Episode 1: How to Transform HR to be more Digital (Interview with Sharon Doherty, Chief People Officer at Finastra)

Our guest today is Sharon Doherty, Chief People Officer at Finastra who until recently spent nearly six years at Vodafone as Global Organisation and People Development Director, where she led Vodafone’s approach to Organisational Effectiveness, Resourcing, Talent, Capability, Diversity and Inclusion and Digital Transformation across 30 markets.

I can’t think of many better guests to have on our first show than Sharon. She is one of a new breed of Chief People Officers. Business focused, data-driven but at the same time people oriented and passionate about diversity and inclusion, where she has led some truly ground-breaking work at Vodafone.

In this week’s podcast we discuss:

  • The digital transformation of HR at Vodafone, which was done in close partnership with the business

  • How to co-create the employee experience with and for the workforce

  • The work Sharon led at Vodafone around diversity and inclusion

  • The role of the Head of HR in light of Sharon’s new role as CPO at Finastra

  • Finally, we also look ahead and ponder what the role of HR will be in 2025

This episode is a must listen for anyone who is currently or about to undertake a digital transformation of HR and/or who has a passion for the critical topic of diversity and inclusion. You can also check out the full transcript from the interview below.

Support for this podcast is brought to you by Culture Amp – find out more at cultureamp.com


David Green: Welcome to the first ever episode of the Digital HR Leaders podcast where I’ll be chatting to people leaders who are driving digital transformation in their organisations as well as other experts in the field and what HR needs to do to prepare for the future of work. We hear a lot about digital transformation and HR but how do you achieve this in partnership with the business rather than in isolation?

That’s the topic of this week’s podcast. The inaugural episode of the Digital HR Leaders podcast is on how to transform HR to be more digital. Our guest today is Sharon Doherty, Chief People Officer at Finastra who until recently spent nearly six years at Vodafone as Global Organisation and People Development Director.

She led Vodafone’s approach to organisational effectiveness, resourcing, talent, capability, diversity and inclusion and digital transformation across 30 markets. I can’t think of many better guests to have on our first show than Sharon. She is one of a new breed of Chief People Officers, business focused, data-driven, but at the same time people oriented and passionate about diversity and inclusion where she has led some truly groundbreaking work at Vodafone.

In today’s podcast we discuss the digital transformation of HR at Vodafone which was done in close partnership with the business, how to create the employee experience with and for the workforce, the work Sharon led at Vodafone around diversity and inclusion, the role of the head of HR in light of Sharon’s new role as Chief People Officer at Finastra, and finally, we also look ahead and ponder what the role of HR will be in 2025.

This episode is a must listen for anyone who is currently or about to undertake a digital transformation of HR or and anyone who has a passion for the critical topic of diversity and inclusion.

David Green: Welcome to the Digital HR Leaders show. Fantastic to welcome you here. Do you want to give listeners a quick introduction to who you are and your point of view around HR?

Sharon Doherty: Sure. So look, I grew up between Birmingham and Ireland, a humble start. Thanks to a lot of great coaches and mentors on the way that have given me some great opportunities.

I’ve had a pretty good career. That career has spanned Retail, Consulting, Private organisations and a number of large global multinationals. Probably two defining roles for me and my career. One as HR Director building Heathrow’s Terminal 5, early break, big job, 60,000 people over five or six years working through all of that. And then more recently the last nine years in Vodafone that I guess has been defined by two big areas: the work that we’ve done in digital and the work that we’ve done in diversity, which I’m sure we’re going to we’re going to talk about a little bit more. In terms of my point of view on HR. I think over the last three or four years what has become really clear to me is that there’s two forces at work in HR, 1 is all of the new science that is coming into HR. So whether that’s UX and agile, analytics, or actually a refocus on some of the stuff that we were working on anyway, org effectiveness, team, coaching, but no longer just sort of doing it as a generalist that’s good with people but really sort of understanding it in a lot of detail, we’ve got a lot of science and then there’s that balance of humanity and I think what you have is a HR function in the middle of it trying to somehow fuse both of those together and how do we do that? What is the right balance is increasingly really important for us as a function and definitely for the Businesses that we’re trying to help.

