· 6 min read · Features

Why talent comes first at Mitie


Outsourced services group Mitie likes to do things differently – not many companies encourage their staff to post any grievances they might have on Twitter – and its business is spread across many units, but it is bound by a singular focus on talent development, HR director Katherine Thomas says


The upper echelons of FTSE 250 companies are lonely places to be a woman. There are only eight female CEOs and nine women in top financial positions. But not so at strategic outsourcing company Mitie, where the CEO, CFO and HRD are all women. And that’s not the only reason this £2 billion company is a little bit different, says HR director Katherine Thomas. For a start, there’s no dedicated office space in Mitie’s London HQ – even CEO Ruby McGregor-Smith shares a desk. Then there’s the fact that the use of social media at work is encouraged rather than frowned upon, with the executive team leading by example. And there’s the laser-like focus on talent, which sets it even more apart. 

“‘People are our greatest asset’ is such a boring cliché, but in outsourcing you are nothing without your people,” says Thomas. “We put massive emphasis on not just seeing Mitie as a job, but as a career, and helping people to understand the possibilities.” 

Talent specialist

Thomas’s background demonstrates just how important the talent agenda is to the company. Before joining Mitie as HR director in October 2010, her career focused on talent management. She began as a consultant specialising in change management, talent and leadership development, first with Deloitte and then with Hay Group. Thomas took her first in-house role with Government-services company Serco in 2003, running its best practice centre. “After 11 years in consultancy, I began to wonder if I could actually do it in practice,” she recalls. “I thought it was time to move into a line role in an organisation.”

After proving she could “do it in practice”, Thomas moved to BT in 2005, working her way up to group talent and leadership director. That’s when the call came from Mitie, asking her to consider taking on an HR director role. “That was the first opportunity I had to work right across the board,” she says. “It was a brave move for Ruby [McGregor-Smith] to take me on.”

In fact, the reason McGregor-Smith chose Thomas was exactly because of her specialism. “The role had been vacant for about a year and the reason it took Ruby so long to fill it was because the people she met with HR generalist experience weren’t ticking the box for her,” explains Thomas. “The one aspect of HR keeping her awake at night was being certain the organisation had the talent pipeline it needed to sustain growth and achieve her ambitions.” So McGregor-Smith went back to market with a revised brief to find someone who really ‘got’ talent development, and found Thomas. 

“It was a match made in heaven for me,” she says. “I did tell her there were important gaps in my HR experience, but she was very reassuring. And as usual, she was right. I’m surrounded by people who are great in those other areas. My opportunity is to bring it all together and add value to the talent agenda.”

One Mitie

With more than 72,000 staff across several businesses, Mitie offers services in everything from catering to cleaning, security to waste management. Thomas’s initial focus was to bring together a fragmented HR team. “We had a really strong HR team across the business, with a good reputation, but they had been working in a fragmented way,” she says. “Each of the HR directors was supporting the agenda of their own MD, but the whole was not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts. The opportunity for me was to look at the business strategy and work out how we could collectively support it.” 

But with so many different business units, there was no one-size-fits-all solution. “Mitie isn’t about standardisation,” continues Thomas. “In many cases, it isn’t an issue if we have different practices and procedures in different bits of the business – it might be exactly what we need to deliver what our clients want. But there are some aspects of what we do where it makes a lot more sense to join up and adopt the same approach.”

Mitie recently announced revenue growth of 8.4% in the year to ?31 March 2013. Although it has exited two underperforming sectors (cyclical mechanical and electrical engineering contracting), it has also acquired a new healthcare business in a bid to expand its presence in the sector, and plans to make further strategic acquisitions. The people strategy needs to support and deliver growth, something ?Thomas keenly understands. “The whole people strategy needs to be about putting in the talent pipeline what we need to grow,” she says. The strategy itself is simple, based on four themes that have remained the same since Thomas first took them to the board in January 2011. They are: raise the bar and keep improving performance; be passionate about identifying potential talent; differentiate through diversity; and ‘one Mitie’, which involves collaborating to get the best possible solution for everyone. 

These pillars are translated into a detailed annual plan, but Thomas stresses all people strategy must adhere to two themes: simplicity and relevance. “Unless we are clear about what we can do to support the business, unless people across the business have sufficient understanding of what it is we are proposing to do, and unless they can see how it adds value, we are wasting our time,” she says. “Simplicity is crucial. This is not an organisation where HR jargon is appropriate or appealing. Relevance means making sure everything you do drives the business ?forward in a way that is visible and meaningful to the executive committee.”

To cascade the people strategy down through the organisation, high-quality line management and communication are critical. “Any employee’s experience is largely determined by the person they report to,” says Thomas. “You need managers who are acting in line with our values and inculcating them through the organisation.” Managers are given a guide to ‘being a Mitie manager’, and a database enables staff to sign up as mentors or mentees. Then there’s communication, which is where social media comes to the fore. “If an employee has a problem, which is not being resolved by their line manager, they have the option to escalate it by posting it on Facebook or Twitter. Ruby and the executive team are accessible, and when things are read through those channels they are dealt with.” 

Social media masters

Aside from being a way to raise concerns, social media helps everyone feel part of ‘one Mitie’, no matter where they are based. “Part of our success is individuals on ?contracts feeling part of those businesses, but ultimately they are part of Mitie,” explains Thomas. “It’s important they feel part of the business and understand our values and what we expect of our people.”

An understanding of social media is also crucial if Mitie is to engage with the many young people it takes on. With unemployment a major issue, Thomas says Mitie would be failing itself and society if it wasn’t helping young people, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, into the entry-level positions available. The company has an active apprenticeship network and at any one time there are between 700 and 800 apprentices across the business. It also runs the Real Apprentice scheme, which through training and placements aims to develop skills in people who face challenges getting a job. The scheme forms part of the Mitie Foundation, recently set up to consolidate all of the company’s skills-based community engagement and philanthropic activities. 

The diversity agenda

This commitment to helping hard-to-reach groups contributes towards workplace diversity, which remains high on the business agenda. So high, in fact, that it is not seen as an HR initiative, but a business one. And diversity remains close to the heart of the CEO, as McGregor-Smith is the outgoing chair of the Women’s Business Council. “I don’t even want to be asked about the business case for diversity,” says Thomas. “It’s so obvious, it’s not worth talking about. We drive the D&I agenda through a steering group, which is chaired externally and made up of senior people in operations. This is not an HR ?initiative, it’s about how we run our business and get access to the best possible talent.”

While Thomas doesn’t believe having a group of women at the top affects how it feels to work at Mitie, she does raise the importance of role models for younger women in business. “It makes a difference to women earlier in their careers,” she says. “They can see what’s possible and a different style of doing things. But I’ve worked for great male and female bosses – it all comes down to talent.”

With Thomas and McGregor-Smith, you get the sense most things ultimately come down to talent. “Ruby is absolutely passionate about the talent agenda, people and the role of HR in supporting her and delivering to the business,” says Thomas. “That provides an excellent environment for HR.” And for her personally, what makes her tick is “seeing people flourish and helping them realise their potential”. For Thomas, and for Mitie: “There is nothing more exciting than that.”