Humans of HR: The story behind the leading lights – their career, motivation and achievements.
Working for Outdoor and Cycle Concepts, under which sit the brands Cotswold Outdoor, Snow+Rock and Runners Need, Claire Webber-Powell’s enthusiasm for her work is infectious.
25 October 2023
Simon Kent, Head of Content – The HR World
Her workforce is diverse in age and motivation. Some are undoubtedly here because the business reflects the mainstay of their life, others for the flexibility of a retail position.
Retail is certainly a challenging sector to be in currently, but underpinning everything Webber-Powell does is her business degree, a qualification which she says has given her a broader commercial view across every organisation for which she’s worked. This knowledge and background inform her approach to HR – “people are a great business driver” she says, neatly lacing the power of the employee into a business context.
Having joined PwC as an accountant, Webber-Powell realised she’d taken a wrong turn at the start of her career. Energetic, passionate and keen to make a difference, this first job taught her a lot about what she didn’t want from her working life. Having found the world of HR she has worked in many different sectors and organisations including Rolls Royce, Sodexo, Danone, Bidfood (3663), consultancy assignments in the public sector and online retailers Lovehoney. “It was an amazing time to be part of Lovehoney’s journey” she says of the latter business. “We could challenge the norm – there was no bureaucracy or structure which encouraged innovation and creativity.”
Throughout her time in HR she has found that it’s important that the function is not seen as being all about policing – instead she aims to lead and encourage others to lead using diverse styles and approaches to get the best from all employees.
This diversity of approach plays well for Outdoor and Cycle Concepts. With 80 physical stores and an online presence Webber-Powell came to the organisation at a point of financial stress which coincided with the onset of the pandemic. With the majority of employees on furlough and no chance of meeting face-to-face, Webber-Powell had to establish herself within the leadership team despite everyone’s remote position. Moreover, she was responsible for all sides of HR at a time of uncertainty – from sourcing new recruits in the ‘new world’, to managing a highly complex payroll, and, of course, introducing new and more effective systems that would stand up to the challenges set at that time.
“My greatest achievement was how I navigated those two years of Covid,” says Webber-Powell. “I saw it as an opportunity – I was new to the business operation and could ask questions and make suggestions to make a real difference – and in a manner that wasn’t seen as change for ‘changes sake’."
Creativity and pragmatism have gone hand in hand for Webber-Powell as her stewardship has occurred at a time of challenge for the retail sector generally. It’s also in evidence when she discusses how she deals with her diverse workforce. With so many variable hour workers keeping them engaged and up to date with product/service provisions is not easy. To help each employee get what they need, in a format that works for them, the business created a series of avatars. Employees can determine which one they wish to be aligned to – allowing them to tailor their preferences based on their motivations, roles etc.
Webber-Powell explains how the business has become more creative in how they share information, which includes podcasts – enabling employees to find out the latest company news while pursuing outdoor activities. She even does some of her work armed with a mobile phone whilst out walking – role modelling the company’s mission by encouraging others to get outside in a sustainable way.
There’s a clear passion for the products being sold among the employees with the business gaining traction through the service and knowledge offered as much as the goods themselves. Webber-Powell says expenditure on learning and development is never questioned and currently sits at around 2-2.5% of the company’s total salary budget. And training isn’t limited to the classroom, with blended options including immersion events with brands to give the employees firsthand experience of what they’re selling – imagine being in the Welsh hills testing thermals and waterproof kit.
Webber-Powell is fully aware that the retail landscape is littered with formerly popular brands who have somehow failed along the way. The dynamic of the marketplace, she says, forces her not to become complacent and even now she says she would rather try and learn from something that doesn’t quite work rather than not try at all: “At the moment if you don’t evolve in the retail sector, I truly believe you are not delivering what your customers need and you won’t be around for long,” she says.
Going forward, Webber-Powell sees one key area for the business as being around managerial capability. “I love trying to inspire and motivate people but I’m just one person,” she says, “so our people manager population needs to be engaging, inspiring, disciplined, and role modelling exceptional behaviours.”
With the in-store business structure being relatively flat, there is a need for employees to take ownership, be positive ambassadors and understand where they fit and add value into the organisation. The relationships people managers create with employees, argues Webber, need to be two-way and ‘grown-up’.
Webber-Powell confesses that she always needs a challenge and that sometimes she’s moved on from a position because she achieved stabilisation for that business. However, she does feel the constant evolution and challenge of the retail sector means it is unlikely that she’ll get itchy feet any time soon. “It’s 80% work in progress,” she says, “and you never get beyond that because customer needs are always evolving.”
Importantly Webber-Powell believes HR is there to have commercial impact and enable the broader changes – which comes back to her business education: “Everything needs to have real value,” she says. “You can be willing to take risks but it needs to be about people and commerciality. I don’t stick with my swim lane – I need to – and do! – know the overall strategy for the business, how we will deliver this and the daily/weekly KPIs that keep us on track. This helps me prioritise what we do and how to empower others to be part of this success.”
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