Karen Myers, HR director for UK and Western Europe at insurance firm RSA, loves what she does.
She must do, she says, otherwise there’s no way she would endure a 5.15am wake-up call and a 3.5 hour commute each way.
But the company, people and culture are a “natural fit”, according to Myers.
Myers has worked for some of the UK’s biggest and best-known brands. Fresh out of university, Myers joined the Marks & Spencer graduate programme and quickly realised that HR was the area she wanted to specialise in. “You get a fantastic grounding at M&S,” she says. “I loved it.”
This was the late 1990s, when the retail giant went from massive profits to plunging into crisis as it seemed to lose its way. She remembers the new range of clothes coming and seeing a sea of grey and thinking, is this really what people want to wear?
It may have been painful for M&S at the time, but it came through it stronger – and wiser. “It’s a good lesson for any organisation. When you go through difficulties, you should always listen to your customer – and M&S at that period wasn’t,” observes Myers.
She learned another useful lesson: don’t put people into roles where they don’t have the skillsets or the talent. She saw talented shop-floor managers with great people skills pulled into head office to work on their own and make decisions such as which type of strap should go on next season’s bra. It was not playing to their strengths.
Banking on change
From retail, Myers moved to Barclays Bank, where she worked in both business banking and retail at different times. Her first position was as head of HR for medium business and agriculture – a rather bizarre job title, or so her friends thought.
“All my friends found it hysterical because I’m a real city girl at heart, so the fact I had agriculture in my job title amused them,” she jokes.
Barclays at that time was committed to growing talent and managing performance. “Barclays had a lovely culture back then,” she recalls.
People mattered. One senior manager, she remembers, was not given a bonus, because his attention to employee engagement was so poor. But the culture began to change; new people came in and people she rated began to leave. “The lesson for me in that organisation is how important organisational cultures are to keep talent,” notes Myers.
Sticking to the big brand theme, Myers joined BT, but she felt drawn to retail again and joined Tesco, where she experienced firsthand how the effect of an inspiring leader can influence culture and leadership.
Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy stressed the importance of customer service at every level and insisted he and senior managers spent time on the shop floor to keep grounded in the business.
Then, in 2009, Myers joined RSA. It took her a little while to come round to the idea of insurance rather than retail (especially as a self-confessed shoe addict). But what attracted her were the people she met. “I felt a natural fit – everyone I met was very straightforward and honest and RSA had a nice working culture, which makes it special,” says Myers.
She joined as HR director for the commercial and underwriting business, but she quickly added operations director to her portfolio. Then, in April last year, she stepped up into the role of HR director for the UK and Western Europe, looking after the region’s 9,000 employees. Although she’d held many senior roles, she confesses that: “Nothing can prepare you for that kind of role.”
One of the key differences is she has a very senior team for her direct report, as well as taking on responsibility for managing property services and CSR which are new roles for her.
This year, there are two main focuses for HR. First, is to continue to improve employee engagement. It’s an area that the company already does well, but Myers warns that there is no room for complacency and she doesn’t want the company to take its foot off the gas.
Part of that is to try and create a more emotional connection to the brand for employees, potentially much harder to do with something intangible like insurance rather than a company making a product such as a car or handbags.
The second major focus is talent strategy. Most big firms identify and fast-track the top tier of employees, but Myers’ vision is to focus on talent right the way from top to bottom.
This includes looking at the way it handles recruitment. Instead of hiring on technical skills and experience for volume roles such as customer and claims handlers, RSA now selects on attitude – looking for people that will fit in with the company culture.
In 2012, it set up an apprenticeship scheme, taking on five apprentices. This year, the plan is take on 10 apprentices, rising to 20 next year. The company also wants to look at developing more senior apprenticeships in underwriting, for example, which require specific skills.
Another initiative, called “Bright Sparks”, is a way of spotting talent at junior level. They receive 12 hours of mentoring a year from chief executive Adrian Brown. In return, the company relies on them to hear from ground level about any problems or blockages in the business.
All these initiatives share a common goal: “Our people strategy is about being our best every day. I make sure HR processes support that,” says Myers.
Q and A
Who do you admire most and why?
I’m a passionate football fan, so I like Karren Brady. I heard her talk years ago when I was at Barclays and she was really inspiring. She became managing director for Birmingham City football club in her early 20s – the first women to hold that position. She shows that you can do things your own way as a woman and keep your femininity with it.
What’s your most hated buzzword?
“Low-hanging fruit” and anything with “synergy” added to it.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My mum when I was growing up told me: “You can be whatever you want to be as long as you work hard.”
How do you relax?
Spending time with my husband and two stepsons. And watching Wolverhampton Wanderers – though I’m not sure the word relaxing and Wolverhampton Wanderers go together! I am also doing a creative writing course. Oh, and definitely buying shoes.