Personnel Today Awards 2019: Network Homes’ Fiona Deal scoops HR Director of the Year title

Fiona Deal of Network Homes collects her HR Director of the Year award in 2019.

Fiona Deal of housing association Network Homes scooped the prestigious HR Director of the Year Award, sponsored by ResourceBank Recruitment, for her impressive work on a three-year people and culture agenda that helped develop a strong employer brand and reduce absences. We look at her winning entry and the successes of other HR directors on our shortlist.


Fiona Deal, Network Homes

A Wembley-based housing association, Network Homes was facing deteriorating customer satisfaction and a proposed merger was consuming people’s energy and focus, leaving them disengaged. Fiona first joined the organisation as a consultant, but after a failed merger she was brought in as HR director to give Network Homes a renewed sense of direction and bring it from “good to great”.

She created a three-year people and culture agenda with the central principle that happy staff = happy customers = business benefit. There were three key areas of focus: leadership, cultural engagement and employer brand. She also set about harmonising terms and conditions where previously there had been a complex group structure with seven sets of pay and T&Cs.

Fiona developed ROCKSTAR, a set of behaviours and leadership values delivered through management development. She also introduced 360-degree feedback for all managers as well as coaching and mentoring – leadership scores have since increased by 15%. A cultural engagement plan established HART values (hungry, accountable, respectful, together).

Customer satisfaction has risen by 15% to 89.2% and employer brand is so strong that 40% of vacancies are filled internally. Sickness absence has reduced from 11 days (2015) to 2.7 days (2019). HR was voted ‘team of the year’ by colleagues in 2017.


Kerry Smith, British Heart Foundation

Heart and circulatory diseases such as stroke and vascular dementia affect 7 million people in the UK, accounting for one in every four deaths. The British Heart Foundation (BHF) raises money to fund cutting-edge medical research and transformational innovation in health and care. The HR team supports more than 4,000 people from researchers and clinicians to volunteers in over 700 retail shops and stores. 

Kerry joined BHF five years ago and immediately put staff and volunteers at the heart of the charity’s mission, launching its first ever People Strategy. This included a greater focus on staff wellbeing; addressing turnover and helping develop career paths where it was felt there was a lack of career development; transformation of working spaces and a move to smarter working; redesigning processes so they were more fit for purpose. 

She joined forces with Macmillan Cancer Support to create a brand new programme called Gradunique, which has attracted over 1,000 applications for four places at the two charities. Her redesign of work practices has generated cost savings and higher levels of engagement. Kerry was also instrumental in transforming and digitising people services through implementing a new Workday system.  

Engagement is now 82% for employees, a 15% increase in two years, and 90% for volunteers. Turnover has reduced from 27% to 20.5% in three years, confidence in leadership has risen from 48% to 71% and the perception that the organisation cares about its people has risen from 54% to 60%.  

Margaret Gooch, Fresh Direct Group

Fresh Direct Group is owned by US foodservice business, Sysco. In the UK, the company employs around 1,600 people across 28 sites, delivering fresh produce for caterers. 

With a lack of people focus costing the business around £5m per year, (and 300 employees failing to reach six months’ service) group HR director Margaret Gooch was parachuted in to reinvigorate the HR team from a tick-box functional department to a key strategic strand of the successful recovery plan. She immediately recruited a hand-picked team of experienced HR professionals, bringing in new processes from recruitment to performance review. 

There were five key strands to this: culture and communication (building a more inclusive environment); reward (making pay more consistent with the market); leadership excellence (creating positive role models of vision and values): colleague development and sales effectiveness (including a sales culture that created sustainable customer partnerships); and operational excellence (supporting continuous improvement of people, positive employee relations and inclusive ways of working). Some of the results created include 55% of promotions now happening internally and more tailored development programmes that have boosted retention, saving the company money on recruitment. 

Group CEO Rajesh Tugnait says of Margaret’s contribution: “Margaret created a strategy and employed an expert team capable of using HR as a key business tool. It now, rightly, is the first thing we look at when faced with a business issue and we know that Margaret’s team will give us a clear, and strategically-sound solution.”

Robert Hicks, Reward Gateway 

A high-growth business, benefits company Reward Gateway aims to be an employer of choice. In 2016, Robert Hicks was tasked with building an HR department from the ground up – at the time there was a small HR team with minimal processes in place. There was no focus on L&D, no alignment of communications and a limited connection to the company’s mission and values. 

The team now has 15 individuals focusing on HR business partnering, L&D, engagement and internal communications, people operations and talent attraction. HR is now central to the strategic direction of the business and there is an annual HR summit where the team creates its strategic people goals for the year. Robert has introduced a number of other key initiatives including: a review and improvement of the annual pay review and incorporating workspace into the engagement plan. He helped to facilitate an exit of the business from Macedonia, working with local leaders to ensure business continued smoothly and a strong handover. 

