HR Heads CPO Spotlight Series
David Smith is Chief People Officer at 10X, a transformative banking platform that helps banks to become more competitive, customer-centric, and agile
For HR Heads‘ latest CPO Spotlight, David spoke with Jen Gaster about his career, challenges within HR and how to tackle these issues.
I am really excited to welcome David Smith to join me on our CPO Spotlight series. David, thank you so much for joining me today.
No problem Jen, thanks.
Good to be here.
David, you are currently Chief People Officer with 10X Banking.
10X has been around a little while, but do you want to just give the headlines of your mission in that organisation?
We’ve been around since 2017, raised over £250 million in capital during that time, probably the product we’re best known for. Provisioning is the chase product that’s been launched as an account in the UK in the last couple of years and won quite a few awards. But ultimately, what we do is offer a better cloud-based technology solution for banks who need to move their core banking platforms.
There’s a big imperative on a lot of them to do so in terms of cost, customer experience and just harnessing the potential of new technology. We have a team of about 420 people who provide that, the majority based in London, but we do have some outposts in Asia and Australia because we have clients there as well.
Thank you. I know that, but it’s really important for our audience to know that and David, you and I have talked over the years, you’ve had an illustrious career so far, but just tell our audience a little bit about your journey to becoming CPO at 10X.
I started off doing TA and it was a good grounding because all I cared about at the time was hiring high-calibre talent and the role that they were going into, I’ve actually tried to keep those as key focuses throughout because they’re still very important. I wasn’t 100% sure if I’m honest that I wanted to go generalist and do HR more generally, but I made that step earlier in my career and I actually really enjoyed it.
So I’d say my first leadership position was when I went to Lloyds and did a transformation program there, which was a full life-cycle overhaul.
Their entire people and HR offering from a digital perspective, I thoroughly enjoyed that, and went to Trainline. I was there five years and ironically I joined, the week after KKR bought the business. We had an initial meeting with their lead partner, who said within four years we’ll do an IPO for this multiple…and it happened.
It was a very good journey to go on with the full transformation of the team and improving sales and marketing etc. By the end I was running the HR and TA teams.
I went to Cleo, which is an AI business that is still doing really well. And that was a difficult one for me because I loved it and I loved the people, but I got approached by 10X from an ex-Trainline colleague who was on the exec team at the time and it was just an opportunity I couldn’t say no to.
I met Anthony, who’s the founder, and really liked the business vision as to where they were going and the culture of the place as well. I thought that the people were really cool, so made the switch and I’ve been CPO here coming up two years in October.
We’ve been focused very much on, as most companies will have been ultimately, how we can harness the potential of the team and get the culture right so we can do more without consistently hiring at the the velocity that people were four years ago.
I think most CPOs are thinking about that at the moment. How do we get the most bang from our buck and the neighbour on our team to deliver?
And in that you mentioned Trainline but in that leadership role particularly, and I guess the one you’re in now, what are the must-haves for you when you do hire?
I appreciate the velocity isn’t necessarily what it was, but there’s an awful lot in the market at the moment being talked about at hiring for attitude and aptitude rather than skill. There’s a lot that’s being talked about, hiring some fit and culture.
So when you hire into your team, what is it for you that are the non-negotiables?
Yeah, it’s a really interesting question.
I think if I’m hiring within, whether it’s my team or the business more broadly, some of the themes are consistent.
I think particularly when you’re hiring people, professionals or HR professionals, if they don’t have a commercial acumen or at least a commercial curiosity earlier on in their career, if they don’t want to get to know how the business operates, how it makes money, how it serves its customers, I’ve found that if you don’t care about that or just don’t engage with that, you will struggle to develop the context that you can apply to do your job better.
That doesn’t really matter which part of our people team you work in. So the first thing I’m always looking for, and when I’m interviewing someone is questioning if they have that commercial acumen when they tell me the story about where they’ve worked previously, do you just tell me the story about what you personally did or do you tell me about what you did, how it contributed to what the team did and the journey of the business?
So that’s a big one, I think on top of that, I don’t like toxic positivity where people dress everything up as great, but I do need people who are upbeat and resilient.
I think if you’re working with people where you have a tough week and then they come in on the following Monday and they’re still down in the dumps, and they wear it heavily, I find that difficult because I think part of working in an HR team is you have to be resilient, and there have to be times where you act as the strength in the room for the rest of the business who are under pressure on different aspects.
So I think a resilient, upbeat ability to shake things off quickly is important as well.
I personally hire for the art of the possible. It’s the ’I haven’t done it before, but the answer is yes’.
Let me go figure it out and work backwards.
It’s what can we do? Not what can’t we do? I think I’ve been in the game a long time.
You know, the days when HR was the blocker to the business growth.
HR says no, versus HR being the real facilitator around the opportunity of the growth business. That for me is now one of the key things.
Yes, agreed. I think that’s where the commercial acumen and curiosity come in. You don’t have to understand the models that the business runs on necessarily, on day one. But you have to care.
I really love people internally. Some of the younger people in my team are fantastic for this, and they asked me great questions like “Why did this particular client choose us?” or “What are we doing on the product on this front?”
I love that type of question that shows that they can.
Yeah, absolutely. And you’re sitting in that financial services sector at the moment and it’s had a bumpy decade. I think it’s fair to say, and what do you see as the HR challenges specific to the financial services space right now?
Hmm, that’s interesting. So we sit at a really interesting intersection between FS and technology. I guess we are classically a fintech right?
