Profile: Stephen Kelly, director, BBC people

Despite being at the ‘Beeb’ for almost two of its most turbulent years, Stephen Kelly, director of BBC People and a self-confessed Dr Who fan, still believes it’s “a privilege” to work there. And not just because he can see first hand the creativity that goes into making the TV shows he so enjoyed in his youth.

Kelly, who joined as head of the HR division in October 2006, claims a job at the iconic media organisation is one of the most sought after in the world. The statistics back up the argument. The BBC gets 32 million hits per year on its jobs website. For an organisation of 25,000 people, the competition for each role is intense.

The BBC brand is undoubtedly a huge attraction for those looking to break into or develop a career in media, as is the sheer variety of jobs on offer. “People make a decision to join because of the breadth of roles they can work in here,” Kelly says.

“There is no other broadcaster that has the opportunities we have here. You can have a very varied career. Media is also an interesting sector to be involved in, with the way audiences are consuming news and information.”

Change management

Kilmarnock-born Kelly, 42, joined the broadcaster after seven years at BT. During his time at the communications giant he undertook three major roles, joining initially as compensation strategy director, before taking on a global organisational development role based in the US.

“I joined the company at the height of the dotcom bubble, so going through its burst and the pain of that was an experience,” Kelly explains.

He was appointed chief HR and change officer in early 2002, driving the overall people agenda within BT Global Services, the company’s business networks arm.

Landing the top HR job at the BBC was, in part, due to Kelly’s track record in change management in large and complex organisations. The corporation is undergoing the biggest shake-up in its 86-year history with the ongoing development of its digital, online and mobile services, the continued success of iPlayer, which allows viewers to catch up with the latest TV shows online, and a major relocation of some departments to Manchester by 2011.

Kelly says his HR team is playing a fundamental role in managing this change, a major part of which is overseeing the BBC’s £100m HR outsourcing contract.

Outsourced HR

The 10-year deal was signed in February 2006 by Kelly’s predecessor Stephen Dando in a bid to save millions of pounds and streamline HR services such as recruitment and pay administration. As part of the deal, HR headcount was drastically reduced and 260 people transferred to outsource provider Capita. But broadcasting union Bectu, which represents a large proportion of BBC employees, claims problems persist with the contract, with staff complaining of poor service and mistakes with pay.

Kelly admits the organisation is still experiencing a few contractual problems, but says he is confident that benefits will start to be realised in the next 12 months. “Having been involved in outsourcing deals for many years at BT, the challenge is that it takes you at least three years before you see any benefit,” he says.

“You are educating people working for the outsourcer, you’re educating your own people to work in a different way, and you’re educating HR people to think differently.”

Despite this, Kelly says the job is as enjoyable as he’d hoped it was going to be. One surprise is the sheer scale of the day-to-day running of the corporation. “The BBC is not a steady state organisation, it’s a 24-hour a day, 365 days a year operation, year after year,” he says.

“You don’t realise the scale when you are part of the audience. You make the assumption when you go home at night and watch a programme that the place has closed down, far from it.”

The public’s appetite for any morsel of information about the affectionately named ‘Beeb’ has also surprised him. As we, the public, contribute to the organisation’s funding and, in theory at least, enjoy the benefits of its service we feel a sense of ownership and entitlement.

“Everything is a news story, so you have to make the assumption that everything we do is going to get in the newspapers one way or another,” Kelly says. “Whether that’s about executive pay, diversity figures or Olympics coverage, it’s a fundamental difference to my previous jobs.”

In the news

Does that mean he thinks twice about making some decisions? “We have to be cognisant to the fact that we are paid by licence fee payers. Sometimes as a consequence of those decisions we get some bad PR but that’s a fact of life. We also have an in-house magazine [Ariel] that holds management to account every single week. I accept that’s how we operate,” he says.

One of the big BBC stories earlier this summer was the level of executive pay, revealed in the corporation’s annual report. Kelly earned a total of £431,000 in 2007-08, including a bonus of £33,000. Union leaders called for him to hand back the payout in the light of 2,500 job cuts being made as part of a cost-cutting drive.

Kelly refuses to talk about his salary, but said relations with the trade unions were “constructive”. He explains: “We don’t agree on many things but we have a common aim and that’s about creating the best services we can for the licence fee payers.

“You have to value opinions and differences that doesn’t mean you have to agree with them.”

Another issue making the news earlier this year was Kelly’s renewed drive to boost the BBC’s diversity performance, particularly at senior management level. In 2004, only 4.4% of managers were from black or minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds. Last year that figure had fallen to 4.3% against a target of 7%. In response the corporation launched a £750,000 three-year project to fill more top jobs with disabled and minority ethnic staff.

Kelly insists the organisation is making progress. “I think the BBC is better in some aspects of diversity than is the perception externally. We’ve done a huge amount of work whether it’s on audiences or our own workforce and yes, we do need to have a greater representation of minorities in some areas, but I think the current strategy moves the agenda forward,” he says.

He points to the extension of a placement scheme for people with disabilities, some 150 places over three years, and the fact 50% of new entrants to the BBC’s journalism training scheme are from BME backgrounds. “I am confident that in three years time we will see some improvements,” Kelly says.

Diversity opinions

However, he disagrees with the controversial opinion of BBC non-executive director Samir Shah that there are so few black and Asian executives in broadcasting because managers like to ‘clone’ themselves when recruiting.

“[Shah] has got a view but I don’t believe that is the case in the BBC,” he says. “What we’ve got to do is to ensure the organisation has the best processes to allow individuals to realise their potential, irrespective of background.”

Kelly gives the impression of an HR director totally comfortable in his surroundings and confident he is making a positive impact on the business. He is also aware of what needs his attention in the coming months. “HR has got to be clearer on the careers and opportunities on offer, and what our employer brand is – what it means to work at the BBC,” he says.

But his team have a head start with that as far as Kelly is concerned. “There is absolute pride and passion among staff for what they do I’ve never experienced that before,” he says.

“The BBC is an organisation I grew up with and it’s a privilege to work here.”

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