Loyal readers of HR magazine will know how difficult it is to win a HR Excellence Award. There’s a reason they’re the most sought-after awards in the sector, and you’ve got to be made of something special to win one.
So when brand transformation agency Landor & Fitch (L&F) walked away with two, Best Early Careers Strategy and HR Director of the Year for Carol-Ann White, you can be guaranteed there’s some kind of magic in the air.
In her role as group chief people officer, White has helped guide L&F’s evolution from traditional brand consulting agency to brand transformation group, with the people proposition seen by White and her team of a fundamental element of ensuring cultural change.
She’s headed up an overhaul of the appraisal process, changed the organisation’s learning strategy, revamped its intern recruitment programme and achieved Great Place to Work status. But why does White personally think she bagged the top prize of the night?
“I hope it’s because of the breadth of work we’ve done,” she says. “And I use the term ‘we’ because it’s a team effort. If I look at what we’ve achieved in terms of diversity, ranging from the level of senior females in business and the development programmes we’re driving from L&F [and parent company WPP], we’ve seen some huge benefits.”
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Many HR professionals have the skillset and desire to lead transformation projects but all too often great ideas get stuck behind red tape, heavy workloads and lack of resource.
The secret, according to White, is to create an action-orientated culture. She says: “We created over a period of time a culture that is focused on driving individuals’ purpose. We spend a lot of time thinking about how we can give people time, how we can grow the business, our people and our people development.”
It also helps to have a team of like-minded individuals, all focused on achieving visible results. “We are fortunate because the kind of people that work with us and the culture we have is one of action,” White says.
“For us the biggest piece of the puzzle is communication. We cannot communicate enough with our people. The people team runs lots of workshops and listening groups where we find out what’s on people’s minds, what are the things they want and what is irritating them.”
This is all the more impressive for a small HR team of roughly 40 people globally. White adds: “The people team and talent acquisition team, taken together, is not that big considering the stretch, but we’re close-knit and we do talk to each other a lot. We often talk about different types of conversation: check-ins, career conversations and challenging conversations.”
One of the key priorities for White was changing how L&F conducted its performance management by replacing annual reviews with frequent check-ins.
White says: “It’s not rocket science; lots of companies I was reading about were moving away from annual appraisals. We knew it was frustrating and wanted real-time feedback from managers who sit down with you frequently.
“You can’t have a manager who sits down once a year and tries to remember what you said months ago. That’s not us; we’re a transparent and trusting business and our people are passionate about what they do and want to get better. The only way to do that is to give them feedback.”
White has also championed L&F’s future talent programme, which bagged the agency its second HR Excellence Award. The reason for its success, according to White, is because it was seen as a diversity and inclusion initiative from the beginning. The programme targeted its intern recruitment at lower socioeconomic groups and non-graduates, which has developed into a company-wide policy to take degree requirements off job adverts.
She says: “We had an idea if we didn’t go for grads, it’d give us a broader array of talent. By tapping into different learning platforms, we have found a much more diverse group of people, whether that’s in terms of race, gender or disability.
“Normally we’d be recruiting from the prestigious art schools and we historically did that for years. Taking degrees off job roles has been a bit of a game changer for us. We realised we had been cutting ourselves off from a large group of people.”
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Talent and recruitment has always been a key focus for White, somewhat inevitably given she started her career in recruitment. The experience enabled her to learn about a whole host of different clients and companies and had a sales element which she loved. She then made the switch into an in-house hiring role, which broadened into looking at the culture of the organisation, how it attracts people, inevitably landing a global HR lead role.
Her early experience in what she describes as an extremely male-dominated sector has meant White has lent significant support to women in leadership programme at L&F. This has become another badge of honour for the organisation after a staggering 94% of women across parent company WPP group said the programme had helped them develop a bigger vision for themselves.
She says: “In my career I’ve worked with three female CEOs, which is unusual for our industry. I’ve always been very passionate about women in leadership. I witnessed huge barriers of progression for female leaders. Maternity leave was frowned upon, for example.”
Taking inspiration from other female leaders is nothing new, but does she buy into the oft-quoted LinkedIn adage ‘you have to see it to be it’?
She says: “I think it helps massively to see it in terms of leadership as it makes it more real for you as an individual.
“We now have conversations about menopause whereas 10-15 years ago this wouldn’t have happened.”
Despite great success, White admits to still experiencing imposter syndrome, the inability to believe your success is deserved or legitimately achieved. Sitting in White’s minimalist, sun-drenched office overlooking the river Thames at Sea Containers House, it’s hard yet somehow comforting that someone of her calibre would experience this.
She says: “Of course I get imposter syndrome on certain occasions, it entirely depends on what’s going on. Lots of women experience it, but I really think we ought not to. At a senior level I do think we have a duty for up-and-coming females looking to strive to senior roles to get rid of imposter syndrome once and for all.”
Equality will continue to be a leading priority for HR leaders, but for White, now is the time to also embrace new ideas within people strategy. She says: “I think the role of a people leader and contributing to commercial success is more important than ever.
“The way we work has changed forever, and HR has a huge part to play in shaping an employee experience that encompasses a successful approach to flexible and hybrid working, mental health and wellbeing, diversity and creating inclusive cultures.
“People leaders have been integral in navigating employees through the way we work in the last few years of uncertainty. I think now is the time for people leaders to use all those learnings and become more forward looking, tech-savvy and innovative.”
For any aspirational people leaders looking to introduce change and transformation in their organisation, White has some simple yet effective advice.
She adds: “Our role is to understand what both the business and people needs are, and we cannot do that by sitting in our HR teams... we need to be knee deep in it with our business partners and our people.”
The full feature above first appeared in the January/February 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.