The Big Interview with Rachel Woolf

Rachel Woolf is the People Director at full fibre broadband provider Zzoomm.

For HR Heads‘ latest Big Interview, Rachel spoke with Jen Gaster about her career and what she looks for when hiring.

You joined Zzoomm right as we were coming out of the pandemic, picking up the pieces and getting things back to normal.

Could you give us an idea of the leadership muscles you were flexing and developing within the business to get us back to where we are today?

Sure, I joined pretty much two years ago, just as we were still in partial lockdown.

There were still some of the group challenges of not having too many people in one place and working from home, so it was a strange time to be joining a new leadership role, as it would normally be associated with meeting people in person and spending lots of time with each other which wasn’t possible. 

The first time I met my leadership team was on the day I joined, which I had never had previously. 

I had previously had in-person interviews or time in the office with people. 

I didn’t realise quite how tall our CEO was until I met him because I had only ever seen his head! 

So, some of those muscles are around remote relationship building and how you create that rapport with people that you can’t necessarily have a kitchen or a coffee chat with. 

That was very much around trying to create informal moments remotely, so that was a real challenge for me. 

I had spent lockdown with people I had worked with for six years so I hadn’t had to form relationships. 

We have a very open culture and one of our expectations is that you will have your camera on – we don’t judge piles of washing in the background or your cat strolling across the screen, we are fully embracing that position and actually, it is about the relationship piece. 

Having your camera on is not to check you are working, it is for those visible cues, the non-verbal cues. 

I’m sure you know all the stats on most of our communications being non-verbal so if you can’t see someone you can’t pick up the excitement or joy in their face or some of the anxiety or any of those emotions because you can’t see them. 

Another key muscle was around juggling in terms of that strategic piece and where we are going in an unknown climate but also some of that operational side.

Most of HR when it came to the pandemic was suddenly learning things about health and safety and all kinds of legal and other bits. 

It was juggling the strategic piece but also the operational piece. 

A colleague described it to me, perhaps once upon a time we were juggling a set of multi-coloured balls, but now we were juggling a chainsaw and a ball and a knife and maybe something invisible and keeping them all going. 

I have always found myself in roles where you might be doing some really basic day-to-day stuff and then going into a meeting talking about how you are going to move forward with the business. 

I think in that leadership sense the juggle will always be there. 

In terms of post-pandemic, they are there but they are changing, now the conversations are around people who have gotten used to working fully remotely. 

A lot of conversations are around bringing people back in but reaching a sensible level, we are not a “you must be in the office Monday to Friday 9-5.30 organisation”. 

Particularly because a lot of our roles are construction we are out digging the roads and building so that doesn’t make sense. 

Everyone was working fully remotely but equally getting people back into the office and getting that balance right, we focus so much on outputs it is not so important to us when you are at your desk but whether or not you are producing the outputs. 

You must manage your own time and work on your deliverables but it is also about getting all the jigsaw pieces back together as people have got used to the broadest sense of flexibility and it is working with your people to find the middle ground.

What did you learn from your earliest influences?

I have some really early influencers: an HR Business Partner when I first started out and an HR Director I worked for a couple of roles ago, who are both, particularly as we have just celebrated International Woman’s Day, very strong females in different ways and they always stick to their core purpose. 

One of them was perhaps a lot softer but equally steadfast and determined in her approach and the other was perhaps a lot more outwardly tough. 

From them it is that core sense of purpose – what am I doing and why am I here? What is the business doing? 

That is one of the things our Chief Exec now really focuses on.

In what way is the job today different from what you thought it might be?

Generally different good. I chose the role quite carefully because I felt from the interview it was genuinely a people-centred organisation. 

Everyone says it but not all organisations necessarily follow through on that. I worked for a leader quite a while ago and he said I don’t want to run an engagement survey until I can get the results I want! 

So I thought that Zzoomm was very people-centred and that is one of the reasons I joined. It really is that way almost to the point that there is too much to do. 

The organisation is four years old and ambitious. 

When I joined we were 75 people and now we are 650 so it was almost that you can see they really do want it all. 

It was a great challenge for me, it was just what I wanted almost on a greater version.

When you look to hire, what is it you look for as the X factor in successful candidates? 

