Be More, A Podcast by Peakon, Lands Today

In the first episode of our podcast Be More, Patrick Cournoyer is joined by Ann Pickering, former CHRO and chief of staff at Telefonica O2, UK.


Some say that the way we work today has progressed by a decade in the past four months. None of us could have prepared for the turbulence, yet we are all now gearing up to conquer the unknown. 

People leaders from all over the world have been told to adapt their leadership style, scale projects, and drive digital transformation, while simultaneously staying sane and not bowing under the pressure of the utter madness we are currently living through.

Well, we want to give you what you need to do that and more.

Our newest podcast—Be More—brings you real, tangible insights. It is a podcast that stimulates discussion about how everyone at any organization can thrive as the world of work changes. We simply share the practical advice and guidance that you need to successfully lead your employees today, and bring you stories that will empower you, and empower your people.  

What do we mean by Be More? It’s when you can be yourself. Contribute your individuality to the company culture. And feel totally safe doing so. 

We hope that our stories will inspire you to Be More, at work and in life.

Be More 

In the first episode of Be More, we are joined by Ann Pickering, former chief human resources officer and chief of staff at Telefonica O2, UK.

We discuss the difference between diversity and inclusion, faith-based holiday swaps, trust-based leadership, and the importance of O2’s purpose. Intriguing? Well, this is not one to miss, especially because it’s our first.

Ann provides answers for all the challenges that people leaders are facing today.

Tune in now. Or if you want a sneak peak, check out the key takeaways below. 

Key Takeaways

  • Transforming O2 into a Hotel, Not a Prison. When Ann joined O2, she was tasked with recruiting a large number of employees to support their rapidly growing customer base. There were three “magnificent call centers” across the M62 motorway in the North of England that needed to be filled with engaged, passionate staff. Easy job, right? 

    Well, she took the challenge and tasked her team with the question: “How do we make O2 like a hotel, not a prison?” This led to Ann’s team creating an inclusive, engaging work environment. Ann believes that this is one of the reasons that O2 has been so successful over so many years.

  • Supporting Customers on Christmas Day. O2 had a massive challenge supporting their customers on Christmas Day. Despite paying well and celebrating while at work, they still struggled to staff the holiday period. Ann sat down with her employees and asked: “How can we make this experience better for you and our customers?”

    They responded with the concept of faith-based holiday swaps, where employees of different faiths would swap holiday days to cover different religious holidays.

  • “Out of Work” Recruitment. Ann brought in people that had been out of the workplace for between 2-10 years for a 14-week program. She was astonished by the quality of talent, and 90% of these employees then went on to transition into full-time roles with O2.

  • Trust-Based Leadership. Ann states that work should be something that you do, not a place that you go to. With the rise of remote work, this is now truer than ever before. Leaders must now lead with trust in order to get from, and give the most, to their employees.

    In addition, when asked about the #1 thing a new people leader can do to lead better right now, Ann states that you should simply start each meeting with “How are you?”

  • Reflecting the Diversity of O2’s Customer Base. Ann shares that she strove to ensure that O2’s employee diversity matched the diversity of their 34 million-strong customer base. Ann and O2 achieved this over a number of years of effort, and saw a clear commercial benefit.

    Ann states that “diversity is being invited to the party, inclusivity is being asked to dance,” and wanted everyone at O2 to feel comfortable to dance.

Full Transcript:

Patrick Cournoyer: Accelerated by the global pandemic, the world of work is changing faster than ever before. It truly has shaken up lives, societies, and economies worldwide. It’s turned the world of work upside down, but it’s also demonstrated what’s possible. People leaders are now faced with different challenges and they’re asking questions like, “How do I make the future of work work for me, for my business, and for my employees? How can I continue to engage my employees to help them grow and to be successful? How do I make them feel like they belong?”

I’m Patrick Cournoyer, and I’m the Chief Evangelist here at Peakon. I spend a lot of time thinking about questions like these, but I’m always interested in hearing how others tackle these challenges. That’s why we’re starting Be More, a podcast by Peakon. On this podcast, we share different and meaningful perspectives on how we can all thrive in the ever-evolving world of work. I will be talking to people leaders like Ann Pickering, the former CHRO of O2.

