Corporate Career Happiness - Transitioning from HR to Operations
"The biggest challenge has been in convincing myself that I have a right to speak in a room full of experts....at some point, you must recognise that it can’t always just be luck that means you know how to answer those tricky questions!"
Emily's story is an important reminder that not only is career happiness about the actual job you do, but equally as important (if not more) is who you work for and if you're right for each other. Emily's story reminds you that imposter syndrome, self-doubt and fears show up for us all, even when you've done incredibly well! This is such an important message (for women especially perhaps), that you can feel those fears and TAKE ACTION anyway, and furthermore you can realise that it's really rather likely that those fears and self-limiting beliefs are unfounded! Emily certainly has not let them get in her way and she's found career happiness with a great employer! "there’s something special about National Grid’s culture that enables you to safely push yourself out of your comfort zone, to test your capabilities, and try out new things."
Tell us a little about yourself – who are you besides the job you do?
I live in Stratford-upon-Avon with my husband, two small children, and a naughty kitten. My Twitter bio describes me as “opinionated feminist, reader of books, drinker of wine, lover of cheese” and I probably can’t improve on that description!
What do you do now?
I head up the Customer & Stakeholder team for National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO). We’re the part of National Grid PLC that balances electricity supply and demand on a second-by-second basis, to ensure the lights come on when you flip the switch. We also have a role in enabling the transformation to a sustainable energy system, fit for the future.
In my role, I’m responsible for the Customer Experience Strategy. I’ve set my team up as a business partnering function, which means that we set the strategy; develop toolkits and guidance based on a combination of customer insights and best practice; then use them to support the wider business to improve the experience they provide to their customers and stakeholders.
What do you love about it?
I’m lucky that there’s a lot to love! I feel like the work of my team is really making a difference. I love that my role allows me to work with various teams across the organisation, so I’m not siloed in one particular area. It challenges me and gives me interesting problems to solve, so I’m always learning new things. And as a leader, I love that I’m also supporting (and supported by) a fabulous group of dedicated, caring people in my team.
The other thing I love is the organisation. The ESO is such a purpose-driven organisation. I’m surrounded by incredibly clever people, with an incredible pride and passion for the role we play in society today, as well as the role we play in decarbonising the energy system of tomorrow. It feels like we’re working on something that matters, and we’re seen as world leaders in this work. I’m super excited about a new project I’ve got in the pipeline next year, about engaging and supporting consumers in the energy transition.
Perhaps most importantly, the people in the ESO feel like my tribe – I feel accepted and valued here, in a way that I haven’t always felt in other organisations.
What did you do before and how did you end up there?
The first decade of my career was in Human Resources. Having studied English and Politics at university, I didn’t have a fixed idea of what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted a structured graduate scheme that would give me plenty of opportunities to learn and develop. So, I applied for the HR graduate scheme at Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), without really knowing where it might take me! I was initially placed in Employee Relations in the manufacturing environment.
Stepping out of university and into a male-dominated, highly-unionised car factory was extremely challenging, but I learned a lot and it gave me a real sense of confidence that I could handle whatever any future roles might throw at me. I left JLR after almost five years to be the Diversity Manager at West Midlands Police, and then to an HR Business Partnering role at Capita PLC. Then I was offered the opportunity to be the UK Employee Relations Manager at National Grid.
Why did you decide to change?
I’d always been ambitious, and I decided that the best way to get ahead in HR in National Grid was to learn more about how the business operated, by stepping out and working in an operational area. That way, I could gain some valuable experience and then take that learning back into the HR function and be a better HR professional. In any other organisation, I probably wouldn’t have considered leaving HR, but there’s something special about National Grid’s culture that enables you to safely push yourself out of your comfort zone, to test your capabilities, and try out new things. Initially, I didn’t see this as a long-term change though – just a temporary learning experience!
How did you decide what to do instead?
After three years in the ER role, National Grid’s UK Executive Director was looking for an Executive Assistant and I was encouraged to apply. This was an exciting role, providing an opportunity to contribute to the strategic direction of the UK business and to find out about the organisation. I was driving and facilitating many of the processes behind business planning, performance, communications and cross-directorate initiatives and projects, whilst providing support to the UK Executive Director in the fulfilment of his role. It felt like a good place to start!
Where did you start when it came to actually making the change?
