Top benefits professionals reveal secrets of success

Eleven of the country’s leading benefits professionals reflect on their career highlights and share their thoughts on what it takes to achieve award-winning success in the reward industry

The status of benefits professionals within organisations has never been greater. No longer part of what was once seen as a “soft and fluffy” HR function, they have shaken off this outdated image to become some of employers’ biggest hitters, wielding great strategic power and influence. As a result, a huge wealth of talent now exists among the highest-flying benefits professionals.

Eleven of the elite of benefits professionals recently gathered at an event in central London to help us put together this cover feature, which is designed to showcase their talents and achievements. This cream of the crop included Employee Benefits Awards winners, speakers at events such as this month’s Employee Benefits Live, and those who have become well recognised in the industry as experts in their field.

Over the course of the day, these high-ranking individuals shared the secrets of their success, their career highlights and achievements, and offered advice and guidance for those aspiring to reach the same professional heights.

Interviews by Debbie Lovewell and Nicola Sullivan

†

Mark Bradshaw, HR director – reward, Amey

Mark Bradshaw cites Amey’s achievement of a highly commended at this year’s Employee Benefits Awards for its wellbeing programme, as one of his career highlights.

“We were really proud to win a highly commended,” he says.

After Amey’s success, Bradshaw will be speaking on this issue at this month’s Employee Benefits Live.

Grasping the wider business objectives in relation to reward is key, he says. “It is important to have commercial sense. Reward can change a culture. You really have to get close to the business.”

Seeking to gain experience also stands reward professionals in good stead, he adds. “Get involved and never say no. Ask to be involved in projects and ask for the experience.”

But despite the hard work involved in rising to the top, Bradshaw advises aspiring high-fliers not to lose sight of the people skills that may have attracted them to the profession. “I am quite a sociable individual. That is why reward is perfect for me because you have to be sociable and have a good network,” he explains.

“My biggest achievement is building a strong, well-performing team who work well together and enjoy coming to work. Fun is so important because you are at work for a long time.”

†

Susan Hughes, policy manager for UK pensions and benefits, BP

To have a fruitful career in reward, professionals need to link what drives staff with what the organisation needs to achieve, says Susan Hughes.

“In today’s world, human capital is what drives the value of the company. It is how you remunerate those right people, whether it is retaining them or recruiting them or parting ways at the end of the day, be it pension or severance, that is the way you can really add value to the company. For me, reward is the bridge between revenue to the company and the people it employs.”

One of the biggest issues facing reward professionals, especially those responsible for pensions, is the looming tax changes affecting high earners, she says.

“It is the tax changes that we are waiting to hear about and what they will mean in terms of changes to the tax structure for occupational pension schemes. It is far-reaching and fundamental to how pensions are structured. For me, this is the real big ticket item at the moment.”

During her career in reward, Hughes has worked at Abbey – now Santander – and ITN before joining BP in 2002. That year, her team won a Professional Pensions award for a pensions website they developed at BP.

†

Colin Miller, reward manager, Kent County Council

Colin Miller was a worthy winner of ‘Compensation and benefits professional of the year’ at this year’s Employee Benefits Awards. He also led the council to victory in the category for ‘Most effective benefits strategy in a public sector organisation’, as well as achieving a highly commended accolade for its total reward strategy.

Miller is highly regarded in the benefits industry, holding positions such as chairman of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) reward forum.

Miller advises potential high-fliers to keep their eyes open for new opportunities. “Be open to new ideas and bringing together the bits so the sum of the parts works. Challenge yourself and challenge what is in place, so there is continuous improvement.”

He adds: “Talk to people and try to build a network. How can you use this as a way of clueing yourself up on benefits so you can talk with authority?”

†

Evan Davidge, former interim head of reward, Department for Transport

In another life, Evan Davidge might have been a pilot. But despite not realising this ambition, his career has been far from mundane.

