CIPD 2010: Authenticity is key to business strategy, says former Sainsbury’s HR director

Imelda Walsh, who left her position as HR director at Sainsbury’s in the summer, told the CIPD conference yesterday that being authentic was the key to a successful HR function.

Walsh admitted that she could have done more to improve the business when she joined Sainsbury’s in 2001. But when a new CEO joined, and she was promoted to HR director, she realised that people within the organisation, including herself, had not taken enough accountability for what had gone wrong.

“From an application perspective there was very poor communication. The senior management was not close to the shop floor and were therefore detached from the issues they had,” she said.

However, since then a lot has changed. She spent time changing the operating model to be less focused on managing administration and more focused on managing people.

Walsh’s six lessons for HR professionals:

  • Never neglect the basics.
  • You are nothing without your team.
  • Embrace and encourage challenge.
  • Say sorry when you get it wrong.
  • Walk the floor.
  • Hold to your principles.

With people at the forefront of her HR objectives, Walsh implemented a culture of honesty and openness.

This was reflected in her speech to the CIPD conference when she listed the six key lessons she had learnt from her nine years at Sainsbury’s, which included: “say sorry when you get it wrong”; “walk the floor and interact with people”; and “embrace and encourage challenge within your team”.

Having a place on the board, she emphasised, was also very important to the changes she implemented. She said that sometimes HR makes the mistake of veering away from board topics that they should be playing a role in.

“Get involved with pay and pensions issues on the board as it gives you a dialogue with management,” she advised.

Overall, she reflected, if you are open about what your doing, listen to employees and admit when you’re wrong, you will build a culture of trust that will have huge benefits for both the day-to-day running of the business and the smooth implementation of any big changes within your organisation.

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