People power drives wholesale changes

The first thing that strikes you about Paul Reynolds, chief executive of BT Wholesale, is just how tall he is. His height initially makes him an intimidating figure. That is until he opens his mouth and you hear his gentle Scottish lilt.

Casually dressed in an open-necked shirt and trousers in his unpretentious office near St Paul’s Cathedral, London, Reynolds, 48, is every inch the modern CEO. He is also a BT ‘lifer’, having joined the company more than 20 years ago straight from university, and worked in a variety of roles at the company.

Reynolds talks enthusiastically about BT Wholesale’s ‘plan on a page’ – the organisation’s vision and values. He is so committed to it, he has a copy hanging on his wall.

Making organisations work is all about people, he says. “People are nine-tenths of what I focus on as leader of this organisation.”

He enthuses about having the right leadership in place, but also about what he calls ‘followship’ – getting the whole organisation moving in step.
“My focus is on making sure people across the organisation understand our goals and are motivated to achieve them. People are at the very heart of what I do,” he says.

Reynolds is at pains to prove that he isn’t one of those CEOs that pay nothing more than lip service to the phrase ‘people are our greatest asset’.

“I can prove that in a lot of ways,” he says. “You can have a look in my diary to see what I spend my time doing.” So I did, and it turns out that Reynolds regularly communicates with all levels of the organisation.

In addition to his monthly, hour-long webcast to all employees and face-to-face meetings with his top 500 managers, Reynolds conducts roadshows out in the field, meeting and greeting as many people as possible. He has completed 10 this year in locations across the UK, as well as Munich and Amsterdam.

Radical transformation

BT Wholesale is currently undertaking what Reynolds describes as “the most radical transformation programme anywhere in the telecoms world today”. Its 21st century network strategy aims to transform the company – previously slow, worthy and reliable, according to Reynolds – into a fast-moving, flexible organisation delivering internet voice and data services.

“You can’t do that by just having the same leadership as before and expect it all to happen as if by magic,” he says. “You have to take a fundamental look at who you’ve got in terms of leaders, how you are developing them and how you are communicating with and motivating people.”

To do this, Reynolds started the ‘Lead-ership Refresh’ programme – a plan to introduce new leadership with different experiences and fresh thinking. He is clear about what type of individuals he wants, including the HR director, working in his team.

“I’m looking for people that go for the BHAG – the Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal,” he says. “It’s a very personal thing for me; it’s something you sense when talking to people.”

BHAG is a concept popularised in the 1995 business bestseller Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by James Collins and Jerry Porras of Stanford University in the US.

“I want to see who has the courage and the appetite to go for stretching targets and goals. I want to see a willingness to go build a team and go for the BHAG,” says Reynolds.

Behaviour over experience

And it is this sort of behaviour and not necessarily experience that Reynolds looks for in an HR director.

So does the present incumbent, Virginia Rothwell, go for the BHAG?

“Most definitely,” says Reynolds. “Getting the right HR director is absolutely vital. It so happens that my HR director is distinctive in the HR community in the sense that she is particularly strategic in her approach,” he says. “She is at the heart of business strategy development with the rest of my team and with me personally. She is very good at translating that rapidly into the people policies we need to get the job done.”
Reynolds says he meets with Rothwell regularly, and not just because their offices are on the same floor. “The HR strategy is at the heart of what we do, so we talk every day,” he says.

However, this does not mean the HR team at BT Wholesale cannot improve. Reynolds is trying to encourage the function to move to what he calls “the next level”.

“There is a huge amount of expertise within the function, so I want HR to become business consultants,” he says. “It has a unique view on which parts of the organisation are working well and which are not.

“I am looking for HR to be proactive and come up with a plan of action that will get the parts of the organisation [that are] not working well really motoring.”

An HR unit that can make this diagnosis, identify why things are wrong and formalise a plan to put it right, becomes a truly high-performing function, Reynolds says. “That challenge is a new one and, so far, HR is living up to it.”


Paul Reynolds joined BT in 1983 and has had a varied career with the company, working in international marketing and product management, as director of the chairman’s office and managing director of BT Networks and Information Services. In April 2000, he was made chief executive of BT Wholesale and was appointed to the BT Group board in November 2001. Reynolds graduated from the University of Strathclyde in geography and economics and gained his PhD in geology from the University of London.

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