Davidge joined the Royal Air Force in 1966 as an administration apprentice and, although he never qualified as a pilot, he was still a high-flier, leaving as a squadron leader in 1997. “My best achievement was reaching senior officer status in the RAF, particularly as I joined with little in the way of educational qualifications,” he says. “What it proves is, if you put your mind to something, you can achieve anything.”

Davidge led a review and redesign of pay, benefits, leadership and management training at the RAF. In 2000, after a spell in retirement and a stint as a college bursar, he became a reward consultant at Nationwide Building Society, where he took up the concept of total reward and put all benefits on one platform. He was a winner in the 2006 Employee Benefits Awards. Davidge will be speaking at Employee Benefits Live 2010.

†

Ant Donaldson, senior specialist – employee benefits, E.On

For someone who entered the reward field only a few years ago, Ant Donaldson has had a rapid rise to the top. This year, he and his team won ‘Benefits team of the year’ at the Employee Benefits Awards.

Donaldson first trained as a chartered accountant before working in a variety of roles, including customer-facing positions. He believes this has served him well since moving into benefits. “Within the HR space, I think it is important to move between functions and get a good grounding,” he says.

If Donaldson did not work in benefits, his dream job would be a role in the Department for Work and Pensions, where he could have a real input to policy in this area. But he adds: “Having said that, I cannot think of anything much better than being a sports journalist, working on Test cricket in particular. Travelling the world to watch cricket in places where it is always summer would take a bit of beating.”

†

Sandy Wilson, head of reward and employee relations, Northern Rock

To have a successful career in reward, compensation and benefits professionals must take on board the concept of total reward, says Sandy Wilson.

Employers must consider non-monetary elements of an employee’s reward package, such as workplace culture, alongside pay and benefits, he says.

“Those starting out in the industry need to remember reward covers many aspects. Pay and benefits are important features, but they need to form part of the whole employment proposition. HR professionals need to build an overall strategy, rather than do reward and benefits in isolation.”

During a long career in the industry, Wilson’s employers have included Kellogg’s, Bradford and Bingley and Co-operative Financial Services. A fellow of the CIPD, he cites his biggest achievement as being able to link reward with employee engagement. “It has been around using reward as a change lever and making it a more proactive part of a people strategy, realising how powerful a tool reward is in terms of employee engagement.”

Wilson says the key attributes for a successful career in reward are: having an analytical mind, common sense, patience, stamina and pragmatism. “The ability to absorb and translate information in a way that takes employees with you is really important,” he adds. “Most important of all, however, would be the desire to want to work in reward.”

†

Stephen Gambles, head of reward and HR services, Alliance Medical

Stephen Gambles says the best thing about working in benefits is making a difference to people’s lives.

“When someone dies in service, which is an awful event, you realise the value of the benefit you supply because the widow is dependent on that money,” he says. “If someone is off sick for two years because they have got cancer or something like that and their income protection kicks in, it just takes all the weight off their shoulders.”

As well as having good numeracy and IT skills, newcomers to the profession hoping to reach the top should respect their peers, says Gambles. “It is a very small world. Never be too keen to step on people because you never know when you are going to meet them again.”

Gambles, who grew up in Rotherham, feels inspired by his father’s career as a steel worker and the people management skills of Richard Galletly, his boss while at Alliance and Leicester. “My dad drove a work ethic into me and my sister,” he says. On Galletly, he adds: “He empowered and inspired his team to deliver and I guess that made his life easier.”

After university, Gambles worked at a car manufacturer building Excel databases. His next job, as flexible benefits administrator at PricewaterhouseCoopers, gave him his first taste of reward. HR roles followed at AAH Pharmaceutical, Alliance and Leicester, and Santander. Gambles is a member of the CIPD and has presented at Employee Benefits Live.

†

Roger Fairhead, head of group reward, Prudential

The variety of routes by which benefits professionals arrive in the industry is one of the reasons Roger Fairhead says it is such an interesting place to be. “What it proves is you need a very broad range of skills to understand the key fundamentals,” he says. “The reason I like it is that compensation and benefits is a very important part of driving the culture of the business.”

