Matthew Taylor in conversation with Ann Pickering

In the last of our three-part series the RSA chief executive grills business brains on pressing employment and social issues

For the last in our three-part series with chief exec of the RSA and our second HR Most Influential Thinker 2018 Matthew Taylor, it seemed only fitting to put him in conversation with 2018’s Most Influential Practitioner Ann Pickering, CHRO and chief of staff at O2. Aside from Pickering accidentally insulting West Brom, we think it went rather well…

Matthew Taylor (MT): Presumably part of your journey in HR Ann has been to become very much core to the business?

Ann Pickering (AP): I say to my team you can’t be a good HR professional unless you understand your business. About 18 months ago my boss asked me to do a chief of staff role as well. That’s been the icing on the cake because I’m getting involved in a lot of stuff that bears no relation to HR.

MT: So will your next role be running an entire organisation?

AP: I think next would be a chief of staff role in totality, leaving HR behind. But the next role is interesting because working for O2 is like playing for Liverpool. So I don’t think I could do another job in the corporate world because that would be like playing for West Brom.

MT: You do know I support West Brom don’t you? Anyway… on your career journey where have your ideas changed?

AP: When I started my career in M&S it was a very paternalistic organisation, it was very formal; there was a manager’s dining room… If you look at modern progressive organisations now it is much more of a partnership. Your employees need to understand what your business is; you need to make sure that they’re engaged and happy.

MT: One of the things that’s interesting to me is that HR occupies somewhere on a spectrum of being friends of management or friends of the staff. And I’ve come to realise that’s a really important question. There isn’t a right answer of course.

AP: My role as a leader of the company is to ensure it’s successful. So my allegiance will lie with the shareholder: our Spanish parent company. But I have a duty of care, along with my colleagues, to the 6,500 people we employ. I don’t see it as one or the other… I think if you start deciding which side of the line you sit on you’re in big trouble.

MT: Do you think there is a commonality to work satisfaction? Or are there fundamental differences in people’s attitudes, expectations and aspirations?

AP: There might be different aspirations but I think fundamentally people want the same things out of a role. They want to be reasonably well paid, to be in control… I don’t segment the way I talk to employees. The messages we send go to everyone.

MT: But I think sometimes there’s a danger of a kind of tyranny of saying ‘this is how you ought to feel about work’. Some people don’t want autonomy. What matters is getting a wage. And there’s lots of evidence that most people value being part of a team.

AP: Yes, and you need those sorts of people. You’ve also got people who say ‘I want to be the next CEO’. There’s definitely room for all. If everyone wanted to be CEO we’d have a problem.

MT: I know the engagement levels you’re achieving are really high. But also what’s interesting is what’s underneath the top line – how the different parts of the organisation are working, the different cultures. So you use your engagement tool presumably not just as a mirror on how well you’re doing but also as a tool for change?

AP: So we have people champions in different parts of the business and they go out and dig under the surface to ask: what does this mean? Then as a board we’ll sit down and put in various plans.

MT: One of the things I said in my report [the Taylor Review into modern working practices] was that it would be good practice for employers to all be encouraged to publish engagement statistics – not in great granularity because that’s not fair on individual managers. And also to use robust research methodologies. Do you think that would be a good idea, so someone looking for a job could just quickly check out the employers’ scores?

AP: Absolutely that’s the right thing to do as long as you’re measuring apples and apples. However, already anyone can go on Glassdoor.

MT: Do you think that Glassdoor’s guiding people’s choices?

AP: I know it is.

MT: So in a sense all the money we might spend on marketing to recruit talent, to go to university grad shows… that’s all a bit passé really?

AP: They’re not solely listening to the wisdom of the crowd. And it’s a bit like TripAdvisor; you’ve got to ignore the extremes. But it is definitely a powerful tool.

MT: You’ve worked in retail, in finance… But also you’re on the boards of a couple of charities. What have you noticed about the different cultures? For example I think most would assume finance is high reward low support…

AP: When I worked in finance it was the late ‘80s. They opened the doors and the money just basically came in, and then the bottom dropped out of the market and everyone lost their jobs.

MT: And did you find it harder in that environment to talk about the softer end of things rather than just financial incentives?

AP: If people were going to go they just threw money at them; they used money as an answer to an awful lot of problems.

MT: With your values you must have had to be a bit subversive in that environment to say ‘look humans aren’t quite as simple as this’.

