Putting People First: Claire Vidal, Head of People at Eton Bridge Partners, reflects on her first 100 days in the role

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Claire Vidal leads Eton Bridge Partners’ internal HR function as Head of People and is part of the leadership team. In her 15-year career, she has worked for FTSE 100 companies in technology, cybersecurity, and energy as well as in HR consultancy.

Claire shares her views on her journey so far, and how she came to choose to work at Eton Bridge Partners.

To be honest, when I saw Eton Bridge Partners advertising for its first Head of People to join the senior leadership team, it seemed too good to be true. It can be rare for HR to be welcomed into the boardroom in the corporate world – usually, we have to knock on the door and ask to be let in! When I first met Ashton and the Management team, I was really struck by their leadership style and values, as well as their evident care for everyone in the business. It was clear that the company culture matched my own values and I would be accepted for who I am, in and outside of work.

I knew instantly that I had joined a company where there’s a sense of belonging to something special.

You can see this in Eton Bridge Partners’ outstanding response to the pandemic. We’ve been fortunate enough not to have to furlough anyone, care packages have been sent to employees at home, and our dedicated and proactive Wellbeing Team drawn from across the business has introduced lots of practical initiatives for the whole company.

After a career spent largely in big companies, I’m enjoying a more relaxed and personable working environment. I like the way people stop by just to say ‘hi’ (virtually, and when we were able to be in the office!) and the way colleagues want to know about your life outside of work – I no longer need to pretend I don’t have children.

Like anyone in a new leadership position, a priority of mine was to build trust with my colleagues. I believe that there are three parts to this:

  1. Relationships: Getting to know people, not just their business goals, but what’s really important to them as individuals. As Head of People, you need to have a personal relationship with your colleagues and take the time to invest in those relationships.
  2. Confidentiality: It goes without saying that discretion is paramount. All my colleagues need to know they can speak to me in absolute confidence.
  3. Trust: I want to be a trusted member of the team and simply put, to make sure that I do what I say I will do.

How can I make Eton Bridge Partners an even better place to work?

Eton Bridge Partners has always invested in their people. Everyone is encouraged to develop themselves, whether this is for personal, or work performance. For example, all new members of the team complete a ‘Strengths Finders’ questionnaire to determine their strengths and similarities with others. We regularly invest in training courses, 1-2-1 external coaching (not just at leadership level) and ‘lunch and learns’ with both internal and external speakers. This is an area of continued focus to ensure we are helping our people to develop to their full potential.

My purpose as Head of People is to evolve and enhance what we already have and ask; ‘What else could make this an even better place to work?’ ‘How do we take Eton Bridge Partners from a ‘great employer’ to an ‘amazing employer’?

In any company, HR has two core responsibilities. One is to ensure that the organisation operates within the legal employment framework and mitigate risks, and the other is to focus on the people agenda to improve the performance of the business. This means addressing the whole employee hierarchy of needs from pay and benefits, workplace environment and culture, through to talent development and succession planning.

We’re already taking some first steps on this journey, including:

  • Measuring our employee engagement through the Best Companies to Work For This benchmark will help us understand what and how we can improve. Achieving a place in the top 100 small businesses to work for is a powerful way to attract and retain staff. We recently received our results back from the survey and have been awarded a World Class Place to work which is a fantastic achievement and testament to the business and our employees.
  • Continuing to invest in our diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategy. I believe we have a great platform to build on and we are continuing to action the promotion of inclusion and diversity within our business whilst also supporting our clients’ needs with their D&I agenda. In addition to the training already provided on the legal framework and understanding bias, we are now looking to further deepen our understanding. Our D&I ambassador group gives our people a platform to voice their views, to explore how we can be even more inclusive and provide further assistance to our clients and candidates.
  • As we continue to grow as a business, hiring is a key priority and with that, reviewing how we attract talent into our business is vital, as is developing our internal talent through succession planning. We know from what our employees say that we are a great place to work. Ensuring we have a great Employee Value Proposition as well as a great culture is a priority for attracting and retaining the best talent.

What we’ve learnt from the pandemic

Of course, all of this in my first 100 days has been against the background of the pandemic. Working from home and COVID-safe, socially distanced workplaces can make leadership harder. I do miss the energy of the office and the opportunity to observe people organically to pick up non-verbal clues. We need to be mindful that video calls can be very task-focused; people can be less willing to open up. Even when we are able to get back to working in the office, I’d like to have face to face contact with the team for collaboration and to build a more personal connection. I’m a big fan of the ‘walkie talkie’, taking a walk instead of a video call with a fellow colleague (within the current guidelines) to help build that relationship and rapport.

Some big positives have come out of the last 12 months. It’s been a lesson in flexibility. Business leaders have learnt to embrace working from home and that trust has grown. Employees have really worked incredibly hard, especially with the other demands on their time such as home schooling for any working parents. We’ve seen a near universal acceptance that mental wellbeing is paramount in the workplace resulting in the mental health agenda accelerating by five years. Less commuting has given some people back more personal time, and above all, it’s been a great leveller.

All those video calls where we are literally stepping into people’s homes have given us new insight into our colleagues and clients, their lives, and circumstances. We more readily recognise our shared human experience and that can only be a good thing.

Stepping up to HR leadership

Finally, some words of advice for HR professionals who are looking to step up into a leadership role:

  • Understanding the commercials and the core of what your business does is key, you can only influence key decisions where you understand what is driving the business.
  • Take time to understand the culture and the values of the business you are supporting, it is only then you can truly create a people strategy that aligns with the business strategy and helps to build a culture that enables growth.
  • Adapt your style. Be ready to swap hats throughout the working day. We can be called on to be a counsellor, confidante, diplomat, politician, coach… sometimes all at the same time!
  • Be prepared to have difficult conversations. Treating people with dignity and respect is important whatever the context of the conversation.

Be confident in your abilities and stretch yourself, keep learning – some people especially women, often don’t apply for roles if they think they can’t tick every box on the job description. Go for it! I did.