One of the things again coming back to the core fundamentals of the business, one of the things that serves us well, and if you watch any of the talks Anthony has done on this, they’re very good.
Banks have to change their technology platform at some point, which puts us in a good place because we have a good product in that space. And so, I always feel when I’m talking to people on either an attraction or attention front, that I’ve got an authentic story about why I believe in where the business is going.
I think within FS and Fintech and probably just tech more generally, the last 12 to 18 months for a lot of people will have been the first time where they’ve seen the slightly harder, more brutal side of the technology market.
I’m talking particularly about layoffs and budgets being cut and everyone retrenching, and the markets going a little bit more risk off.
I do feel as if we’re past the worst of that. Actually, the data would indicate that we are, but one thing I have been focusing on, particularly for the last 12 months is just trying to keep people’s morale and level of engagement and all levels of transparency, in terms of the people running the business being ever more visible.
I think what people want is just straight answers to the questions so that they can deduce the information. And it’s amazing that you can deliver trust.
Trust that you might not have all the answers, but you’ve at least got it on your radar, yes.
You can deliver some hard messages if you’re honest with people about why. We’ve been doing a lot of that. I’ve never seen this before and you learn through experience, right?
I think what every business will have been focused quite heavily in the last 12 months on is the org design genuinely set up in the right way because we’re still hiring, same as most businesses, we’re just not doing it at the same velocity we were.
Therefore, getting them looks out of the people within the team is key.
There’s definitely a trend in the market of right sizing, you know, like you say, hiring happening, but it might be at a different level with a different skill specialism.
Therefore, the media can talk about redundancies and the LinkedIn quarterly report showed the FS sector was down 16% last quarter.
But the reality is the vacancies are there. The talent demand is still there.
It’s just right sizing as opposed to destroying, and I think that’s the classic glass half full, the glass is half empty. It’s how you wish to spin that story. For the greater good of the business.
That’s absolutely right.
And I think we’ve had to, same as most companies, we’ve been honest with people about why in some areas. One of the positives for us is we’ve also brought in some fantastic talent during this period.
So whether that’s in product management or in sales, we’ve brought in some good people and that always breeds confidence because it is nice to have new ideas and new thought in the business.
Yes, and you’ve talked a lot about tech as a tech business, but if I bring tech into the HR space specifically, and we start to talk about data and talent intelligence… how do you use it to make your decisions?
I think anyone who’s ever worked with me, would probably describe in the first three bullet points, being quite data-driven and I enjoy the quiet side of it.
The first thing I did when I joined 10X was, say, show me.
The HR systems’ architecture was quite desperate, but there were some good tools in there. How are you setting and then tracking meaningful OKRs for the people team across a disparate range of systems with no unifying layer on top?
So we brought in a visualisation tool called Tableau, which basically pulls the data from every system we need it to display.
I think that’s the first place to start. What are we actually trying to measure?
Why are we trying to measure it and how are we going to do so? What that’s been really good on, is not just obviously giving me information to make decisions but to feed into the rest of the executive team to make decisions.
It is also really good for showing progress. Being able to say to your talent acquisition team, “Hey, your cost per hire was there and it’s now there.”
We’ll say to the L&D team, your training programs that you roll out this year have had an MPS of 8.5, they like to see. That enthuses people to keep going.
They can see progress, so that’s been the initial stage where I want to go, which is probably more important.
Teams are probably bored of me talking about this, but how do we build predictive analytics to what we’re doing, and that would be figuring out as a data point?
What is our red zone?
If you want to call it attrition, for example, assume someone gets to work for us for 2 1/2 years and they’re in this team, and in this particular role, in the past people have begun to resign at that point.
How do we then get in there and make sure that they feel a sense of belonging exactly?
Mitigate that risk.
And so that’s where I want to go in terms of the predictive analytics. I’d say we’ve made 20% of the progress I want to make there, but we’ve got a long way to go.
David, I’d say that 20% is probably 20% more than a lot of the audience watching this right now.
I hope so.
So you’re probably ahead of that curve and my last question to you, David, and I’m going to say this because I’m old enough to say it, but if you look back on your career and gave your 20-year-old self advice from what you know today, what would that be so that our audience that aspire to be in your chair one day can take away those nuggets of wisdom?
That’s a good question, isn’t it?
I think if you want to do any leadership role, but particularly the CPO gig, you have to be commercial – learn how to read a balance sheet, learn what the key drivers within investment are, what investors care about, how those markets work, because it ends up being part of your job and you need to do that and the earlier you upskill and ask questions, the better.
The second thing and I always thought when I was younger, and I often say this to my own team, is back yourself a bit more.
I think when I was younger, and we’ve all probably been guilty of this, I’d sit in a meeting and because maybe I was coming from the people team, I’d see something that I wanted to say on a topic outside of my domain and I’d hold back and think, oh well, you know, that’s not my expertise and maybe I should just be humble and leave it and then someone else would say it and everyone would be going ’that’s a good point’ and I think I should have done that more.
One of the things I enjoy about being a little bit more experienced now is you do just say it, and when you’re younger, sometimes you hold back more than you should.
So I think, yes, if you’re an aspiring CPO and you see something and you genuinely feel it, call it out and go for it. There’s no limitations on this role anymore, so that would be probably the two things I’d think.
I think your role as CPO transcends all the other functions because it’s people and you know they fit everywhere in the business to be successful.
Your time, as always, is massively appreciated and I know our audience will love to hear this. So I am really grateful for your time. Thank you so much.
If you enjoyed this CPO Spotlight head to our LinkedIn page where you can stay up to date with our latest content