The Big Interview with Paula Porter

The HR Heads Career Profile Series: We speak with HR specialists 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 Paula Porter, Senior Vice President People at Carnival UK (P&O Cruises & Cunard).


What does a typical day in the office look like for you?

Well, firstly – we’re quite lucky to be able to sit in this beautiful office, looking out to the sea and, when they’re in, the ships. How many people can say they have a full view of their product every day? It’s a lovely place to work.

There really is no ‘typical day’ for me. We’re very dependent on the weather due to our business being out on the water which means it can be really unpredictable and we need to respond immediately if something goes wrong. There are often operational challenges my team are involved in; either a shortfall in people, people falling ill or an issue with one of the ships. Although we obviously want to give a great experience to everybody on board, but safety comes first. Because I am on the Executive Board, I’m contacted regarding most issues.

Day to day, I work closely with my team. I always make sure our recruitment is running well – it’s important we get the right people into the organisation and give them a proper induction. We then look to develop their skills with set training programs, so that they’re compliant within the maritime legislation. There’s around a 20 week timeframe to onboard an employee before they’re ready to go out to sea, which we manage in the People team. We also focus on employee engagement and happiness, for both people at sea and on shore, and whether they would recommend us as employers to others.


What do you love, and also find the most challenging in your role?

One of the biggest challenges comes with all the different nationalities we employ. We have 57 nationalities in total with people overseas and on ships – and we want to make sure they all feel welcomed and at home wherever they are. I do love this about the role but it can be challenging at times. Also, the diverse range of people living and working together in such close proximity can cause issues at times. Imagine falling out with a colleague then having to share a cabin! We do have HR presence on our ships – there are about 20 onboard HR Managers and their employees that work on the ships to ensure one HR professional is on board at all times.

The part of my job I really love is sitting in on the executive team of leaders reporting directly into our President. There are 9 of us in total, and I’m actually the only female at the moment! Being on the Executive Leadership team, I have the power to really influence the people agenda and come at things from a different perspective. I’m in a great position to represent the employees voice.


Wow – the only female in the Exec team. How do you feel about quotas on the board?

We need far more women at a senior level in business. I think the gender pay gap announcement will really help that. It’s bringing things like International Women’s Day to the forefront of people’s minds. We’ve actually started to do a lot of work on supporting our teams – for example, Imposter syndrome; women tend to have more of these doubting inner voices than male colleagues, and we don’t always promote ourselves enough to get to these higher-level positions. I think that if we can understand the voice we will be able to help direct it in the right way.

Can you tell us about your proudest  career moment?

My proudest moment is when I made the switch from retail where I’d worked for many years with M&S and I knew I needed to push myself and experience a different environment. This is when I started working for a shipping company. It was a bit scary at first! It was much more male dominated and very different from what I’d been used to. But I remember doubling my salary (which was amazing!) and I bought my Alpha Romeo 156 – it was black and had red leather seats and I remember really feeling like I’d made it. That was definitely one of my proudest moments – realising that I could be brave enough to take my skills and apply them to another environment.

Since working for Carnival, my proudest moment has got to be meeting the Queen and Prince Philip for the Britannia Inaugural Event in 2015. It was an amazing day – the sort of day that can only compare to your wedding day; it was so special. It was beautifully sunny, we had dinner and spent the night on board and the next day we met the Queen. It was a very proud achievement to not just me but everyone in the company.


What do the next 12 months look like for you?

We’ve invested a lot of time finding out what our customers think about our ships, as well as really detailed internal surveys – so we’ve identified some key areas of improvement to focus on. Moving forward, we want to make sure our structure is really refined so that everybody is placed where they are most effective. But equally, we need to make sure we have the very best leaders in place, developing them in the right way and then attracting and retaining the right people. Also, in the entire cruise industry there are 80 new ships coming into play – so naturally the competition for talent will be a big challenge as we’re looking to employ 15,000 new people in the next 5 years! Equally we will have to enter new markets, making sure our product is promoted right.

We’re always trying to attract new comers to cruising. A lot of people who haven’t cruised sadly have quite a dated opinion of what cruising is actually like. Nowadays it’s a fantastic holiday for both families and young people, too. It’s a really good value, exciting way to see lots of places very quickly, in some absolutely stunning ships complete with bars, restaurants, shops, spa’s, pools and so much more. We’re competing now against holidays in general, so we’re trying to get people to think about cruising in a different way. There’s a lot of fun to be had on a cruise!


Looking back, what advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?

It would be: take some risks. Go for it and think “what’s the worst thing that can happen?”. Push those inner voices to one side – you’ll be surprised how far you can push yourself. I have watched people in the past few years do that and it’s amazing to see them grow and succeed as a result.


Are you passionate about championing anything in your role as HR Director?

Definitely gender diversity, whether that be from a guest perspective in terms of the decisions we make for our guests or from a recruitment perspective when we’re exploring both retention and attraction. We are currently trying to attract more females for our ships. One of the initiatives I’m driving here is employee led groups, for example our LGBT group, who make sure they’re represented and have a voice within the business.

The other element we’re focusing on is employee happiness, we need to make sure they want to be here. I think, the secret to employee retention is happiness. Yes, you have to pay a good salary but in my experience, it’s not the key motivator. We have some great managers in place who are talking to the individuals that don’t seem very motivated to understand how we can help make positive change for them.

We are also trying to focus on making our flexible working policy company wide and consistent throughout the departments. This is particularly important for millennials – I’ve noticed that as a whole they want more flexibility, so we’d be daft not to change with the upcoming generation! We recently had a snow day and everything functioned as normal – because we made it possible for our employees to work remotely or walk in.


Paula’s essential skills for a successful HR leader:
  1. Tenacity
  2. Resilience
  3. Love of People


Get to know Paula!

Favourite book: Sail Away, by Celia Emery.

Favourite film: Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Bridget Jones! I’m really enjoying The Crown at the moment on Netflix, too!

Top destination: New Zealand, Fiji, Venice is beautiful from a Cruise Ship. I’d love to go to the French Polynesia – Bora Bora and Tahiti – they’re on my list for this year, and the Captains tell me it’s wonderful.

Favourite cuisine: Spanish.

Pastimes: My husband and I really enjoy being on the water – we have a small motor cruiser currently on the Beaulieu River. We also love spending time in the New Forest with our two dogs.


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Jennifer Gaster, Director