David Green: Yeah, I think that leads on nicely actually to the next question, which is. Really around you know, when we met a couple of weeks ago, I was really struck by the approach that you’ve taken to digital transformation at Vodafone. That human-centred approach but also doing it very much in partnership with the business, can you expand a little bit on the approach you took there?

Sharon Doherty: Vodafone’s digital transformation journey, just a little bit of background. So Vodafone a large global telecommunications company, a hundred and thirty thousand people across 30 different countries and its history was a very decentralised organisation and actually probably about 2008 it started on its digital transformation journey, which is interesting, quite a long quite a long time ago. And in the early days, it was about IT systems, centralising them, and so having one version of the truth and the other thing that Vodafone did very early was that it put unified communication, so video conferencing into every office across all of its footprint and I remember joining the organisation in 2010 and being a little bit overwhelmed that there was this access to technology. So over the 10 years that I’ve been there the ability to communicate with people from different parts of the organisation, different cultures,has grown from something that you did in offices to something that you did through your PC to ultimately on your phone.

So there’s been an underbelly of technology that the organisation’s been very familiar with and then fast forward to about 2014-15 and I think what happened in HR, we were very early adopters of the digital transformation in Vodafone. So we were probably one of the first functions to see the opportunity, particularly around the digital employee experience.

And so it started started off with us looking at what we could put into the cloud very early and then by 2015 we’d actually stepped up and taken accountability for what we call the employee experience excellence cross-functionally. So working with Finance, Technology, Property, Supply Chain and looking at the end to end experience that employees were going through and actually we had a cross-functional strategy and pproach to governance, management, funding, etc, etc, which I think was quite ahead of its time both in what it was trying to achieve in the fact that the HR function was front and centre in moving that forward so that that has been an important journey and continues to be.

I think what then happened in the business, if you go to 2016-17 it became really apparent that these separate digital transformation rograms that were going to be needed to be put together and we created something called Digital First that was run from the CEOs office and you know, we started to look at what was the impact of exponential technology. What was the opportunity to serve customers differently and of course what type of organisation and capabilities did you need underneath that, and I think the significant shifts for us was this understanding that particularly in our commercial and Technology organisation, we wanted to move to agile, cross-functional agile and so we scaled agile about 15/18 months across 16 countries. It was the fastest global scale of agile, we worked with McKinsey to do that and on that journey what becomes really apparent is that there’s a whole load of new skills and capabilities that your organisation needs to either re-skill, upskill or buy new skills in to help on that.

On that journey, we basically turned over every stone. We changed our brand from Power to You to The Future’s Exciting… Ready?, which was all about the digital transformation in the world. Vodafone being a partner to work with customers. So it started a long time ago our journey and then what we just found was more and more and more parts of the organisation engaged to now for Vodafone, you know digital first is what the company is focusing on.

David Green: That’s fantastic, and actually is you know, as you said that partnership between HR and the business and you mention the employee experience as well. So I was I met with Marv Levy who set up employee experience at Airbnb. And I was struck by something he said, he said that employee experience is something that you do with and for employees rather than to them which is perhaps how HR programs have been designed in the past.

I know that’s certainly something that you did at Vodafone. You really brought employees in to help design the employee experience. It’d be great to hear a little bit about that as well.

Sharon Doherty: Yeah, so I’ll talk to about two or three different areas of the of the journey. So I think on digital employee experience that’s a fantastic space to engage employees. So in terms of designing the end-to-end process using design thinking that was all done through focus groups working with people across 10 plus markets at a time to get inputs. And so you can do a lot of that. We did hackathons. On the journey, we were implementing Facebook Workplace and that became a massive tool to help us engage with our employees.