Fairhead advises those climbing the benefits ladder to ensure they have a thorough understanding of the subject, as well as their organisation and how reward fits into it. “Make sure you understand the business and where it is heading. People will look to you to be a subject matter expert. Take the opportunity to learn. People will come to you, so make sure you know your stuff.”

A willingness to be flexible and tailor ideas to suit each organisation are also valued skills for benefits professionals, he says. “One of the things I have learnt is that there is no such thing as a single good idea.”

Fairhead’s varied career, which has included roles at Universal Music, Rank Group, the BBC and Sony Pictures Entertainment, has brought a number of personal and professional achievements. “Looking back at each of the roles I have done, there has been an achievement in each,” he says. “One of the greatest experiences I had was at Rank Group. That was my steepest learning curve, but also my greatest experience.”

†

Samantha Gee, director of reward and resourcing, Cancer Research UK

Calm, creative but reflective, positive, happy to be at work, demanding and supportive are just some of the qualities that have served Samantha Gee well during her career.

And she expects the same high standards from those around her. She explains: “I want to make things happen and to have others around me that want to make things happen.”

Gee’s advice for aspiring high-fliers is to gain experience in a variety of areas to acquire a broad skillset. Her own career has encompassed roles in the telecommunications, retail, professional services and charity sectors. “I have benefited from working in a lot of different organisations,” she says. “I have had a huge variety of client groups to work on my specialisms with.”

One way benefits professionals can raise their profile in the industry and demonstrate their value to the wider market is by speaking at industry events, which Gee thoroughly enjoys. “I love presenting to a group,” she says. “It is one of my favourite bits of the job.

“You can be a thought leader. Work on things that can demonstrate value in a straightforward way.”
When it comes to her own career path, Gee says she is not focused on an ultimate ambition. “I do not have a destination; I have a journey,” she says.

†

Maria Strid, head of reward, Santander

Maria Strid says the high point of her career was to redesign the bank’s reward proposition in the UK when it was taking over two other British banks.

In 2008, the Spanish bank, which acquired Abbey in 2004, took over Alliance and Leicester, and Bradford and Bingley. It was then that Strid took a leading role in managing the harmonisation of reward and benefits.

“The bank made a number of acquisitions during that period,” she says. “As part of building a full commercial bank, we built a diverse team that was able to deliver the change agenda and meet the business demands.”

Strid thrives on such challenges and says the best part of her job is that it is never static.

“There is constant room for improvement. It does not stand still as things change economically and there are also societal and fiscal changes.”

The toughest challenge for reward is the unpredictable economic climate, says Strid. “There are macro-economic factors, external factors, such as the economic crisis. Every organisation will have experienced this, and the external labour market is changing at the same time.”

Santander won ‘Most effective pension strategy’ in this year’s Employee Benefits Awards.

†

Toby Simons, head of international HR and reward, EC Harris

When Toby Simons noticed a gap in the market for a networking forum for international reward professionals four years ago, he and three others worked to set up a forum for 150 multinational organisations. “We had a natural network anyway, so this was a way of formalising it,” he says. “That takes up most of my time outside of work.”

Stepping outside his comfort zone is something Simons has done more than once in his career. He says one of his biggest achievements was taking an assignment to live and work in Italy for three years while with Italian oil company Eni, despite not initially speaking the language. “Having to deal with an international role first-hand changed my perception,” he says. “The biggest thing I came away with was a greater understanding of myself.”

The ability to be openminded, outward-facing and having strong networking skills are among the qualities Simons values most in reward professionals. If he did not work in reward, Simons would put some of those qualities to use in one of his first loves: drama. “I studied drama and I would like to think about treading the boards,” he says.

“If someone put me on a stage with Keira Knightley, I would be quite happy.”