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Finding the perfect people person

By Olivia Fenton. Published on 3 September 2018


Recruiting for the role of Director of People  at a world-renowned scientific research institute.

The Wellcome Trust is an independent, global charitable foundation that supports 14,000 people in more than 70 countries. Its goal is to facilitate research, expand knowledge, and explore ideas in science, population health, and medical innovation.

It’s also home to some of the leading lights in scientific research. Formed in 1936, the organisation still operates to the vision of its founder Sir Henry Wellcome to ‘help support the advancement of medical and scientific research to improve mankind’s wellbeing”.

Fast-forward to today, and the charity is in the process of implementing an ambitious business strategy, with plans to invest up to £5 billion over the next five years in support of various research programmes. To make this happen, the organisation supports a diverse community of approximately 700 employees – and through them a global network of people (numbering over 14,000).

Mobilising this workforce, inspiring them to greatness, and maintaining a strong people strategy, is therefore a prime concern for the Wellcome Trust. It was also a principal consideration for Jeremy Farrar when he joined in 2013 as Director, a position equivalent to CEO.

For Jeremy, the People Function he inherited was fully functional, but in need of modernisation – and for a number of core processes to be re-engineered. His decision was therefore to replace the out-going HR lead with a new People Director. This was a role that called for a highly accomplished and experienced HR practitioner, and one able to develop a ‘people agenda’ that aligned closely with required business outputs.

What’s more, for Jeremy, it was also an opportunity to elevate the position to the full Executive Board (the previous role having reported elsewhere inside the organisation). The purpose here being to ensure the new hire was afforded the strategic mandate necessary to drive transformation across such a business-critical support service.

Our continued success is intimately connected to our people, and we wanted an informed and dynamic voice who could guide both the Executive and the Board of Governors on how to get the best out of the great talent we have available. The role was wide in scope, and covered all areas of people progression, diversity, and inclusion. It was therefore imperative we found the right person with a broad mix of skills and capabilities.”

Jeremy Farrar, Director, Wellcome Trust

SETTING THE OBJECTIVES

The role called for an individual with experience in providing strategic and operational leadership across the People function, and one able to transition the HR function toward new services and capabilities. Hence the importance of finding a true ‘business partner’, and one who could work as a member of the executive team – while being overseen by a Board of Governors.

Such requirements were detailed in the candidate profile which highlighted three core objectives:

  • Oversee an employee-oriented, high performance culture that emphasises empowerment, quality, and efficiency
  • Focus on performance delivery, and the recruitment and on-going development of a diverse, high-performing workforce
  • Lead the innovation, improvement, implementation and delivery of services, policies, systems, and process through the People team

The successful candidate was Kathy Poole, whose career began with KPMG and includes roles such as Senior HR Business Partner at British Airways and People Services Director at Channel 4.

Initial conversations with the Trust were really encouraging because they played into two of my core passions. The first was business transformation, and I’ve been heavily involved with previous clients in helping drive both HR and wider change agendas. The second one, which is particularly close to my heart, is people development, and helping ensure the right talent is in place and carefully nurtured to meet the business strategy”.

Kathy Poole, Director of People, Wellcome Trust.

KICK-STARTING THE PROCESS

As the new hire would lead the People Function, Jeremy wanted to manage the recruitment process separately from the team – and decided to call on external help for identifying likely candidates. That meant finding an executive search partner, and for help in selecting the right firm he called upon another board member: Tim Livett, the CFO.

The next step, once the  mandate had been agreed, was to invite a number of firms to pitch for the work of candidate identification. Interestingly, Kathy was involved at this stage as Tim had been in touch to ask for her views on what it would take to find the right candidate – and it was due to her recommendation that Eton Bridge Partners were selected to run the formal recruitment process.

I’d known a number of consultants within various Practices at Eton Bridge Partners, so I was very happy to recommend them. For me, they’re every bit as good as the bigger names in the executive recruitment market yet offer far greater value for money. I also think Eton Bridge Partners are a really approachable group of talented recruiters, and lack the arrogance of the bigger players who don’t seem as hungry to win your business”.

Kathy Poole, Director of People, Wellcome Trust.

ADVANCING THE CONVERSATION

Once brought into the search process, Eton Bridge Partners got to work drawing up first a detailed candidate profile, and then an initial long list. To do this the Human Resource Practice, led by Olivia Fenton, Partner,  reached out to their extensive network of HR executive contacts to discuss the role – and gauge interest.

Conversations soon progressed, and in an impressively short timeframe the Wellcome Trust was presented with a list of capable and experienced candidates. Next, following conversations with Eton Bridge Partners, the Trust agreed a short list, and arrangements were made for those on the list to meet with the CFO.

 “Tim and I were impressed at how quickly Olivia and her team were in identifying a large number of highly credible candidates. We went through them in detail, and together decided on a long list of about ten people. We then saw these one at a time, before agreeing on a short list of two.

Jeremy Farrar, Director, Wellcome Trust

Not that they were finished there. A final round of meetings was scheduled with the Chair of the Board of Governors. was At that point, Eton Bridge Partners handled all elements of the offer process with Kathy as the preferred candidate.

It was an interesting process. Certainly meeting the executive team in three consecutive meetings was an immersive experience. But looking back I can fully appreciate the value of doing things that way. The role itself calls for a HR business partner and it was vital that each member of the executive was involved in the decision. That they had the opportunity to ask their questions, and that they had buy-in to the final appointment”.

