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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Ella Bennett, HR director for Fujitsu UK and Ireland

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Since taking over as Fujitsu’s HR director for the UK and Ireland in 2009, Ella Bennett has achieved a lot.

She’s reorganised the HR function, helped set up a new leadership team and employed social media to enable better communication between staff and the executive team.

“I’ve learnt a huge amount being in ICL and Fujitsu,” Bennett says. “It’s been 10 to 12 years of amazing change in IT. IT has been commoditised in front of my eyes, which changes the business and has implications for all HR policies.”

Although now at home in the IT world, she actually started her HR career in the voluntary sector, joining the Family Service Units charity in 1993 as an HR development officer after finishing her English degree.

 
It was a great place to learn the HR craft: the charity didn’t have an HR function and so she basically built it from scratch, supplementing her on-the-job learning with CIPD qualifications. “It was a great grounding in how business works, and how the real world works, and how they come together – and that’s what HR is about,” Bennett says.
 
But working in the third sector was also a useful experience because it doesn’t necessarily have the same resources and capabilities available to it as the private sector.
 
This means that “you have to understand yourself and the whole gamut of HR, and work out priorities without the backing of a big organisation or investment”, Bennett points out.

But the Family Service Units post was also her first experience of changing an organisation’s structure – a valuable skill that she is still benefiting from today. “All of that is similar to the stuff I do now – working out how you’re best structured to provide service to the business,” she explains.

 
Change and change about
 
But moving to the much larger mental health charity, Mind, in 1997 as head of HR was a step up, and then some, for the still not yet 30-year old Bennett. “It was a much bigger role and there were lots of expectations from staff,” she recalls.
 
This was partly because Mind was a unionised environment and the culture was how she imagined a local authority would be, only on a smaller scale. “There wasn’t an HR strategy when I joined, just a massive ‘to do’ list. And there was a real diversity of stakeholders that you just don’t have in the private sector,” Bennett explains.
 
But the experience taught her to work out what had to be done quickly, and to implement it. “There were lots of unfinished things such as a job evaluation scheme and part-written policies that needed to be sorted,” she says.

Although Bennett enjoyed life in the voluntary sector, she was keen to experience both working in the private sector and for a larger organisation. “I wanted to see how much of the things I’d learned about different people and organisations were transferable into different sectors,” she points out.

So, in 2000, Bennett joined ICL (now Fujitsu UK and Ireland), a company that currently employs about 11,400 staff and has a turnover of £1.7 billion. It was quite a culture shock.

 
“The biggest thing for me was the scale,” she recalls. “I’d run an HR department in Mind. This was a physical department – they sat with me, I had drawers where my files were kept, payroll sat outside and I could pass them bits of paper.”
 
But Bennett was no longer in charge in her new role and was simply one HR professional within a much bigger team. Moreover, because everything was ‘virtual’, it meant that her colleagues didn’t sit next to her.
 
Nevertheless, she found that the lessons she had learned to date were transferable and that “people are people” wherever you go.

Initially, Bennett’s role was to support the corporate function, which meant that she could immediately start to really understand the business. She subsequently spent three years supporting the government business unit, where she gained experience of a sales- and customer-based environment.

 
Broad experience
 
It was an exciting time as the company had secured some big government contracts with HMRC, DVLA and the NHS, which meant that it was a period of massive expansion. “To have experienced real growth of that size was fascinating, and also to have the customer experience was really useful,” Bennett says.

Moreover, having such a broad range of experience is vital if you are to assume a board level role, she believes. “The difficult challenges Fujitsu has given me every few years, the strategy and learning, has kept my own CV stretched,” Bennett points out.

Her next role was a “nuts and bolts” HR job as she calls it, working for the delivery division, before she stepped out of HR altogether to run a transformation programme that involved implementing so-called ‘Lean IT’.

 
The apparently simple aim was to try and create more value for customers while using fewer resources but, like most such projects, achieving it was testing. Although Bennett built a team and worked out a budget from scratch, the biggest challenge was supporting the massive cultural change involved.

“It was very, very different running a function and running a programme. There’s a different way of thinking and you interact with the organisation in a different way. For me, that was a period of most rapid learning,” she explains.

While she loved the experience, Bennett was also glad to return to HR in her current role, although responsibility for ‘Lean’ is still part of her remit. “Having all of the levers for change is important for the success of HR,” she maintains.

One of the fundamental changes that Bennett has made since becoming HRD for the UK and Ireland, however, has been to restructure the HR department. “When I joined, there were declining revenues in a difficult market. So HR needed to be cost-effective,” she explains.

Because the HR teams were dispersed and siloed, Bennett introduced a shared services model, taking out £4 million in costs in the process. The move has meant that more people have been promoted in the last year than over the last five because it is now possible to take a more holistic view of things.

 
But the HR function has also become more flexible and responsive following the massive change programme, which is now being used as a blueprint for transforming other functions.
 
Promoting conversation
 
Elsewhere, however, Bennett has also helped the chief executive create a new leadership team and is particularly proud of her achievements in the employee engagement arena.
 
“We had a bad year for engagement a couple of years ago and I worked with the CEO last year to do a few simple things,” she explains. “We didn’t try and boil the ocean to improve engagement. We did improve it, but we have more to do.”
 
Indeed her plan was very clear and simple. Bennett believes that the ethos of an HR professional should be to support the aims and strategy of the business, and she sees engagement in a similar light.
 
This means that it is important to understand the organisation’s vision and goals and help employees grasp the connection between what they do on a daily basis and the bigger picture.

Within this framework, Bennett has been working with the IT department to encourage staff to use technology more effectively. As a result, the CEO and leadership team are now ‘tweeting’ as a means of communicating key messages in a simple way.

“Ideafests” or open discussions in which individuals can pose questions that are subsequently debated by colleagues are also intended to boost communication between dispersed teams. “It means you connect with people you wouldn’t normally meet,” she points out.

This year, however, Bennett has likewise set up a workshop to enable employees to discuss issues raised by the engagement survey. Executive team members have visited every site and taken part in these discussions, which are based around the question: ‘what would you like the company to look like in three years’ time and how can we get there?’

 
But she notes that the most important element of all these programmes is that they promote conversation.

“If you look at the size of big companies out there, some of our big US competitors are struggling and making redundancies, but small companies are doing quite well. The thing for Fujitsu is to play both levels,” Bennett concludes.

 
And finally…
 
Who do you admire most and why?
 
Having started my career in the voluntary sector, I admire people who are successful at really helping others.

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

Build a great team around you and be part of that team

What’s your least favourite buzzword?

“Reaching out.”

How do you relax?

I run, swim and cycle and like theatre and the opera. When I took on the ‘Lean’ role’, I chose at the same time to undertake my first triathlon. There’s something about giving yourself an equally big challenge to help put work into perspective.

One Response

  1. Fujitsu – a brand quietly transforming into a leading player

     

     

    It’s great to read this piece on Ella.

    Fujitsu is certainly a brand to watch owing much of their success to one of the few major brand transformation and employee engagement programmes to have survived the global downturn.

    You can read more about the transformation of Fujitsu here:

    bringyourself2work.com/2012/06/27/brand-watch-fujitsu-the-blossoming-of-a-supercomputer-brand/

     
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