What steps did you take to get to senior level?
Jeannie Edwards, director of human resources, Europe Africa, MWH Global [JE]: I took time to learn about the business, the financials and the business model, as well as to see what needed assistance. I didn’t impose HR models on the company. I set about fixing things for managers to make their lives easier. I then started to create measurements, providing metrics that helped them to manage their teams more effectively.
Leigh Lafever-Ayer, HR director, UK & Ireland, Enterprise Rent-A-Car [LLA]: I started my career with Enterprise more than 20 years ago, spending the first 10 years in operations. I was responsible for core business activity, including delivering profits, generating growth and providing excellent customer service.
I started to realise how important the selection and development of employees are in making the business a success. This was the part of my role I really enjoyed. I also realised that my operational skill set could help HR be more than about compliance. I understood the business. When the opportunity came up, I took this interest further by moving to the HR team.
My success in the business operationally led to conversations with the managing director about the business-wide strategies that Enterprise was trying to roll-out, which helped to clarify the strategy that we should take for HR. This has helped the wider business and senior leaders in the UK view HR as a partner and a resource for strategic planning and driving business performance.
Ceri-Anne Connolly, HR director, group functions, Aviva [CC]: I joined what was then Norwich Union Direct as an HR graduate in 1998. Two years later, I took a secondment as business manager for the UK General Insurance CEO. This helped me build my commercial picture of the organisation and have my first insight into organisation strategy, handling customer complaints and understanding the operations of an executive team. In 2001, I moved into HR account management and two years later took on a change consultancy manager role, where I built my leadership skills. In 2004 I was promoted to head of HR business partnering in UK General Insurance. I then relocated to York to join the UK Life business and lead the HR strategy of a major assisted transformation programme into our finance function alongside Deloitte. In 2008 I was promoted to HR business partnering director for the UK Life COO and three years later moved to Aviva Group, as HRD for the Group COO. Last July I was promoted onto the HR executive team as the HR director for all group functions across Aviva and I’m now accountable for the HR strategy and plans across eight global functions.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned along the way to earn recognition and respect?
JE: Nobody will remember it was late, everyone will remember that it was wrong. I will not release data or a communication unless I am completely confident in its contents.
LLA: Be aware of your personal brand. It’s important to understand how other people in your organisation view your expertise and skill sets. Don’t be afraid to shout about what you excel in and show how you are adding value, but also remember to lead by example and try to mentor others to develop their own skills.
CC: Stay true to yourself and your natural style. Knowing who you are and what you stand for builds self-belief and others’ confidence in you. By trusting your instincts and choosing your battles wisely, when you make your case for change you will do so with impact, purpose and real conviction. Always take decisions that can be implemented in line with your personal principles.
Advice for other female HR professionals?
JE: Don’t try to be anything other than yourself and don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t try to fit into a mould. The most successful women I know are comfortable with themselves. The most frustrated are role playing. A very senior woman once told me that I would never be taken seriously if I wore pink. I wear pink a lot, and it doesn’t seem to have done me too much damage.
LLA: Look for mentors in and outside of your organisation. They can help you develop your skills and knowledge. Studies show that, despite having proven their talent, lots of women lack confidence in their abilities. A mentor can help boost your confidence and could encourage you to go for jobs that you would otherwise pass over. Networking is equally as important. Introducing yourself to a wider community can lead to untapped opportunities.
Also, don’t be afraid of change or of specialising. I didn’t start my career at Enterprise with the aim of going into HR but when the opportunity came I decided to try something new that I had a genuine interest in. I also developed my expertise in training and development, which led to innovative initiatives being introduced throughout the company.
This is where your mentors and networks can be useful. Mentors from outside of HR can help you to discover what you’re good at and enjoy. External networks expose you to different types of cultures, strategies and HR environments so you can be inspired by what is going on in the field.
CC: Understand how you re-energise yourself and be selfish about this time. For me it is the chance to put my kids to bed at night and read them their story – keeping this sacred in my day definitely leads to higher performance and motivation.
Truly understand your business and its aspirations and limitations. Helping employees to make an emotional connection with the sense of purpose of a business lends itself to higher levels of discretionary effort and performance. Speak in the language of your business and avoid technical HR jargon.
Stand up for what you believe in but not in a way that doesn’t fit with your natural style. You don’t need to shout to be heard. Often, using confidence, logic and subtle influence is far more successful.
Roll up your sleeves and get ‘into the work’. I wouldn’t ask my team to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. Sitting with employees on the front line is the best possible way of understanding the need for change and defining the most successful people strategy.
Jeannie Edwards, director of HR, MWH Global
She reports into the senior vice president of HR in Denver, who sits on the Board of Global MWH and sits on the Board of the ACE (Association of Consultants in Engineering. She was the first woman and first non-engineer to be appointed to the Ruling Council of the Association of Consulting Engineers. In 2012 Jeannie was presented with the Excellence in Business Award for her contribution to the engineering and consultancy industry. In 2013 World Wide Who’s Who named Jeannie the Executive of the Year for Human Resources.
Leigh Lafever-Ayer, HR director, Enterprise
Leigh reports into the UK and Ireland managing director. She oversees all aspects of human resources including, talent acquisition and training/development for Enterprise Rent-A-Car’s nine operating regional groups and the corporate headquarters. She also champions the senior mentoring programmes and high profile networking events such as International Women’s Day celebrations as well as coordinates Enterprise mentors for The Cherie Blair Foundation’s Women Entrepreneur programme.
Ceri-Anne Connolly, HR director, Aviva
Reports into Carole Jones, the interim group HR director. Her current responsibilities include HR strategy and plans across 9 functional divisions, covering circa 3,500 employees. She is the lead business partner for finance globally and the HR executive accountable for the HR partnering, consultancy and change delivery across finance, risk, strategy, legal, HR, internal audit, COO, marketing and the transformation team.