Ann Pickering: I’ve always been a believer that work is something that you do, not a place to which you go, and that has been proven in the pandemic. Therefore, what you need to come up with is the strategy that is based on trust. I trust you to do a good job. I trust you to do the right thing for our customers.

Patrick: Larissa Conte, founder of Wayfinding.

Larissa Conte: She was saying, “We’ve offered time off to our teams. People are tired and we’ve offered all these wellness resources, but people aren’t taking it. They’re still exhausted and they’re wanting more.”

Patrick: David Swanagon, Head of HR & Analytics for Technical Services at Saudi Aramco.

David Swanagon: Companies need to have a really strong understanding of what their corporate strategy is. When you face any type of adversity, especially with how dynamic geopolitics or economic market seems. If you don’t have a clear understanding of what your focus strategy is, it’s easy for you to get distracted as adversity happens.

Patrick: To tune in for these and other perspectives, search Be More in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere all the podcasts are found and click subscribe so you don’t miss out on any future episodes.

Ann Transcript:

Patrick: One of the top 50 women role models in 2019, a visiting professor at Sheffield University Management School, a former board member and CHRO at O2 here in the UK, and currently a strategic advisor for KPMG. Needless to say, my guest today not only has an impressive background, she’s also incredibly passionate about diversity, inclusion, and social mobility in the workforce. Ann, thank you for spending some time with me today.

Ann: My pleasure, Patrick.

Patrick: Well, you have accomplished so much over the past few years. Let’s start the conversation off with your journey at O2 or some of the challenges and opportunities that you faced as CHRO.

Ann: I joined O2 16 years ago and that journey I stepped down earlier over the middle of this year but I joined in 2004, and that was when mobile was just growing incredibly. I’d been working in IT services so it was a bit of a culture shock, but I loved the idea of joining a technology company that was growing so quickly. The biggest challenge I faced at the time was just dealing with that growth and trying to recruit the huge numbers of people that we needed to talk to our customers in the UK.

What I faced was three magnificent call centres across the M62 corridor in the North of England that I needed to fill with people who were engaging and could talk to our customers and that was a massive challenge. A lot of the people we had in place were temporary agency staff and it was very clear to me that we have the balance wrong. We needed to make sure we had some good 70% of our employees were permanent employees who could live and breathe the values of O2 and bring it to life for our customers.

One of the things I had to think about quickly is how do I make O2 a really attractive place to work? I came up with a theory that I wanted O2 to be a hotel, not a prison. What I mean by that is I wanted people to choose to work for O2, rather than it paid the bills or it paid the rent. Therefore, the question I posed to my team is what is it that we need to do that will mean that people will choose to work at O2?

That’s really why I’ve placed so much emphasis over the years around creating a really inclusive environment for our employees so that people would choose to work for this company. The added benefit you get therefore is a lot of discretionary efforts. People are there because they want to be there. They get out of bed in the morning thinking I want to go to work and is a very, very different proposition and I believe that’s one of the reasons why O2 has been so successful over the last 15 or 16 years because of our people and the service that they provide to the 34 million customers that O2 have in the UK.

Patrick: I could not agree with you more as far as the people element and the importance of people really believing not only in the brand and the company that they work for, but wanting to come to work every day. That’s a significant shift, as you said, right? You had a temporary workforce. I’m sure that there were a lot of just organizational changes that also came with changing this concept or moving to the concept of hotel, not a prison, which is that I say a really good way of talking about the goal that we have with creating amazing places for people to work.

How did the leadership support that change within the organization? Were they welcoming and supportive of it? I’m sure that there was a big change. I’m sure financially a big change for the organization as well.

Ann: It was a big change, but they were scratching their head a little bit when I joined working out what to do. If I’m honest, Patrick, it was quite an easy sell because they had nothing that they were working on. Inclusive organizations, organizations that really involve everybody, are just so much more successful. The stats are all out there about how much more efficient they are, people want to buy from organizations like that.

There was a very clear commercial imperative that I presented to the board that says, “If we create this, this is what I believe we’ll get from a commercial perspective.” I wanted to avoid it looking like an HR initiative. It was underpinned by commercial common sense, really but it was an easy sell, Patrick, I wouldn’t like you to think I’d gone in there on my white horse saving O2.

