The journey of HR's influence at the BBC

To discover exactly what HR influence means Ashridge Business School interviewed our top three practitioners of 2016

Valerie Hughes-D’Aeth joined the BBC as group HR director in August 2014 and is also a member of the executive committee. There have been significant changes behind the scenes to ensure the BBC delivers the best content and services while providing value for money for licence fee-payers. Alongside this, the corporation has begun a new 11-year Royal Charter (from the start of 2017), which sets out its mission and public purposes.

HR has four key strategic priorities. First, to work with the business to provide simple, efficient and effective organisation design models. Second, attracting, developing and retaining the most talented people. Providing an engaging culture – a great place to work – comes next. Finally, it’s ensuring HR systems and services are effective and easy to use.

“The licence fee has flatlined over the last 20 years while other costs have increased. We support four times more TV channels than before so have to keep looking for ways to do more for less,” explains Hughes-D’Aeth.

Hughes-D’Aeth says that in some respects her job has been made easier by the scale of cost savings and restructuring the BBC has needed to make. All professional support roles have been migrated to centralised teams where best practice can be better shared – in the past they tended to be split across the different divisions with little co-ordination. This has meant “real economies of scale and saving,” says Hughes-D’Aeth.

“We now spend 94% of our controllable budget on providing great content and services for our audiences,” she says. “We have done this by controlling costs and limiting spending on back office support areas with each having to prove value for money in the services they provide.”

Delayering across the organisation has also been a major task – taking everything back to a maximum of seven layers of staff from the very top to the bottom, as well as cutting 1,000 posts and reducing the number of senior managers by almost half. All are metrics that are assiduously tracked.

Another large project has been the target to move 50% of staff out of London: “We’re here to serve all audiences. We’ve moved teams to Salford and we’ve also moved most of our HR team to Birmingham over the past couple of years. It has been a key part of the organisational change.”

Feeding into the wider ambition to reduce overall costs, Hughes-D’Aeth was given a target of reducing HR costs by 20% – something she’s exceeded by 10%. It was a “massive change” deciding on a case by case basis whether different HR services should be outsourced or brought back in-house. In the last two years 60% of the HR team are new hires; mostly for the new in-house HR service centre and specialist teams. Hughes-D’Aeth hadn’t envisaged building a large in-house team but “it was absolutely the right decision to make”, she says.

She emphasises the importance of not making any assumptions. For each area the team took “a clean sheet and considered not just how to make savings but for each question standing back to ask: what are we trying to achieve for the business? And how best can we deliver that?

“We decided for example to outsource manager advice and guidance, which is not at all what I would have expected to do,” she says, reporting that many were sceptical at first but that the new service has been well-received by managers.

Hughes-D’Aeth says it’s been about having a ‘burning platform’ so people see that standing still is not an option. She says HR’s role is one of “persuading” people. “You have to be passionate with a clear vision if you want to get people behind the changes that are needed. You will always get resistance and often people feel unwilling to join in with a big change programme, but if you break it down step by step then it seems far more manageable.”

Key to her influence at the BBC is Hughes-D’Aeth’s broad background, gained across different sectors and international roles. There is a view that HR directors do not necessarily need to know the details of HR policy and practices. But this is a mistake in Hughes-D’Aeth’s experience, because there will always be times when you need granular detail just as much as the strategic overview. “You have to know as HR director when you need to dive down and get into the detail of a particular area; it’s also important that your team know you can get into this level of detail if needed,” she says.

The past few years have certainly been exciting, challenging, and most of all rewarding. Hughes-D’Aeth relishes the chance to ‘make a difference’. Integrity, honesty and hard work are what make her tick. “You should ask yourself every week if you have brought value to your organisation,” she says. “What we do can make a difference and I think all of us in HR are incredibly fortunate to have such an opportunity.”

HRMI eight factors of influence

Of our eight factors, Hughes-D’Aeth says that the most important are those coincidentally at the top of the list. “You can’t be credible without a track record of success, which in turn is linked in with numbers three and four; because if you can’t work with your board you can’t deliver outcomes,” she says.

Next come six and seven. “As a profession we have struggled with our credibility,” says Hughes-D’Aeth. “There are some fantastic examples of great HR, but there are still some organisations where there is a way to go before HR is seen to be a business partner and not just the department that administers payroll and contracts. HR is much more complex than that. I feel the responsibility to do my bit with mentoring and speaking out for the profession.”

For full versions of these HRMI practitioner 2016 interviews and for others, download our free HR Most Influential interviews ebook

Read more on this year's HRMI rankings, sponsored by Open University Business School, here