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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Caroline Waters, BT’s director of people and policy


Because Caroline Waters has only been at BT for 33 years, she classes herself as a bit of a newcomer in an organisation where two people are celebrating 50 years of service and 3,500 have clocked up 40 or more.

Today, as director of people and policy, Waters has a long list of responsibilities outside of her traditional HR duties, which include dealing with government, media relations, diversity and security compliance.

But her ‘to-do’ list is rather different to when she joined the company in 1979 as a clerical assistant. “You don’t get any lower than that!” she jokes.

It didn’t take Waters long to start climbing the managerial ladder, however. Within six months, she had become a clerical officer and within 12 was promoted to become a temporary level one manager.

She then worked in a variety of roles for seven or eight years before finally finding her niche in HR. One such role was to cover for people on leave, which was great for gaining experience in all of the different nooks and crannies of the business. One week she might be in HR, the next in PR and the next in accounting.
“I was pretty capable so I was spirited into jobs. It was absolutely fabulous,” Waters says. “It was sort of like a graduate rotation really and you might do something for a couple of weeks or longer. It meant I worked in every bit of the business and got to know a lot of people. It was fabulous grounding.”
Moving into HR wasn’t part of the grand plan, however. She had become a temporary level two manager and, at that point, had the choice of one of three roles. “I said I don’t mind doing anything as long as it’s not finance or HR,” Waters says.
Creating change
But her managers had other ideas. “They sat me down and said ‘we’ve looked at your skills and knowledge and we really think you would do well in HR and enjoy it’. They were looking for people who would change the role,” she notes.
And love it she did. “I was able to be a catalyst and create change. This was the mid-80s and we were talking about HR becoming business partners,“ Waters explains.

Initially she took on a generalist HR role, covering a range of activities from conducting pre-recruitment workshops to managing retirees. Then she moved to London and worked on a closure programme for the company, which was selling off a printing business.

The subsequent negotiations with the unions, discussions with staff over whether they should undertake a management buyout and the final sale of equipment taught her a lot.

“Previously, I’d been working for HR in the fleet business. BT was such a large purchaser of cars that, when they decided to take on a manufacturer, that firm would turn over their entire production line for a while to BT. Basically it was like running a fleet business,” Waters says.

From there, however, she had moved into the firm’s print and computing division. “So it’s like working for different companies because BT is so huge. So I feel it’s the equivalent of working in 10 or 12 different industries,” she points out.

By the time that she had worked in HR for six or seven years though, Waters was again promoted, this time to become HR director for Europe.

“That was great because it was like a start-up,” she observes. “We were just setting up partnerships and putting together the global strategy, and I did that in my early 30s. It gave me a sense of my own capabilities, doing things I’d not done before.”

Go on then
Because Waters was working “completely away from the mother ship”, she was able to take her own decisions, put together strategy proposals, have them okayed and then simply get on with it.

She loved the autonomy and admired the company’s “go-on-then” attitude, as she calls it, which she believes is one of its great strengths. It is also a key reason why it was able to build a presence in 170 countries and employ staff in 66 of them from a base of almost nothing outside of the UK, she points out.

But after finally becoming HR director at group head office, working alongside chairmen, Iain Vallance and Peter Bonfield, Waters found that she was no longer sure if she wished to remain in HR or whether her destiny didn’t lie in becoming more of an ‘ops’ person.

“My boss said, ‘well what do you want to do?’ and I had a clear set of objectives: autonomy, innovation, not part of huge team. They built a role around my requirements and it’s part-HR and part-operational,” she says.

A key component of the job is defining policy, but Waters also has a long list of group-wide responsibilities, which range from dealing with recruitment to post-retirement issues and everything in between – equality, diversity, volunteering, embedding corporate social responsibility into HR, talking to the government about social and employment matters, media relations, data security compliance and emergency response.

Waters also runs two small businesses and supports the chairman and chief executive in dealing with any people issues.
But another important part of her role is to keep an eye on forthcoming legislation and economic matters in order to ensure that the coming changes will be included in policy or incorporated into new products.
Embedding diversity
“We want to be first or best and preferably both, all with the aim of a creating value,” Waters says.
One key issue that she has identified lately relates to the likely rising number of carers among the workforce.
“The workforce is aging and also medical improvements mean that people with disabilities are living longer, so there’s a growing need for care and a growing number of employees are going to be carers,” she explains. “Therefore, how do we keep employees who are carers – how to recruit them and keep them healthy and fit?”

This is particularly important for BT because diversity is not an add-on or nice-to-have that is dropped at the first sign of economic uncertainty, Waters points out.

“The organisations that struggle with this are those that see quality and diversity as something on the side, but at BT it’s embedded,” she says. “You won’t see diversity put on the back-burner as it’s so integral to everything we do.”
This approach is fed down to managers who, in turn, are provided with the skills and awareness that they need to put such ideas into practice. “I’d like to think we won’t need a special unit eventually,” she says.

Rather than seeing her decision to stay with one company for her entire career as a weakness, meanwhile, Waters instead views it as a strength – and points out that she simply hasn’t sat still long enough to become bored or stale anyway.

“If you move around a lot, you can become a one trick pony: you go in and do your thing in one business and then another. But I can do 100 different things: I can sell, build and keep focus on the future,” Waters explains. “I had a point in my career where I did nine jobs in three years and that, for me, was fabulous – they were basically using me as a troubleshooter.”

And finally…

Who do you admire most and why?
I don’t admire every aspect of his character but Robert F. Kennedy sure had a way with words. These two statements have inspired me and were way ahead of their time:

“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why…I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

“But suppose God is black? What if we go to heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?”

What’s your most hated buzzword?

‘Synergy’. What’s all that about? I also hate over-labelling. Yesterday, I heard someone say: “human reception unit”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“It’s not your next job that’s important, it’s the one after.” It’s all about the trajectory. I’ve always found that helpful because often the next job isn’t perfect, but if you’re moving forward and enjoying it, then grasp it.

How do you relax?

I’m very lucky as I’m able to compartmentalise very easily and I switch off pretty quickly. I put that down to making sure everything I do is with absolute integrity. I like to see friends, do gardening and creative things such as photography.

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