Neil Hayward has 25+ years of experience as an executive and non-executive director, with a track record in business transformation (including digital) and major change and capital programmes. His international business career has taken him across High Speed Two (HS2) Limited, Post Office, BT, Ministry of Justice, Standard Chartered Bank, Gallaher Group, Serco Group, and Booker, as well as in the NHS and higher and further education sector. Neil is now a board advisor and consultant to SMEs, working with a diverse portfolio of companies.

Neil, tell us a little about yourself and what your career journey so far has looked like?

I’m glad you used the term “so far”! When I ended my full-time career in 2021 – having spent 35 years in work and 25 years + working at a C-Suite level predominantly but not exclusively in HR – I certainly wasn’t finished with work at all just eager to start a different chapter.

I now work as a NED, Board Advisor, Mentor, Investor and Consultant on a portfolio basis, predominantly with small privately held businesses where I can use my experience to help them grow. I also do some pro bono work in higher and further education and sit on the board of the National Skills Academy (for Rail) and Solent University here in the UK. 

Everything that I do has these features in common: I care about the purpose of it; there’s a chance for me to make a real difference; I’m learning something, and I like and trust the people I’m working for and with. That means work is always on my terms and fun to do. If it’s not these things, then I don’t do it – and I am also probably not the right person for it. It feels good to be able to choose. 

You sit on the board of Skills Union. What drew you to join the company and motivated you to invest your time and skills? 

Investing in education and skills helps people achieve what they want in life whilst also solving employer problems. And it seems to me that Skills Union is in the middle of connecting these things, by closing the digital skills gap, which feels aspirational and very exciting. 

Joining the journey with Skills Union allows me to be part of helping people get an opportunity to learn skills that are relevant to them becoming really well employed. These skills are sufficiently rare so that acquiring them will accelerate their professional development and create good job opportunities and then earnings and thus a good lifestyle for them and their families. What’s not to like about a company that can do that?

What are your focus areas and passions in the business world/things that grab your attention? 

I like trying to do three things in my working life, and the mix I’ve crafted for myself covers all three. 

Firstly, I’m attracted to helping people succeed, so they create wealth and jobs for others as they do. Secondly, I like creating opportunities for others, as nothing beats seeing investment in skills and education paying off for them and you. And thirdly, I’m not a steady-state kind of person which is why I like advising on business transformation, and helping businesses turn their strategy and plan into actions that will make a difference. I like acting as a catalyst for, or a driver of the change they want to see. The differentiation in strategy is from the execution of it, not the thinking of it. 

I’m not motivated by my place or status in the world. I’m driven only by whether I’m adding any value or not to the people who’ve invited me to help them, and whether I’m excited to be with them and vice versa. That’s all. 

What is a “people strategy”, and how have you seen this evolve across the industries you have worked in?

For a business to succeed, it needs to have the capability, capacity and culture to win against its rivals. To my mind, the people strategy is the part of the overall business strategy that defines how you deliver on these things – it’s your differentiator or ‘edge’. 

How you think about building these things sets in motion how to attract, develop, deploy, and generally inspire and retain your workforce to help you achieve your business goals. This is all far too important to be left to chance. You have to set out to make these things happen. 

Companies that don’t do this will fail. When I started work, we assumed that there would always be enough people for all of us, that they were a commodity lucky to be working for us, and that they would automatically stay and be loyal.  

Now, all employers must consider the experience they offer employees much more carefully than ever before and tailor it. That’s not just about the pandemic, but a whole host of other things too.

Employees expect more from their employer now, and they have more choices than ever before. They won’t stay with you if you don’t meet their expectations. I don’t believe this is a temporary phenomenon due to the talent shortages that are being forecast for the decade ahead in most developed economies. This is one of the hallmarks of the new world of work, and it’s here to stay. 

What do employees want, and do you see this being vastly different across different countries?