So live streaming, getting feedback, so on the digital employee experience, I think that’s just a hot bed of allowing you to engage your employees and we use Google Analytics, NPS… So again, what you’re doing is taking real time feedback and changing your experience. So, I think that is just a great place to set yourself up to be able to do that in a systematic way.

I think when you look at the move to Agile again in that whole area, I mean that’s a massive cultural shift. And so if you sort of think that you know in HR centrally you’re going to do that on your own, I think you’re just starting in the wrong place. I mean it’s a very employee/bottom up revolution where you’re moving to no leaders, self-managed teams, a massively different way of doing work that your employee views and opinions are helping you make that shift all of all of the time. I think the area that most HR functions are finding more difficult on the journey is the whole reshaping of businesses because I think what is happening faster than we’ve seen in our history is, new business models are coming in, new disruptive entrants are coming in and very quickly business models and shapes of organisations are changing. I think if we look at the impact of digital on the retail organisations, we’ve seen the M&S’, the Kingfishers etc go from being in the FTSE to almost falling out of the FTSE. Massive store closures etc and that remodeling I think and the pace of it is very apparent and how in those circumstances are large organizations engaging with their workforces? I think is probably almost the most important area that HR functions need to be thinking through and my personal view is I think we need to be straightforward and candid with people because they can see it coming. They are reading the newspapers. They can see these disruptive forces within the world of work. I think we massively need to be trying to re-skill. Give people who are prepared to be re-skilled opportunities to relocate if that is something that they can do.

So that’s probably for me the tough area of the digital transformation to Agile and the employee experience. Those are pretty straightforward areas that it’s very easy for HR functions to be working and engaging with employees.

David Green: Yeah, I think you strike a point about the disruption. I mean we try to learn now from employees how like we’ve always done from customers when it comes to redesigning the customer journey. We’re doing the same thing now with employees, which I think is really important. So in terms of bringing the digital HR journey to life at Vodafone. Can you provide maybe a couple of examples of how that’s helped reshape the experience for employees?

Sharon Doherty: Yeah. So again, different parts of the puzzle. If we look at the the employee experience excellence program that we’ve been on so, I think when we started on the journey what we had was, five or six functions working separately, in silos, and of course when you mirror that into a digital experience, what you get is something that doesn’t work. Yeah, and I think that as it is the case for consumers absolutely mirrors internally. So what we found by working cross-functionally by using UX/design thinking and all working cross-functional working, what we’ve been able to do is massively transform the online experience inside the organisation and of course, you know that makes people feel better about their daily work, it helps them be more productive. It helps them serve customers better, etc, etc. So that that for us has been an obvious win.

If we look at the the agile work that we’ve been doing. It’s the same sort of themes that come through but this time now helping customers. What we found by that move to a different way of working in an agile way of working. What we found is higher-quality products, faster speed to market, lower costs. So more engaged employees because they can see the impact of their work on the customers almost real time. So what we found on our journey is really positive impacts for employees, but also really positive impacts for our customers.

David Green: And obviously your role was to bring those silos, previous silos in HR, I’m not saying they were in Vodafone, but traditionally silos in HR together like Talent Acquisition and Learning and Performance. What was your biggest challenge personally in doing that?

Sharon Doherty: So, it’s funny really I don’t actually really remember that now because that feels like such a long time ago.

So we brought those together in Vodafone back in sort of 2014-15 and relatively I would say for us that was the cross-functional part of HR, I would say is relatively easy. So I think if what you’ve got is the right team leader you build the right team and and you create a modern way of working which is end-to-end. Analytics, Design Thinking… then relatively. I think that that is a very doable sort of transformation within HR. I think the real game in town is taking it cross-functional outside of HR and thinking much more about what’s the solution we’re trying to provide or the problem we’re trying to solve as opposed to thinking in functional silos.

