Green shoots

Massive losses and growing competition have forced Royal Mail to propagate massive changes, and the new chief learning officer Kevin Green is helping to sow the seeds of recovery. 

From an HR perspective, Royal Mail is not for the faint-hearted. Two years ago, the organisation, which employs 220,000, was losing around £1m a day. But with the former Asda boss Allan Leighton and former Football Association chief executive Adam Crozier at the helm – Leighton joined in early 2002 and Crozier at the end of that year – the company has already started to turn things around. It’s plan was to report operating profits of around £100m this year and, ambitiously, £400m next year. This year it is set to make operating profits of more than £170m.

The renewal process has seen some Post Office closures while plans to scrap the second daily delivery has led to a storm of criticism. Some 30,000 staff are expected to lose their jobs over the next three years, with 14,500 already gone – including 3,000 management positions.

Despite a potential national strike being narrowly averted last year, the service still suffered a series of unofficial walkouts in London. Added to this, postal regulator Postcomm is opening up the market to competition from 2007, although some competition already exists. Challenges to the monopoly are expected from the likes of Deutsche Post (owner of DHL) and Dutch giant TPG (which owns TNT), in the not so distant future.

Who, then, in their right mind would give up a relatively cosy berth in consultancy to take on the unenviable task of pushing through such radical organisational change? Kevin Green would. Since October last year, he has been the Royal Mail’s chief learning officer.

“My rationale for joining Royal Mail was that it represents the biggest turnaround in UK corporate history. It’s all about unclogging the machine, motivating its people and challenging how it has done things in the past,” says the 41-year-old.

Brought in by HR director Tony McCarthy, Green certainly has a proven track record in this area, having spent the past 14 years running the consultancy Qtab, which has overseen major organisational changes at several big name operators, including Unilever, First Choice, Selfridges and the Cabinet Office.

Within Royal Mail this means radically transforming not only the structures and the way people work, but the culture and even how people think.

“We are trying to create more accountability and performance management at a local level,” says Green. “Historically, Royal Mail has been weighed down by bureaucracy. My role is to streamline the structures and take out things that do not add any value,” he explains.

The changing role of the head office is the key to this process. Traditionally, the hub of the centralised management structure, the focus has now switched to pushing responsibility out to business teams, such as the 74 mail centres, and passing clear autonomy down.

“I want to take the top 500 managers and be able to benchmark them against the leadership in other UK blue-chips,” he says.

Initiatives include ‘Work-time Listening and Learning’, where teams get together weekly to discuss issues, problems and come up with solutions. There’s also ‘First Line Fix’, where individual offices can apply for a £500 fund to improve things locally, such as repainting the office, or buying a much-needed piece of kit. There are now more self-managed teams and managers are being given access to better performance data.

“I also have a team of eight or nine people acting as OD consultants looking at structures – how to make things leaner and taking out layers of management,” Green says.

His target is to improve employee satisfaction – currently 55 to 75 per cent of Royal Mail’s employees say it’s a good place to work, although Green admits the overall figure is closer to 55 per cent. The target which Allan Leighton monitors every month is to get all units to the 75 per cent level within the next 18 months

The number of training and development programmes has also been slashed from 1,800 to 350, with the goal of reducing them to 80 – the focus being on capability development and not ‘sheep dipping’ people through training courses.

HR within the Royal Mail has historically been a process-orientated function. This, too, is changing. Over the past two years there has been a 40 per cent reduction in HR staff, from around 3,700 when McCarthy was first appointed.

The focus, again, is on developing the skills of line managers. Managers are, for instance, being encouraged to access people data and solve problems over the phone. The function is being changed so that it facilitates change in all parts of the business. A new team has been brought together to crack the issues that reside in all areas of HR such as talent, diversity and CSR.

“The business had a choice of a slow and painful death or to reinvigorate itself, to move from a state monopoly to one able to compete in an international marketplace,” Green says.

“Some of the time it will be painful, but for a lot of people it is an exciting challenge and there are huge opportunities,” Green adds.

Green at a glance

October 2003-present Chief learning officer, Royal Mail

1991-2003 Managing director, Qtab

1989-1991 Principal consultant, Qtab

1981-1989 Economic development manager, Wandsworth Borough Council, London

Green’s tips for HR

  • Be clear about the journey you are embarking on

  • Be clear about your strategy before deciding how you are going to achieve it

  • Be clear that the things you are doing focus on the outcomes required, not the input

  • Choose the 15 per cent of activities you believe will leverage the most change, focus on them and make sure you do them incredibly well

  • Spend a lot of time taking people with you, make sure senior people understand and support you

  • Don’t be blown off course, too often, HR can drift

HR Futures

Kevin Green will be speaking further about the challenge of managing change at the Royal Mail at the forthcoming HR Futures conference at The Russell Hotel in London on 30 March. This exclusive HR forum will bring together 250 thought-leaders to provide fresh perspectives on key HR issues for the next five years

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