Personnel Today Awards 2020: HR Director of the Year shortlist

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

With just days until the winners of the Personnel Today Awards are announced, we profile the shortlist for one of the most hotly-contested categories: HR Director of the Year. 

Dylan Wickenden, EMCOR UK

EMCOR UK is a facilities management company. Dylan was promoted to senior HR business partner after a previous HR director left the company, and immediately faced a number of challenges. He soon established himself as a trusted partner to the executive leadership team, with one of his early goals to lead the EMCOR UK board development programme and ensure the team was structured so as to best meet strategic targets.

He has transformed the HR function from one that is considered a ‘support’ function to a collaborative and strategic partner to the entire business. He has helped oversee a rapid growth in employee numbers as a result of TUPE contract wins. HR has become the first port of call during a period of significant change. Dylan’s achievements include a new flexible benefits and wellbeing platform; focus on building a more inclusive environment; aligning the company’s business and people goals with the UN Sustainable Development Goals; more detailed, people-focused management information and vastly improved internal communications.

He has also introduced a new grading structure with career families and progression paths for more than 4,000 employees, improved succession planning across the business, and introduced a Covid-19 wellbeing pack. A financial wellbeing offering has encouraged many employees to start saving and provided almost £1 million in loans to help them consolidate debts. Since taking on the role, staff turnover is down from 23% to 13%, more than 80% of employees have signed up to the new wellbeing and flexible benefits platform and more than 100 employees have trained in mental health awareness. His colleagues say: “Dylan constantly recognises challenges and turns them into opportunities for the HR department to add value to our business, customers and communities which we serve.”


David Blackburn, Financial Services Compensation Scheme

The Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) is the UK’s compensation scheme for financial services, protecting people when authorised financial services firms fail. When David Blackburn joined the organisation as head of HR & OD in 2013, there was much to improve: it had been created from eight smaller organisations and little had been done to improve business performance, transform the workplace culture, increase diversity or drive employee engagement. Customer satisfaction was suffering, with claim turnaround times exceeding six months. Less than 10% of the leadership population was female of black, Asian and minority ethnic.

Personnel Today Awards 2020

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Promoted to the executive team in 2017 as chief people officer, David has redesigned the entire organisation, reshaped its culture and reconnected its people. He has managed redundancies, rewritten employment policies and updated HR processes. He has established core organisational design principles, led on the recruitment of over 300 new employees (including to the FSCS Board) and designed a rigorous assessment centre. He spearheaded the introduction of flexible working, meaning that when the pandemic hit in March 2020 the organisation moved to fully remote working with no down time. He also developed a new approach to bonus and salary progression in partnership with benefits company Aon – 80% of people now believe that they are fairly rewarded, up from 48% in 2013.

Performance management has been overhauled, and a new Driving the Ambition leadership programme introduced. In terms of improvements in diversity and inclusion, David was the the first openly gay man to be appointed to the executive team and last year was recognised as the 23rd Most Influential LGBT+ Public Sector Leader in the UK. He is one of the founding signatories of Business in the Community’s Race at Work Charter. He introduced a new employee engagement platform, HIVE, that includes surveys, internal communications and talks across numerous channels.

The cost and duration of claims has reduced as a result of employees feeling more engaged – 100 days have been taken out of the claim process and the cost of processing reduced by 23%. Over a third are now resolved in just five days. Customer satisfaction is at 85%, compared with 59% in 2017. Colleagues describe David as “a hugely respected HR leader not just at the FSCS but beyond”.


Suzi Archer, My Clever Group

Suzi Archer joined branding experience company My Clever Group in 2018 to head up My Clever Hub, a local investment programme for entrepreneurs in Stoke. She was promoted to head of talent at MCG in 2019 after it was recognised she could perform a wider role in the company.

Suzi has established a recruitment process from the ground up, developing key milestones for talent acquisition to support the company’s growth. Less than six months into the role, her remit was widened to include all HR and people operations. When the company acquired another firm she managed the merger and supported employees through the change, bringing together HR processes for three companies. She has helped to set up a second office and attract key talent in that area.

