The Big Interview with Sarah Kavanagh

The HR Heads Career Profile Series: We speak with HR professionals within our network to find out what 'a typical day in the office' looks like, what they consider their greatest career success to be, what advice they'd give their 20 year old self and we also explore some of their favourite things. This edition features Sarah Kavanagh, HR Director at the Southern Co-operative.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I broadly know what my day is going to look like; I’m a member of the Leadership Team so my days, weeks and months are structured in line with the business year. For example, every Monday morning I meet with the operating board where we review performance and plan for the week ahead. But alongside that structure comes the unpredictable bit – the secondary part of my role: the functional HR director… HR issues come at you without warning (you can’t schedule those!) and so you must be prepared to deal with them. I have a very strong team behind me that I’ve been building over the last 4 years who I know I can rely on to help me deal with these issues as and when they arise, and that’s so important.

Typically, the things I always try and keep a focus on are: managing ongoing strategic projects, making sure that I’m helping my team to deliver these important pieces of work by removing any barriers and providing them with guidance and feedback – whatever they need from me. It’s important that we keep on track and deliver on time.

Summer through to Autumn is a busy time for me and my Leadership Team colleagues. This is the time we revisit our 3 year plan, thinking about the future business opportunities and agree the project programme and budgets so I know I’ll spend a lot of my time on forward planning and aligning the HR Plan to business priorities. This is a very important part of my role and, quite rightly, takes up most of my time. While I focus on the forward thinking, I trust my team to manage the day to day HR tasks.

As HR Director, I have a close working relationship with the Chief Executive (who is also my boss) and my Leadership Team colleagues. Somebody once said to me: the HR Director is the person who will tell the CEO what s/he doesn’t want to hear, but needs to know – and that’s a role I accept and take very seriously; it’s important that I provide insight into the organisation, what our colleagues are thinking and feeling and what we should be concerned about.


“I talk to everybody in the business. I try to interact with most people around the office each day if I can, because that helps me get a better sense of where we are as a whole.”


As a HR Director, what do you love about your role?

There is so much I love about my role. I absolutely love people – I find them fascinating! I’m really intrigued by people, always trying to understand what is going on with everyone in the business. What you see and what you hear is one thing, but you must understand why a person behaves the way they do, and you can only do that by making the effort to get to know them. People are unpredictable, they ask challenging questions and I love that. They react differently to every different situation and that makes my role as HR Director really interesting.

I also love solving whatever problem is brought to me. I love unravelling it piece by piece– it’s something I find really rewarding. In the same respect, I love getting my senior team together and talking about what we can do to improve. I enjoy creating vision and talking about the possibilities ahead. What motivates me is the belief that everything can be better. Even if we’re having a bad day, I sit with my team and look down the line 6 months and imagine how good it will be when we change certain things. I don’t carry on plodding away at something that’s not working, I change it. You must change and adapt in business, looking at opportunities that arise. I love change, it’s very exciting.


Is there any part of your role that you find frustrating?

There is nothing that frustrates me enough that I wouldn’t want it as part of my role. I suppose there aren’t ever enough hours in the day to get everything done, but that’s it.


Can you tell us about your proudest career moment?

On a personal level, I’m most proud of the risks I have taken and how they have paid off. I have had to demonstrate some courage in executing some things, but they have generally led to great results for both the business and myself. I previously put forward a proposal that resulted in my role being made redundant, but I knew it was the right thing for the organisation. This is when I first realised that I could be quite a brave person to enable the business to achieve its wider strategy. That led to bigger and better things for me personally and professionally, and was a defining moment for me. I want to do the right thing, but I also quite enjoy the challenge!

I joined Southern Co-Op 4 years ago and set about giving the HR function real purpose; I have restructured and rebuilt the team and in 2016 we won team of the year for our Academy Training Team, and for me that was great recognition and a proud moment. When I went to the board in December last year, I reviewed the HR strategy that I’d put in place in 2014 and was able to put a tick next to every box. I am immensely proud of that. But of course, I couldn’t do it on my own, and I’m lucky to have a great team around me; I love my team!

In my current and previous roles I have led big change projects, some on which have required me to put my own position at risk. So I would say that I can be a brave person who is prepared to do the difficult things if it’s the right thing to do, which is a personal strength that I am proud of.


What lies ahead for you over the next few years?

It used to be the case that businesses would talk in terms of a 5–10 years business plan, but that’s no longer the case. We think and plan for the next 3 years, and we come back each year to change and adapt. Retail suits me perfectly because it’s constantly moving – and like I said before, I love change!

The food retail business has become increasingly challenging in recent years; food inflation means consumers are facing rising food prices, we are impacted by increasing costs from changes in minimum living wage and there is uncertainty surrounding Brexit, which we know is having an impact on consumer confidence. Although we’re a UK business we are impacted because of the cost of imported goods from our suppliers. People are quite uncertain around what’s going on – so we must constantly think about how we do things better and more efficiently to maintain a profitable and sustainable business for our 170,000+ members.

We’re also looking at the apprenticeship levy and how we can really drive this benefit. We are about to publish our Gender Pay Gap Report, and the analysis will inform some of our activities in coming years, specifically how to address the gender balance and encourage more females to move into senior management roles. And not forgetting GDPR which comes into effect in May 2018. We will use the time until May to review the data we hold, how and why we hold it, and take the opportunity to do some spring cleaning! All in all, It’s going to make for a challenging 3 years I think!


What advice would you give your 20 year old self?

If I look back now, I wish I’d been braver sooner. I think I was a ‘late-maturer’ which meant that I sometimes held myself back. Perhaps I should have had the courage of my conviction, and I’d have taken more risks sooner.



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Jen Gaster, Director