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Insider progress: Interview with Kate Chapman, group HR director at PageGroup

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Kate Chapman has taken the reigns as group HR director for PageGroup, the umbrella brand of the Michael Page empire. With an already heavy focus on promoting from within, where will she take it from here? Mary Appleton finds out.

A focus on people

“It took the board a long time to decide to hire a group HRD,” reveals Kate Chapman, the first ever group HR director at PageGroup. “They recognised that our business is continuing to grow globally and we need to put time, energy and focus into our people.”

Six months into her new role, Chapman is feeling confident. As we sit and drink tea, I am struck by her humility. “This is my first group HRD appointment, there’s lots to do but I have a great network to learn from,” she says. “My job is to make change happen. The components are there – I just need to help people realise their strengths and capabilities, encourage the business to look at things from a people perspective and not be afraid to ask for support.”

Early career

Chapman began her career with BT in 1987 as a clerical assistant ‘with no ambition’ and stayed 26 years, working her way up to HR director for BT Retail Customer Service.

“Getting into HR was an accident,” she laughs. It was while working as head of BT’s Transition Centre that her passion for recruitment evolved. “Over three years I redeployed 16,000 people to different jobs,” she explains. “By matching someone from one role to another, you can transform their thoughts from ‘my career is over’ to ‘I have a future’. That was huge for me.”

Established in 1976, PageGroup now operates through three key brands: Page Executive, Michael Page and Page Personnel, along with a portfolio of supplementary brands. With close to 5,000 employees in 34 countries and a turnover of £989.9 million, it has come far since starting as a two-man operation above a laundrette.

Global growth plans

In her new role, Chapman develops talent and leadership capability, helps people grow their careers and delivers an HR service across PageGroup’s 153 offices. She aims to help the business grow organically but in a more consistent way. “Steve Ingham, the CEO, has a clear vision. We will continue to grow organically and keep diversifying – in terms of country, region and discipline.

“My job is to uncover our strong performers, help them move around the globe, set up in new countries and bring in great talent underneath them,” says Chapman.

Consistent HR

While each region has a learning and development function that operates from a global perspective and is fully responsible for hiring and training consultants, there has never been a formal group HR function within PageGroup, which means HR is very varied across regions. “You end up with lots of countries operating in different ways, doing the same thing,” she adds.

Chapman’s challenge is to collect best practice and create an HR function that is consistent across the globe – delivering a fast, seamless HR service with the business and employees at its heart.

“In many large corporates you already have policies mapped out and you’re given processes to work to, but they can end up being developed without the end user in mind. You have to consider both sides: how do we make everything run in a more efficient way for the business and ensure the employee experience is fantastic too?”

Values & culture

PageGroup culture is based on five core values: be passionate, make it fun, never give up, work as a team and take pride. Chapman says these played a huge part in her decision to work for PageGroup.

“No matter which country you’re in, every office feels the same; everyone is working as a team, doing the right thing for their clients and candidates. The only real difference you sense is the local culture and market,” she enthuses.

“By giving people permission to come to work and have fun, we’re creating an open and trustworthy environment. If people feel that, that’s how they’ll behave.

“Being a recruiter is tough, but we work hard to engender a sense of belonging. We celebrate success and reward our top performers so people feel motivated.

“When I ask our managers to define a ‘Page person’, they say: ‘I just know they feel Page’. But when you unpick that, it’s about values – they have passion, drive, and never give up. When values are strong, you have a real bedrock to build upon."

Exploring engagement

Chapman has introduced a global engagement survey, which she will use to compare results by country. “Initial feedback has demonstrated a huge inbuilt trust throughout the organisation,” she says.

Running focus groups globally has also given Chapman an insight into employee needs. “Fundamentally we’re a people business with staff driven to succeed; they naturally want to know what’s going on globally and what progression opportunities are available. If we promise an international career, we need to help people understand where we’re performing in our respective countries. Engaging people in our growth strategy is critical so they can clearly see what their career is going to look like over time.”

To address this, Chapman is stepping up global communications to provide more information about the company’s performance, different regions, opportunities and growth plans.