This was the first time I had done a non-HR role, and it was eye-opening to realise how little I knew about the detail of how the organisation operated and what it was responsible for. But it gave me a great opportunity to undertake some ‘industrial tourism’ – visiting around the business and realising that we didn’t only employ people with engineering backgrounds! I spotted that there were areas where I might be able to add value even though I wasn’t an engineer. So, when it was time to move on from that role, I had to decide whether to take everything I’d learned and go straight back into HR… or continue to explore where the wider business might take me.
Obviously I decided to explore! I was offered a role in the Electricity Market Reform team in the ESO, in a Stakeholder and Business Support role. This meant I was responsible for the stakeholder engagement in complex processes and regulations, as well as all the business assurance processes (which were particularly rigorous in that team, because of the highly confidential and commercially sensitive nature of our work). This was all new to me and was a bit daunting… as well as exciting!
Having embedded a reputation as someone who was capable of building strong relationships, and blessed with some common sense, my next move came a couple of years later when I was asked to lead a project in the Gas System Operator, entitled “The Future Of Gas” – a role which later expanded to include development of a strategy for the future of the GB gas market. This gave me an opportunity to learn about – and help to shape – the role that gas could play in the decarbonised energy future. It was heavily focused on stakeholder engagement across the industry, which I loved. I found it all utterly fascinating, and against all odds, I became a loud and proud Gas Geek!
It was decided to separate the ESO from the rest of the UK business in April 2019, which prompted a restructure of the organisation during which I was offered the Customer & Stakeholder role. So, here I am now, a year and a half later.
How did you actually make the change? (training, finances, learning etc)
By the time I stepped out of HR, I’d been with National Grid for almost four years and I had built a good network of contacts around the company. This meant I had plenty of people I could call upon to pick their brains or ask for help when I didn’t understand things. These were people I was comfortable with, as I felt like I’d already proven myself – so the key to making this change was an encouraging support network, and a culture where it’s safe to take some risks with your career choices.
What were /are the biggest challenges? (internal and external!)
The biggest challenge has been in convincing myself that I have a right to speak in a room full of experts. In my last role, I frequently found myself asking “how have I become the senior manager leading on Gas Commercial Strategy… I’m not an expert on this stuff!” Even when sitting on a panel of specialists at an event at Oxford University, I was waiting to be caught out with a question I couldn’t answer (it never came). Imposter syndrome is common, particularly in women, and I have frequently felt like a fraud, about to be told “OK, you’ve had your fun, now toddle off back to HR where you belong!” Talking about this with my peer group has been immensely helpful – they’ve helped me recognise the value I do bring to the table. And at some point, you must recognise that it can’t always just be luck that means you know how to answer those tricky questions!
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t be too hung up on following a pre-defined career path… have a vague idea but flex it as life happens, and grab every exciting opportunity that comes your way, even if it scares you. You should trust in your ability to feel your way through it! I think at some point just about everyone feels like they’re making it up as they go along.
How has life changed?
Since leaving HR, I’ve had my two children, which has probably been the biggest change. The last two roles I’ve had have been done part time.
What do you miss about your previous line of work?
Most of what I liked about HR was that it was all about people, and the fact that you deliver on your objectives through good relationships and good communication. Much of that holds true outside of HR too, though. I do still miss being an expert (in employee relations matter, in employment law, in diversity and inclusion, in HR process and procedure, and so on) but I’ve also come to realise that true leadership is about getting the best out of your team. I’m now much better at lifting myself out of the detail to focus on setting the direction, then trusting and empowering people to best use their expertise to get us there.
What hopes do you have for your future?
I hope to continue finding roles that interest and challenge me, and that allow me to continue getting the balance right between work and family.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to find and pursue a career/job they love?
Firstly, know yourself - your own strengths and what gives you job satisfaction. Secondly, think about the kind of organisation that you want to work for so you can be somewhere with a good cultural and ethical fit for you. If you know what motivates you, and what is important to you, then you’re better able to seek out or accept roles that will hit these buttons for you – so you’re more likely to do well, and to shine, which will open more doors for you.
What does success mean to you now?
I feel successful if I believe the work my team is delivering is valued and valuable. This is what motivates me and makes me happy.
I love sharing resources! Are there any resources such as books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc that you'd recommend for people figuring out what they want to do for work and/or getting started?
Very early in my career I read a book called ‘Dealing with people you can’t stand’… fortunately it doesn’t get much use at National Grid because it’s so full of genuinely good people! Cheesy but true… anyway, one important thing that that book taught me was that you can’t tell other people to change their behaviour and assume this will make it so… but you can change your own behaviour and approach to elicit a different reaction or response.
Where can people find / follow you?
I’m on twitter! @e_l_leadbetter
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