· 3 min read · Features

Pushing the boundaries of what a brilliant employer should look like

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The CEO of vocational education trainer City Guilds Group Kirstie Donnelly discusses putting the sizzle back into vital jobs and how we need to push the boundaries of what a brilliant employer looks like.

I started out…

Thinking I wanted to be a journalist. It’s not what I got into in the end, but there are lots of similarities between my role and a journalist’s. It’s all about passing on knowledge, getting to the root of issues and their solutions and communicating this effectively.

I knew this was the right career path for me when…

I could see the impact that learning a skill or working towards a credential has on peoples’ lives. A moment that really stuck with me was when a middle-aged ‘second-timer’ in education won an award for their achievement. They said ‘It’s like the lights have finally just gone on for me and I have a purpose.’

The biggest lesson I’ve learned along the way…

Always take the rough with the smooth – there is never one linear path to success. Holding true to your core values and purpose will always provide the north star that will guide you through your career, and you have to trust the process.


Previous lessons from the C-suite:

Lessons from the C-suite: Ian Wilson, DHL Express UK

Lessons from the C-Suite: Dustin Seale, Heidrick & Struggles

Lessons from the C-suite: Ann Watson

Lessons from the C-Suite: Emma Vass


My proudest achievement…

Being in my job today as CEO of City & Guilds is a career pinnacle – even with the challenge of starting the role five days before the first  lockdown in 2020. Leading a 143-year-old organisation that is more relevant than ever is a huge achievement for me.

My biggest mistake…

Letting that female imposter syndrome live on in me for too long and not unshackling it sooner. To all those out there who recognise that feeling: bin it now. I haven’t looked back since I put those feelings to the side.

My biggest inspiration…

I have adopted a mantra from my coach called ‘ubuntu’ meaning ‘I am because you are’, and I think that probably sums up my view of leadership: the power of collective wisdom.

Ultimately, I draw my inspiration from two things: the great people I get to work with and the golden thread of our purpose that connects us to each other and our customers.

Keeping me awake at night right now…

The future. Not through fear, but because it excites me and I want to get on with it. We’ve had a tricky couple of years, and I can’t wait to put Covid-19 behind us and start tackling the big issues ahead.

The biggest challenge for organisations over the next five years will be…

Skills, skills and skills again. That’s why the job I do is so challenging and fulfilling.

How are we going to get beyond this real skills crisis we face, where we have more jobs than people willing to do them? How do we start to put the sizzle back into those jobs that have dropped off our radars and yet are so vital for the economy, and attract a workforce into them?

I need my HR director to…

Embrace the culture of City & Guilds; drive really hard to never accept mediocrity and push the boundaries of what a brilliant employer should look like, particularly when we look at our organisation through the diversity and inclusion lens.

More HR directors would become CEO if…

The crux of HR is you are an embodiment of your people. After all, leading any organisation is all about knowing who your people are and how they relate to your organisation and your customers. HR is a natural talent pool for future CEO-hood.

What I’m reading right now…

My Kindle is my permanent bedfellow, and I can’t just have one book on the go but several. I recently
got through Behind the Sequins by Shirley Ballas, Educated by Tara Westover and The Mountbattens by Andrew Lownie.

My top leadership tip…

Always trust in and be led by your instincts but look at the data and insights too. Push hard for the ‘ubuntu’ culture of collective wisdom and remember that we are only as good as the people we work with.

 

This article was first published in the March/April 2022 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.