Raising the profile of HR to support growth at Costain

Written by
Mary Appleton

08 Aug 2017

08 Aug 2017 • by Mary Appleton

When Sally Austin took up her first role in HR at BAE Systems in 1997, her dream was to become an HR director (HRD) by the age of 40 – a feat she achieved, aged 37, while at engineering group Costain. Since attaining her ambition in 2014, Austin has been working on raising the profile of HR within the business by implementing a range of talentfocused initiatives to strengthen Costain’s succession pipeline. This, she argues, is fundamental in an ever-changing industry.

“It was such a huge achievement [to get the HRD role],” she enthuses. “The business has evolved in 12 years – and I’m lucky to have been given the opportunity to do something different every couple of years. Helping talent advance gives me a huge buzz.”

Shifting the perceptions of HR

Austin joined Costain in 2005 as an HR officer, at a time when each business division was segregated with its own HR team, and there was little recognition of HR beyond being a back office admin function.

“In the past five years, we have shifted to a true partnership where 80% of managers value what HR brings,” she says. “Yes, there will always be managers who don’t get it, but I tell my team to focus efforts on those who are engaged. They are the ones who will educate and motivate others on this.”

Austin has pushed to implement an “Ulrich-with-a-pinch-of-salt” solution. This, she explains, has involved drip-feeding specialists into the team; bringing recruitment in-house; raising awareness of people development; consolidating systems, and introducing business partnering across the group to encourage collaboratiion. While the approach was met with initial resistance, starting small and demonstrating value helped build a business case.

“I tend to work stealthily,” she jokes. “If you start with one area, ask people to trust you, and then get managing directors of that area to be receptive, reaction builds quickly and you see the shift from push to pull.”

Moving beyond engineering

Costain has set itself an ambitious target to double its profit within the next three years, an increase in margin that will be achieved, Austin says, by expanding Costain’s offering beyond complex project delivery to consultancy and using technology, plus developing “deep strategic customer relationships”.

So how will this impact the workforce and the types of skills Costain is looking to recruit? “Historically 75% of the workforce have been civil engineers, but we’re now hiring ‘rainmakers’ – fee-earning consultants with strong networks who have targets,” replies Austin. “They have a different skill-set.”

Acknowledging the shift in skills requirements, she has also tasked her recruitment team with ensuring all new key hires have a background in, or at least some experience of, technology. “Technology runs across everything that we do – such as digital railways and smart motorways,” she says. “We need a shift in mindset about how we treat technology. “Robotics has revolutionised many of our engineering practices,” she continues. “A couple of years ago we had to put in screws on tube trains manually, for example, but we now have electronic drilling which can fire in hundreds of screws every minute. This has saved our customers hundreds of pounds in time and money.”

In an industry whose future talent agenda has been dominated STEM in recent years, Austin also indicates the diversity of younger recruits. Apprenticeships (currently around 100) are now offered across 27 disciplines (up from 12) and of 80 graduates who are hired annually, just 25% are engineers (compared with 75% a few years ago). “There is a wide skills spectrum feeding the emerging talent pipeline,” she says. “We are now bringing in English specialists, psychologists and chemists.”

While Austin concedes that many jobs (particularly mechanical ones) will be done by robots in future, she is adamant that people will always be needed and believes it is up to each individual to take charge of their career. “You need to think about other skills you can learn; you might be working the computers that hammer the screws, for example,” she says. “Robots won’t take over – you can’t replicate emotional intelligence or behaviours.”

Creating purposeful leadership

Over the past 12 months, Austin has been working with Costain’s senior leadership team around understanding and enhancing emotional intelligence; recognising how individuals are wired and how that plays into team dynamics. A key element is encouraging people to consider ‘why’ customers buy Costain and linking that to roles.

“If the leadership team can’t understand how our jobs relate to what we stand for, how can we expect people working six layers down to articulate that? The acid test is that anyone in the organisation should be able to say why Costain exists. We don’t yet have that consistency.”

Austin reports that customers are increasingly looking for Costain to demonstrate its core values, when bidding for work, and how it assesses the outputs of those across the business. She believes that connecting personal values with the mission of the company is imperative to making this happen.

“It can be difficult to get people to think beyond the ‘what’: that we provide engineering solutions. But essentially, we are providing the infrastructure to help people improve their lives. The front cover of our annual report is a picture of a man and woman hugging at a train station – it’s a powerful message, and we need people to think about how that mission relates to them as individuals,” she says. Linked to this is the reforming of Costain’s talent review process, now entering its third year, improving retention and improving succession planning.

We’ve focused on having robust conversations, and creating ‘talent profiles’ for everyone, which talks about their strengths and motivations,” Austin explains. “Sometimes we’ve promoted people into senior positions but the motivation wasn’t there and they end up feeling overwhelmed. Success means different things to different people and we need to recognise that.”

A talent review pilot involving some 30 people has now been rolled out to around 500 and its outcomes are helping to enhance HR’s reputation and succession planning capabilities. “If I can tell my CEO the people who are going to be the next managing directors, and demonstrate that they have the right competencies and the motivation to do it, it makes HR’s profile more rich,” says Austin.

She hopes to embed the talent review process across the organisation in the next 12 months, and believes the data collected will contribute to agility and staff retention, supporting robust organisational design. “We have to be more agile around customer demands, and having the right data can help us ensure we have the right skills and capabilities to draw on at any time,” says Austin.

Recognition for HR

For now, much of her short-term ambition is around ensuring the initiatives she has introduced mature before introducing new elements. In 2015, 12 months into her group HRD role, Austin was invited to join the executive board, which she says has done wonders for HR’s reputation within the business.

“Knowing I have earned my place at the table is great,” she enthuses. “My HR team feels recognised and it gives them a huge buzz too.” Exposure to executive-board matters has made Austin more strategically aware and able to articulate messages effectively to staff. It has also bolstered her confidence. “There are live debates and tough conversations, but I feel I can give my opinion,” she reveals. “There are lots of personalities around the table, but that gives us diverse thought which is so important in business.”

She believes the HR industry as a whole is raising its profile, which she puts down to CEOs becoming more insightful regarding the talent agenda. “Conversations about diversity are moving up the schedule and there’s more of a lens on the skills agenda, which is fantastic,” she says. “As an HR professional, if you can speak the language of the business by relating all of this to financial implications, it can only help to increase your credibility.”

Married with two children, Austin acknowledges the importance of work-life balance and is keen to role model this to the rest of the business. She is proud to be a working mother and believes a more flexible working lifestyle will characterise the workplace of the future.

“I think we’ll see a more transient workforce. Contractual hours will disappear and, increasingly, people will be driven by outputs as they want that flexibility,” she says. “There’s much more acknowledgement of wellbeing these days and how this plays out in your career.