HomeLeadershipBoardroom RelationshipsInterserve’s Catherine Ward: Cultural change and the keys of boardroom communication

Interserve's Catherine Ward: Cultural change and the keys of boardroom communication

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HR leaders must be able to talk in the language of business if they are to make boardroom colleagues understand the importance of the function.

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HR leaders must be able to talk in the language of business if they are to make boardroom colleagues understand the importance of the function.


Interserve group director for HR Catherine Ward told HRD Connect that communication of HR successes and involvement in delivering business strategies was vital to evolve its image.

She added that finding solutions to critical problems and being able to measure the impact of these projects was essential for HR leaders.

“HR is dealing with enormous complexity, the pace of change is faster than ever and the complexity that presents as we acquire new businesses as we open new offices around the globe as we seek to attract talent, as we deal with multi-generational workplaces, its enormous,” Ward said.

“Probably the biggest challenge for HR is that we deal with this with great capability, we find solutions and we drive these solutions through.

“But somehow we have got to get better at telling the business and the world at large that we’ve moved a long way from HR of the past to one that’s truly at the heart of the business helping to deliver change and helping to support organisations as they cope with all of that complexity,” she added.

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Seat at the table

Ward joined Interserve three years ago.

During that time calls from industry leaders have grown for HR professionals to step-up to the strategic demands of organisations and better relate what they and the function do to their boardroom colleagues.

In effect, to earn their seat at the boardroom table. This has not been a problem for Ward.

“I do have a seat at the table, I’m on the executive board, but you only get and hold a role like that if you’re able to talk in the language of the business,” she continued.

“That means being able to talk in terms of measurable outcomes, it means being able to understand emergent business strategies and work out the translation of those into appropriate HR interventions and programmes.

“So for an HR person to have influence over the business you’ve really got to be able to understand their language and talk in the same language and that’s a commercial one and its one where data plays a big part – as well as being very articulate about the kind of programmes you want to see in place,” she added.

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Diverse experience

Ram Charan, among others, has been a vociferous proponent of HR leaders obtaining experience in wider parts of the business to develop this skill set.

Ward agrees having done so earlier in her career and now she is advocating the next generation of HR leaders should do so to.

“For HR people to gain that seat at the table it helps to have been at the sharp end at some point. I worked in consultancy where I had to sell business to clients and certainly that sharpens your commercial skills to have been in that position,” she told HRD Connect.

“But for anybody moving in to HR and with aspirations to make it to the executive board they need to think about how they are going to acquire that external view of the world and those commercial direct skills that their colleagues will have when they are on the board.”

Listen to the full interview with Interserve’s group HRD Catherine Ward


Measuring success

Another key staple of boardroom discussions and evidencing results is the use of HR metrics and analysis.

This has not only helped prove the success of programmes, but also helped bridge a potential communications gap.

“I’ve used data analytics against all of our programmes to identify what the outcomes would be not just in softer terms in behavioural and cultural change terms, but actually to have some measures in place,” Ward said.

“When I’m looking at a programme I think about what actual metrics could be applied to the way that we’re making progress and we’ve caused the dial to shift.

“And that’s very important in the business I’m in because a lot of the senior directors are engineers by background and again its back to using a language that they would be able to identify with.”

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Cultural change

Ward’s time at Interserve has been a busy one – primarily as she has implemented a group-wide cultural change programme which brought together plans for several separate but overlapping initiatives.

When she joined the organisations was starting to looking at our values, stainabilities and ingenuities, as well as key HR elements such as talent and leadership development.

Ward brought all those together into the single cultural change programme which enabled easier articulation, measuring and monitoring.

“One of the best measures of that has been our employee opinion survey,” she explained.

“What we’ve seen over the course of that is the number of people willing to take part in the survey go up by 20% and the overall engagement score is up by 12%. We’ve also seen people reporting through the survey that they have a really strong understanding of our values, sustainability and ingenuity programmes.”

The results give some telling examples:

  • Employees recognise improving engagement in the business and better understand their learning and development opportunities
  • Around 3,500 staff are now involved in the work experience programme, up from a very small handful
  • The new reward and recognition scheme has seen 4,000 people receive an immediate reward or be nominated for the group-wide awards.

“So we have got some really measurable outcomes from this programme,” Ward concluded.

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