Guardian of the people

The type of HR person who exasperates Carolyn McCall, chief executive of Guardian Newspapers Limited (GNL), is one who is inflexible and far too politically correct. She has little patience for that approach in the fast-paced world of media.

“If you have an HR director who quotes the book at you all the time, you want to strangle them,” says McCall. “Actually, we’re in the real world and have pragmatic problems to deal with. We want an HR director who is empathetic and flexible and can say ‘Okay, I can see where you’re trying to get to. Let me help you get there’.”

‘Getting there’ for GNL has involved 18 months of planning and an £80m investment in a new print centre and presses to relaunch the Guardian in the Berliner format on 12 September. This is the biggest change to the newspaper group in 40 years, and is a move to challenge its competitors (primarily the Independent and the Times), which went tabloid last year. So far, it has paid off: September’s Audit Bureau of Circulation figures recorded an 18% month on month increase and a 7.4% year on year increase in the Guardian’s circulation figures.

But that doesn’t mean GNL will stand still, says McCall, because the nature of the media and creative business means that “change is the biggest strategic challenge facing our organisation. You’ve got to change with it and stay a step ahead otherwise you won’t survive.”

That creates an enormous challenge internally, as not everyone welcomes change, says McCall. “People can be frightened or resistant to it and the business needs to be sensitive to it.” That’s where an agile, adaptable HR department with expertise in change management can add the most value, she says. “Managing change, thinking how it affects people, and working with people through it, is the single biggest thing that HR can do for this organisation.”

That means including HR in strategic decision-making from the start. When McCall became chief executive five years ago, one of the first things she did was put HR on the board. She explains: “We want HR to be involved in the creative thinking about crucial people issues. If HR isn’t represented at the top table, then how can it be embedded in the strategy? It can’t. It would just receive everything third hand and only get consulted when there was a problem.”

This was the case five years ago, when she says HR was woeful and inefficient. “It was a service department that couldn’t even get the basics right. If an HR department can’t do its core job properly, the business isn’t going to turn to it and say: ‘Be my partner, I need your help on this’.”

The HR function is now called the people department, “to make it more human and customer facing – their customers are internal customers”, explains McCall. HR consultants are matched with the business unit they are there to help – such as editorial, sales, operations – and McCall meets with her HR director, Sally Webster, every couple of weeks.

McCall says HR is more aligned with the business than ever before – it is about 70% of the way there. Directors now consult HR on their people plans and tip them off well in advance, ensuring there is much more of a partnership approach.

Talking it over

But McCall doesn’t leave all the responsibility for people issues in the hands of her HR department. She is a hands-on CEO, who puts engagement at the heart of the way she does business. For her, there is no magic formula for engaging people. The one thing that engages employees, that makes a project succeed or fail – and that ultimately affects the bottom line – is communication.

“No matter how good or how tricky things are financially, we discuss it with our people and get their opinions,” she says. She makes that communication two-way by ensuring all employees have appraisals and personal reviews. She runs an annual social audit to gauge the views of external stakeholders, and what she calls a ‘climate survey’ of the organisation, which aims to “identify gaps between our values and our actions and set ourselves targets for improvement”. She holds a head of department briefing every six to eight weeks, bigger department briefings three times a year, and new-starter lunches for people just joining the organisation.

“Communication is relentless and time-consuming, and you need a clarity of purpose that you have to keep reiterating. If you don’t keep people engaged and involved, they will stop doing as good a job for you,” she says.

Unsurprisingly, communication has been crucial to the Berliner change programme. Not only communicating the benefits to staff and readers, but about ensuring those not involved in developing the new paper didn’t feel left out.

Even though she couldn’t reveal the launch date because it was commercially-sensitive information, she told them as much as she could at the time. She warns: “Don’t just wait until you’ve got something tangible to say as people will be alienated by then.”

Route to the top

Recruiting talented people into GNL has never been an issue, says McCall, as they are attracted by the group’s social and ethical values. Keeping them is much tougher, which is why she puts great emphasis on talent management and succession planning.

She says it is crucial to ensure that talented people also have talented management, and that those managers are given the right support. “Talented individuals need to be given challenge and autonomy. Get it wrong and no amount of money will keep them.”

With retention as her number one priority, McCall ensures her directors and department heads think clearly about succession, and that talented people have several routes to the top (as opposed to one vertical route).

She gives her top people extra encouragement by inviting them on a ‘masterclass’. About 20 senior managers from different parts of the business go away for three days to work on live projects that the board is grappling with. Those with the most viable ideas are then asked to present to the board.

The benefit of this initiative, she says, is that “talented people from different parts of the business engage with each other and this can be a shortcut to getting things done”.

The initiative McCall is proudest of is her ‘executive development unit’. This consists of two people who coach, counsel and mentor 150 key people in the organisation. They are described as her ‘canaries’ – when oxygen levels go down, canaries start singing – as they pick up any signs of dissatisfaction and alert her to any problems. “The thing about retention is you have to know who you want to keep, and who you must keep,” she says.

So for a CEO who clearly values her people and invests her time and energy into keeping them, what does she make of the ‘people are our greatest assets’ platitude?

“I refrain from using that phrase because I think it’s been overdone,” she says. “But even though it’s a clich, anyone who gets it wrong pays for it.”

Carolyn McCall’s CV

  • 2000 Chief executive of GNL
  • 1998 Deputy managing director of GNL
  • 1997 Commercial director of GNL
  • 1995 Advertisement director of GNL
  • She is chairwoman of Opportunity Now and a non-executive director of Tesco

McCall’s view: what makes a good HR director?

Empathy: “They must take into account the style, tone and culture of the organisation – to ‘get it’ – so they can convey their message in a way that fits with the organisation. If they don’t fit culturally, they can seem a bit over-the-top or politically correct.”

Judgement: “So much of what the organisation deals with is not black and white – it’s grey. Yes, HR has to show me the legal position, but I want to know what it feels intuitively about a situation and what course of action it would recommend.”

Good people skills: “You’d think it was obvious, wouldn’t you? I’ve interviewed a lot of HR directors who are intimida-ting, cold or unapproachable. You need an accessible person leading that department otherwise you go straight back into bureaucracy, policy and process.”

Guardian Newspapers

The organisation: the newspaper and web division of the Guardian Media Group, which is owned by the Scott Trust

Number of employees: 1,500
HR director: Sally Webster
Number of people in HR: 20

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