Interview with Ethan Kelly-Wilson, group head of HR operations at the Institution of Civil Engineers

Ethan Kelly-Wilson, group head of HR operations at the Institution of Civil Engineers, says a quest for personal development drives him to meet the challenges of his role

For Ethan Kelly-Wilson, group head of HR operations at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), career progression is not dictated by job title, but by opportunities for personal development.

“I want people to know I am an effective contributor and to think I am doing a good job,” he says. “I do not have a title or a job I am particularly interested in. I look at the role on offer and think: am I going to be learning or am I going to develop some more from the next opportunity? That is what my ambitions are all about – making myself a better practitioner.”

It was this approach to his career that led Kelly-Wilson into the world of benefits. Having taken roles in recruitment and employee relations, he was asked to manage a salary review while working at the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA).

“I was asked to manage the global salary review in the UK and in the 13 countries where we had offices,” he says. “At the time, I was doing my CIPD [Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development] management
report and decided I was definitely going to do it on something reward-related.”

Since then, Kelly-Wilson has not looked back. During his time at the ICE, he has managed a major reward project, a large part of which involved closing the organisation’s defined benefit (DB) pension scheme. He
cites the project, which won ‘Most effective pensions strategy’ at this year’s Employee Benefits Awards, as one of his greatest career achievements.

“I do kind of choke that if someone has been working for a company for 30 years and is in its final salary pension scheme, to have that taken away feels like a bereavement. So to go through the whole pensions consultation process and know people are feeling like that and for morale to be low, to introduce the new pension and for our staff to believe we have treated them in a fair and reasonable way, that has been a really good achievement.”

Good relationships are key

People and establishing good relationships are at the heart of everything Kelly-Wilson does, as is a refusal to give up when the going gets tough. “I have a positive attitude, I really want to deal with people, I want to get to know them,” he says. “I do not want to be telling people what to do, I want to influence them into doing the right thing. Getting personally involved with people is a good thing for me.

“Having said that, I am pretty tenacious. I do not leave things easily. If you think about the reward project we did, at one time in 2008 the board said ‘we cannot afford to do this’, so I had to find a way to make it affordable.

“It is not about giving up, it is going away to regroup and looking at what we can do.”

Kelly-Wilson’s commitment to building relationships extends right to the top of the ICE. He believes benefits and reward professionals must keep their finger on their organisation’s pulse to fully understand the nature of the business, its key objectives and challenges.

He says: ”Having an understanding of what the business is all about is probably the most important thing we do.
Things we do have to be relevant to everybody.”


Who is your role model?

Most of my inspiration has come from people I have worked with. In my current role, my boss Sandra Parsons, who is HR director, inspired me to do all the reward and benefits stuff, having not done it before, and gave me free rein to do what I wanted. I do not look up to people like celebrities. I am more inspired by people I am
with every day. There is one person who really inspired me. I get my tenacity from my nan, who passed away in 2004. She became the mother of her household aged 12 when her mum died. She was very tenacious and lived for the ambitions of her grandchildren.

What is your favourite benefit?

For me, it is private medical insurance. It is bad enough being in hospital, but I would never want to be without health insurance ever again. I think it is the most amazing benefit there is.

What has been the biggest hurdle you have encountered?

I want to do everything today and it is not always achievable. That is something I have learnt over the last couple of years – to really take the time to collect your thoughts on what you are doing, so the end result is a lot better.

Curriculum vitae

2008-present head of HR operations, Institution of Civil Engineers
2007-2008 HR business partner, CIMA
2006-2007 HR adviser, NHS Camden
2004-2006 resourcing and retention adviser, Bedfordshire and Luton Partnership Trust
2001-2002 assistant manager, First Leisure Corporation
2000-2001 people support adviser, Easyjet

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