I come across many senior leaders and I am always fascinated to understand a bit more about their journey and what got them there.
As part of our ongoing Women in Leadership series I recently interviewed Becky Neale, Senior HR Director with an impressive track record in HR leadership. When I first met with Becky, I warmed to her straight away. I think she would agree when I say that she is happiest when she is working toward deadlines and managing two small children simultaneously. I was interested to know what drives her to succeed and what obstacles she has overcome in her career so far. Below is my Q&A session with her.
Upon completing a Business Studies Degree at UWE, I started my HR career when I did my industrial placement at British Energy (now EDF) and then completed my HR graduate scheme with BAE. From there I went to work for HBOS for a couple of years, cutting my teeth on all things employee relations in a call centre and operations environment. It gave me the true generalist grounding I believe all HR professionals need.
Several jobs on and I joined Ladbrokes Betting and Gaming as their Head of HR for the retail shop estate and telebetting operation. This role was probably the best I’ve had to date from a developmental point of view, both commercially and personally, as I had a great mentor and business partner. I joined Accolade Wines initially as their HRD for EMEA and Corporate and then I became the Group HRD. My time with Accolade was a great experience as I transformed the EMEA HR function.
After the birth of my second child, I did two contracts in the charity sector which exposed me to a different sector and its challenges. My last role was at Yankee Candle, helping to rebuild their HR function and develop their employee engagement agenda.
Creating value for your organisation as a leader and not just a functional specialist. Building and developing an HR function that has the systems, processes and capabilities to truly support the business in achieving its objectives whilst enabling employee engagement and involvement. Enjoying what you do, who you work with and believing in your organisation are all important, but ultimately for me I know I’ve done a good job when I see my team grow, develop and progress in their careers.
Passionate, energetic and results-orientated.
I have learned the most from those who I have partnered with in business over the years as they have helped develop my commerciality and business knowledge so that I can combine this with leading the HR functions. I have had a couple of great role models and in particular the MD of UK Retail at Ladbrokes as we worked together for 5 years - he was so passionate about the business and so switched on commercially and ‘understood the need for a strategic people agenda’ and knew we needed to focus on the people to deliver the commercial results. He was open to challenge (and came to expect it from me) and he was great fun to work with too, we had a true partnership and I’d work with him again without hesitation.
The transformation of the HR function at Accolade Wines from a transactional HR team which reported into various business leaders to a HR business focused HR team with HR specialists and true business partners who were supported with the right business focused processes, toolkits to do their jobs and a HR strategy aligned to the business strategy.
We implemented a global Human Resources Information System which allowed employees and managers to self serve, allowed us to deliver meaningful HRMI and automated a lot of our processes. A number of compensation and benefits frameworks were launched, including a benefits platform linked to the HRIS. We also developed a number of learning and development offerings (management development programmes, coaching and mentoring programmes), launched an employee engagement strategy which improved engagement and employee communications.
I think this depends on the nature of the organisation, the level at which you operate and what your circumstances are. I have faced different challenges at various points in my career within a range of organisations; that said I’m not sure they were necessarily because I was a female leader.
I think the key challenges for female leaders are still around juggling childcare and family commitments, especially in the initial return to work following maternity leave and leaving your child(ren) in childcare for the first time. You’re adjusting to being a working mum (something new to you), your child may or may not have settled easily into childcare and you’re trying to reintegrate into your team who have invariably changed since you left and you’re also trying to reestablish yourself as a working professional. There is growing recognition of how hard this is, with a number of examples of companies introducing phased return to work (some do this on full pay for a period of time) and support programmes for maternity returners, flexible working arrangements and many more.
The growing trends for increased flexible and agile working arrangements in workplaces, not just for females but for everyone, due to the productivity (and cost saving) benefits are helping these issues but we need to see more done in this area. Culturally, we need to embrace these ways of working to help everyone - not just female leaders; life outside of work, be it family, friends, sporting commitments etc. all need to be juggled and balanced with work.
Be bold, be brave and be true to yourself; do not compromise your values. It’s ok to make mistakes and take every opportunity to learn and grow; you never know where it might lead.
Completing my MBA whilst working was pretty challenging but ultimately my greatest achievements outside of work was having two children and keeping them alive in the early days when you have no idea what you’re doing!
My last employer didn’t have any initiatives to support female leaders but they also didn’t have much in the way of development and support mechanisms for any employees; I have left them with a number of programmes to roll out in 2020 which will start to see them develop in terms of employee engagement and development initiatives that they can build on which may see them evolve in this area and or others.
I would like to spend more time working with the Exec and Board teams at a strategic business level to not only drive the people agenda but to also be a true part of the leadership team; not just a HR leader. I’d also like to experience some more different sectors and ways of working so that I continue to grow and develop.
Find yourself a good business mentor; someone who you can learn from commercially as you can’t just be a leader in your field, you need to be a leader who understands the business, can read a P&L, understands the strategy and business and issues it’s facing. Have the confidence to challenge and ask questions; (positive) disruptive and thought provoking behaviours are what drives businesses forward and stops them being complacent, if you fail to evolve and change, you and your organisation will find themselves being replaced with those who can and have done! We are operating in a world where nothing stays the same, the pace of technological development is phenomenal, the number of well known high street names that are disappearing is frightening and the number of start up companies exploiting gaps in the market, exploiting changing consumer demands and creating new customer markets is exciting.
Ultimately, have the courage of your convictions, don’t compare yourself to others and don’t be afraid to make mistakes and learn from them.