Patrick: [laughs]That was very advanced thinking, I would say, at the time. Now we’re seeing a lot of businesses that are connecting the people experience with business outcomes and how important the people decisions are and how they really do drive strategic business decisions at the organizational level. That was not the case 15, 16 years ago. I do think that you pioneered that in a lot of ways just hearing that because the workforce was just different. I think that this idea of people being the centre of decisions now is much more accepted, but we’ll get to that shortly.

I’m curious to get your perspective over that period of time, as you were making this transition with employees really loving going to work every day, being connected, having this concept of more discretionary effort. Are there one or two specific initiatives or programs that you introduced that stand out in your mind as incredibly successful? Like if I think about my time as CHRO, as a senior leader at O2, this one program or these two programs were defining moments in my career there.

Ann: If I look back, I think there were two. So go right back to 2006, ’07, ’08, it was before online took off. People wanted to call O2 speak to a human being about their contract, or their phone, or their challenges. Go right back to 2004, ’05, ’06, this is way before online shopping became so commonplace. People wanted to call up and speak to a human being about all their phone contracts.

Particularly, when it was Christmas Day and that shiny phone was under the Christmas tree. People wanted to call in and speak to a human being on Christmas Day to connect their phone and that was really difficult. We had to effectively force people to work over big family holidays. Christmas Eve, you name it, we had to do it. It was a very uncomfortable experience even though we paid them incredibly well. We made it a very joyous event in the office. We brought in Christmas turkeys. We went through enormous lengths to make it a great experience, but at the end of the day, these people were not at home with their loved ones and I got that.

We HR people often think that we know best don’t we? Well, here’s the lesson I learned. We went to our people in our call centres, now remembering our call centres were in the North of England, we had a very mixed ethnic employee base. We sat in a room and said, “Look, we have to be open on Christmas Day. What can we do here? Any ideas that you have that could make this a better experience for you, but give a great experience to our customers?” People just turned around and said, “Here you go, Ann. How about faith-based holiday swaps? I’ll work Christmas, you work Eid.” Now, I never would have thought of that.

The big lesson for me there was actually if you go to your people and ask them for some thoughts, it’s amazing to [inaudible 00:08:33] the creativity that you hear about, but more importantly, they feel they’ve got a voice, and they got skin in the game. Now, did it solve all my staffing problems on Christmas Day? No. Did it solve some of them? Yes. Did it make our people feel that they were part of that? Absolutely. That is a real standout moment for me.

The second initiative that I launched was a career returners program. This wasn’t about nice Ann trying to help other women. This is about a commercial challenge we had in operations area and that was IT technology network security. We could not find sufficiently skilled people in that space so we decided to turn things on its head and came up with the idea of looking for people who’d been out of the workplace that no one else was interested in because their skills were allegedly out of date.

We looked to attract people who’d been out of the workplace anywhere between two and 10 years. We brought them in on a 14-week program as a cohort, which was very important. As it happened they were all female, but that wasn’t necessarily the target market we were going after. We brought them in and said, “14-week program we’ll pay you for those 14 weeks come into the office, start getting back into work, start utilizing your skills, and then start applying for jobs.” There was no guarantee of jobs at the end.

What I found was an untapped pool of talent that frankly was amazing. They came in, all they’ve lost was their confidence. They’d been out of the workplace. They were smart enough to pick up the skills that we needed. The first year I did it, 90% of them were appointed into jobs, the second year 95%, and September ’19, last year, every single one of them were appointed into roles in O2. That was a win-win for O2. What really struck me was how grateful these people were to O2. That was really sad, they shouldn’t be grateful. We gave them an opportunity but they’re coming in and they’re doing some really meaningful roles in O2.

When organizations talk about wanting current experience I would challenge that and say, recruit for attitude, you can always train for skill. We picked up some amazing people, all of whom happen to be females who are now doing amazing roles in O2 and their careers are flying and they are so loyal to the organization and are fantastic brand ambassadors as well. They were probably two of the things I was most proud of at my time in O2.

Interviewer: Both very inspiring stories. I think the common thread that I hear between both of them is about empowering people and making sure that people are part of the process, part of the creativity, part of the decision process. As you said, not everything has to come from HR or from senior leadership, some of the best ideas are the ones that are populated by just asking members of the team what they think and how they would approach a challenge.

