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Nigel Sullivan


Group HR Director

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“The skill set of the HR function will shift.”


This is an interview with Nigel Sullivan, Group HR Director at TalkTalk. Nigel is also a non-executive director at the Royal United Hospital Bath and was previously Group HRD and Board Member at Wincanton, VP HR at Marconi Communications and HR Director at Nortel.

You’ve been at senior HR director level for over 20 years now. How has the role changed in terms of what the business expects of you?

I’ve been in HR for 25 years with the last 13 years as a Group HR Director. This sounds like a long time but I can honestly say it’s gone very quickly and time seems to be speeding up.

Over that time the shift in the HR profession has been huge. When I first joined it was called Personnel Management and was much more “functional” and administration-based than it is today. In my background for example relationships with trade unions and industrial relations were all the rage. Big careers were built on this. Nowadays the emphasis is more on change, transformation, OD, engagement and business partnering rather than necessarily deep functional specialism. This brings its own challenges.

What I’ve tried to do over the years is be a business person first who happens to work on people stuff. The business expects the traditional “Personnel” HR elements to just work/be automated and the HR team to add value to the overall business objectives; attract and retain talent, be agile, engage colleagues etc.

At TalkTalk we have gone down a very pure Ulrich model here, operating as true business partners supported by shared services and centres of expertise and are pretty lean as a result, but that’s the way we like it.

Although the change in the profession has been significant, it didn’t happen overnight. In the early years it was like rolling a ball up a hill, but once it caught on, you could see the industry getting behind it and now it’s difficult to imagine where we started from.

The business expects the HR team to add value to the overall business objectives.

Now it’s rolling downhill – very fast – and that’s a good thing for the profession in my view.

You’ve recently invested heavily in cloud-based HCM. What was the business case for moving to the cloud and to a new system?

The decision to move to Workday was a bit of a no brainer. As a technology company we pride ourselves on being digital-first. The services we offer our customers are moving to an online self-serve model and it made sense for us to mirror this with our people.

Our goal was to offer our people a consumer grade experience which has been designed “mobile first”. A lot of HR systems can be very corporate and clunky and we wanted something that replicated the way our people interact with their favourite app, or use Facebook.

The fundamental change with Workday is that everyone has direct access to information that had previously been held by HR and that people managers now have full responsibility and the information and tools to manage their team. It releases people management from the HR department to where it belongs, which is with people managers.

The transition has been pretty seamless. We went from seven to two systems, implementing the core Workday HCM, the recruitment model for Workday – which had only just launched in Europe at the time – and changing payroll provider to ADP – all at the same time. It was a global first.

Internal talent and mobility is a big focus for TalkTalk. What’s the thinking behind this and, tactically, what have been initiatives or projects that have yielded good results?

Like many sectors, we’re in a competitive market for talent and as a growing business, hiring the right people is critical. Three years ago 30% of our appointments were down to internal moves and 70% were filled externally. We felt there was an imbalance so we set ourselves a goal to improve internal mobility.

As a growing business, hiring the right people is critical.

We promoted sideways moves in a more transparent way by holding careers festivals and publicising stories from our people who had taken on different roles within the business. We started to publish an ‘Opportunity of the Week’ in our communications, to actively promote vacancies, secondments and job shadowing.

To ensure we could identify the benefit, we measured results every month and also included it as a question in our annual employee survey. Today, 50% of our appointments are filled internally and year-on-year we’ve seen a huge leap in the amount of our people who feel they can progress their career at TalkTalk, which is a huge achievement and a much better balance for us.

What do you think the HR function will look like in 2020? What will be its relationship to the wider business?

I always try and resist the urge to future gaze too much as you never know what’s around the corner. Broadly speaking, I think it’ll be more of what we have changed towards today but more fine-tuned. The trend to be a business function as opposed to an HR function per se will continue.

As the [HR] profession evolves, the team will be more sophisticated and operate more in line with consultancy-type skills.

With the advent of the next generation HCM systems, the onus will be much more on organisation development and design, transformation, change management and talent management. All these things exist today but they’ll be more in demand and will also demand an even higher degree of agility from HR professionals.

The skill-set will shift too. As the profession evolves, the team will be more sophisticated and operate more in line with consultancy-type skills. There’ll also be fewer but higher skilled people in HR as the systems take away the need for processing and managers take on more responsibility. 

What’s TalkTalk’s overall strategy for delivering employee engagement?

For us this is really about going from a ‘good’ place to work, to a ‘great’ one. And that’s not easy.

We know that our people enjoy working here and that they feel increasingly able to recommend TalkTalk as a place to work. Our engagement scores are the highest they’ve ever been but we know there’s more for us to do to truly achieve our vision.

We want to be a company where our people can be themselves and build great skills that truly support their development. A place where they have the chance to work with other digitally-savvy, like-minded people, and inspiring leaders, in great, vibrant environments.

We’re doing pretty well in some of those areas already but we know that we have some work ahead of us to deliver that experience consistently across the business. This year, we’ve been working to address four key areas that our people told us they most wanted us to focus on: career development, systems and processes, working environment and reward and recognition.

We’ve delivered a series of initiatives against the plan already, such as refreshing our key sites and introducing more collaborative working areas and systems, offering all of our employees money-can’t-buy tickets to the live X-Factor Final, and most recently, partnering with digital consultancy Decoded to help all of our colleagues to be more digital.

Listening to our people’s feedback and putting it at the heart of our engagement strategy is transforming TalkTalk for the better.

And our people tell us that we’re making progress: employee engagement went up again in our survey this year to 76%, that means we’ve delivered a 20% uplift in engagement over the last three years. And it won’t stop there. We’re committed to building a business that all of our people can feel proud to work for. Listening to our people’s feedback and putting it at the heart of our engagement strategy is transforming TalkTalk for the better, and we’re looking forward to making even further progress in the year ahead.

Underlying the whole strategy is our fundamental belief that a highly engaged team of colleagues will deliver better service for our customers and to Make Britain Better Off. We constantly remind ourselves that our customers are the reason any of us are employed at TalkTalk in the first place.

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Nigel Sullivan

Group HR Director

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