Channel 4's HR transformation into strategic people leadership

by Amy Kirkham

HR’s redefined role is the result of both the pandemic and the gradual shift to recognising that people are power. Relevant across every business vertical, exploring ways to harness peoples’ ability can give organisations their vital competitive edge.

For Channel 4, it’s no different. The well-known British broadcaster is a business built on generating change through entertainment; it must be agile and ready in what is a fast-paced and competitive market. And for its 1000-strong workforce to thrive and deliver the business’ vision, it must continue to cultivate the culture to support them to do so.

Kirstin Furber, People Director at Channel 4, says the answer exists within the People function. The People team have a great opportunity to support the delivery of the strategy, partnering with the business and do things differently. But to do this successfully, HR must be clear on their strategy, purpose and where they can make the most impact as part of the executive leadership table.

 

Redefining HR: Communication, data and leadership

 

Kirstin, who joined Channel 4 in 2020, believes change was coming to HR long before the pandemic.

“The HR role has been shifting anyway, particularly across areas that have allowed the role to develop further,” says Kirstin.

Communication is one such area. With the pandemic changing employees’ expectations of their employers permanently, communication needed to change with it to continue inspiring and engaging workers. This shift invited HR to own and drive employee communications.

“Communication has always been important. But now it’s really about honesty, openness and authenticity,” says Kirstin.

But the way we communicate has also changed. From a time when HR would perfect everything, greater responsibility and faster turnaround times have pushed the function into responding quickly and thinking on their feet.

 

The experimental muscle of HR has been worked over the pandemic, providing opportunity to try a more agile approach.

“The HR profession is shifting to 80 percent it’s ‘good enough’ and we’ll iterate it as we get feedback” explains Kirstin.

This isn’t about a lack of quality in the work produced, but rather a change in acceptance to the notion that people can improve, change or build on as they move forward. It is also a nod to the uptick in pace within the market. With greater responsibilities on HR’s plate, perfection is no longer an option.

“The world is moving on continuously and fast – nothing is ever going to stop” says Kirstin.

Another key – and new – focus area for HR is the importance of data insights. As a function that must now lead using their strategic vision, the importance of data and visibility is higher than ever before.

“Using data in the moment to gain insight to spot those trends and deliver against it is really important,” says Kirstin. “It enables us to think about the organisation from a customer perspective.”

And this feeds back to the strategic vision and leadership role HR now embodies.

“Leaders now understand how important leadership is,” explains Kirstin. “And so what they’re looking for in HR is how to help them take it to the next level.”

For now, a key challenge Channel 4 faces in the next few months is getting to grips with hybrid working. HR’s role in this is critical.

“To operate effectively in a hybrid working environment, we must put support in place for people to work at their best level,” says Kirstin.

“This includes guard rails to protect people from working 100 miles an hour all of the time and encouraging the right conversations moving forward.”

But it’s not easy. Executing this successfully depends on HR having a clear strategy on goals, decisions and outcomes, while also modelling this from a leadership perspective too.

Channel 4 has implemented a “50/50 manifesto”, designed to encourage people back into the office to optimise performance and increase freedom and autonomy – which in turn should lead to improved well-being and job satisfaction. From a HR perspective, it circles back to Kirstin’s idea of improving and building on communication and decisions at 80 percent – if this model doesn’t work, then it can be changed or improved as needed.

 

Humanising HR: Partnership, inclusivity and authenticity

 

At Channel 4, collaboration is part of the DNA and communities across the business work cross-functionally together, including HR.

“There is a shift from having information to partner with leaders and employees to decide on the best course of action”, says Kirstin. “A strong business partner will know the commercials, the purpose and the vision of the business, and will make decisions within that remit.”

“But partnership is also about listening and refining, bringing people with you and connecting the dots.”

For Kirstin, the question is about connecting the right people with the right ideas that flow through the organisation.

“As a people partner, the real goal is to enable talent, those ideas and that innovation while connecting it with the overarching strategy.”

Inclusivity also plays a big role in this connection of people. And for HR, this is focusing on how different people connect with different things in different ways.

For communication, understanding that some people enjoy reading and listening over talking can be a challenge, particularly in a hybrid environment.

And communication also goes hand-in-hand with partnership.