I see variations across different parts of the world regarding the exact priorities, but the overall themes are all pretty similar. I believe the six critical factors that employees consider most important when deciding whether or not to take a job with a different organisation are:

  1. A step up in pay and benefits. This is becoming more, not less, important because employees are aware they are in a job-seekers market now. 
  2. Greater work-life balance and better personal wellbeing. Plenty of surveys have highlighted just how overwhelmed, tired and stressed the workforce at large is post-pandemic. Even for workers who aren’t experiencing these things, the significant increase in remote working caused by the pandemic has raised awareness about job flexibility options, and the support your employer can offer. It’s becoming an expectation that employers are good at this and care more about the people working for them. 
  3. The ability to do what I do best. When people have the opportunity to do what they are naturally gifted at and trained to do, they enjoy their work, find it stimulating and want to do more. Workers who aren’t using their strengths go looking for opportunities where they can do so. Workers who use their strengths still look for options where they can use them even more. With this in mind, recruiters should really spend more time understanding what excites a candidate, and what they are good at. And they should also provide a realistic job preview – what the daily routine will look like, who they will be working for, and what they can expect to do. That’s what we are doing at Skills Union. 
  4. Stability and job security (but on my terms). After two and a half years of living with daily uncertainties about our health, our jobs and now about the economy too (high inflation, rising energy costs, global food shortages etc.) being in work is a stabilising force. Workers want their employer to be this for them, particularly more mature workers. 
  5. The organisation truly engages with diversity and includes all types of people. It’s two years since the killing of George Floyd and the International Black Lives Matter protests that followed. I see support continuing to grow for creating more equitable and inclusive workplaces, and I believe this is a sign of societal progress. Workers today are demanding concrete and substantial change on these issues beyond platitudes. The employers that posted supporting statements on their websites but then did nothing have been found out and often outed.
  6. My organisation is a force for good. I see this with apprentices and graduates entering the workplace. They want to work doing something that matters to the planet’s future. Greenwashing doesn’t do it any longer. Does your business have a purpose that inspires the next generations? 

You’ve spoken quite a bit about the positive impact of employee engagement on business performance. Could you share some examples from your career? 

When I talk about engagement, or employee experience, I speak from a position of having been a Chief People Officer who took a company that was behind the curve on these things, and helped to make it into a living embodiment of the standards that the people who now work for it are very proud of, that they themselves helped to define, which is a real differentiator for them.

Employee engagement isn’t a new idea either – it’s just that it has come back into focus because we have talent shortages and that’s why employers have to get interested – quite rightly – in what it takes to attract and then keep the best people. Your employees know the answers I think, but are you asking them, and then listening even if you are? 

There was a man called Jack Welch, who was Chairman and CEO of General Electric between 1981 and 2001, and during his tenure, the market cap of GE  increased from $12B to S410B. There are two quotes from him that sum up my philosophy: 

  1. “There are only three measurements that tell you nearly everything you need to know about your organisation’s performance: employee engagement, customer satisfaction and cash flow. It goes without saying that no company, small or large, can win over the long run without energised employees who believe in the mission and how to achieve it.”
  2. “On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy. Your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products.”

Could you tell us a little about High Speed 2 (HS2), the UK rail initiative you worked on? 

HS2 is the largest infrastructure project the UK government has ever invested in by some distance. Britain’s new high-speed rail line is being built from London to the North-West, with HS2 trains linking the biggest cities in Scotland with Manchester, Birmingham and London. There are now something like 25,000 people working on 300 construction sites up and down the country. At its peak, there’ll be about 30,000 people working on it.

What did you come me into HS2 as Chief People Officer to do? 

The company I joined in 2017 was a bit of a mess. They’d lost the government’s confidence, hadn’t necessarily been spending money wisely, and simply weren’t in control. The project wasn’t loved by the public or well regarded, hadn’t been set up correctly, and it wasn’t making much progress. As a result, its future was in doubt. 

I was brought in by the CEO, Mark Thurston, as his first external C-suite hire, to help him change how the organisation was perceived which meant defining and then implementing a total capacity, capability and culture rebuild internally. Although many challenges had already been mapped out, there was no clarity on how to solve the problems. Bringing solutions was what I did. 

When I came in, the circumstances were ripe for change. We believed that the project might be cancelled and that it would lose government endorsement if we didn’t galvanise and change things pretty quickly. So, the battle for stakeholder buy-in, a common hurdle in achieving organisational change, was already largely won when I got there. 

Coming in, I therefore had a listening platform that in most cases, when you come into a new organisation, isn’t there. Either, because the trouble hasn’t yet hit, or people haven’t woken up to it, or there’s a very ingrained culture that says: ‘we’re never going to change anyway’. That was a big help. 