And so I mean I spend a lot of time with the Vodafone Enterprise customers and what you could see was for many organisations digital transformation was being led by IT. HR hadn’t woken up to the fact that there’s a digital Revolution and hadn’t stepped up and said, we think in our function we own the people/employee experience and it’s our role to bring together different functions to create a really good end-to-end employee experience. And I think that’s more difficult because you’re going outside your function and to sort of figure out how you manage governance, budgeting processes, different cultures that can be in different functions in terms of how they do things. I think that’s the more difficult journey that organisations need to go on.

David Green: And with digital transformation. How do you make sure that you don’t leave behind those that’s, how should we put it, less digitally inclined members of the workforce.

Sharon Doherty: So I think I have to be an optimist would be my view and I think most people can see where the world is going and I actually sort of think there is a level of anxiety in most people not just in the workplace but in the world about how they embrace digital to live their lives to flourish in the workplace. So I think most people are up for change and so it’s all about how do we as HR professionals and organisations help people with that journeIf I look at the Vodafone journey, again we started, you know, 2014-15, so a few years ago now, we always segment everything. So we started with our top 40 we took them to Silicon Valley. We spent a week looking at Google, Facebook, spending time in Singularity and we really had an immersive experience that helped the senior team understand how fast AI was coming, how fast everything was coming. So that was a massive moment for us as an organisation. That then went to the top 250 and we brought them together in London in groups of 30 cross-functional cross-geography and we spent time looking at exponential technology and the impacts on that, the commercial opportunities with customers and the mindset shifts that we would have to go through as an organisation to stay relevant in the new world that was emerging. That 250 then went to the next thousand in their countries and then went to the next 5,000 and then went to one hundred thousand online. And so from 2014 onwards we were on that type of journey. Then the opportunity that agile presented was significant for us because that was a very decentralised disruptive new business model and we handled the implementation of that in a very different way. So it was not centrally driven. It was decentralised. We brought together the CEOs and HR directors of firstly our top four markets and then that became eight and then it became 16 and working with them they very much co-created the new way of working. And so what you started to do is just take a different group of people with you on a journey. So we’ve worked at it systematically but across a number of different programs and I’ll perhaps finish with the work we did with digital Ninjas.

So we did this fairly early on for the top 250 and we spotted it in Spain. We thought gosh that’s a brilliant idea. So connecting the young digital savvy with the directors in the company and getting them to come together a few times a month fairly informally, with the young ninjas sharing how they use technology, what they think about work, helping some of the senior folks get more hands-on with product. And of course the benefit of the more senior people building relationships with tomorrow’s leaders was fantastic and cost nothing to do. Little bit of organisation around it and it created a buzz an energy in the organisation that was priceless for us really so you don’t always have to invest a lot of money. Sometimes you just need to think creatively about how you can do this sort of stuff.

David Green: Well, we’ve got our own digital ninjas here and certainly they’re always talking to me about certain apps I should be using all the time.

Sharon Doherty: Well, actually, we traded apps, you know, so it was almost like “what’s cool?” which I know sounds really sort of sad, but you’re trying to sort of keep up to date with what’s going on and and you’ve always got to be thinking about new things that you should be getting involved in.

David Green: Continuous learning applies to all. So we talked a lot about digital and in your introduction you talk about two things digital transformation and diversity and inclusion.

And I know you’ve rightly been recognised by a number of bodies for the work that you personally have done in diversity and inclusion at Vodafone and Vodafone as a result I think has been well recognised for the work it has done. It would be great here about a couple of examples around that as well and your approach when it comes to D&I.