There is so much in the market talking about not necessarily hiring for skill but hiring for attitude and aptitude and cultural fit, is that something Zzoomm is implementing?

In the early days, we had a higher turnover than I would have liked.

Our managers learned how to get a grip on this and really focus on what we needed. 

Of course, for some roles, you need a certain level of skill but we have a huge number of trainee programmes where we take on fibre trainees, construction trainees and IT trainees because the attitude is so much more important often than the skill. 

You can teach someone how to splice a fibre or develop a software programme but a lot of those soft skills you can’t teach (sometimes you can). 

For us, it is that real ‘get things done’ attitude. It is great having the ideas but are you someone who will actually do it. 

We look for people who will get something done; in a fast-growing business, it is absolutely about just doing something. 

We fully know we will do it and not even six months later we might be doing it again, doing it better or re-doing it but that is so much better than not doing anything at all. 

It is people being comfortable enough to constantly evaluate and throw it out and start again, and that is ok, the work is not wasted.

And how do you measure that?

There is a mix, in a way physical roles are easier because you can test whether they can actually do it, there is a real tangible there. 

It is not perfect, we don’t get it right all of the time, but it is around that careful questioning, so in terms of asking questions, all the recruitment 101s really. 

Also, asking questions about things. 

If I give you an example, I find the most telling is asking about when it went wrong. 

Why did it go wrong and what did you learn from it? 

Then you can start to really get to know them. 

There is a whole piece around getting swept in with a story but it is always bringing yourself back and making sure you explore the areas where you need to know the detail. 

Sometimes it is about the roles they’ve worked in previously, they might not be in our sector but if you know they’ve worked in a start-up that has grown to a significant level they have to have done a certain amount of things. 

One of the things about growing organisations is people wear multiple hats so you know pretty quickly if people are not doing the role. 

What is it you look for in tomorrow’s talent?

I am thankful for the processes that help us to identify this, and I feel lucky that I have found a great team. There are people in all of our regions I trust and I know they will do what we need them to do in the right way. 

For me, it was a few things – obviously that they are a doer, that they are open to everything – open to trying something new, open to learning, reflecting on what they’ve done and building on that.

Our role is all about supporting and developing managers, it is relationship building and to be honest, everyone who works for me has the ability to think. 

We are not necessarily always talking about a revolutionary idea, but they are the ones who can spot things and early on in your career you’re not going to have lots of experience but showing you are thinking about things and the tiny improvements in everything is a good start. 

We are not expecting people to be revolutionary, although that is great, really it is continuous marginal gains.

As you grow data becomes more and more important, we have moved more digitally, how do you embrace data?

I don’t think you can operate in our space without knowing our data.

I love the insights it gives you because again, in our world, it is about how we can make things better. 

We have monthly recruitment reports where we look at say, everyone who has left during their probationary period. For us, that means we have probably hired the wrong person. 

The chances are if they have gone during their probation, we have made a poor assessment of their skills or poor assessment of their cultural fit. 

They might be leaving us because they don’t like the fit so that enables us to look back at our process and improve, so we have a lot of metrics on all of those things. 

We do biannual employee surveys, we do new starter surveys and exit surveys; we have all of our EDI data. 

We have huge amounts and that really informs our strategy as the data helps to highlight the patterns and issues. The chances are, if there are repeat issues, we need to support our managers to develop in some way.  

That multiplies up the business, we are looking at health and safety, properties ready for service, customers, customer service calls and complaints every week. All of this data helps us to recognise and fix issues, or just make things even better.

In terms of Zzoomm and where it goes what are you personally wanting to champion over the next 2-3 years? 

The equality piece is really important to us. It is also definitely about manager development and capability. 

A lot of our business is in construction and typically construction managers come from a contracting or self-employed basis or they have been in roles that are very physical, and they have not been managers or leaders. 

Generally, it will come as no surprise that our best-performing areas are the areas that have the best people managers. So, it is constantly on our agenda to give people those tools. 

In the UK, we are particularly bad at giving someone the role of a manager and expecting them to know how to do it. 

It is absolutely key that we really focus on it. If you have great people everything else comes from them. 

If you haven’t enabled them in the first place you are not going to get to that. 

For me, it is really focusing on having great people.