Annie Hayes speaks to Matthew Brearley, an HR director who never rests, is blessed with “good energy”, and has helped transform mobile telecoms firm Vodafone from a flagging business to a market leader.
Matthew Brearley is not an HR careerist. Following an engineering degree, he joined Exxon Mobil Corporation, one of the world’s largest oil businesses, where he spent six years gleaning the basics as part of their graduate scheme.
A natural progression into operational and line management roles ensued, with two years as a management consultant working on change management and leadership development.
This work triggered an interest in HR and his first big role followed. Brearley joined the Kingfisher Group at a time when the B&Q ‘Do-It-Yourself’ warehouse store was being developed.
“The managing director of the B&Q warehouse division didn’t want an HR careerist. He wanted to build an employee and customer-focused culture and I got the job,” says Brearley.
That was 12 years ago and since that time Brearley has, in one form or another, worked in HR. Leaving B&Q as its retail HR director seven years ago, he also had a stint at M&S in the same job and finally joined Vodafone, where he is today, in April 2004.
“Sixty per cent of the job at Vodafone is working as a director of the business; 40 per cent is about being the HR leader. The same 60/40 rule applies to all board members regardless of function,” he explains.
Brearley remarks that Nick Read, Vodafone’s UK chief executive, upholds the directors to account in turn, ensuring they think about customers, their people and the market. “It’s challenging,” he quips.
The right people
This holistic thinking has shaped a three-year programme in which directors have been tasked with getting the people and customer experience right.
“HR is a great place to be at Vodafone right now,” he says. “It’s integrated and part of the business strategy; it’s not an add on. Over the last three years we’ve built a model of HR transformation.”
Matthew Brearley, HR director, Vodafone
The business has deployed a shared service centre Ask HR, with an overarching aim of adding more value at a lower cost. So has all this restructuring and slimlining resulted in HR cuts?
“Through the model, a number of people have found their optimum place to perform in HR,” comments Brearley. “There has been self-selection into roles and some people have left.”
In essence, the administrative functions have been dispensed with via self-service tools, Vodafone’s online proposition, backed up by a much reduced smaller transactional team. Payroll is also outsourced.
In parallel to these changes, Brearley has been working hard at boosting employee engagement. “Three years ago we bought into the philosophy of employee engagement and employee advocacy,” he says.
This involved looking at the ‘critical touch-points’ that enabled the business to have a localised people strategy. The result has been a focus on great people managers and a reward structure based on experiences. Tied in with Vodafone’s sponsorship deals, including the likes of Formula One and the England Cricket team, the business has provided tickets and experiences for performing employees.
The ‘legends awards’, run by and for employees, is an example of the philosophy in practice. Vodafone workers are invited to nominate any other employee as a Vodafone legend. From 10,500 UK based employees, 4,000 nominees are received per year on average.
Brearley dubs this a “fantastic” achievement. “The DNA of our legends is those that are ‘red’ (fired up), ‘rock solid’ (staff with integrity) and ‘restless’ (people that continuously require challenging and are innovative).”
The legend nominees are judged by a cross-section of employees who go on to choose the worthy. The annual ceremony is being held this week in London. “There are 300 finalists and 100 become winners. They, with their partners, are treated to some fantastic experiences; we’ve taken them to Dubai, Cape Town.. and I can’t tell you what the prize is this year,” he remarks.
The results are echoed in the employee engagement figures, which are measured quarterly. Brearley proudly explains that the index has moved from 62 out of 100 to 70.2 in three years. Against a background of redundancy and outsourcing, it’s fairly impressive.
Matthew Brearley, HR director, Vodafone
The business results also indicate that programmes such as the legends awards are paying dividends. The telecoms market has been notoriously tough with margins declining and prices falling. In three years, Vodafone has gone from having a virtually flat revenue to one that leads the market at 7 to 8 per cent a year. Profitability is growing accordingly.
Brearley says, however, that the HR team can’t afford to rest on its laurels and whilst he is “very proud” of his staff and pleased as punch that the board is highly engaged with the people strategy, he says the challenges never cease in such a fast-moving environment.
“In the past, Vodafone has been a little traditional and hierarchical. We are on a journey and the next 12 to 18 months are going to be very exciting. In the Web 2.0 world we need new capabilities, different cost models, whilst at the same time trying to maintain who we are.”
Brearley, whose job also entails brand engagement and other areas that HR may not traditionally be responsible for, admits that he wouldn’t be interested in doing an HR directors role where the format is being sidelined and functional for merely providing a service.
Indeed, Brearley is a non-conformist to the HR ‘tried and tested’ route, choosing not to collect HR qualifications en route. He has found it has never stopped him from getting where he is today, and his determination shines through.
As a ‘do-er’, Brearley’s success is largely to do with his can-do attitude. King of fitting in as much as possible into his day, you get a sense of what he is about when he reveals that he is talking to me on the way to a squash game.
“If you have the determination you can fit anything in. Things do get compromised, like sleep, and I rarely watch TV but generally I’ve been blessed with good energy, which gets me through.”
‘Good’ may be a slight understatement.