HR director of the year Fiona Roberts on driving success at Volkswagen UK

Fiona Roberts, HR director at Volkswagen UK, won the coveted 2014 Personnel Today HR Director of the Year award. Judges praised her emphasis on giving employees a voice and transforming the people agenda at the car maker. Peter Crush finds out how she achieved these results.

“It was a total surprise,” admits Roberts, when she learned her team had entered her into Personnel Today’s HR Director of the Year award for 2014.

“It was very sweet. I thought: ‘we’re a good brand, hopefully we’ll be on the shortlist’,” she remembers. “But I really didn’t expect to win, so I was blown away when I found out I’d actually won.”

Praise for Fiona Roberts

Simon Thomas, ex-MD of Volkswagen UK: 

“Fiona is, without doubt, the best HR leader I have worked with on such a project in almost four decades in this industry. No praise would be too high.”

Personnel Today judging panel:

“Clearly, Fiona has driven huge change and transformed the people agenda in Volkswagen and delivered outstanding results.”

She need not have been, of course, because what her team saw in Roberts, and what the judges also recognised, was an HR director who was at the top of her game.

She embedded change in a tough sector (including setting up a brand-new Labour Relations Charter and implementing a new staff recognition scheme), improved engagement scores, and implemented policies and structures that will continue to have a permanent impact on the company long into the future.

“The need to change was obvious,” recalls Roberts. “About 18 months after I joined, a new MD came in with a remit to put greater focus on the customer.

“If I’m being honest, the business probably hadn’t changed for a decade, and after the 2008 recession, when the bottom fell out of the car market, deficiencies in our service proposition really began to show.”

Roberts says she owes much of her award-winning success to her previous role at the highly unionised BAA. This gave her the experience to know, as she puts it, “what not to do”.

However, like any good HR director, she also praises her team for providing support along the way.

“This is not the first major change I’d done, but with the business priority as the basis for doing it, my team and I learned to do change better. We really grew as a group.

“We needed to be business focused about it – rather than say this is good for our own personal development – and I really feel we achieved this.”

Mentor support

Inspiration does not just come from ideas “in the moment”, but from a body of experience that is slowly built up. Roberts is also keen to acknowledge that she owes a great debt to former BAA colleague Gordon Rae who, until 2007, was director of HR (and was formerly HR director at Balfour Beatty Engineering Services and HR director at BAA Airports).

“Gordon had a great gift for listening and working with different trade unions and making things happen,” Roberts says. “The biggest thing I did here was to make sure I consulted with staff, and listened to their views at all the stages of the project. That was a priority where I made sure not to take any shortcuts.”

This listening strategy clearly worked. Volkswagen’s financial results immediately after the change project convinced judges of the success of the programme; record sales increases in 2013 (up 55,000 to 485,000 new cars sold), market share reaching a record high of 19%. And one year later, Volkswagen UK was voted 20th in the Great Place to Work awards.

Of all the processes put in place, Roberts says she is most proud of launching the group’s first employee forum, ensuring that employees always have a voice.

Roberts was also instrumental in ensuring its chairmanship position was made a permanent and full-time role – one that gives it credibility and gravitas in discussions with senior management.

She says: “The forum is represented at all top-flight management meetings, and it also works with the HR team on any consultation around change and changes to pay and benefits.

“It has a right of veto on some matters, and we even trust the chair of the forum to be involved with any potential redundancy situations right from the start; this is before they officially need to be, and before any official consultation periods need to opened up to the rest of the workforce.”

More than anything, Roberts says this, and the project overall, has taught her the power of employee involvement: “Management can sometimes forget,” she argues, “that it’s staff that really know the factory processes, and it’s them that have the answers that many of us seek.

“My team and I made a concerted effort to involve staff at all points of the change project and, in return, staff were very honest about what would work and what would not.”

A career in managing change

As well as growing through the ranks at BAA (she was head of OE at BAA, HR director-Group, BAA, and head of human resources at BAA Heathrow Airport), Roberts cut her teeth as HR director of business services at Carillion, a leading supplier of support services to the UK armed forces.

She says: “I did some significant integration of different businesses here, so by the time I came to Volkswagen I had experience in pushing through potentially troublesome projects.

“But when my boss explained what we were intending to do here, I immediately knew it was the right thing to do, because we were doing it to protect the long-term viability of the business.

“To be fair to staff and trade unions, they recognised this too. They knew we had to get the future of the business assured, and the process of realigning the business happened with much less opposition than it might have done if it were the 1980s or 1990s.”

So where now? Roberts says the concept of the customer being king is still unchanged: “When I look back at what we’ve achieved at Volkswagen, what I believe the HR Director of the Year award really celebrates is the two areas I believe all HRDs need to be developing more – being business focused, but also not forgetting that it’s employee voice that is often just as important as the voice of any board member.”

She adds: “I was at a conference only a few weeks ago that summed this up rather nicely. This was that any HRD has to be strategically aware, analytically astute, and lead on the people agenda.”

Be on both teams

According to Roberts, it’s essential that every modern HR director does two things – “be on the leadership team” (hers is a main board director role), but also be on the employees’ team. On the former, she says: “In the last four years, there’s probably been about a 75% turnover of people on the main board, so my continued tenure there has allowed me to have a strong leadership role, and provide continuity.”

But it is the second element too – having fun – that she says can sometimes be forgotten. One of the other elements recognised by Personnel Today’s judges was introducing a recognition scheme, which gives managers permission to run ad hoc fun days at their discretion.

“We’re all human,” she argues. “Success is not just about rigorous HR policies. It’s also about creating a workplace that people want to come to. If you came to our building, you’d hear lots of laughter, and the sound of people simply enjoying working together.”

Enjoying work means “work hard, play hard”. Today, the car maker is Europe’s best-selling car brand, recording a 5.6% rise in registrations, to 154,311, in March 2015 alone.

In Britain, the ever-popular Golf is the third most popular car, and dealers have shifted nearly 25,000 in the first quarter of the year. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by Roberts.

She is busy planning a big staff party for later in the year, which she promised to staff if they hit the UK target of selling more than 500,000 vehicles in 2014 (which they smashed). “We look for any reason we can to celebrate the hard work of our people, and this significant sales milestone is a really important one to recognise,” she says.

Roberts is due to be on the judging panel looking for 2015’s HR Director of the Year Personnel Today Award, and says she will be looking for those that can demonstrate a mix of business focus with personality.

“It’s about personal and technical ability,” she says, summing up the qualities they must demonstrate. “Most of all, I’ll be looking for thorough involvement in, and understanding of, the people agenda and whether you can take people with you.

“I like to think that’s what we achieved, and are still achieving here at Volkswagen.”

This year’s Personnel Today Awards will take place on 30 November 2015 at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London. Enter this year’s awards here

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