One of her key achievements has been to sustain engagement while the company has grown from four staff when she joined to 49 – she coordinates events and wellbeing initiatives, introducing a pulse survey that has achieved a 92% completion rate. Almost three-quarters of staff rate themselves as highly satisfied, while the rest are satisfied. One of her HR team says she is “the best manager you could hope for – she is kind, hardworking, supportive and brilliant”.


Nicola Morrison, North Warwickshire and South Leicestershire College

With more than 15 years’ experience in a number of sectors, Nicola has strong people strategy, design and workforce planning skills. Over her past three years as HR director at NWSLC, she led organisational development and marketing.

Her achievements include restructuring the HR function, offering proactive support to improve employee performance. She brought in a new appraisal system, alongside reviews of sickness absence and disciplinary policies. Nicola was behind the introduction of the college’s first health and wellbeing strategy, achieving buy-in at the highest level. Staff now have access to health and wellbeing information across all campuses, including stress and mental health awareness training, an employee assistance programme that offers six face-to-face counselling sessions, and health assessments for all staff. There is an expectation that all staff work towards a mental health qualification.

Her efforts proved crucial during the coronavirus pandemic, when the HR team developed a series of materials and initiatives designed to support remote working, such as a regular weekly wellbeing bulletin to accommodate ways of coping with anxiety and isolation. They created a ‘welcome back’ pack to support colleagues returning to the workplace once the college started to re-open its campuses, with a reorientation video to help them adjust to new ways of working.

Absence related to mental health issues has reduced by almost 50%, while overall sickness absence has decreased by 3%, leading to cost savings of around £160,000. There was a 25% increase in occupational health referrals, thanks to more early intervention and improved staff awareness. Marion Plant, chief executive of the college, says: “Nicola’s relentless energy, care and compassion and her bold approach to tackling the inevitable ups and downs of college and trust life has made an amazing difference to our performance and our staff satisfaction.”


Kelly Angus, Northumberland County Council

As executive director of HR and OD and deputy chief executive of Northumberland County Council, Kelly Angus has a vital role in leading a wide range of issues. She has almost 30 years’ experience in strategic HR, many within NHS organisations leading change programmes. She recently won the Inspirational Practitioner Award at the regional CIPD awards.

Kelly has turned around the culture of the council, creating a new vision and set of values. She has strived to ensure they are embedded, personally speaking to groups of staff and acting on feedback from staff surveys. She has fostered a ‘one council approach’ among staff and the 2019 staff survey saw a 80% response rate. Her other achievements include introducing long service awards, staff excellence awards and a carers passport so those with caring responsibilities can get support from management if they need it.

Kelly has also led a culture where staff feel able to truly be themselves and be their best at work. She has overseen the development of seven staff networks, ensuring that people have been given time during their working hours to participate in the groups. These groups include: BAME, LGBT+, Autism, Menopause, Mental Health, Disability and Carers at Work. She is passionate about work in her community too, spearheading marketing activities for Northumberland and being appointed as returning officer for the county – a role with huge logistical responsibilities.

Kelly worked with managers early on during coronavirus lockdown to offer guidance and her visibility during the pandemic has reassured staff of why their roles matter. Her colleagues say: “She leads by example and we are proud to nominate her for this well deserved accolade.”


Catherine Hodds, Saffron Housing Trust

Saffron Housing Trust is a not-for-profit social landlord, providing more than 6,000 quality homes and supported accommodation across Norfolk and Suffolk. Between 2016 and 2018 the organisation experienced a period of underperformance and regulatory intervention that impacted the culture through low morale and weak engagement.

Catherine was appointed and developed a transformational strategy to turn this around. She needed to achieve: an improved regulatory rating away from the downgrade; develop a set of employee-led values; achieve higher customer perceptions of service; reach an employee engagement level of 85% and create a community ethos where teams felt connected to each other and the communities they serve.

