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Running HR as a Business

Julie Sharp of Bank of Ireland discusses mastering challenges in the financial sector and how the bank’s journey to success has depended on its people.
By the Editors

Julie Sharp, head of human resources at the Bank of Ireland, believes that in order to be truly effective, HR needs to add value by operating commercially- HR should be run as a business. Offering solutions that commercially deliver whilst ensuring employees feel valued are important tasks that every HR manager should perform. Sharp, the 2015 winner of the HRO Today CHRO of The Year Lifetime Achievement Award, spoke with HRO Today Global Magazine about leading the HR department at a global bank through the financial crisis and what she sees in the future.

HRO Today Global: What has been your biggest complex with regards to the nature of your work in the financial services industry? The economic crash, sector competitiveness, fast-paced technology developments, and increasing regulatory standards must have all been challenging issues to deal with.

Julie Sharp: All of the above have been challenges. We work In the Irish banking industry, a dynamic and competitive sector, and our success relies on ensuring that we are agile in effectively navigating the commercial, technological, and regulatory environments in which we operate. It’s been quite a journey for the bank from survival to sustainable growth, and what is most important is that the bank must be able to mobilise at short notice to respond to the competitive nature of our business and the evolving needs of our customers and our employees. And I think we have acknowledged it, as we’ve navigated this journey, that the journey has changed – the economy has changed, the products that we sell are different, customer expectations are different, our employee expectations have changed -and it’s important that we are agile enough as an organisation to respond in real time to deliver commercial solutions to our customers. What I ask of my team is what is the current capacity of our workforce, how might we maximise value from our structure and in particular, anticipate future needs of the organisation, taking into account trends -either economic, sector, societal, risk, and technological trends? How do we move on and evolve from that structure to strategically align ourselves with the business to deliver commercial solutions? At the bank we believe in the constant development of our people; for example throughout the crisis we maintained our people investment focus. We continued to invest in our people; that has provided the foundation for our return to growth. Without our people we couldn’t have achieved what we have achieved to date.

HRO: If your product mix is changing substantially, as it has across the global banking sector, that also means the type of workforce and skills needed may be changing as well; how do you manage that?

JS: What we are doing at the moment is looking at our capability and capacity to deliver on some very challenging initiatives. We are currently in the process of a strategic workforce analysis in anticipation of those changing needs because what we are finding now is that the academic theory is to develop generalists but actually you also want subject matter expertise within your group. We are investing a lot in our IT and our infrastructure. We need an agile workforce that can move around the organisation and mobilise and manage their own careers in terms of movement for experience rather than movement for status. We’ve actually moved away from the traditional concept of vertical career movements that increase one’s own experience and to be able to value that.

We’ve had as part of our objective, the professionalisation of our workforce -in terms of tertiary and externally-recognised accreditation. We are supporting staff individually to further build upon their skillsets. So far this year we have 1,100 people who have achieved professional qualifications and another 600 currently being sponsored. We’ve put a huge amount into the capability uplift of the bank to meet the organisation’s as well as stakeholders’ changing needs. It’s very important if HR is to be valued, that it demonstrates understanding of how the changing environment or organisational workforce factors influence a business. It must also be able to anticipate the associated HR and commercial needs and develop and deliver the appropriate solutions to meet those requirements. It’s about having an acute future orientation, otherwise you are becoming a tactical function, and that just will not meet the organisation’s needs. We have a duty to take a strategic forward-looking approach in relation to HR, for the benefit of our workforce, customers and shareholders.

HRO: Having gone through tremendous change and crisis, what are your recommendations for how HR and CEOs can manage workplace culture? How did you get employees to feel comfortable and focus on their work in difficult times?

JS; I think we have had a number of challenges, and it has been a very widely acknowledged journey and a success story in terms of the bank. The organisation has a strong internal culture and I think that has helped it to achieve what it has; very much about resilience and being very clear and focused. It comes down to the leader and leadership team to deliver a very compelling vision. There has to be an emotional element to it too, there has to be context around it, the business vision must be clear, the roles and accountabilities must be clear -but really heart and mind must also be engaged as to why we need to do it. When you’ve created that burning platform people will rise to the challenge with the passion and motivation to achieve the end goal. If you look at some of the challenges that the bank has faced; Bank of Ireland made it a priority to fully repay the taxpayers, repay the state investment, and we remain the only bank in Ireland to have done so. We’ve had a sense of shared purpose in working toward this achievement. And this has driven colleagues forward, a strong sense of pride, with the individual employee very clear on the role that they had to play to ensure that debt was repaid. Today, the bank has fully repaid that investment, returning 6 billion to the taxpayers, with the Irish Government continuing to hold a valuable discretionary shareholding. That’s a very strong achievement within the Irish banking industry.