What did you personally bring to the role?

What did I bring to it as a newly hired Chief People Officer? I brought a whole bunch of what I describe as personal energy, and belief, along with my experience of running large-scale business transformation programmes. Which is what they wanted when I was hired. 

My energy comes from finding it really genuinely hard to take no for an answer. I don’t believe there’s a problem that can’t be solved. I think the solution to all problems sits within the hearts and minds of the people in an organisation. If only they can be encouraged to tell you about it, you can then get them freed up and liberated to get stuff done. 

I am always astonished by the amount of human endeavour and impact that flows out of people and simply needs to be guided outwards and upwards. When you lock people down, over-structure them, and over-govern them, you reduce the human capacity to get things done and solve problems. That’s often the failure of big business. 

So, I arrived with a tremendous amount of energy, faith and trust that the problems were manageable and that they would get solved if we just unlocked people’s capacity to contribute. I was also very excited that I might play a small part in ensuring that the biggest infrastructure project that Britain has ever invested in got delivered. And I am now looking forward to riding on HS2 in the 2030’s and beyond whilst saying I had something to do with that!

Ultimately, I helped change almost everything about how the company operated (with the support of many and my HR team which I built more or less from the ground upward) whilst doubling the number of people working there. It wasn’t a situation for the faint-hearted, but it was the type of situation in which I thrive. A kind of ‘break the rules’ and ‘start again at pace’ situation. That’s what’s in my DNA. 

What changed while you were with HS2?

The government finally voted to invest in HS2 in April 2021, which meant that after four years they agreed that we did have the capability, capacity and culture needed to succeed, after this had been assessed through at least three layers of external assurance. This was the ‘no turning back’ moment for the project. The turnaround was complete. And this successful outcome had been validated. 

We started with about 1200 people and grew that to about 2400 people overseeing the work of c23000 others in our supply chain building the railway. I also created a sense of joining and belonging to a great national endeavour and something incredibly special, which greatly impacted talent attraction, retention and culture at all levels. The parent company where I worked set the standards in terms of values, and behaviours, as well as the standards for investing in skills education and employment and ED, not just for ourselves but for all our suppliers. 

Four years was enough time to take a concept that had been initially supported (but was at risk of being cancelled) into one that then became an actual full-scale, huge, construction project. With that success banked, I decided it was the right time for me to move on. At 57, I had reached the point where I didn’t want to work full time anymore. So, it was absolutely the right time to step down, knowing I was leaving a real legacy behind me, as well as an internal successor as the next Chief People Officer, to pass the baton onto. But it was good to finish on a high…..

We became the first company in the country to achieve the Clear Assured Company’s EDI Platinum Standard for equality and diversity. In the last values survey of my tenure, the one word chosen most by employees to describe the HS2 culture was “inclusive”. The company I joined had 16% ethnic diversity, and the company I left was at 23%. The company I joined had 30% female representation, and the company I left was at 37%. This meant we were tapping into large segments of the UK population traditionally excluded from construction and rail. That’s how you close a skills gap! We were far ahead of the relevant benchmarks for both these sectors. We were also shining a spotlight onto other companies making them realise that they had to do the right thing too.

As the company started to grow, I also reduced voluntary turnover, sickness, and absenteeism by about 3-5%. And, by 2021, 97% of HS2 Ltd staff were completing a quarterly performance appraisal, where they were discussing with their line manager how they were doing and feeling, not just what they were doing or had done. 

Our response during the COVID pandemic was also to really increase the culture of putting health and safety first, as well as wellbeing, at the heart of how we did our business. And this had a positive impact – staff engagement sat at 57% in 2017, but then peaked at 76% in 2021 on an 82% turnout. I know that helped us attract and retain staff.

How do you think we should approach the skills gap short term and long – build talent internally or seek externally? 

The best organisations worry about the six things I listed above, and understand and respond to their people’s worries and concerns. They aren’t afraid to ask, and always want to answer the questions their people have for them. Doing this means they will be marginally better at getting people and keeping them than their competitors. These are the marginal differences that might just be enough to ‘win’. But they won’t be complacent about this either. They will always hire new skills and invest in growing skills internally in parallel. And that’s just a reality for business now.

