The Big Interview with Katherine Watkins

Katherine Watkins is Chief People Officer at global marketing group Selbey Anderson. For HR Heads' latest Big Interview, she spoke with Jen Gaster about some of the hot topics facing HR.

“I would describe my background as eclectic with all the organisations I have worked for, from the regulatory side through to the non-regulatory side.”

What leadership muscles did you develop during the pandemic that you would like to retain?

It is strange to think that nearly three years on we are still talking about it but I think it has positively affected what we do as individuals as well as people and a workforce. 

I think we have 600 muscles in our body and I have probably flexed and used them all within that period! 

Specifically, though within the realm of work and the companies I have worked for during that time. 

I would say the muscles I have really honed and sometimes gained; behavioural agility, you have to think quickly, be able to move at pace and have different views. 

Feedback, is a muscle that as an HR professional we have, but actually sometimes giving feedback to yourself and feeding it to those around you is a skill that not all-HR professionals are good at, but I know I certainly had to hone that having difficult conversations and when people are just feeling low.

I think I maybe have 602 muscles now! 

The big thing we see in the media now is saying it is ok not to be ok and sometimes going through that pandemic I was having to do some very hard activities for a company I was working with and it takes its toll.

I had to say to myself it is ok that this is draining you, it is a skill certainly and something I have had to hone over the last three or so years. 

Are there any key influencers that stand out and have shaped the Katherine that you are today?

For me there are clearly three and, some of those were from the very early stages of my career right up to the present day 

At a lot of the organisations I worked for they gave me the breadth of access to HR activities a lot of people starting out in HR don’t get access to. 

I started out my HR career in an accountancy firm in the city and I had a fantastic manager, that really shaped me from the get-go. 

Since then, I have had three amazing bosses who I will always admire and continue to be in touch with going forward, Julie Clarke (from Sutherland); Dom Hawes (current boss from Selbey Anderson) and Richard McKenzie (UKGI Group)

I tap into them now.

I was really able to hone from the very start of my career 20+ years ago where I knew my strengths and passions were because I tried everything in HR. 

The advantage of being in a smaller firm was a jack of all trades master of none scenario. 

Companies now of a certain size have areas of excellence so you have an L&D and advisory and a back office. 

There is nothing wrong with that as it gives people mobility and as long as you have the agility to move people around as they can try everything, I think that is hugely beneficial to the prowess of a good HR professional going forward. 

We introduce you as Chief People Officer today, in what way is that number one job different to what you expected it to be?

If my boss at Selbey Anderson is listening to this, I should say it is exactly as he described it! 

Traditionally I see the CPO role as one that would be looking at culture and workplace strategies, versus an HRD role where it is more around process and policy. 

The CPO role for me still looks at people culture, and workplace strategies but it incorporates a lot more. 

It does incorporate some of the HRD policies and strategies, but we are constantly having to update them. 

The ever-changing employment rights and the diversity and the ESG, that all come centrally in so I think for me the CPO role has become a specialised nucleus but then it is really expanding significantly. You can only do it in my view, with a team behind you as there is so much you have to be across. 

You don’t want to spread yourself too thin but then you have to be a knowledge expert in so many fields.

What about acting as coach to the leadership team?

Yes, more so since the pandemic. 

You are coaching people who see themselves as quite resilient, you are having to coach them through changing their attitudes, their behaviours the way they work. 

You’re needing to have agility, to be able to work across a variety of things. It is becoming more consultative in a sense, it is a more independent strategic advisor, and people come to HR as the non-threatening advisor. 

As a CPO, I contribute to the growth of Selby Anderson, we are formed out of mergers and acquisitions we are what we call a buy and build and I have got to contribute to that. 

It is a big shift for many.

When you hire into your team, what are the X factors you need to see?

The majority of the roles in my team have a certain level of experience within HR. 

For me, that is a given.

I actually drill down to the individual. I often say wall flowers need not apply! You need people who can be robust, and who can have confidence without being cocky. 

Who can show me their passion for our profession. 

I adore it, I have got to where I want to be with it. I am looking for that hunger, that excitement. 

I also look at team members who aren’t necessarily newbies, sometimes the older people like back-to-work mothers or those in their 50s, everyone can change and adapt so I look for the hunger, the excitement, the calmness but the proactiveness as well at the same time.

We are speaking about data, it has been one of the key topics for HR, is there something specific that you use data for to make the HR profession stand out within the organisation?

Data, for me, can be a help or a hindrance, we can get too caught up in analysing data, and doing spreadsheets and reports.

I tend to look now at the raw data that tells me what is right and what is wrong but if you get too scooped up in the detail you forget about the impact it is going to have around the company. 

I see HR as the storyteller of that data. You are cleansing data, making sure it is robust and you do have to have a certain mindset. So, I do find it useful, I don’t like it to run a business wholeheartedly. 

For me, it is more about once you collect and analyse the data, what are you going to do with it.

How is that data going to change the organisation? 

Find the quick wins, it should influence your growth, your change and your decisions going forward. 

We do employer surveys, if you want good results, you do them on payday, if you really want insight you do them in the depths of winter when people are feeling miserable, you have to go to think about when you got the information and whether it is truly reflective of the workforce and actually I say to my team don’t just run on the data go and build relationships. 

HR is about relationship building. 

When we talk about the next generation of leaders, what advice would you give them?

Don’t do it! 

I would say show your willingness to learn, do your research, not just the basic research dig a little deeper. 

I saw on LinkedIn a couple of days ago, it said to answer the question with as little as you can but end with a question. 

That shows a willingness to learn. 

Always ask, always question things, but with that build something in the back of it. 

Also, if people can show their willingness to get their hands dirty. We need to run head first into a disciplinary, redundancy process people coming into certain environments say they can handle it but they want to try. 

Try and fail but at least try. It is hunger. For leaders I would say, don’t always hire you or what you thought you were, don’t always hire what you have on your team already look at the variety out there. 

Sometimes you just need to pick it out, don’t just look at qualifications and experience, look at the person as well. I think as leaders we need to be bold at reaffirming the diversity of a workforce. 

If you don’t feel you have the systems of being able to train someone up to be able to do what you need them to do, take a risk if you like the person. 

If they have that willingness, you can work with them. The whole ethos of business will change, I often say it should quash this constant talk of covid changing things, don’t let’s link on to that let’s do something about it.