Let’s talk about today, you have this enormous amount of experience, great success in how you lead O2 from the people perspective. Now we are moving into this new world, here we are and every organization in the world is thinking about what their next chapter is going to be building their new world of work for their organizations, figuring out how to keep their cultures alive and connected, how cultures maybe need to change, how values may need to change because the new world of work. What is your perspective on what the future is going to look like from a people perspective at organizations?

Interviewee: We find ourselves in interesting times and there is no playbook for the situation that we find ourselves in and no one therefore has the right answers but the one thing that I think is going to be critical is leadership. I think the leadership that many organizations had seven or eight months ago is not the leadership that’s going to be required going forward. If you were an organization that was very much a command and control– By the way, a lot of organizations have run very successfully in that way, I’m not knocking it. That will not work going forward.

I’ve always been a believer that work is something that you do, not a place to which you go and that has been proven in the pandemic. Therefore what you need to come up with, is a leadership strategy that is based on trust. I trust you to do a good job, I trust you to do the right thing for our customers, but you won’t be sitting at the end of my desk and I will be watching you. It’s going to be a leadership based on trust, I think it’s got to be compassionate based leadership as well because of the challenges that people are finding themselves and it’s got to be quite directional.

What I’ve found over my career is that when times are tough or there’s challenges, people want strong, clear, directional leadership. They want to know where you’re going and how you’re going to help them get there. That’s what I think, the organizations that are going to succeed going forward are the ones that understand that and execute like that. I think many will succeed but I think many will find that really, really challenging

Interviewer: I think one of those challenge areas and I’d love to get your perspective on this is new people leaders. One of the areas that’s or something that has happened over the past couple of months is people leaders are finding themselves in a challenging situation with a fragmented workforce. They maybe be new people leaders, they’re challenged with the expectations of just leading a team to start out with and they have this additional layer of people working from home and for the foreseeable future, having a fragmented workforce.

Then there’s a very specific need right now which is a very relevant need around employee wellbeing, and the expectation of people, leaders to be employee or wellbeing leaders for their team is quite frankly scary for a lot of young, new people leaders. If you had one suggestion to give to a new people leader in an organization that has a team and they’re first-time people leaders, what is one suggestion that you could give to that new people leader in how to be successful over the next couple of weeks, months?

Interviewee: I would say start every meeting you have with your team member with “How are you?”. Before you get into the business targets, objectives, “How are you?”. Just get into the habit of starting each conversation like that. I know that sounds very simple but I think having seen how people are feeling and reacting to the pandemic that has occurred, that would make a real difference.

Interviewer: That’s directly in line with your senior leadership suggestion around compassion, because really that’s the core of it. It’s just being a human leader and making a personal connection, taking time to listen to your team. Not having to think about what objectives, what deliverables, what projects are we working on but just being a compassionate leader. You and I are both quite passionate about that.

Interviewee: There’s another point I’ve made, Patrick, O2 is a hugely successful business, probably the most successful mobile phone company in the UK. We are not a soft option, we are tough business, we’re very clear about what it is we’re trying to achieve with our people. I’m a great believer that the vast majority of people want to go to work and do a great job and therefore the ones that don’t, you’ve either got to help or you’ve got to just say [unintelligible 00:16:29]. I think being a compassionate leader or leading trustworthy way it’s not a soft option. Good strong leaders can be compassionate and be very successful.

Interviewer: Along those lines, we’re talking about being compassionate and that’s a shared passion that you and I have. Another passion of yours is diversity and inclusion and that is a key focus for many organizations today, an area that is significantly evolving and will continue to evolve over the next year. How have you seen organizational focus on diversity and inclusion change over the past couple of months?

Interviewee: I think it actually goes back a bit further than the last couple of months but I think it’s been brought into sharp relief over the last couple of months. If we look at an organization like O2, 34 million customers out there, if the workforce within that organization does not reflect that vibrant customer base, we’re going to go out of business. It’s really important that our people reflect our customers and understand them. That’s the first thing and that’s a commercial imperative.

How does that translate? What that meant was I decided I needed to aim to have a workforce within O2 that reflects the overall UK workforce makeup. That would be 50/50 gender split, 15% black heritage, 15% LGBTQ+, 5% disability. That’s the journey we started out on but there was an underlying commercial imperative and we measured it, we tracked it, we updated our workforce on progress and it was very clear about why we wanted to create this inclusive workforce. It’s all about being able to serve our customers better and therefore had again, clear commercial benefits as well.