She developed #proudtobesaffron as a mantra so all employees could get a feel for the goals and make the HR strategy their own. She introduced an additional volunteering day so employees could see how community engagement could really make a difference, also recruiting 20 volunteer mentors for Your Own Place – a social purpose organisation aiming to ensure every person lives in a safe and secure home.

The organisation introduced a ‘vital signs’ dashboard to capture its progress around the main strategic goals, reducing 52 key performance indicators to just 20, linked to five core goals. The whole organisation understands this and teams can see a direct correlation between their own performance and the outcomes for their reward and recognition. The organisation improved its regulatory grade from G3 to G1 and there has been an increase of 68% in the number of employees saying they feel valued.

Saffron has also achieved a customer perception of polite and professional teams of 90.4% against a target of 85%, while employee sickness is down by 50%. Four in five members of the HR team have been promoted or taken on greater responsibilities under Catherine’s direction.


Sharon Johnston, South Western Railway

When Sharon Johnston started her new job, she was immediately handed a letter informing her that 900 frontline staff were due to strike. Not only was she faced with industrial action, the organisation suffered from low engagement, a lack of training and development, a dwindling talent pipeline and overstretched HR function.

Many employees were new to the SWR franchise after it was taken over in 2017, having been at their previous employer more than 20 years. This meant an entrenched culture and resistance to change, high attrition and an ageing workforce at a time when the company needed to expand. Sharon reinvigorated the HR function, appointing department heads to their own strategic strands – including L&D, recruitment, engagement and reward and a new head of HR services. She surveyed employees to find out where their pain points were, and this has informed HR strategy.

Her team’s achievements include a new digital recruitment platform and onboarding process including personal welcomes from senior leaders, the introduction of the largest apprenticeship scheme in the sector, with a 98% retention rate, and a traineeship scheme in partnership with the Prince’s Trust. SWR offers 25 apprenticeship programmes across all levels for new and existing employees. Health and wellbeing programmes have helped to address sickness absence levels (down 7%) and there are now 70 volunteer mental health first aiders.

When guard strikes threatened journeys, Sharon and her team stepped into frontline roles to support colleagues under pressure and maintain operations. Sharon encouraged other managers to step into frontline roles, meaning 70% of trains could run, despite 900 guards on strike. As one colleague comments: “that’s what great leaders do – they inspire, rather than force, people to follow.” Employee engagement has increased by 23%, and there has been a 17% reduction in turnover.


Jackie Hinchliffe, Thurrock Council

Thurrock, east of London, has a population of over 170,000 residents. Its growth programme is one of the largest and most ambitious in the UK and is benefiting from £20bn of planned investment. It expects a further 24,500 new jobs to be created by the year 2037. Jackie Hinchliffe joined the council in 2008, and aside from her role as HR, OD and transformation director, she has responsibility for both the People Board and Digital Board, two of six strategic boards that feed into an overarching Director’s Transformation Board chaired by the CEO.

This means she has oversight over three key areas: digital/ICT (building the underlying digital infrastructure and working on future smart city initiatives); people (hiring, retaining and developing a digitally skilled workforce); customer service (ensuring communities and businesses can interact directly with council services). Her achievements include moving recruitment processes fully online, reducing onboarding times from 48 days to 27 days; reduced sickness absence (down from 10.46 days in 18/19 to 8.22 in 19/20); digital self-service for residents in the council offices; an ambitious Oracle upgrade across HR, payroll, procurement and finance functions.

Jackie has worked with three major trade unions to successfully implement a revised pay structure, gaining full agreement and negligible HR issues as a result. She led the council’s Covid-19 response, engaging with third sector partners in the community. Her work has ensured that 80% of employees now believe senior management are visible (compared to 58% in 2016), 73% have confidence in senior management (up from 49%), and 70% think they provide effective leadership (up from 47%). Her colleagues describe her as “an inspirational leader who has a unique ability to take a wide range of stakeholders, with often different viewpoints, along with her on a continuous journey of improvement”.

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