AP: Yes, though I was quite young. And it was such a competitive climate; everyone was going after the same people. Things like engagement just didn’t exist. And I didn’t stay that long.

MT: How about the third sector? My experience is that people can spend quite a lot of time talking about whether or not they are perfect in themselves, when they ought to be talking about the change they want to achieve.

AP: The advice I tend to give [as a charity board trustee] is: just focus on doing two or three things really well… For example Step Up to Serve is a charity founded to get people involved in social action and it ends in 2020. So I’m saying ‘what’s your legacy going to be? Don’t do anything new’. That’s a really hard message for them.

MT: I bet it is. My board says that to me and I fiercely resist it… Have you any experience in HR in the public sector, and do you acknowledge that it’s a more complex environment?

AP: I chair the advisory board of Sheffield University Management School. It’s not public sector but it is of sorts. I find it really interesting that it is measured by the quality of its research not by how many of its students are employable at the end of their qualification. I’m scratching my head saying ‘surely this can’t be right?’

MT: So you feel the education system is not terribly well-aligned to business needs?

AP: I think we are failing people big time. There’s no link between what gets taught in the curriculum and the world of work. And I think business, government and education need to work much more closely together.

I met a young unemployed graduate recently who had a first-class honours business degree and had set up his own business employing three people. Then his cousin set up a bigger Asian wedding business so he went out of business. He effectively said to me ‘I’ve failed’. I said ‘what I’ve heard is smart student, entrepreneur, employed three people’…So we’re not teaching young people to appreciate the skills they’ve got and that those are transferable.

MT: One of the things you hear quite a lot is that young people are different. Do you find that your new recruits want different things out of work than maybe you did?

AP: Yes, they do their homework, they’re much more selective. They will look at your CSR record, whether they can work flexibly, whether they get autonomy. And all good organisations are chasing the same people; unemployment is relatively low. Therefore progressive organisations need to step up.

MT: You’ve used that phrase ‘progressive organisation’ a couple of times. What do you mean?

AP: I mean: be flexible about start and finish times. It’s not about presenteeism it’s about output. And empower people. For example we had a call centre where we had a real problem trying to staff it for Christmas. You could say a good employer doesn’t open on Christmas Day, but if you’ve got a child getting their phone under the tree they’re going to want to activate it. We went to our people and they came up with a brilliant idea, which was ‘if you work Christmas I’ll work Eid’.

MT: You’ve had to make some really difficult decisions about outsourcing and redundancies. How do you feel when you’re involved in that? Do you dread it or is dealing with difficult things ultimately the most exciting challenge?

AP: The intellectual challenge is certainly in a bizarre way an enjoyable part of the job. For example we were in a situation where the number of calls were dropping significantly because people wanted to be serviced online. So we had people not fully occupied. So we did a lot of investigation, had a lot of heated debates. When we made a decision to outsource a significant part of our organisation to a third party I went home and thought ‘that was the right decision’. Because I thought ‘what’s the alternative for these people? They stay working at O2 and probably in the next three months get made redundant’.

MT: And presumably you trusted the company you were outsourcing to?

AP: Completely. They’re still with us now… And being a responsible organisation means when we go out to tender the first thing they have to fill in is around good working standards, and if they don’t meet them they’re out.

MT: I want to move on to the equalities agenda, because that’s a big issue and it’s continually shifting… Do you ever think there’ll be no end to the number of things we’ve got to get right?

AP: We’ve made reasonable strides on gender. We’ve got a gender-balanced board now. For a short period of time five years ago I was the only woman on the board because someone was on maternity leave and we were waiting for someone else to join. I metaphorically lost my voice. That’s when the penny really dropped for me that I was the different person in the room.

I’ve introduced a career returners programme for women who’ve been out of the market typically because of having children, bringing them back on a 12-week programme. On the last programme 100% secured jobs afterwards in O2. We’re really poor in the UK at bringing people back from maternity leave.

But it’s much wider than that. The focus for me at O2 at the moment is BAME. It’s really hard because people are afraid of putting their foot in it.

MT: What we’re trying to achieve is a world where people can fully express themselves. But it often feels that it’s understood more in terms of a set of traps you could fall into.

AP: I had a reverse mentoring session where a woman told me she recently decided to wear her headscarf into work. She said ‘I was really worried about what people were going to say’, but she walked in and no-one said anything. She said ‘part of me was relieved but the other part thought why didn’t the buggers ask?’ But they didn’t know what to say; they didn’t want to upset her.

