Jane Firth, HR Consultant at Berwick Partners recently spoke to Jo Davis, Group People Director at Itsu about her career and the challenges facing the HR profession.
Why did you get into HR?
I studied Psychology at UCL and became fascinated with how people could view the same scene, but could walk away with a completely different perspective of what had just gone on. When I left university and started work, I realised that people viewed other people in the same way. Some could see “real potential”, whilst others saw a “no hoper”. I started out on the buying floor of Debenhams and to be honest wasn’t overly interested in how many ladies coats we had sold in Taunton last weekend but was much more interested in why some people divided opinion so much. I moved into HR, L&D initially, to see what I could learn about developing ‘no hopers’ into people with ‘real potential’. Of course, I learned that there aren’t such things as ‘no hopers’ and there has been nothing more rewarding in my career than seeing a square peg in a round hole find their own special square to flourish in.
What are you most proud of in your career?
In my last role at Sainsbury’s I worked on a project to set up a discount retail business. We started out with a blank sheet of paper and during my tenure, we incubated and opened 5 stores. It was a fantastic opportunity to start a business from scratch and shape the people strategy from pre-opening to opening day and beyond. I moved on once we were fully operational and over the next 12 months it grew to 16 shops. I stayed close to the team, despite leaving Sainsbury’s and starting my role at itsu, but sadly 24 months later the decision was taken to close the business and shut the stores.
I was bitterly disappointed for all of my ex-colleagues who had been so engaged in making the business a success, but clearly understood why Sainsburys made the decision they did. However the thing that moved me the most was the photos of the team appearing in social media still having fun together. Despite the news of the impending closure, their photos were all accompanied with #weneverforgottohavefun. # ‘we don’t forget to have fun’ was one of the company values that I proposed back in the business planning days.
I felt honoured to be invited back to the leaving party and I remarked to the CFO how moved I was to see the photos on social media with the #weneverforgottohavefun and his response made me feel both proud and humble, he said ‘to be honest Jo, the values were the one thing that carried us through, they were the glue that held us together’.
I’ve always known how important company values were but to see them so integral to a start-up business and to a business I had stepped away from and handed over the reins to others to champion, made me exceedingly proud. It’s a sad story.
What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you in your career?
I was once looking around a Supermarket in Weifang, a city just above Qingdao in China. It was freezing cold and I was doing a shop tour with some Sainsbury’s colleagues. Just as I walked past a tank full of live river fish, a huge river Carp decided to make a bid for freedom and jumped straight out of the tank and into the hood of my coat. As it flapped around wildly, no doubt regretting its hasty decision, I could tell that something I wouldn’t like was going on in my hood. It was a horrific scene and one that has featured in many a nightmare since!
What can HR do to recruit and retain the most diverse talent?
Don’t look in the usual places. The most frustrating thing that businesses do is fish for talent from their neighbour’s pond. Bankers look in other banks. Fashionistas look in other Fashion houses. Supermarkets look in other Supermarkets. If nature taught us anything, it was that if you are going to marry a cousin, a second cousin half removed is a safer bet. I think the same is true of the talent pool. Look in unusual places. The smartest people I have met in my career had no previous experience in the industry that they are currently working in – as such; they bring fresh thinking, creativity and a different voice. The more different the voice, the more diverse the team, the more innovative the result.
What can be done to promote flexible working and balanced lifestyles in the workplace?
I believe that employers should give people choices and treat them as individuals. I like getting up early and working on my laptop in my kitchen with a coffee, my husband likes working in our kitchen late at night with a glass of wine on an apple mac. I’m my most productive outside of office hours, but the most creative when I can bounce ideas off others in the office. Other people I know are their most productive in the office and their most creative in the shower. One size never fits all. As such, I think as employers we need to find a way to nurture and accommodate these different styles to get the best results out of our people. Flexible working is difficult to get right but it’s one that feels like it really should work if the following statements are true a) the employee really wants to do a great job for the organisation and feels that their contribution is really valued b) the employee has the technology and processes in place to allow them to be successful no matter where they work and c) there is mutual respect, trust and understanding. That can’t be too difficult can it? Can it?! Er… Next question!
How have you been able to commercially influence the business / make an impact in the Boardroom?
Whether you’re in the Boardroom or on the Shopfloor, the approach is the same. Know your audience. Take time to understand what is important to those you are trying to influence. Do some basic stakeholder management up front, go and talk through your idea / plans on an individual basis, understand what their concerns might be and then go away and make sure that you address those concerns before you enter the Boardroom. Taking the Board by surprise or presenting something that requires reflection is never a good idea. Get that out of the way in advance, so that when you pitch your idea or plans, everyone is already pretty much there.
What are the key traits that you look for when adding to your team?
A relentless, attention to detail person who takes real pride in their work. A fearless challenger, a ‘can do-er’, a “why?” asker and someone who is in it with both feet.
Jane Firth specialises in appointing senior HR leaders across London and the South East