Isabel Bennett has moved from a generalist HR role into the more specific post as learning and development director. She explains to Lucie Carrington the part she aims to play in making Vodafone UK a great place to work
With 12,500 staff in the UK alone, Vodafone is a significant labour market player and yet, until now, it has kept a surprisingly low profile as an employer. This has partly been the result of the firm’s focus on growth through mergers and joint ventures. But the sharp downturn in the value of the telecoms industry over the past few years has also taken its toll.
Whatever the reason, as Vodafone’s share price moves up, the UK arm of the business is out to make a reputation for itself as an employer as well as a deal maker. And it has unashamedly set itself a target of getting into The Sunday Times’ list of the 100 Best Companies To Work For this year.
The learning and development community in Vodafone UK is at the centre of these changes, and is running a major campaign aimed at turning around the way staff think about their jobs and their colleagues. Called ‘Great Place to Work’, it was this home-grown campaign that sold the role of learning and development director to director Isabel Bennett early last year.
Until then, Bennett had been a HR generalist, having previously worked for the BBC, American Express and the Australian telecoms industry. But she had also held a couple of senior HR posts at Vodafone, so while she was relatively new to the “learning and development space”, as she likes to call it, she knew the company and the industry well.
“There is a whole sense of purpose around learning and development and its ability to help the organisation improve its capabilities that I found really exciting,” she says. But the fact that chief executive Gavin Darby was about to kick off Vodafone’s Great Place to Work project, finally clinched the deal for Bennett.
Great Place to Work
“Gavin Darby owns the project, and the learning and development team runs it on his behalf. But it is not a HR or learning and development initiative,” Bennett says. “We have put together a Great Place to Work team from across the business, and ultimately, it is each line manager’s responsibility to see it through.”
Like many similar development-cum-culture change campaigns, Great Place to Work is about behaviours rather than functional skills. “We are saying to people: ‘you can be a great specialist, but unless you have the skills and abilities and behaviours to get the best out of yourself and the people around you, then Vodafone is not going to be a great organisation’,” Bennett says.
It is also about motivation, and Vodafone is only too aware of the links between happy staff and happy customers.
Bennett and her colleagues have developed a streamlined list of four behaviours or values that it feels should underpin the way Vodafone people work: empowerment, working together, value and respect, and inspiration. Last year, 1,800 managers went through a 360-degree feedback programme to assess where they stood in relation to these behaviours. “We were drawing a line in the sand and setting a benchmark for improvement,” Bennett says. Almost everyone in the organisation was touched by it, whether they were giving or receiving feedback.
Bennett went through the process herself, and is happy to share some of the results. “My feedback told me that I didn’t always go to the right person to resolve issues. It was a really interesting piece of information for me to work on,” she says.
Meanwhile, the overall results showed that those who scored well under the inspiration tag were likely to score well under the other three. Furthermore, female managers tended to be more ‘inspirational’ than their male colleagues – food for thought, Bennett suggests.
The next stage was to set up a range of development tools, opportunities and events to bring the Great Place to Work philosophy home to staff, and to help ratchet up manager’s performance.
“We’ve introduced a mentoring programme, where managers who score well on the 360-degree feedback help to mentor those who did less well. It is a good way of recognising the high performers while helping those who need it,” Bennett says. “We’ve also facilitated workshops for whole teams to help them analyse how they can do a better job. Much of this was about getting people to talk more to each other.”
In addition, the learning and development team set up a range of events aimed at bringing home the importance of each of the four behaviours. For example, they held an empowerment event for 300 managers, with help from comedy actor Ricky Gervais.
When it came to inspiration, Vodafone pulled in Cranfield School of Management, which set up a ‘drama’ based on the life of Henry V. The idea was to analyse his development from drunken, fun-loving prince to soldier and statesman.
Crucially, none of the learning events and programmes have been compulsory. That would kill the whole campaign, Bennett says, because people have to want to change. “We have to make the learning compelling enough for them to come along,” she says.
Bennett believes the hard work of the past year is beginning to pay off, and staff are beginning to think in terms of the Great Place to Work. “I now hear comments such as ‘that wasn’t said in a very valued or inspirational way’, and it’s only partly in jest,” Bennett says.
Next month, Bennett and her colleagues will get the results of a second session of 360-degree feedback. It will be a temperature gauge, she says, which will enable the company to see how managers have progressed over the past year. “It will also enable us to decide where we want to focus our energies next. We may choose to concentrate more effort on one of the four behaviours rather than all of them,” Bennett says.
It all sounds very warm and fluffy, but there is a harder edge to it too. Bennett’s aim is to measure managers regularly on the key behaviours. “If people continue to get high scores on their behaviour rating or make significant improvements, that will have an impact on their bonus,” Bennett says. The implication is that those who consistently score badly, may want to reconsider their futures.
Bennett herself gives the impression of an iron fist in velvet glove. She speaks about her role as one of being an ‘acceptable nuisance’ within the business, and insists that she would not have taken on the top learning and development job had she not been certain of the impact she would have on the success of the business.
As a result, Bennett has spent her first year turning learning and development around. In the process, she has added succession planning and the functional skills training, which used to be the responsibility of line managers, to her portfolio. “My aim has been to raise the profile of the learning and development community by focusing on return on investment,” she says.
It’s fairly classic stuff, as Bennett herself admits. “We will continue to offer a suite of learning interventions, but these will be much more aligned to what the organisation needs now and in five years time,” she says.
She also wants to concentrate on helping individuals to create their own development plan and take charge of their careers.
One of the bigger changes, she suggests, is that people no longer receive training just because they ask for it. It’s all about engaging with the business, Bennett says, and integrating learning into the way people think and work.
In many areas this has already happened, and she wants to build on initiatives such as the product wizards. These are people with day jobs at Vodafone who take on responsibility to become expert at a particular aspect of technology. They sample products and feedback their findings to development teams, and train their own colleagues in how the product works.
Bennett sees no reason why this idea cannot be expanded – for example, by using these technical specialists to help train their colleagues. “These are ways for learning and development to have a greater reach without expanding headcount,” Bennett says.
She also wants to increase the level of e-learning and blended learning taking place. Currently, it only accounts for around 5 per cent of what is being delivered. The development of the online sales academy was a big step forward over the past year, but there is more work to be done.
There is little doubt that Bennett is loving the job.
“My role allows me to challenge how the organisation thinks about the way it does stuff, and there’s a tremendous energy around that,” she says. However, the fact that she can develop her job in this way and move learning and development forward is at least partly fallout from the troubled times of the past few years. Bennett points out that Vodafone never stopped investing in people development, but admits the industry downturn did focus attention on who it developed and how. It also put a much sharper focus on the value of management development.
“This would have happened anyway, but the downturn has had a positive impact on the learning and development space,” she says. “It has allowed us to move higher up the food chain, so that training is now about the organisation, rather than individuals or functions.”
CV: Isabel Bennett
2003 – present Vodafone, director of learning and development
2000 – 2003 Vodafone, HR director
1994 – 2000 Optus Communications, general manager HR
1992 – 1994 Myer Grace Bros, regional HR manager
1990 – 1992 American Express, HR manager
1982 – 1990 BBC, HR manager
1980 – 1982 Post Office Graduate Scheme