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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Angela Williams, HR director at British Gas

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Centrica’s British Gas is celebrating its 200th birthday this year – no mean feat in today’s cut-throat business environment – but its long history means that people have preconceptions about the company.

“A lot of people see British Gas as old-fashioned and slow-moving and this is so far from the truth,” says Angela Williams, the utilities supplier’s HR director.

It is part of her job to help change this stereotypical view of the firm, however. Williams joined in 2010, attracted by the idea of working for an organisation that was such a British institution and one of the nation’s biggest employers. She was also keen to be part of its endeavours to change its image.

“I want to make sure that the people agenda matches the British Gas brand and make sure we create an end-to-end customer experience,” she explains. “I work with the people team to ensure that we have engaged 35,000 people to be brand advocates.”

But climbing the corporate ladder was not initially part of Williams’ master plan. After working as a semi-professional musician, she went into secondary school teaching. But she felt that to be a truly good teacher, it was important to have wider experience of life outside of the classroom, in a commercial environment.

 
This belief resulted in her joining ExxonMobil’s graduate training scheme, which gave her the opportunity to work across many different areas of the business, including her first official HR role handling pensions and running the pension scheme for pre-retirement workers.

For the first three or four years, Williams seriously thought about going back into teaching, but realised that she loved being in the business environment as it was where she belonged.

 
Learning experience
 
She subsequently moved to publishers BH Blackwell as HR and training manager and became heavily involved in running the distribution centre as well as helping to turn around the US business.
 
Williams also began to look at business development and ways of improving service, which eventually saw her become part of a team to set up an online bookshop – at a time (the late 1990s) when online was still in its infancy.

Her move to Disney as HR learning and development manager formed quite a contrast, however. “I wanted to see whether what I had learned at Blackwell could be applied to a multinational. It was a brilliant learning experience,” she recalls.

Although it was officially an HR position, in practice it was really a business partner role. “It was a very hard, driven organisation and a tough environment to work in, and brand was at the heart of business,” Williams says.

In 1999, after being in the role for a couple of years, she was approached by an old colleague from Blackwell, who was keen for her to join his online business, which had already acquired nine companies in six months.

 
Given the fear and uncertainty at that time over what was going to happen to computers when the clocks struck midnight on New Year’s Eve 1999, she told him: “If you’re still there and it hasn’t blown up on January 2nd, come back to me again.”

The company, QXL Ricardo, ran online auctions in local languages across Europe. Williams joined as vice president of HR and organisation development and helped to build the business up, buying firms from across Europe and increasing headcount to a couple of thousand employees.

 
Business person first
 
From there, she moved to video gaming company Electronic Arts, before taking on a role as group HR director of FTSE 30 company, Land Securities Group, a commercial properties specialist.

“It was five-and-a-half years of constant change,” Williams says. “I grew the HR function and I was proud of becoming involved in business strategy and the vision of the organisation for next few years and aligning it with talent strategy.”

 
The experience gave her a “technical stretch and a business stretch” as well as experience of influencing people at a senior level, she explains.

Her role today at British Gas likewise covers not just HR in a traditional sense, but also internal communications, compliance, employment and health and safety.

 
So, as with most of her other positions, while the job may have an HR title, it is primarily business-led, with the focus in this instance being on business strategy and engagement. “I am a business person first and then an HR practitioner,” Williams points out.

Building brand loyalty and engagement is a key part of her remit. One of the ways that she attempts to achieve this is to encourage staff who have gone above and beyond the call of duty – people who’ve walked five miles in the snow to help out an old lady, for instance – to share their stories.

She also aims to create a sense of well-being and community within the workforce by offering its members ways to give something back. In September, for example, 50 employees cycled 760 miles from Scotland to Windsor in nine days in order to raise money for Great Ormond Street children’s hospital.

 
Burnishing the brand
 
But the firm has also joined other large organisations such as BT, Shell, Pepsico and The Department of Health in signing up to the ‘Time to Change’ pledge, the UK’s biggest mental health anti-stigma programme.

The aim of Time to Change, which is run by mental health charities, Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, is to promote a better understanding of mental health issues, tackle discrimination and offer support and advice to workers, one in four of whom will experience mental illness at some point during their lives.

 
British Gas ran 13 events across the business to promote the initiative ahead of its official launch in June. Volunteers from the campaign shared their own experiences with staff, while the company also set up a number of internal support systems.
 
These included an Employee Assistance Programme, which offers confidential advice on issues such as finance or bereavement and provides an early referral system to the occupational health team.

Because mental health issues are one of the key hidden reasons for absence from work, Williams says: “We decided we would lead the way. We wanted to do something proactive, and to take the stigma away from mental illness, and work with staff to find ways how we can support them in the workplace.”

The firm has also introduced an online information resource in the shape of a Resilience toolkit to help employees cope with stress over money, home or work and provide them with ideas about how they could do things differently.

The feedback so far has been positive and uptake of the toolkit has jumped from 8% to 26%, with stress levels appearing to go down as a result.

“The brand of British Gas is in the hands of everyone who works for the company. We’re trying to make sure people feel committed to be part of a great company,” Williams concludes.

And finally…
 
Who do you admire most and why?
 
Apart from Nelson Mandela, who is the epitome of the strength of the human spirit, a recent hero is David Weir, who overcame adversity to win his Paralympic gold medals over a range of distances.
 
He is a fantastic example to everyone that, no matter what challenges you face, if you work hard and have determination and the support of those around you, there is always a way to succeed.
 
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
 
Be true to yourself and always remember that it is better to have played and missed than not played at all.
 
What’s your most hated buzzword?
 
“It’s been a journey”.
 
How do you relax?
 
Watching my sons play rugby, cricket and football; running and road cycling and watching Strictly Come Dancing.
 
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