Sharon Doherty: Yeah, so I think you’re right. Well done Vodafone, it’s really made its mark inside the company but also on the world stage with the work that it’s done on diversity. So repeat theme here really which is we’ve been on this journey a long time. So it started as Vittorio Colao came into Vodafone and we were a very early adopter of things like unconscious bias training. We declared targets back in 2008 publicly and really started working with our senior team and organisation on this journey, frankly before it was trendy to be doing that. We had a very supportive CEO that for whom this was a very personal agenda, so it wasn’t something that the government said he had to do he just massively believed that having people from different gender backgrounds, different cultural backgrounds etc wouls be the right thing to do and have a massive positive impact on the fabric of the organisation. So we had that Foundation. I think if you fast forward to 2014-15 and this is when we really became a bit more sophisticated about the agenda and I think there have been three themes for Vodafone.

So firstly we dreamed big on this agenda. So in 2015, we said we want to be the best company for women. And particularly the best employer. But that meant that very early on when we declared that sort of target. How could you be audacious enough to sort of say that? But we also looked at the work we were doing with customers, with supply chain, in the community, all through that lens so we had a big ambition. And we did that because we wanted to galvanise the organisation because once you say something it means you’ve got to do something.

The second was we lit fires. So we were an organisation that were prepared to do things at times with things that no one else in the world had done and and we’ve done many little things, like shortlists, Textio, we did that we did all of that. But we also were prepared to do some really big things. So 2015. We were the first company in the world to launch a global maternity policy, that was groundbreaking, not now, but at that moment no one else was thinking that way.

2017, we launched the largest program to reconnect a thousand women who had been out of work for 1 to 10 years back into work. And then in 2019, we were the first company in the world to recognise that one in three women and one in six men were silent victims in work of domestic abuse and we launched safe leave. So two weeks off if you find yourself in that situation, an expert helpline and a HR function that was trained to help. So what Vodafone has done in addition to the small is do these sort of groundbreaking things that that massively galvanised the organisation but also created an external point of view that I think has changed the narrative across the world.

And that leads me to the third thing that we’ve been trying to do which is create a movement. So if you come inside Vodafone, whether it’s gender, whether it’s LGBT, whether its inclusion in a broader sense, what you’ve got is an organisation that’s massively engaged in this agenda. And then we took some of this out and actually, you know, Vittorio and Nick now following, started to go to Davos or Pride and Prejudice and talk about why LGBT was important so it became a subject that actually our CEOs talk on platforms about challenging both ourselves, but also the world, to play a part. So we dreamed big, we lit fires, we did real things and we created a movement which has, you know, allowed the organisation just to do some things that I think when we started we just wouldn’t have dreamed was possible.

David Green: Well it is certainly very impressive and inspiring and perhaps the best validation of the work that you’ve done isn’t just the awards and the recognition is the fact that you’ve almost set them up for others to try and follow and I know when I saw you speak at the LinkedIn Talent Intelligence experience last year, there was a lot of people that were inspired by that talk.

Sharon Doherty: Well, I have to say, the real achievement in Vodafone is the massive engagement. So we’ve got CEOs, HR Directors. I have to say I would say this but I think we’ve got one of the most talented Heads of Diversity and Inclusion in Vodafone and all of that community has come together behind a really important agenda.

David Green: So you’ve just left Vodafone after nine successful years and obviously made a huge impact during your time there and you move over to be the CHRO now at Finastra, which is I believe the third largest fintech in the world. Why the move?

Sharon Doherty: I think all good things come to an end. And I think with a great team, both my central team and a great team of HR directors I think we’ve done some really good things there but it was time to do something something different. I think for me when I look at my career, I’ve got probably 20 more years left, maybe one or two big roles and then a portfolio career. And when I was looking at what next, I thought where is the future going? I think we can all see that the future is technology, is software. And so I was personally really really keen to try and get a CHRO role in a proper tech company. Now, unfortunately, there’s not very many in Europe. So to get the opportunity to be as you said in the world’s third-largest fintech and one of the top software companies in Europe was just too good an opportunity to pass by. So when Finastra came calling with an opportunity to take that organisation and move it into the cloud, to really help transform that business then it was a great opportunity to grab hold of.