There’s a great quote, I think is Maya Angelou, diversity is being invited to the party, inclusivity is being asked to dance and what we wanted was everyone O2 be able to dance. If you’ve got a workforce that reflects the workforce of the UK, happy days. That’s what we went after. I just want everyone to come to work and feel themselves. It’s not complicated but in order to do that you’ve got to help people understand what does that mean. It’s going to be very different if you’re a 25-year-old than if you’re someone who’s facing retirement, it’s going to be different. if you’re a woman who’s just come back from maternity leave or you’re a young female who’s just come out in terms of their sexuality.

It really is about almost segmenting your employee base and working out what are the things that are really important and helping people understand. Two of the things that I would add which I think it’d be very powerful, we had a purpose in O2 and a purpose if you get it right is a north star. What I mean by that is if you’re stuck, Patrick, you got a challenge, you stop and you say, “Okay, why am I here? What’s my purpose? ” Our purpose in O2 was making every day better through personal experiences account. Making every day better through personal experiences account.

If you had a problem and you just didn’t know where to go or what to do, stop and say, “How is what I’m doing, making every day better for my customer? How is it making every day better for my team member?” That’s a good purpose because that’s your north star. Lots of organizations have purposes written behind the reception area but bear no resemblance or connection to the organization. The power of a purpose if you get it right is really important. It allows your people to go back and say, “How does this work?”

The other thing I would say is values. We have values in O2. Bold, open, and trusted. Any employee could tell you what they were and every employee had them as part of their performance management. We had a culture where people would say to me, “Well, that’s not very bold, Ann.” “Do you think that’s trusted leadership asking me to do that?” That’s just fine. If you’ve got values, you have to live by them. That really helps as well.

When you’ve got people who work remotely, you’re not necessarily side by side. Having a purpose and having values that people can go back to every day I think really helps. I think the organizations who lack that sort of framework are the ones who are going to struggle more. It really does help your people focus their efforts.

Patrick: Along those lines, I could see significantly help leaders as well, because not only is it a north star for every employee, but I’m sure it probably helped the leadership at O2 with decision making or just holding themselves accountable to being a leader.

Ann: When we were planning. When we could see what was going to happen with the pandemic, we went into crisis mode planning wise. There were a couple of times when I sat with my CEO and said, “We’ve got to make some really big decisions here. We’ve got to make it quickly.” We used our values and used our purpose. When the furloughing concept was launched in the U.K, very early on, I sat down with my CEO and the rest of the UK board members to say, “I don’t think we should furlough.”

We were having to close all our retail outlets, which is over around about 300. I said, “I don’t think we should furlough.” My CFO was saying, “Really?” I said, “Absolutely.” I said, “We’re still going to make money. We’re just not going to make as much money as other organizations. The organizations that have to furlough are the ones who go first.” That was a decision we made really early on. We were able to communicate it to all people very earlier on.

That one decision created so much goodwill in our workforce, you wouldn’t believe it. The people who worked in stores said, “I’ll help out in the call centers. I’ll jump on calls with–” Discretionary effort we got from them when they could have sat at home and done not very much was amazing. Again, it really does help when you’ve got those big decisions to make. You’re exactly right, Patrick. It really helped us as a leadership team. The purpose and the values guided some of those major decisions that we made.

Patrick: Ann, we’re coming to the end of the conversation. I could talk with you for hours because you are incredibly inspirational. I know our audience is very much going to appreciate your perspective, the work that you’ve done, and also how you’re helping them in decisions today with figuring out what their next chapters are.

Firstly, thank you for spending some time with me today. As I said, I’m leaving this, even more, inspired based off of our conversation. Thank you for being you and just for the passion that you have in the work that you’re doing. I’m incredibly excited to see what the next year looks like for you.

Thank you for just being very real about what is needed in organizations, because I think that’s one of the things that people really want to hear right now is where have you had success. What’s the real part? That concept of, if you have values– it’s good for employees to say, “Is that a bold decision? Is that trusted leadership?” We have to live by our values and our cultures and everybody does in an organization. Thank you for helping organizations inspire that, empower that. Thank you, Ann, for spending some time with me today. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Ann: My pleasure, Patrick. Thank you.

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