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Strategic CHRO| Leading Through a Crisis

Paula Coughlan

“You Almost Want The Galvanizing Effect Of A Crisis But Without The Actual Crisis.”​

July 14, 2020

In our interview, Paula Coughlan, the chief people officer of Dixons Carphone, based in London, shared memorable insights on the need for HR to take risks, and the lessons organizations can learn from navigating through the pandemic.

Q. How did you get into the field of HR in the first place?

A. By accident. I studied law but decided it wasn’t right for me, and then had to decide what to do with my life. I joined a company in an HR role, and they were in the thick of a big transformation. I saw how change happens in a business and all the people levers you need to pull and the importance of culture and values. I really saw the power of HR.

Q. Heads of HR have such broad responsibilities. What approach do you use to help provide a focus?

A. It’s about enabling people to be their very best. And that’s true for whomever I’m working with, whether it’s the leadership team, my team, or the overall organization. That really comes from my upbringing. I grew up in quite humble circumstances, but my parents believed in the power of education, and they inspired me to think that there was a life beyond what I was experiencing, and I will always be grateful for that.

I know the value of somebody believing in you and helping you up. It’s a belief in potential, and so the question becomes, how do you unlock that potential? Is the culture set up to unleash that? Are the structures that we have in place helping or getting in the way? What are the leadership team’s capabilities to make that happen?

Q. What are the top lessons you’ve learned since you’ve been in this role?

A. The first is that you have to continually develop yourself. Don’t stay within your function; push yourself into new and different situations, and expand your portfolio. There are lots of different areas that you can explore in this role. Be expansive.

“HR leaders have to step up to own the people agenda.”

And that means being willing to take risks. Sometimes HR can be viewed as quite subservient. HR leaders have to step up to own the people agenda and push it forward, and it doesn’t always mean waiting for permission.

Q. How has this crisis affected your thinking, even in subtle ways, about the qualities that matter in your leadership pipeline?

A. The genuine empathy and humanity of putting people first should endure beyond this crisis. It’s also about the skill of keeping things simple. You remove clutter and harness the energy of the business, and that just stimulates more freedom for people to innovate and experiment, driving action and progress at every level. We’ve talked a lot as a leadership team about how we bottle those abilities for the long-term. You almost want the galvanizing effect of a crisis but without the actual crisis.

Q. And how has the company adapted over the past several months, particularly with so many people working from home now?

A. We’ve done a few simple things that have made a huge difference to people. People were becoming inundated with video meetings, so we set aside an hour every day that we called the “golden hour.” No one in the business is going to be setting up a meeting during that time. It’s such a small thing, but it has created space and thinking time.

We’ve talked to all the senior leaders about taking care of yourself before you can take care of your teams because of the relentless pace, demands and intensity of the work. People have to take time to move around, to think about what they need, and to get some exercise. All those things have become even more important, and those lessons will endure beyond this crisis.

“We’re also finding that decisions are being made faster now.”

We’re also finding that decisions are being made faster now. We, like many organizations, used to have longer meetings, with all sorts of preparation. But since the crisis hit, the leadership team has connected every day for a 30 to 60 minute meeting. There’s no formal agenda, and we just talk, using our big three priorities of keeping colleagues safe, helping customers, and securing our future.

This has also helped us to raise our gaze to look beyond this challenging situation and into the future. What are the opportunities? How are customers going to change? How are colleagues going to change? Will the workplace of the future be the same or different? You often find in organizations that the daily churn and the busyness and the activity don’t leave much time to think and plan.

Q. What are your observations on remote work – the upside or downside?

A. There’s an interesting dynamic in these virtual meetings that we’ve noticed. With our group of senior leaders, we’re finding a much more equal share of voice in meetings than there was when people sat around a table. The less-heard voices are coming to the forefront. People are being much more open in expressing their views. There’s more debate, there’s more diversity of expression, and we’re getting better outcomes and ideas as a result of that.

Q. How do you hire? What questions do you ask?

A. I like to get to know people and understand their values. For example, “What’s the best working relationship you’ve had and why? What types of people do you find it most difficult to work with? What are your most important values? How do you build trust?” How they answer those questions gives you a lot of insight.

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