David Green: You’ve taken the role of Chief HR Officer. What do you feel the role of the Chief HR Officer actually is?

Sharon Doherty: So look I think there’s a few things so firstly I mean you’re sitting there at the table. So your first job is to help run the business. So I think you take that as read. I think there are then three things that are functionally related. So firstly you’ve absolutely got to be the person that’s caring about thinking through the culture and how. do you get 10 percent more out of the 10,000 employees that we’ve got in Finastra, and there’s lots of levers now that you need to be thinking about.

[Second for me is about building capacity in an organisation. So again, org structures, operating models, that’s about re-skilling and upskilling your current workforce and also how you buy-in some of the new skills that increasingly organisqations need to need to have in place.

And then thirdly I think it’s about being a company ambassador. More than ever if you’re trying to hire and keep fantastic people then you need to be a company with a purpose that stands for something and I think the role of CHRO is really important in being out there and communicating what your company really does stand for.

So I think things have changed a little bit over the last three to five years for CHROs.

David Green: Yeah. I think it’s a role that has definitely changed. I know you’re going to be a fabulous success as well. So what are your first few priorities?

Sharon Doherty: So I think when you go into a new job firstly, I think you need to drink your own medicine. And I think that the first thing that you need to do is is massively be a “learn a lot”. So I think you walk in to a company and you need to have, probably no mouth and three ears. As you just try and understand the journey the organisation has been on, what it is trying to do, meet people at multiple levels that have the answers to help you figure out what the right agenda is.

So I think firstly it’s about doing that and then I think you’ve got to try and figure out what does crawl/walk/run look like for you? As you’re moving through those early 30/60/90 days because if I take Finastra, our ambition is to be the most loved, the most inclusive Fintech by 2021 which sounds pretty good.

I’d like by 2025 for us to be the most inclusive employer in software. So I’d like to up the stakes. So that’s the running and that sounds very lofty and very ambitious but you’ve got to figure out what are the quick wins that you’re doing in the first 30/60/90 days to show the value of you being there and I think that’s pretty much the same, whatever role you’re in.

David Green: You mention 2025, which is great because that kind of leads onto the last question. So this is a question we’re going to ask all the guests on the show. Where do you see HR in 2025?

Sharon Doherty: Well, you know, I think there is a sliding doors answer to this. Well I hope it is and it could be somewhere different. So, I’m gonna perhaps finish where I started and that was I think there’s two things going on in HR.

I think there’s this massive new science that is coming in that needs to be merged with a lot of humanity. And I think for the HR function to pull that off, we’ve really got to go back to school on a number of things. So we’ve got to learn some new skills – Analytics, Design Thinking, UX, Agile.

We’ve got to really understand how agile org effectiveness works. We’ve got to get massively upskilled on team effectiveness, coaching. And so there’s all of this science, some of it’s been around for a while, some of this is pretty new, that HR functions really need to build a muscle in and at the same time figure out the purpose of organisations and we keep a really people-centred approach to leadership. Now my hope is that en masse, HR functions can make that journey and that transformation and my view is those that do, the seat at the table will get a bigger chair. Because I think what is happening is, particularly on capacity building, this is becoming a core business issue, and my sliding doors analogy is those functions, those HR teams, that don’t build those new superpowers. I think are going to get pushed to one side and there will be a different version of the future. Which is that HR becomes an administrative function and the Strategic contribution that it can make will be taken away and other functions will do it.

As I said at the beginning. I’m an optimist and I think there are a lot of really great people in HR, a lot of smart people and a lot of people that are really trying to do the right things for their organisations, for their people in the communities in which we operate so, I’m hopeful that 2025 looks like more HR functions focusing on culture, capacity and being company ambassadors.

David Green: And I think a key thing of course is in HR, the H stands for Human. So we can’t forget the humanity value as well. So Sharon, thank you very much for being a guest on the show.


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