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David Russell

William Hill

Group HR Director

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HRD Insight: William Hill’s David Russell on an African adventure


It’s just two months since we announced our employee project in Kenya – a major building and development project at the Ol Maisor Primary School.

Our aim was to create an experience where a group of people from William Hill were able to help a rural community in Africa and by doing so learn more about themselves.

We chose Africa because we wanted the group to be stretched out of their comfort zone, to experience a way of life very different from their own and to help broaden and deepen their vision around people.

Building work is being funded by the William Hill Foundation, a registered charity initially set up to support our colleagues and their families during times of hardship. More recently the Foundation’s scope has been extended to encompass our broader corporate responsibility commitment.

The combination of the personal development and community support aspects of the project worked well, as one complimented the other and made the learning more powerful.

So it was with considerable anticipation that a group of 12 employees accompanied by William Hill brand ambassador Robbie Savage set off for Kenya.

The group brought together aspiring and talented William Hill managers and leaders from across the UK, Gibraltar, Israel and Bulgaria, some in senior roles and others in much earlier stages of their career.

Our aim is for each of them to be the best leaders and managers they can be, to respect differences, know their own strengths and understand their impact on others.

The group first met during a two day orientation workshop facilitated by Jonathan Harris from Change2 Ltd which used psychometric tools and 360 referencing to help everyone clarify their development aspirations.

Day one

All the planning and organising is over and we are all finally gathering in Nairobi. There is a sense of nervous anticipation and excitement on this, the last day of ‘luxury’ for a while.

Tomorrow we are leaving the city to head north into rural northern Kenya. We will sleep in shared tents and as there will be no running water we’ll be relying on a bucket shower and a Kenyan long drop (hole in the ground) toilet facility.

The sleeping, toilet and showering arrangements have been the subject of plenty of conversations today – though we’ve been reliably informed that after 24 hours it will all seem very normal!

We had a busy day buying last minute gear for the children and after a terrific Indian meal turned in for an early night. I feel like a six year old on Christmas Eve.

Day two

Before leaving our respective countries we all collated as many things for the children and school that our luggage allowance would allow. We’re heading north on some very small planes today, so our personal luggage has to be kept to a minimum but we filled a truck to its roof between us with all the gifts we bought.

After a short plane ride we landed at Nanyuki airstrip for some brunch before heading off in 4x4s to Ol Maisor where the Island Primary School is situated.

It takes four hours to arrive at camp – with every mile travelled, things became more remote, we saw more wild animals and we grew more excited. The camp is fantastic; the tents are actually pretty big and there’s a mess tent and camp fire for us to congregate around. We’ll worry about the other stuff tomorrow morning.

After a quick drink we headed down to the school, where Clive our Kenyan project lead talked us through the tasks ahead. It didn’t take long to realise the lack of machinery available – if cement needed mixing, we did it!

After debates between us about who will take on what tasks, we headed up to the camp for some dinner and banter around the camp fire before turning in.

Day three

Today we start work. Peter, one of the team looking after us, woke us up at 6am with a bowl of warm water to wash. Breakfast is at 6.30am and we start work at 7.30am.

First job is to move the bricks we need to build the library from their position 100 feet away from the site. We formed a chain and moved brick after brick after brick until we’d moved all tons of them.

It’s interesting how this human chain saw the first tensions arise in the group – it’s obvious that some people enjoy barking orders at others and even criticising work rate or style, but we got the job done and even started building the library walls.

It’s a satisfying day’s work and we returned to the camp site exhausted but happy.
After a quick shower we all met at the camp fire for a well-earned beer and a chat about the day; what we had learned and what we would do differently.

First lesson – watch the reaction you are having on others and temper your behaviour accordingly.

Day four

The brick moving has made a dent in our work plan, so Peter’s call came before daylight at 5.45am and we were at work by 7am. Something is different at the school today though – we learnt that the local builders we had worked alongside yesterday thought that we would be karani – Swahili for pen pushers.

Yesterday’s work rate had earned us the illustrious title of fundi – Swahili for workmen. We’d impressed the locals and they had embraced us.

Today we have worked hard and laughed even harder. We have also been getting closer to the children. We learnt Swahili words, dances and songs and spent time with the children playing football and making friendship bracelets.

We’ve seen first-hand how proud they are of their school, how they love having their photograph taken, how little materially they have but how happy they are – it’s all very humbling.

Day five

It’s Friday and the school day starts with a big assembly that involves lots of singing, marching and ends with the raising of the Kenyan flag. It was a beautiful display of pride from the children.

The children had a morning of lessons and then some of our team challenged them to a game of football before another assembly to close the school week.

Jonathan Harris has been holding coaching sessions with the group during the day. Using the psychometric feedback and 360 references he has been able to provide people with some detailed insight. I think the sessions are welcome equally because you get to sit under the shade of a tree for a couple of hours.

We’re starting to think about how we can best support the area going forward. But we realise that what we think is best is not necessarily the right answer. It has resulted in some great discussions as we wrestle with how best to help.

Day six

A day at the school with no children, or so we thought. Come 10am we had lots of ‘helpers’. We’re quite taken with Benson the head boy who has given up his time to help paint the classrooms with us.

It is a slightly quieter day today, at least there’s been no furious cement mixing. Instead, we mended old desks and painted the classrooms which gave us the chance to reflect.

Day seven

Despite working insanely hard, we are behind schedule. Clive has asked for a few of us to help mix cement this morning – it’s a real measure of the commitment and enthusiasm we all feel for the project meant that we all went to work.

We finished by lunchtime and after a quick shower and change we went on a camel trek to the local village. Here we got to visit some of the local homes for a sample of village life.

This was one of the biggest eye openers for us – learning that six people live in an 80 square feet mud hut and the boys of the family sleep outside on animal skins makes you realise how very fortunate we are.

Day eight

The building work continues although the work is getting lighter – more painting, varnishing and desk building and less cement mixing. We’ve all consciously started to spend more time with the children too. This morning the school was a couple of teachers down, so we each took some lessons.

It was amazing how nervous we felt. We’re not sure it was the most enlightening of mornings for the children but we all laughed a lot and had great fun.

Day nine

It was very interesting at dinner tonight – Robbie Savage, the ex premiership footballer, now patron of the William Hill Foundation who has been with us for the entire project, gave everyone some feedback on how he thinks we are performing.

He was pretty accurate and I think everyone enjoyed hearing his perspective. In many ways his views supported the feedback that Jonathan had been discussing with us, so it was valuable even if a little unorthodox.

Day 10

Today was about finishing the last jobs at the school and spending time with the children before saying goodbye. Some of us had meetings with the head teacher, parents and elders to discuss how they would like us to help them in the future. Their joy and appreciation of what we had achieved, expressed so warmly, was outstanding.

We put on a rather amateurish puppet show for the children, which they loved and then they sang and danced for us as our time in Kenya drew to a close.

After a few speeches from our CEO Ralph Topping and the head teacher we unveiled a sparkling new school bell – our gift to the school and they gave us an impressive wooden plaque in return that now has pride of place in our boardroom.

When we said goodbye there was hardly a dry eye to be had, and after a short safari we were back in Nairobi enjoying a proper shower, flushing toilet and clean clothes. The advice we were given at the outset of this adventure was spot on – these things didn’t matter a jot.

David Russell is group HR director at bookmaker, William Hill.

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David Russell

Group HR Director

Read more from David Russell

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