“I believe the strongest way for HR to connect is through partnership,” says Kirstin. “It’s in partnership with the executive team, with leaders, managers and people.”

“If you’re all there for the strategic purpose of what you’re trying to drive, then it’s so important to provide the right messaging on what work is the priority and what isn’t. This really helps with overwork and providing clarity.”

Kirstin also stresses the importance of simplicity in communication. Without overcomplicating the message, communicating simply helps everybody be clear on the goal and purpose.

It also helps to drive authenticity. Back when the pandemic first started, senior leaders were very happy to appear authentic as a way of connecting with their people; messaging had to be clear, open and honest.

“It’s important not to lose that as we continue to move forward,” says Kirstin.

Simple communication in the form of sharing stories and experiences helps to cultivate a connective culture and drive energy into people’s purpose.

“Those stories that need to be shared in a natural way are the ones that will make the biggest difference” says Kirstin.

As we look at how HR has transformed and it’s shift in what it represents for the business, Kirstin believes the label of HR is outdated.

“We’re moving away from the word HR,” explains Kirstin. “It’s so unauthentic and impersonal.”

“We call my team now the People team because the word ‘people’ shows the human who is listening and providing an honest, open point of view.”

This shift also opens the door for a better feedback culture, which in turn helps to drive better communication and authenticity in the organisation.

 

 

Innovating for success: Learning and strategy

 

Previously the conversation revolved around HR’s relationship with executive leadership, and how their influence on leaders has changed. But Kirstin believes that it isn’t just the relationship, but the position of HR that has shifted permanently.

“It’s not about working closely with the executive team,” says Kirstin. “You’re part of the executive team.”

Being part of that top table is to bring HR’s expertise and experience around people, using it to drive the business and maximise the time to build trust.

A key focus for HR looking forward is around development and learning and supporting people to deliver against what they want to achieve.

“Learning has changed, it’s now around self-learning; providing a suite of learning activities (digital and live) to build capability and making this available to employees when they need it” explains Kirstin. “So what can we do to provide self-learning? What is the suite of learning activities – will these be digital or face to face?”

Supporting potential will help talent retention, but it must be a strategic piece within the larger puzzle.

“There are four pillars to Channel 4’s Future4 strategy — our ambitious plan to transform the Channel into a digital-first public service broadcaster,” says Kirstin. “Firstly, we’re focusing on our digital growth, so really prioritising how we’re building our streaming service All 4.”

“Secondly there are our viewers; we’re placing them at the heart of our decision-making and ensuring that we’re on all the platforms they are.”

“Diversifying our revenues is third, which is key to underpinning the sustainability of Channel 4 into the future.”

“And the fourth is around building our strategic partnerships,” says Kirstin.

 

To support the delivery of these four pillars HR can be hugely impactful at Channel 4. From a people strategy perspective, HR must be clear on outcomes and how to lead the business to achieve them. Individuals must also know how they contribute to that strategy and vision.

“All of this is underpinned by evolving culture and inclusivity, which will drive our innovation and enable us to think of new ideas to deliver against those four pillars,” explains Kirstin.

The future is exciting at Channel 4, and Kirstin is ready for it. Her focus for the next year is a simple one:

“Continue to build the team’s muscle in terms of partnership, data and insights, and connections,” says Kirstin.

All while tackling changes such as hybrid working and employee engagement. But while it’s important to be a strategic people leader, it’s equally crucial to be agile and adaptable.

“There has been a permanent change to the way we plan things. In this world of uncertainty, HR has shifted to medium-term planning,” explains Kirstin. “At Channel 4, it’s a good use of saving our energy and being adaptable to the vision that can always change.”

 

 

 

Kirstin Furber

Kirstin is the People Director at Channel 4. Prior to this Kirstin has held a number of senior people roles including Kantar, Twentieth Century Fox, Discovery and BBC Worldwide, where she spent over seven years developing the organisation’s culture to support and deliver a global growth strategy. Kirstin is also a non-executive for the British Wheelchair Basketball.

Kirstin is passionate about how organisations can support individuals being their best to drive company results. Her resource site (kirstinfurber.com) has been developed specifically to support leaders looking to create a human culture where everyone can do their best work to drive transformation and growth.

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