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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Denise Keating, head of the Employers’ Network for Equality and Inclusion


There isn’t much in either an HR or business setting that Denise Keating hasn’t tried and mastered.

As well as systematically working to make herself an expert in every aspect of HR, along the way she has also picked up experience of areas such as IT and clinical governance. “I never lost jobs, just gained new ones,” she jokes.

And Keating was bringing all that experience to bear yesterday [October 18] at the launch of membership organisation, the Employers’ Network for Equality & Inclusion. The charity has brought together into one organisation the respective remits of the Employers Forums on both Age and Belief, making it a one-stop-shop for information about all nine of the protected characteristics outlined in the Equality Act.

But it’s a tough time to try and get the diversity message across. As the economic thumbscrews have tightened, many organisations have either put their diversity programmes on hold or abandoned them altogether.

Nonetheless, Keating is well used to challenges and once the launch is out of the way, she is keen to get stuck into campaigning in order to do what she can to push diversity up the corporate agenda again.

Her first step on the road to becoming a chief executive was getting involved with training at Volkswagen Audi in the 1970s. “Eventually I got bored of my own voice on the training side. It was exciting and I learned a lot, but I wanted to do more people things,” she recalls.

After 12 years at the automotive manufacturer, she moved to the Nationwide Building Society where she remained for a further 11 years. “They were long stints because I was doing a lot of learning. I decided to become an expert in lots of different areas,” Keating explains.

New challenges
She joined Nationwide with the remit of managing the firm’s equal opportunities agenda and spent time putting together and project-managing a job evaluation programme. It was a time of firsts: she set up the company’s first harassment policy, got stuck into formulating health and safety procedures and was asked to take control of employee regulations, which meant becoming lead negotiator with the unions.
This latter scenario, in turn, led to her setting up a pay review and rewards scheme. By the time she left, Keating had one of the biggest banking jobs held by a woman.

But it was time for a new challenge and another big brand: Marks & Spencer. The retail giant rarely brought in senior people from outside so it was a coup for her to join as head of people. In typical fashion, however, while most professionals would take on one big business initiative at a time, Keating chose to take on five.

After that was done, it became time to sector-hop again, on this occasion into health where Keating became group HR director at Craegmoor Healthcare. Not long into that post, she also assumed responsibility for IT before also becoming head of clinical governance – a position normally held by a healthcare professional.

Even though the two were very different disciplines from the HR role that Keating was used to, she believes that the management skills involved are essentially the same. “It came down to being able to manage professional people and project management skills – and I know how to drive projects. I’m used to working fast, and big jobs, and always did things on time,” she explains.
By implementing a new HR framework, Keating managed to more than halve staff turnover rates of 68% to 32%, while also saving £3.5 million on salaries.

But throughout her career, she says that she maintained an interest in diversity and equal opportunities and, as a result, had been involved with both the EFA and EBA for some time. So when the opportunity arose to reposition the two bodies as a new consolidated entity, she jumped at the chance.

Breadth of experience
But why change the organisations’ remit in the first place? “Listening to our membership, it’s not always an issue that is strictly about age, for example, but could be age and gender and, until now, people had to contact different organisations,” Keating explains.

The new network will cover all aspects of diversity, including age, gender and disability. To date, her focus has been on preparing for the launch: deciding on the organisation’s name and vision as well as building its website and creating new content to support and elucidate on the nine protected equality characteristics.

But Keating already has her sights on big future issues: how to tackle key matters such as leadership, ensure more diversity at board level and manage unconscious bias. “The biggest challenge for me now is the membership aspect and getting organisations interested when a lot of them are just trying to survive,” she explains, however.

Although it is unusual for an HR professional to become a managing director, what has helped her, Keating believes, is her breadth of experience, both in the number of responsibilities that she has assumed over the years and the range of sectors that she has worked in.

While she found that managing big projects provided her with great experience, she worries that too many HR people’s roles are too narrow today, offering them less opportunity to take on increasing amounts of responsibility in order to learn and grow. “In some organisations, they have a ratio of one HR person to 44 employees, where I was one HR person to 1,500 employees,” Keating points out.

A perceived lack of financial acumen is also a stumbling block for many HR professionals trying to clamber up the career ladder, she believes. “Lots of organisations want financial people, but it shouldn’t be like that – people are put off because they see HR people as having no financial experience,” she says.

As a result, if she could turn back the clock, Keating would add a financial qualification to her armoury of business skills. Nonetheless, she is proof that hard work, excellent project management skills and a desire to learn can take you right to the top if you want to get there.

And finally…
Who do you most admire and why?
I admire lots of people for different reasons, but the one person that had the most impact on my life is my dad – he faced every challenge thrown at him and had really strong values about how people should be treated.
What’s your most hated buzzword?
Resilience – not sure if it is a buzzword yet, but I only heard it recently and I already hate it – how do you quantify someone’s resilience especially in recruitment?
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
No one is indispensable – make sure you build your career focusing on your future employability.
How do you relax?
Spending time with my family and saving the best relaxation time for holidays in the sun.

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