One of the things we’re trying to do is make the organisation instinctively inclusive. So it’s as much your responsibility as it is mine as the HRD.

MT: In terms of my perceptions of HR… I think our big problem isn’t HR departments, it’s that so many organisations don’t have HR departments or don’t take HR seriously…

Recently the government passed a measure that I’d pressed for in my review. The threshold for workers to have the right to representation at work was 10% and I said it should be 2%… Because the challenge is you can’t just rely on management being benign. Management will be benign most of the time, but often firms have really ambitious strategies around engagement and then when things go wrong that’s one of the first things to go.

AP: I completely agree. We have something called Speak Up, which is a channel that goes to our parent company first. I think it’s an essential part of good business that people have the chance to raise problems. Because you’ll always get a bad egg, a bad manager.

MT: I wanted to talk about technology. We do a lot of work on that here… We want to say ‘the future is not determined by technology, it’s determined by us…’ I think a lot of the conversation feels quite pessimistic. My grandfather was an engineer at Dunlop and I remember his excitement when the first television arrived in Crosby. For him that was the first step that would lead inexorably to colonies on Mars. And I contrast his excitement with what people feel now, which is that very large corporations and incredible power and knowledge will make enormous profits, and we the public will be the powerless agents. How do we change the conversation?

AP: I think we’ve started to see a sea-change with people holding organisations like Facebook to account. And that’s positive. We’re working with the NSPCC to keep kids safe online...

MT: More generally, these are difficult times we’re living in – of polarisation, of anger – you spend a lot of time talking to all sorts of people up and down the country. When Brexit happened were you surprised?

AP: I was hugely surprised… The night of the referendum I was at a dinner sitting next to a hugely well-respected fund manager. She said ‘we’ll be fine, we’ll stay’ but she said she voted to come out because ‘the government needs to be taught a lesson’. I met a number of very senior, highly intelligent, responsible people at this charity thing who said the same thing, and that blew my mind. That frightened me. But there were also an awful lot of people who felt left behind. We’ve let those people down badly.

MT: So who’s responsible? Is it business? Is it government?

AP: The world is never going to be the way we all want it. But I don’t think government has done a great job over the past few years of making everyone feel valued. I don’t feel proud when I go over to Spain.

MT: We do a lot [at The RSA] on inclusive growth. There’s a sense that the urban renaissance was great for the people who lived in town centres but it wasn’t so good in the peripheral estates.

AP: Have we cracked it? No. But those places are definitely better now. I went to a school in the West Midlands a couple of weeks ago and the headteacher said ‘this might be a bit of a tough gig’. But they were some of the most engaged, interesting, challenging kids. Conversely I went to a school in a very nice borough of London and they were all looking out of the window.

MT: Is it the same at O2? Is a young working-class person easy to manage, but it’s the people from Russell Group universities that are trickier?

AP: I would say as a white working-class woman I’ve been quite tricky to manage all the way through my career!

MT: Ha fair enough… Do you think HR is challenging enough within companies that aren’t behaving terribly well?

AP: So you’ve got effective HR people and those who aren’t effective. In the same way you have with CEOs and FDs… If you’re working at an organisation that’s commercial, has really small margins, you can see how people got to zero-hours contracts. People can convince themselves that’s flexibility, that students will love it. It’s having that confidence to pause and say ‘hang on a minute is this the right thing to do?’ It shouldn’t just be HR people who do that by the way.

MT: One of the issues we’ve had is people haven’t rung the alarm bells… It seems we need HR to say to the board ‘it is my professional duty to tell you, beyond the law, that isn’t acceptable’.

AP: I completely agree. It is relatively recent – the past 10 years – that HR has had an equal voice at the table. There are many times I’ve had stern words behind closed doors with a chief exec to say ‘what the hell are you doing?’ That’s my job.

MT: But you can do that because you’re you; it’s hard if you’re in your early thirties and just climbing up…

AP: But part of my job is to be a bit of a role model to show that’s possible. There’s a whole load of other feisty HR people out there who are great role models, like Valerie Hughes-D’Aeth at the BBC. She’s doing an amazing job… Most of the organisations I’ve worked in I’ve been involved in every decision before they’re made. That’s partly luck and partly because I’m a gobby Scouser.

Further reading

Matthew Taylor in conversation with Paul Pomroy

Matthew Taylor in conversation with Cary Cooper

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