HRO: How did you prioritise what your communications to employees were throughout the financial crisis?

JS: To communicate across a diverse population, one must not only communicate clearly and consistently, but also with impact and authority. You must be credible, you must be confident, you must believe in the message and convey it with integrity. It’s about creating the burning platform that people can be passionate about. For me it creates that natural glue that will bring the organisation together. I believe you need to keep it simple. Communication must always be compelling, clear, and direct. And this is especially true at a time of challenge or crisis -it’s really important to not overcommunicate. I also believe you need strong leadership. Our chief executive played a huge role in setting the tone and pace of the communications. Richie Boucher, the CEO of the Bank of Ireland, believes in being direct and clear and to consistently repeat the strategic objectives. In a time of crisis this gives people clear direction and a sense of momentum.

HRO: The Bank of Ireland’s new and successful “Career & Reward Framework” programme – how was it conceived and how did you get upper management to buy into the idea?

JS: In August 2014 we published our interim results, and we were able to announce good progress against our shared objectives. Margins were improving and we were profitable and generating capital -a massive achievement for a bank that has been on an incredible journey. But we also acknowledged that at the same time our sector was changing, we identified that this pace of change required a well thought-out and comprehensive response from the Bank of Ireland Group -doing nothing was not an option. We acknowledged that we used to be a very big organisation, and we were not quite as large, but we needed to also look at how we could respond effectively to all the changes that were happening across the industry. The time was right to introduce a new career and reward framework -one that reflected the changing competitive nature of our businesses, the evolving needs of our customers; it reinforced the group’s focus on investing in our people, and recognised the role all colleagues play in our current and future progress. I see that as we enhance the customer experience, so we should also enhance our employee experience -it’s a strong partnership toward the success of the bank. So the new career and reward framework reinforced the group’s focus on investing in our people; supporting opportunities for employees to get wider and more varied work experience; and to undertake training and qualifications that are relevant to their current role and potential future roles and for their careers.

Management understood the challenges and welcomed the proposal. We went from multiple processes and systems down to one. We came up with benchmarking in terms of what we considered to be best practice for where the group was, after researching different models and externally validating our proposal. We used a desktop exercise to test the approach. We basically looked at 11,500 roles and did a desktop exercise to model what we thought was realistic. There are seven layers across four career paths. Then we shared it with the executive teams, and we saw that the model worked. And then we subsequently introduced the framework. It was driven not just by HR but by the chief executive, executive team, and all senior managers. Their buy-in and support was key to the programme. I am very grateful to my colleagues on the executive team for their support. It has landed very well and the communications plan was well received by employees.

HRO: Do you use a technology platform/performance management system? What data reports do you receive and how are analytics driving results?

JS: Analytics are the future of HR. In order to be effective and provide commercial solutions you need to be able to argue on fact, and you need to have those facts supported by analytics and data. We’re on that journey -we have a performance management system and supporting technology to embed it. We value analytics significantly and we capture our results so that we can constantly aim to improve them. It’s our intention to evolve our current performance management system in line with our upcoming group culture review programme so we’re in a position to measure and manage our people and drive core results.

HRO: How did you come up with the employee health and wellness “Be at Your Best” programme, and why did you think it was important? What drove this initiative?

JS: If you look at the fact that the bank has been on such a significant journey, our employees have been part of that journey. The crisis was a very challenging time for our employees. So as we moved towards a more normalised environment it was clear that our colleagues would benefit from a programme that would support them in replenishing their energy, focus on personal and professional development, and renewing ambition. It was about having a holistic approach showing that we were supportive, that we saw them as individuals, and that we acknowledged that life is about work/life integration. And it was about how we could help them in their own personal journeys. The “Be at Your Best” programme was conceived to help colleagues invest in physical health and mental well-being whilst taking positive steps in their career. It’s important to our people that we reached out to them in a more personal way to help them to operate at their best. The programme was hugely successful because it provided a platform for employees to make a fresh start. It encompasses many aspects of well-being including boosting physical and mental health as well as career development. Most importantly, it’s driven by employees for employees. therefore it’s authentic to their needs. Whilst it has been introduced by HR, it is owned by the business units across the bank and continues to be facilitated.

