Balancing people risk and opportunity: What HR can bring to the board

14 months in to her CEO role at Health Shield Friendly Society, Jacqui Carr, above, talks about what her previous experience in HR, operational leadership and change management brings to the board, extending her people-focused insight and learnings to other SME leaders

Historically, you would have been hard pressed to find much about people skills on a CEO’s job description – the focus sat squarely on technical capabilities. But there is a new appreciation about the value of effective leadership, and it’s now generally understood that whilst technical capability remains key, if you can’t bring your people with you, your business is unlikely to thrive.

There is also the commercial aspect to consider when it comes to your people in terms of productivity, recruitment and retention. Failing to create a positive culture and engage employees can be costly and can also have a detrimental impact on the reputation of organisations.

The pandemic shone a light on the value of employees and the essential role they played in business continuity like never before. Literally overnight, organisations became wholly reliant on the goodwill of their people to keep working amidst unprecedented change and uncertainty. This changing world of work helped elevate on to the board agenda subjects such as employee wellbeing, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and workplace flexibility.

Of course, these topics have been on the HR agenda for some time. However, it’s fair to say that the pandemic forced organisations to rethink and operate differently and therefore opened the door for change.

Getting such matters in line of executive sight isn’t always helped by the fact that, traditionally, HR didn’t always present initiatives in a way that made boards sit up and listen. I’m talking here about the ability to put pounds and pence on people matters. Consequently, boards tended to perceive people issues to be abstract and intangible.

Historically, HR functions were described as those that simply “hire and fire” and set policy, rather than being true partners to the business. Fortunately, this has evolved and the value of strategic HR Management within organisations has found its place.

SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024

Many a CEO can be heard saying “people are our greatest asset”. However, being able to demonstrate this takes considerable investment and continued effort. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that if boards underestimate the importance of investing in their people, they do so at their peril.

I don’t have all the answers. But I believe that my previous roles in HR, operational leadership and change management prepared me well for my role as CEO, giving me a rich and rounded view of business management and the importance of effective leadership.

How my people career took flight

Here’s a potted history of my career to date, to help with context. I worked in the airline industry for over 25 years, where I enjoyed various operational and people management roles. I think my favourite operational role was that of regional cabin crew manager where I looked after various bases across the North of England and Ireland.

I enjoyed the managerial oversight and seeing the performance of the base being delivered through its people. During this time, I also worked very closely with the recognised trade union and supported pay negotiations and matters affecting employee terms and conditions.

I enjoyed the buzz of these operational responsibilities – meeting deadlines, overcoming challenges and being on the ground with people daily – so I suppose HR just became a natural progression for me. I embarked on an MSc in Strategic HR Management and moved into a HR role within the airline. I was part of the integration team working alongside two trade unions as we merged First Choice and TUI (formally Thomson Airlines). This was no mean feat with over 3,000 staff, different ways of working but, most of all, both with strong established brands and culture that needed to be aligned whilst respected.

From trade unions to transformations

After leaving the airline industry, I enjoyed HR roles in financial services businesses where I gained a lot of experience in mergers and acquisitions, after which I set up my own HR consultancy. It was during this time that I was engaged by Health Shield Friendly Society. After conducting a HR Health Check at the Society, I led on the design and subsequent implementation of the HR strategy.

Health Shield is a not-for-profit organisation, with around 120 employees. It’s been around for over 140 years and was initially set up to help local railway workers in Crewe look after their health pre-NHS. Its purpose and ethos remain to this day, keeping members and their families happy and healthy by supporting the costs of everyday healthcare and providing easy access to health and wellbeing services. It’s an incredibly customer-centric business, with values aligned with my own.

On my appointment as CEO, I worked closely with the Board and Executive team to revisit our business strategy and goals. I’ve since embarked on an all-encompassing transformation programme that spans across our systems, people and processes. At this same time, there was also the need to ensure business continuity for the thousands of members and their families we support.

Success of such a project isn’t just reliant on having the latest shiny technology, it’s also reliant on ensuring everyone is on board – understand what’s happening, why it’s happening and the part they play in it.

Achieving this involves lots of skills gained in my previous HR and operational roles – skills that align with those needed by leadership, such as: setting clear direction and expectations; being collaborative, listening to others and utilising the skills and experience of those around you – giving people autonomy and control, but also knowing when you need to be directive; being a good role model; and also being prepared to make decisions, sometimes without all the necessary information.

Creating meaningful employee engagement: an example

To give just one example of how the board can better realise the value of their people, I’d say create the conditions that encourage employees to have a voice; the kind of insights that can help inform senior-level decision-making because, after all, your people are the ones closest to the customer. The leadership team need to set the strategy and direction, but they need to be close to the operation and listen, acknowledging that they don’t always have all the answers.

Whilst engaged as a HR Consultant to Health Shield, I created an employee forum as I understood well, through my experience, the value of engaging with all employees at the earliest opportunity and how such forums can represent a really powerful tool in any leader’s armoury.

I wanted to establish a mechanism where we – as a leadership team – could talk about key strategic matters with employee representatives (i.e. individuals from around the organisation, nominated by colleagues) who would then canvass the views of their peers. For example, we used this forum in the evolution of our internal values and behaviours to test views on new employee benefits and early engagement in our transformation plans.

Of course, this kind of thing doesn’t just happen. We provided training and guidance on how to be effective in the role of employee representative. We ensure it’s an ongoing process – not here today, gone tomorrow – with quarterly meetings (more frequently if something needs to be discussed). And, crucially, we report back to the forum on the action we have taken in direct response to employee feedback.

Surrounding this, we ensure various communications to help give clear direction about the present and about the future and the important role that individuals play.

So, alongside the employee forum, this includes: regular updates and business briefings (ensuring we brief line managers first on anything new, so they’re on hand to answer questions); ensuring senior execs are visible and having regular informal conversations with people around the business; exec coffee mornings; giving people extra responsibility and control, where relevant, to help with motivation; and, last but absolutely not least, making time for a little fun.

None of this is difficult, but to make it effective you need to be doing it often.

When I joined Health Shield, some people asked me about the transition from HR to CEO believing it was quite different. Strategic HR Management touches every part of a business. Therefore, to me, it just felt seamless. Put simply, it’s about having a great team around you and understanding how to get the very best out of that team through effective leadership. That’s not so very different to HR and operations.

SME Publications/ SME XPO 2024