An engagement plan has increased customer NPS scores as well as the company’s Great Places to Work score. The company hires across five different countries and there are now several diversity and inclusion initiatives in place, such as BAME experience understanding and an apprenticeship scheme. He has fully embedded a Speak Up value, so all employees are encouraged to say what they think and feel, good or bad. Robert acts as a mentor to a number of employees globally and externally, and is described as “an exceptional leader and a valued member of the global leadership team”. 

Cliff Morton, Smart DCC 

From a project started by four Capita colleagues to a business of more than 500 people, data communications company Smart DCC has grown quickly. Cliff joined the company in April 2017 with a mandate to build a people team to support the business and ensure the organisation moved in the right direction as it grew. As a regulated monopoly (Capita is the sole shareholder), he needed to balance regulatory needs, the workforce’s needs and the needs of the shareholder. 

Cliff’s people team comprises organisational development, business partnering, and resourcing, as well as a ‘virtual team’ with Capita Group to manage employee relations. The organisation’s mission is “to motivate individuals to be the best they can be, in turn producing the best talent that makes DCC a high performing business and a great place to work”, and this is delivered under three core strands: culture (an engaging and inclusive culture keeps people performing); compensation (appropriate pay, good benefits and a clear structure are fundamental); and capability (improving capability supports people to produce excellent results).

Cliff set up a business partnering model for 10 business functions, which has driven learning and development and effective line management across the board. There is a leadership development programme called Charging Up, an employee benefits offer called Fully Charged and a new resourcing model servicing three sites across the country. The team has undertaken full job mapping, salary benchmarking and role audits, with changes made to leadership and team structures as a result. Results include 92% understanding of the vision of purpose of Smart DCC, with 86% proud to work there. Employee net promoter scores (eNPS) are at +3, compared to -3 and -11 for some IT and telecoms businesses. 

Lucy Weaver, Unipart Rail

As HR director for Unipart Rail, Lucy is responsible for over 850 UK and overseas staff. She sits within the Rail Divisional Leadership team reporting to a divisional MD, sitting alongside three business unit managing directors and other functional directors in IT, HR and engineering. Her own team is made up of 12 HR professionals who aim to add value as a strategic partner to the business.

Her focus has been: partnering with the new MD to build a profile within Rail that means employees are clear about the direction of the business; working with the Rail Divisional Leadership team to provide “one face” to the business; delivering an operationally excellent HR function including the building of a cohesive professional HR team; delivering talent for now and the future including a successful graduate scheme and enhancing the apprentice scheme; increasing management competency through monthly succession planning, including recruiting externally and promoting from within; and digital innovation and process improvement.

Within this she implemented a direct recruitment and employer brand strategy, streamlining use of agencies. She introduced a line manager development programme, a robust performance management structure and a formalised health and wellbeing strategy. She also created a path to improve and automate HR processes, and introduced a single HR intranet. Her achievements include a saving of £250,000 in recruitment fees in the first year, reduced turnover and more internal promotions. She has also led a number of TUPE consultations, supporting the business through its due diligence and communication strategies for new business acquisitions. 

Other projects include setting up the Unipart Rail digital team in 2016 before handing over to a new Digital Director in 2018 – this created the Unipart Rail knowledge hub (including access to online training and tips of the week), an ideas log to capture ideas for change and the development of digital competencies across the business. 

Joanne Marshall, University of Bradford

Having worked as an HR director for 14 years, including a successful career in the NHS, Joanne came to the University of Bradford five years ago. At the time the university was facing many challenges, having undergone little change in more than 20 years. In 2014 she introduced new ways of working to support a new strategic plan, creating an internal HR ‘academy’ that would equip her team with the skills and tools it would need moving forward. 

In 2016, with significant financial pressures threatening the viability of the entire organisation, the University embarked on its most significant changes in history. As one of four executive directors, Joanne was instrumental in devising and delivering the ‘Bradford Excellence Programme’: this aimed to reduce operational costs by 22% (£9 million) over two years, while realigning service and academic delivery with its ten-year strategy ‘to become a world-leading technology university’.

As part of this change, the HR team managed 110 exits via voluntary redundancy with no compulsory redundancies or change-related grievances. The savings of £9m were achieved while student recruitment increased and 35 staff were promoted. Joanne has also been central to improving student experience and achievement at Bradford, recognising that more was needed to connect staff and students. She set up the #TeamBradford with an end of year celebration that allows staff and students to form teams, dress up and undertake a number of sports, followed by a BBQ and afternoon tea. The event is in its fourth year and has high levels of engagement, more and more so every year. 

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