job.

"Seeing the bigger picture" is part and parcel of the way Sky operates, Baker explains. In other words, it has made a commitment to doing the right thing for communities in which it operates. Its ethos is that by focusing on long-term sustainability Sky can achieve lasting success and create value for shareholders.

The company has been tackling climate change since 2005, by reducing its own impact (the new Sky Sports studios will be having fans on the roof to circulate outside air, reducing the need for air conditioning on hot TV sets).

Barker holds all the various strands of HR strategy in balance via a high-level team: Ralph Tribe, director, business HR and employee relations; Dev Raval, director of reward; Louise Alford, director, business HR (contact centres); Patrick Flannighan, director of HR services; Mark Sayer, group head of health and safety and business continuity; Sarah Myers, director of talent management.

But the company also looks to the wider world. Sky Rainforest Rescue, launched in 2009 in partnership with WWF and the state government of Acre, Brazil, aims to help save three million hectares of rainforest - roughly equivalent to the size of Belgium and home to a rich diversity of plant and animal life. So far, £1.125 million has been raised, which will be matched by Sky.

Last month, Sky staff - and 50,000 Londoners - took part in the Sky Ride, one of a series of traffic-free mass-participation cycling events. As part of its five-year partnership with British Cycling, Sky aims to get one million more people across the UK cycling regularly by 2013.

The company also operates Sky Sports 'Living for Sport', now in its eighth year - an initiative that uses participation in sport and the resonance of the Sky Sports brand to inspire young people to be the best they can be.

The initiative, run in partnership with Youth Sport Trust, has helped engage 25,000 students to date, who through their involvement have seen improvements in their self-confidence and self-esteem. In fact, 83% of Sky Sports Living for Sport participants showed an improvement in their attitude to learning at school.

In April, Sky launched the Sky Arts Ignition Series to collaborate with six arts organisations over three years. For each of the chosen projects, Sky Arts will provide up to £200,000. It also launched Sky Arts Ignition: Futures Fund, designed to help young talent working in the arts to bridge the development gap from school or college to becoming a working artist. The fund will support five individuals aged 18 to 30 with a bursary of £30,000 each and provide each artist with a mentor from Sky, who will help develop his or her commercial skills and knowledge.

But the company puts the onus of CSR back onto its staff as well. It offers all employees 16 hours of paid time per year to either volunteer with its partners or to support a cause of their own choice. And the Sky workforce has this year alone raised £350,000 for charity through payroll giving, matched by an additional £150,000 from the business. Sky invested £11.2 million in its communities through funding, volunteering, mentoring and services, while over the past financial year, 2,101 Sky volunteers spent 12,606 hours working in their local community.

As director of people, not only does Baker oversee HR and CSR, but she and her 200-strong HR team also manage wellbeing and health and safety. She is part of the executive team and regularly meets with senior management, although as yet she is not part of the plc board.

"I love HR," she muses, when I ask her about the importance of the function. "I have been doing it all my life - but the secret to influential HR is to keep it real and take a commonsense approach. Don't make it too difficult for line managers to do their job. A lot of HRDs have got into doing HR for HR's sake. That's not what it's about.

"We should be losing functions to line management, not adding to our remit. HRDs need to follow the business agenda and apply it to their work. Start from the business imperatives and take it from there."

And what of her thoughts on the future of HR and where it's going? She laughs: "If the CEO stopped coming into my office uninvited to ask my advice on something, I would begin to wonder what value HR is bringing to the business."