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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Rebekah Wallis, HR director at Ricoh

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Back-to-back company and employee integration programmes have kept Rebekah Wallis, HR director at printing and IT services firm Ricoh, pretty busy over the last four years or so.

This is because HR has been considered core to the success of such integration work by ensuring that staff are supported and helped to make the necessary transition to their new employer smoothly.

Wallis has always worked in HR, but it could have been a very different story if she’d followed her original plan. She had been all set to study law at university, but the more that she found out about human psychology, the more she realised that it was this rather than legal matters that fired her enthusiasm.

 
Although Wallis considered undertaking further psychology-based studies or practising occupational psychology after completing her undergraduate course, in the end she decided that HR would be an ideal way of applying some of the knowledge that she’d gained.
 
As a result, in 1989, she joined British Gas as a graduate trainee in HR. It was at a time when the utility company had just been privatised and was on the road to being split off into separate component companies. “It was fascinating,” Wallis remembers.

Working closely with one of the divisional HR directors, she became involved in talking to trade unions and their members about the steps that would have to be taken on the road towards privatisation and what it would all mean for staff.

 
But once the splitting up of the company finally began in earnest about five years later, Wallis decided against joining one of the post-privatisation organisations and left instead to join a recruitment firm.
 
Acquistions, acquisitions, acquisitions
 
The move from a massive corporate to a small company was a bit of a culture shock but one that she found positive. The upside was that things moved much faster and she became far more involved in customer engagement than she ever had been at British Gas.

Her next stop, however, was NRG, which she joined as HR manager, but which was subsequently purchased by rival, Ricoh – her current employer.

 
But the acquisition was only the first of several that Wallis was to experience, and that have seen the company’s headcount grow almost sevenfold since she joined.
 
As a result, over the last four years, she has helped to integrate the same number of companies as Ricoh continued expanding its portfolio – a role that she acknowledges is exactly the opposite of what she was doing at British Gas in some ways.
 
Although at this stage she has a lot of experience of what’s involved in an integration programme – handling issues ranging from office relocations and management to organisational structure changes – what she has also found is that each scenario presents its own unique set of challenges.
 
“Each integration was very different and managed differently,” Wallis explains.

She became HR director during the first of these takeovers, but found the shift in her role to be a huge step-change – although she believes that this was as much down to the fact she was heading up the integration initiative as it was to any tweak in job title.

 
“It definitely did feel different and the responsibility level was different – it seemed a much, much bigger job,” she explains.
 
Lines of communication
 
On the one hand, Wallis found that the role required sensitivity because she was looking after the future direction of senior directors, some of whom would not be joining the new merged enterprise.

On the other hand, the move from manager to director involved shifting from ‘doing’ to ‘delegating’.

 
Wallis explains: “It’s moving from doing everything yourself to having a trusted team and being able to delegate to that team. Most of my time now – probably 90% of it – is spent in meetings. Therefore, my ability to physically sit down and do something is limited.”

With so much change having taken place over recent years, however, she believed it was vital that both existing and incoming staff felt involved and also that the lines of communication between them and managers remained open.

 
One of the ways of doing this was to create a group of employee representatives who act like a second board of directors. The idea is that the main board run ideas past them and obtain their feedback.
 
Wallis finds this to be a far more powerful tool than traditional engagement surveys. “Numbers only tell you so much – you have to talk to people and connect,” she explains.

The approach has proved so successful that Wallis is now hoping to extend it to the next generation of recruits coming in so as to give them a platform to share their views and feedback too.

 
“We want to recognise the new generation. They are probably not represented at a senior level so we want to set up something similar for Millennials to find out their different needs and likes,” Wallis concludes.

And finally…

Who do you admire most and why?

I admire people who are passionate about what they do and give their time and skills selflessly for the benefit of others such as volunteers/charity workers.
 
I also admire people who manage to fit lots into their lives – those who’ve got a busy family life and busy careers and still manage to fit other things in (and all with a smile).

What’s your most hated buzzword?

‘Brain dump’ due to its seemingly negative connotations in relation to ‘creativity’, which should be seen and treated as something positive.

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

Play to people’s strengths – everyone has them – and minimise the impact of their weaker areas. No one is perfect so build teams with people that complement each other’s skills.

How do you relax?
I don’t relax because I’ve got three children! They are so wonderfully demanding and the perfect antidote to work.

 
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