Nigel Sullivan

HR Director at TalkTalk

Nigel Sullivan is one of those people who makes you want to be on their team: he has mastered the fine art of being both inspirational and making you feel good about yourself. True to form, Nigel's frank and open approach gives us an insight into his game-changing work at TalkTalk and also his exceptionally broad-based career in HR.

Nigel, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. In fact, your willingness to help people has always struck me as an exceptional quality. Did you always follow this enable success in others approach, or did something happen along the way?

I fell into HR from a science background. So it chose me rather than the other way round.

Early on it was drummed into me, as it was with others at the time, “you shouldn’t do HR if you like people”. I never really understood that, so I ignored it. It took me a while to break out of that paradigm. Now I am free of it completely!

Over the last twenty years, you have worked with and for some of the best known names in the industry. What have you learnt from those great leaders and were there any life-changing moments along the way?

I have so many stories on that. Some of the simplist and best was whilst working for Tom Purves at BMW. I hadn’t realised who I had been working with and I was a bit of a prevaricator.

Tom would always – a) try to deal with everything in his in-tray before the day was out and not just leave it for tomorrow, b) always put the customer first and c) told me “you make your own luck”. I use this phrase a lot – its very empowering.

TalkTalk’s Great Place to Work strategy sounds like a smart move. Nurturing sideways moves within your organisation should lead to better employee satisfaction, but how do you know whether it is really helping?

We have measures that are milestone based and others, which are outcome and performance based. An example is that we set various targets on internal moves and secondments to really push internal mobility – so we have moved from 30% new appointments being filled internally to our current value of 50%. (We set the target at 60% but I’m fairly pleased with where we got to so far).

We also survey people a lot and ask their opinions in various ways – and we really try to listen to what our people are telling us.

Then there’s the outcome: our engagement score has moved from 56% to 76% in 3 years and the survey participation has moved from 76% to 92%.

So we know we are good. The ambition now is to be great.

Some would claim the workplace keeps getting more specialised. Do you think it is still possible to recruit people with the right experience, or is the right attitude and the ability to learn a more realistic approach today?

Generally I think hire for will and build the skill. That of course cannot always be the case but attitude and cultural fit go further in my mind than technical capability – particularly in leadership roles – whatever they may be.

Google was an early adopter of the OKR objective setting method and also introduced the 20% time rule allowing people to work on projects they were passionate about. Yahoo CEO and formal Googler Marissa Mayer however re-named this "120% time".
How should an organisation find the right mixture of targeted skills training and general people development?

We are a mixed bag on this. We used to be terrible at all of it. Now we are quite good at development and our motto on development is “led by me, supported by my manager, backed by TalkTalk.” And there’s a real role for all 3 to play.

We also set some developmental targets that help us and now people see this as a strength. We created TalkTalk U – an online “university” where content is curated, accessed and training interventions booked. We still have a way to go on targeted skills and ongoing professional development and have recently pulled together a new team to focus on this.

You have often been in the press for pioneering Data Enlightenment at TalkTalk and were one of the initial supporters of the then start-up company Decoded. How important do you think this training has been to TalkTalk's competitive advantage?

In the past, there seemed to be two groups of people engaging with the internet: those who use it and those who understand it. Certainly for TalkTalk, this partition is fading. Especially in our B2B business, we are no longer seen as an analogue telecoms company and are recognised as a digital first company.

We are huge believers that the internet is a force for good and building digital expertise can truly transform our business. Decoded are an exciting company to be working with; they understand our business and share our entrepreneurial spirit

TalkTalk staff are encouraged to participate in monthly thought-provoking masterclasses in coding, data, future technology and cyber security. The training is open to all employees and Decoded also run immersive workshops blending elements from all four masterclasses.

We all get a buzz about understanding something which has mystified us in the past and even more important than this motivation-factor is the strategic impact on our future. From digital "Lunch and Learn" at our career fairs to "All Hands" training days for the whole company, no TalkTalk employee should feel excluded.

In terms of competitive advantage, it's hard to limit the value of these activities. Business is generally becoming more and more digital, meaning the skills we can hire outside our business will become scarcer. That's two good reasons why we simply cannot afford to leave anyone behind.

Pocket Progress Coach is about making advice accessible.
I often suggest struggling managers build a team of winners who believe in their objective. Do you have a similar piece of advice you could share with us?

Unconditional Trust would be mine and it took me a while to learn it. If you are authentic and grounded leader people will follow you. If you trust them, without strings attached – you will get the best out of them.

Often we think “management “is control – its really not. Management is to free people, to enable them to do their best.

You are also a Non Executive Director at Royal United Hospital Bath. What made you take on that role and how does it compliment your TalkTalk responsibilities?

It’s the first time I have had Public Sector responsibilities and I think I bring a commercial angle to the proceedings as well as the people experience. Hospitals are definitely people places and patient care and safety the top priority.

I really enjoy my NED role and believe it is to provide a supportive challenge to the executives and to be a team player on the Board.

We both started our careers as a scientist and changed soon after. What made you change to HR and do you have any tipps for young people today who may think they have chosen the wrong career path?

Do what interests and excites you first. All other things follow from that. Don’t get trapped doing a job you don’t like – life is too short!

Turning the clock forward, how do you expect the daily working life environment to develop in the next ten to 15 years?

We are living in interesting times and I work in an exciting sector – technology. The Millennials are coming and many of them want different things. They want other things from work than certainly when I started and they will work longer – many into their 70s.

Organisations who think your job is at your desk, fixed in a certain location you go to every day, are in for a shock. The best talent won’t do that in the future. Just one aspect but an important one in my view

Things will change at different rates and it depends on the sector and jobs. But broadly – say for “knowledge workers” – work and life will be even more blurred. The workplace will be increasingly “virtual”. This brings with it a whole host of challenges.

Interview Date: 17/12/15