What do you want to know if you’re an employee looking to join a new company? You want to know what the offer is in terms of the job they want you to do, and you want to know WIFM too? What’s next in terms of your progression? What’s the support available to you to keep learning and growing? Good employers are happy to have those conversations and answer those questions.  

In your view, what are the drivers behind the Great Resignation/Reshuffle/Reflection)?

There are a few talent myths at play here, I think.

Myth 1: You can retain employees by offering them more money or a promotion. This only works short-term. According to HBR, nine out of ten people would rather have a boss who cares about them finding meaning and success at work than receive a 20% pay increase. So it’s a factor, but not the only factor. 

Myth 2: The goal is to retain people for as long as possible. It’s no longer expected that employees will grow up in one company. The US Bureau of Labour Statistics stated last year that the average tenure for a 55/64-year-old employee was 9.9 years but only 2.8 years for 24/34-year-olds. Workers, especially Millennials and Generation Z, want new growth opportunities but can’t always find them with their current employer. So they will leave you unless you address their concerns. 

Instead of focussing on tenure, you should instead be fostering a culture of growth and development. This may extend someone’s term with your business, but if it doesn’t, you will still have a talent pool capable of picking up where they left off. 

Myth 3: When employees leave, it is because they are no longer happy. Yes, some workers will resign because they are unhappy and disengaged. They don’t find joy in their current role or workplace, but that’s not true for everyone. Sometimes there is an opportunity that’s too good to pass up, and that’s all. So instead of putting up a wall, wish them well and let them go with your best wishes. By keeping communications open with alums, you retain a brand ambassador who may return to you one day with a stronger skill set than when they left. 

What keeps people is your culture – who you are as a company and what you can offer them in return. That’s all there is. So I say invest in that. 

What is your view on investing in existing staff through programmes for role development or role transition?

Well, it’s a complicated mix. One of the problems with bringing in talent from elsewhere is that internal talent feels overlooked. When that happens, people don’t stay with you. My advice is that external hiring should take place at the lowest possible level. If you have a vacancy, look to promote someone internally to fill it, then hire externally to replace the vacancy at the lower level that this move creates. 

What’s your advice to employers on how to approach hiring and developing existing staff in this new chapter we’re in? 

I’d sum it up by saying: “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there!” 

Take a good long hard look at your business as others see it, not as you imagine it is seen, and now ask yourself: “Am I happy with that?” 

You can still change it if you’re not – but that requires you to drop your ego and have a period of reflection. This should be based on listening very carefully to what your employees think, and then doing things differently based on the feedback they give you. However, don’t leave it too long! You need to know why they want to join you or stay with you not as an add-on, but as part of who you are all day every day.

In your view, what’s a good leader and a bad leader at any company level? Are there some standard traits you observe in both?

Hesburgh, the President of the University of Notre Dame, said it best: “The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet!” Another great quote is from John C. Maxwell: “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”

The qualities I see in good leaders are: they aim high; they seize opportunities; they are not afraid to show emotion; they care about their people; they don’t show a sense of entitlement; they lead by permission; their sense of purpose drives what they do; they take risks other are afraid to take.  

Bad leadership is easily summarised – they’re the boss you despise working for every day; the one who never acknowledges your achievements and only emphasises your faults. They are not good enough for you. 

What are you most proud of in your career, and what are you looking forward to next? 

I hope, and believe, that I’ve enabled many people working for me to achieve what they wanted to accomplish at work, and do better for themselves, by making the experience as good as it could be. I’ve invested in many people and have been paid back by most for that investment. And I’ve developed some lifelong friendships as I’ve passed through corporate life. That’s all that matters. 

Back in the day, I used to genuinely imagine people would remember me for what I’ve done and that people would hopefully say: “Oh, Neil was one of the best HR directors of his generation” or some other such nonsense!

In fact, now I can barely remember what I’ve done, which means other people definitely won’t be able to! When you’ve stopped doing a job, people don’t remember for very long what you did, but they will always remember what you were like to be with – if you were good to be with and there for them when they needed you. That’s a much better epitaph, isn’t it? 

I hope I’ve created some good memories like that, and I’m sorry for any/all of the mistakes I made along the journey when I got things wrong. I do know though that I always tried my best. And that’s what I’m going to keep on doing.