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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Carole Jones, acting group HR director at Aviva

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Carole Jones, acting group HR director at Aviva, is very grateful that Commercial Union took a chance 22 years ago and gave her a job, even though she had little relevant experience.

She has since stuck with the company through a number of mergers and name changes and, when the post of acting group HR director suddenly became available, she jumped at the chance of taking on another challenge.
 
But then Jones has never been afraid to take on new challenges, or more responsibility for that matter.

HR was not something that she originally considered as a career when she left university, however. “I did a history degree and really enjoyed that, but I had no idea what I wanted to do,” she remembers.

 
Like many of her university friends, she was unsure of which direction to go in and so she trained to be a chartered accountant, even though she admits that maths wasn’t really her forté at all.
 
“I actually quite enjoyed it. It was quite disciplined and so it was quite good for me, but I recognised fairly early on that this wasn’t going to be my career choice for the long-term,” Jones says.

So instead, she decided to look for a job in another sector that a lot of graduates also seemed to gravitate towards – IT – ending up in a small recruitment firm placing IT people.

 
“I was given a card deck with company names on and had to cold-call to get clients,” Jones recalls. “I’d pinpoint their requirements for candidates and go to the filing cabinets and try and find people that matched those requirements. I was quite good at it. I was 22 or 23, in the City, in sales and having a bit of a laugh really.”
 
Learning skills along the way
 
But her stress levels increased substantially when she left to set up her own agency with a couple of colleagues. “I worked hard and was reasonably successful,” she says. “In many ways, it was very entrepreneurial: if you don’t work, you don’t get paid and it was reasonably tough going.”

Jones enjoyed being her own boss, but getting married and having her first child made her feel that she should get a ‘proper’ job again. One of the clients in her portfolio was Commercial Union, which was looking for someone to cover maternity leave for a recruitment and training post.

 
“I put myself forward as the person who could do that job and they took a gamble and gave it to me, which was great because I’d no experience working for a large organisation or with a large team,” she points out.

But the cover turned into a full-time role. “I found it really strange at first going from self-employment and running my own business to working for a large corporate. I had a team of recruiters and a team of trainers and I learned some vital lessons very early,” Jones says.

Among those lessons was the importance of clear communication when managing a team and the need to keep a close eye on detail.

 
Naturally, such skills were picked up the hard way: the person that Jones was standing in for had a technical background and had delivered some of the training herself. But she also assumed that her successor would do the same.
 
As a result, Jones ended up having to present some of the technical training herself which, luckily, consisted mainly of showing videos. “It taught me a vital, if somewhat painful, lesson early on: don’t make assumptions and check the detail of what’s going on,” she says.

Jones stayed in that post for a number of years, during which time her employer changed beyond belief, merging first with General Accident and then Norwich Union. “The role grew, and I grew with it,” she says.

 
A broad role
 
She remembers that Commercial Union’s central HR function in the 1990s was the sort of place that someone ended up in rather than seeking it out as a destination.
 
“It was populated by long-serving people who weren’t necessarily go-ahead HR professionals. So I tended to plough my own furrow a little bit and had great fun building the HR function within IT,” Jones notes.

This meant that, while the central HR department was still selecting candidates for redundancy based on length of service, she was busy implementing the performance management and competency systems that have since become the mainstay of many an HR department today.

 
But everything changed when a new group HR director came on board and “ran a coach and horses” through the HR function, bringing in a new band of HR professionals with them. Taking advantage of the changes, Jones moved out of IT and became head of resourcing for the UK’s general insurance division.
 
Following the Norwich Union merger, she also took on a series of business partner roles in Norwich Union Life, in which she ended up doing a bit of everything, including communications.
 
“It was a broad role, which I enjoyed because I got the opportunity to shape HR strategy, and I also really enjoyed the communications aspect which I hadn’t particularly done before,” she explains.

In 2005, however, Jones took on her first executive role as HR director at Norwich Union Life. From there, she moved to Chicago for two-and-a-half years as regional HR director for Aviva North America [Norwich Union was rebranded as Aviva], which included Canada and the US, taking her two younger kids who were at secondary school with her.

 
Unconventional
 
“It was much more different from the UK than you’d imagine and I had to learn a whole new way of doing things,” she says. “I adored it for all sorts of reasons, but it was life changing for me as well as the kids. Working abroad gives you an opportunity to reinvent yourself and I regret that I didn’t do something like that earlier.”
 
Working abroad and finding herself in a very different environment that was outside of her day-to-day knowledge and comfort zone meant that she had to adapt quickly, which was a “really, really good thing for learning. I found it hugely developmental”, Jones explains.

While there, she took the opportunity to travel around the US, albeit in a rather unconventional manner. A keen runner, she entered the Chicago marathon first and followed it up with a further six half-marathons around the country. So she got to visit those cities as well as making the more usual leisurely weekend trips away.

“One thing I found is that when you are so far away from plc headquarters, you are much more on your own and making decisions and driving the business. At that time, the Canadian and US businesses were completely separate and didn’t talk to each other,” Jones recalls.

 
Because their way of working was a bit “old skool”, she was able to introduce a very different operating model and develop a shared services approach. But in 2008, it was change again when she accepted her first group level role back home in the UK.
 
As group HR strategy and organisational development director, Jones was responsible for talent management, leadership development and other group-wide HR activities.
 
But since the sudden departure of group HR director, John Ainley, she has found herself acting up for the top job, which is one that she thoroughly enjoys.
 
Although stepping into the post at short notice was naturally a challenge, after 22 years at the company, Jones has managed the transition with relative ease as she knows the people, the culture and business inside out. So it’s now just about waiting to see what the future holds.
 
And finally…

Who do you admire most and why?

The people that I tend to admire most tend to be those who have probably been quite understated but have a disproportionate impact and, for that reason, tend to be female.

 
Rosa Parks, for example. She was an ordinary woman, not a political figure or particularly radicalised. She just very quietly refused to move seats on the bus and got arrested and became a cause celebre – she was just an ordinary woman who’d had enough.
 
Antislavery fighter, Harriet Tubman, a slave who’d won her freedom and later supported the suffragettes, is also someone I admire.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
 
It was from my headmistress at secondary school. It was an all-girls grammar school near Manchester, and we were made to believe we could do whatever we wanted to. Even in the late 70s, so many girls on my course at university were biding their time to get married and had no career aspirations.

What’s your most hated buzzword?

‘Leverage’. It’s so misused and a lot of people don’t know what it means.

How do you relax?
 
I run, but predominantly I relax by spending time with family and friends. I have three kids of 17, 19 and 24 who still take up a reasonable amount of time and an even greater amount of money, but I’m also big into sport and I’m a Manchester United fan.
 
I’m from Sale so I can say that I was Man United born and bred. I’m also into horse racing and bought a racehorse, which is now being trained and will go into jump racing later this year.
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