Alistair is currently the People Partner for the multi-award-winning telco, giffgaff, where for the last four and a bit years he led all things internal Culture, Engagement and People Experience. His passion is for people, creating connections and building better places of work.
In Alastair’s words, “I scrape into the category of millennial apparently (but only just) with a degree in Visual Communication, a Masters in HR, and I’m also a certified Strengths Coach. This layered with years of experience in local government, at the coalface in HR, which makes for a rather interesting concoction. I am a proud Brummy and even prouder dad to two pint-sized dictators, Matilda and Rowan.”
Hey Alastair, thanks for joining me today! To begin I’d love to hear a bit more about your background, and how you ended up at giffgaff.
I’ll give you a bit of a whirlwind tour. So I did a degree in illustration and history of art. I’m an artist by trade, and was paid to go to university which was quite nice – that shows my age! Then I went travelling round the world, “found myself”, met my wife and everything changed. I realised I needed to get a ‘proper job’
I came down to London and started working in recruitment in the HR department of a local authority. And because of where I was, I was offered to do a masters in HR during my tenure.
Working in a local authority in 2007/2008, I was dealing with some of the most complicated issues you could imagine. Forget about tech startups and mobile data – we’re talking disabled children, vulnerable adults, loads of funding cuts, austerity. The public sector was going down; the police force was going down. That was a complicated business.
I had a bit of a meltdown, and my wife saw how my personality was changing. I had to make a lot of redundancies and have some pretty tough conversations. I realised I needed to work in a context where the leaders believed in people as much as I did.
Even though it was a pretty unsexy place to work, the people were really amazing and got me thinking differently. I guess you can only truly be resourceful when you have limited resources -you have to resort to being innovative. It’s this that gets you focussing on what the problem actually is not how you spend the budget efficiently and create endless work. It was probably the best experience I ever got and no one really asks me about it. Which is a shame.
It’s very cool that giffgaff recognised your passion for people, despite having come straight from a local authority which is quite a shift! So how do you hire at giffgaff and what advice do you have for potential candidates?
At giffgaff we’re often not looking for a pure academic with a great degree. Really simply, it’s about mutual passion and believing what we believe. Many people can do the jobs on paper but it’s passion that makes the fit. A passion to find a better way. In fact hunger often trumps talent when we are hiring.
I want to see their eyes light up. Do they believe in a better way? Are they willing to go the extra mile? Or are they waiting for life to be handed to them because they went to a top university.
So my advice would be to find your point of differentiation: amplify it and show your full self at interview. You’ll be surprised how the little things you do on a weekend that give an insight into your personality often make the difference. Remember you are interviewing too it’s a mutual thing. Not all places are work are created equal so ask propelling questions.
Agreed! I’m also really interested in your giffgaff community for customers: can you explain a little bit about that, and how it applies to your ways of working internally?
I would point out we never use the word ‘customers’- they’re our members who help us! It’s a mutual relationship. In fact giffgaff is an old gaelic word for mutual giving.
Our community helps members trouble-shoot. There is no call centre at giffgaff, our members help online via the community forum. Queries are answered within an average of 90 seconds . This is how millennials now want to engage with brands. So if you have a problem, instead of ringing your mobile provider, the idea is to ask other members of the giffgaff community.
The community also shapes the future of the company via giffgaff Labs. This is a platform for members to suggest what they want to see as part of the service. Each idea is voted upon and, if it gets enough votes, it’s implemented. Over 730 ideas have been implemented so far, such as the integration of Paypal which received over 1500 votes from our community and so was implemented across the business.
But ultimately it’s our internal community that’s built our external community and it’s what keeps it engaged and thriving. Internally our community is our employees and treating our people as a community is key.
If I have an idea based I seek feedback and I ask them to help. It’s not easy to do so as you have to show vulnerability and be prepared to get feedback that you often may not want to hear. But what you get it valuable insight to what the problem is.
I saw on your community that “no good deed goes unrecognised at giffgaff”. Can you give me some internal examples of how you’ve created a culture of recognition internally?
I would like to say that’s probably not fully true: we’re a big business, so a lot of things do go unnoticed. We’d like to change that.
From our Q2 engagement survey, we noticed the recognition wasn’t extended to everyone in the organisation. So first of all, we had to instill it in the culture to make sure managers understand the science behind feedback and recognition and how important it is. We introduced a peer to peer social recognition tool to help embed the right behavior.
We want our team to recognise the right behaviours. If a coder is staying up all night, takes two days off sick to recover but produces some great work – that’s not the behaviour to recognize.
So what do you recognize as a good behaviour?
We’ve got four behaviours that we value that are written in neon letters when you arrive in the office: curious, positive, collaborative and gritty that help set the tone for getting on at giffgaff. It’s called the giffgaff way. They pretty much sum up what we see as great behaviour.
We limit structures and processes for everybody and we are often quite ambiguous as a company, but that really excites some people. It fires up their natural curiosity to find their own way. We want to think about our interactions and how communities behave as a product of that.
Yes, we explicitly encourage our people how to behave – which includes setting boundaries and championing role models. But I don’t believe in telling people ‘not to do this and not to do that.’ I want to let people figure it out and learn for themselves, just provide them with the context to make the right choices. It helps create psychological safety early on and the right behavior often follows.
What trends do you think will shape human resources departments over the next five years?
So off the top of the head and from the heart… I think the profession’s in a bit of a crisis. The fact that I sit with the marketeers working in brand, engagement and report into a founder and the Brand Director says a lot and it feels like home.
The future of HR could mean that it gets swallowed up by marketing who are doing all the psychology and behavioural science. The sexy stuff will be lost. But then what’s left? Giving policy advice, annual leave? A service like yours [Hibob] will automate a lot of it, remove friction and provide a great employee experience.
There’s so many ways to disrupt HR, but we need to stop saying lovely words and start challenging. HR needs to start solving complicated problems, and acting on feedback. Thinking about the bigger picture, and making marketing and finance their best friends.
Then people will start listening to you.