Kathy Poole, Director of People, Wellcome Trust.

MATCHING CAPABILITY WITH CULTURE

Looking back, Jeremy describes the process as “straightforward, well managed, and highly professional” from the start. The quality of the candidates was also noted, with a number of individuals deemed to be strong in all the right areas – and all eminently hireable.  In particular, he was pleased with the broad range of experience on offer, with individuals boasting backgrounds that were as varied as they were relevant.

This was a significant plus for an organisation that is relatively small in terms of internal staff members (approximately 700) but big on diversity. Indeed the scope of the operation ranges from employees at the avant-garde end of the arts to people attempting to understand what the fruit fly’s brain looks like. In addition, the Trust is home to a portfolio investment arm responsible for managing a £25 billion asset base.

Managing diversity across a large organisation can actually be easier than a small one. Bringing together the overall strategy and vision of the Trust with myriad day-to-day operational concerns requires a broad set of competencies, which is why we didn’t want someone who only knew the philanthropic sector, the commercial sector, or the academic sector. Instead the successful candidate needed to have experience of all of them to ensure a tight fit with our culture and overall ambitions”.

Jeremy Farrar, Director, Wellcome Trust

PERSONAL INVESTMENT

Turning to the performance of Eton Bridge Partners, Jeremy was quick to praise the consistency and professionalism of all involved. The first impression he had of the firm was of people who were both personable and highly involved in what they were doing. That said, what really stood the Eton Bridge Partners out in his eyes was the deep level of personal investment in the task that each team member demonstrated.

It was evident from the start that they knew where to look for the right talent, and at no stage did it feel like they were trying to push us into areas we didn’t want to go. The team was actively engaged, and I knew that if I called up anybody else within the HR Practice they too would be up-to-speed and ready to help. This level of personal investment was really impressive, and it gave me great confidence to know that finding the right hire mattered to them as much as it did to me.”

Jeremy Farrar, Director, Wellcome Trust

Equally, there was a clear sense that from the lead Partner Olivia Fenton down, the firm had a detailed appreciation of what ‘good’ looked like for the Wellcome Trust. This led quickly to a trusted and proactive working relationship, and one where Eton Bridge Partners drove the process forward throughout – by facilitating meaningful discussions with the Wellcome Trust and their extensive network of senior HR contacts.

Obviously having access to a strong candidates is a great place to start. But I also wanted insight from the team to help whittle the long list down. And such support is only possible if you have a comprehensive understanding of what mattered most to us at the Trust, and the culture we want to have. I can safely say that Eton Bridge Partners delivered on all counts, and the observations they offered on each candidate proved to be very accurate and closely aligned to our thinking as well”.

Jeremy Farrar, Director, Wellcome Trust

FOCISING ON WHAT MATTERS MOST

Eton Bridge Partners remained closely involved in the process throughout each of the key phases. Olivia and the rest of the team at the HR Practice were constantly on hand to provide each candidate with updates, guidance, and honest advice on their rate of progress.

I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to be kept up-to-date during the hiring process. And actually it matters a lot to have regular contact rather than long periods of silence between each stage. I was also good to receive an honest assessment of the feedback coming out of Wellcome Trust. I didn’t mind if I was top, middle, or bottom of the list – I just wanted to know”.

Kathy Poole, Director of People, Wellcome Trust.

Jeremy was also impressed with the way Olivia and the team interacted with each candidate. It was important for him that each person involved in the process would come away thinking it a positive experience – irrespective of the progress they made.

All our candidates are members of a wider community, and I wanted every single one to view the Wellcome Trust as an organisation that acts honourably and with great transparency. It was the same for the successful candidate. Knowing that the person was already employed elsewhere, we wanted the negotiation to be handled in a sensitive and discreet way. But by that stage, I already knew I could trust Eton Bridge Partners to make this happen”.

Jeremy Farrar, Director, Wellcome Trust

Final thoughts

Asked how Kathy would rate the performance of Eton Bridge Partners, she was quick to use words such as “great”, “really helpful”, and “responsive”. At the same time, she also explained the reasons why she wouldn’t hesitate in recommending the firm to any other companies looking to fill senior HR positions:

It helps that they really ‘get’ HR. I recommend Olivia in particular because I know she’s been a HR practitioner herself in the past, and is somebody who has an excellent grasp of what HR needs in the business. That means having access to someone I can bounce ideas off, knowing I’ll get great insights in return. As for the wider business, Eton Bridge Partners are a really personable group of people to work with. They’re also willing to listen and to go that extra mile to keep you happy. And on top of that, they offer really outstanding value for money”.

As to the question of whether Jeremy would recommend Eton Bridge Partners to his peers, the response was categorical:

Without hesitation. You can also sense that each client is very important to them. To this can be added significant subject matter expertise combined with more general knowledge of the recruitment market, which was a big bonus for me. They’re responsive when needed, have access to a wide and high quality network of senior talent, and dealt with us in a very responsible manner. Ultimately, the success of their approach is demonstrated by the fact that we ended up with a great candidate. We couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

We wish Jeremy and Kathy all the best for the future.

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Olivia Fenton

PARTNER
EXECUTIVE SEARCH
HUMAN RESOURCES

Olivia specialises in executive search for our HR Practice. Her background in HR, gained in various senior HR positions in a FTSE100 organisation, combined with her extensive general management experience, gives our HR practice a unique offering for clients and candidates alike.

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