HRO: What has been the biggest change in the HR field that you have seen over your career?

JS: The role of HR has been evolving for some time. There has been a shift from traditional tactical personnel management to strategic HR, supported by technology, which focused on the value of employees as an organisation resource. The intent was to remove some of the stigma, being associated with slow, bureaucratic departments. There was a call for HR to become a strategic partner with the leaders of the business. To contribute to significant business decisions; in short to have a seat at the table. The biggest change, one that I am most passionate about, is the commercialisation of HR and the HR agenda. This means for me commercialisation is having a deeper understanding of the strategic business priorities of the company and understanding how the HR division can support the business partners in achieving those business objectives. And it means looking at strong HR leadership, flexibility and creativity, coming up with responses that anticipate the changing needs of the client organisation, changing the way in which we work and operate, and anticipating those in advance. Being able to respond ahead of the curve. For me that’s where the value add is. It’s not about the here and now and resulting solutions as they arrive, it’s anticipating where the industry is going, whether the organisation is fit for purpose, what is the capability, capacity, the nature of the roles, and how that will change the employee experience, as well as tying it to the customer experience, and the overall strategies of the business.

HRO: Having lived and worked in multiple regions throughout the world, what do you see as regional differences with regards to HR?

JS: I’m very lucky that I’ve worked in a number of large multinational organisations in different parts of the world. Leading the HR division in a European bank means being highly attuned to changing and evolving legislative and regulatory environments within which we operate as well as being aligned to the strategic business priorities. Across European countries you find that people share a lot in common, notwithstanding the fact that all countries and cultures have elements which are unique. I spent seven years in Hong Kong, and having previously worked there, in addition to the regulatory, legislative, and commercial alignment, you’re also managing a greater level of background differentials. You may find different levels of economic development. Certainly in my experience in Asia you have to present a holistic solution that meets all needs and meets cultural requirements. If you don’t consider this, you will not succeed.

HRO: What are your goals for the future at the Bank of Ireland and what role does HR play in them?

JS: We’re still going on a long journey, so we believe that the skills, focus, and drive of our employees remain key to the success of our business. I think HR plays a fundamental role and driver for our strategic performance. For the bank, I have the following ambitions to enhance the employee experience alongside the customer experience so that we continue to attract, engage, and retain the right people. We must anticipate future needs in terms of capacity and capability as we invest in our infrastructure. We must also drive accountability with clear mandates, measurements and rewards, grow our own talent in line with customer needs, foster teamwork through collaboration, social media, and continue to be very clear about our strategic mission and to act as one team. It’s how you manage and coordinate change that staff can navigate their way through.

HRO: Looking at Brexit -it seems that at some point article 50 will be invoked. What does that do to Bank of Ireland operating in EU countries? How are you preparing?

JS: Like everyone else, we’re still assessing the impact of the UK referendum at this stage, but it is too early to accurately predict the longer term outcome. It is clear that a negotiated political withdrawal process will begin which could take several years and we will monitor developments closely, engaging with our customers and other key stakeholders as appropriate through the process. It is also important to acknowledge that our UK business model is financially strong, resilient and well-funded in sterling.

HRO: How did it feel to win the HRO Chief Human Resources Officer of The Year Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015 and what would you say to the 2016 winner?

JS: It was an absolute honor to receive the award and I regarded it as tribute to the entire team, colleagues at the bank, and the group HR function. Not only was I honored but I think there was a huge amount of recognition internally also -what we have achieved as a function as a journey was quite challenging. All this change was supported by HR. The success was down to the hard work and dedication of each of the team members. I was proud and grateful that their efforts were publically recognised; it validated the level of passion that the HR team has here. Our people are the key differentiation of the bank in terms of capability. We wouldn’t be where the bank is without our people.

And as for me I want to send the warmest congratulations to the 2016 winner; I hope they take a moment along with their team to feel proud of their achievements as they move forward as the role of HR continues to evolve to meet the needs of our respective organisations.

Tags: global-summer-2016

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