Promoting from within

For Chapman, PageGroup isn’t a complex business, it’s just expanded rapidly. Indeed, the UK is no longer the dominant source of revenue – in 2007 it provided around 40% of PageGroup’s gross profit, but this now stands at 23%, with EMEA, Asia Pacific and the US now accounting for 41%, 21% and 15% respectively.

“Our business has evolved,” says Chapman, “so we have to constantly look for new ways to grow careers faster to retain our top talent.”

One element that PageGroup prides itself on is its internal promotion strategy – it only recruits internally for any roles above junior level. To date, 88% of directors have been promoted from within and operationally this stands at 95%.

“Most of our leadership team have grown their careers within PageGroup, which has created a strong team culture. I’ve been hugely impressed with the level of openness, honestly and pride. What you see is what you get,” reveals Chapman. She continues: “We made 1,217 internal promotions last year, which is extraordinary.”

Unlock your potential

Huge emphasis is placed upon the international aspect. As part of this, PageGroup introduced the ‘Unlock Your Potential’ initiative in 2012, which aims to create visibility around international opportunities. Chapman explains that throughout the year, the executive board agree on where the potential growth areas are and put together a wealth of information for everyone at manager level and above on each country.

This will include details on the culture, what you can do in your spare time, how the business is progressing, which disciplines exist in each office and what opportunities are available.

Chapman and the board dissect the applications and work out who is serious about moving to further their career. “It’s a fascinating process,” she reflects. “People tend to consider places they are familiar with. We had a lot of applications for Hong Kong and Singapore, for example, but not China. Yet when you talk to people about China and what we can offer, you find they’re open to a discussion. It’s all about communicating opportunities and opening people’s minds.”

Moves can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months. “There’s no hard and fast rule – you haven’t got the history of ‘it has to be done in this timeframe’ – it’s about what’s right for the business and the individual, which is really refreshing,” she adds.

In 2012, more than 100 people transferred internationally within the group and 2013 looks set to exceed that.

Connected conversations

With such a unique growth strategy, if people are seldom recruited externally, how does this affect diversification and ability to innovate? “To work somewhere that wants you to be there in 20 years’ time is phenomenal, but if you don’t bring in any external influences, you only learn from the person who did the job before. So how do we improve on that? We have strong, ambitious leaders, and my job is to help them become exceptional,” she states.

To help develop leadership capability, Chapman wants to help people share knowledge and make conversations flow more easily – something she believes may not come naturally in such a diverse environment.

She explains: “We need our managers to think globally, act globally and be strategic in helping other consultants move around. I want people to pick up the phone to their peer in another region and say: ‘you have the same challenge as me’. I want them to buddy up, discuss how they progress within the organisation and share ideas.”

She wants this to extend throughout the organisation: “Managing directors will have access to each other’s scores from the engagement surveys. We will encourage them to seek out someone who has done well in an area they didn’t do so well in and talk about it so they can learn from each other. And because most of our managers have been promoted from within, they know what it’s like to be at that stage.”

A lasting legacy

Chapman believes the key to successful HR leadership is to contribute looking at everything from a business perspective. She advises telling the board what you can deliver that will save money, make the company more efficient or drive more revenue and explain how this will deliver the strategy. “You need to base everything around what’s good for the business, not just HR. Once you learn that, you build much stronger credibility,” she says.

She argues that when it comes to defining HR from scratch, you need to be strategic about the future but not forget the detail. She says: “It’s so important for me to reach out to people in all four corners of the globe and understand their challenges. I need to roll my sleeves up and get stuck in, to ensure what I am implementing works for the business. This is where some people can get disconnected from the business. If I don’t deliver early on, we’re not going to get where we need to go.”

As for Chapman’s own leadership style, she wants her authenticity and genuine style to shine through. “I’m the same person I was when I started work, and have stayed true to my core values. I’ve got many great experiences to draw on and plenty of people I can reach out to.

“The hardest thing is changing mindset. It’s easy to walk in and say ‘let’s make change’, but I have to respect PageGroup’s history while challenging the norm. We have lots to do but I’m confident we’ll make strong progress.

Mary Appleton

By Mary Appleton

Changeboard

Mary is Changeboard's editor in chief.

Changeboard

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