Humans of HR: The story behind the leading lights – their career, motivation and achievements.
From supermarkets to drainage Debi Bell has always sought to make a difference among the people for whom she is responsible.
27 March 2023
Simon Kent, Head of Content – The HR World
Debi Bell is the head of HR services at Lanes Group, the UK’s largest privately owned specialist wastewater and drainage contractor, and has worked for the company since 2013. Debi is responsible for developing the company’s HR department, working closely with its directors and senior managers on key personnel management issues, while also overseeing Lanes’ recruitment activities.
Debi began her professional career with the supermarket chain Morrisons, where she worked for 11 years in various roles. She first became interested in working in HR after securing a role as a payroll clerk within the personnel department, and quickly progressed to the position of personnel manager, which she held across two stores over a four-year period.
During this time, Debi also began a self-funded MSc course in human resources, which she attended during her days off. Once she started her degree, Debi recognised the need for more exposure to other industries, prompting her to leave Morrisons in 2006 to take on a smaller role as an HR administrator for a manufacturing company. She rose through a number of positions of increasing responsibility – including serving as an HR generalist for Fire, Flood and Restoration for three years, and creating the role of group HR manager at Costcutter Supermarkets from scratch – before eventually joining Lanes Group in October 2013.
For Debi, the appeal of HR as a discipline was always clear: “I am a little bit inquisitive! I like to know things, and I like to be able to help or fix things if possible. From the moment I started at Morrisons, I knew this was the path for me.
“Working in HR, you never know what is going to happen on a day-to-day basis. It is challenging, especially where I currently work, but I love the challenge and the diversity of the role. Everyone working in this sector knows it can be stressful, but sometimes this actually helps me to get things done – no two days are the same, which I like.”
During her career in HR, Debi has taken pride in a number of key accomplishments. At Costcutter Supermarkets, she was able to make HR an integral part of how the company works, by continually putting new procedures and processes in place; at Morrisons, she was entrusted with overseeing the opening of a new store, a process that involved working long hours, coordinating training, recruiting new employees – and even having to make a speech in front of then-company president Sir Ken Morrison himself.
In her position at Lanes Group, she plays a crucial role in helping the organisation maintain efficiency and legal compliance in its policies and procedures, and ensuring that the interests of the Lanes workforce are represented at the highest level. Debi’s key achievements include overseeing a successful and timely TUPE transfer process for more than 300 employees joining the business, allowing all employees to be smoothly inducted and trained in their respective areas, despite acting as the only HR person for Lanes Group for this particular area of the business at the time.
Board level achievement
More broadly, she has been instrumental in changing the perception of HR within Lanes Group, solidifying it as an integral part of the business. Debi now has a seat at the company’s operational board meetings, and has successfully advocated for its offering of employee benefits to be gradually improved over time, with ongoing work to enhance them further.
According to Debi, bringing about this kind of lasting cultural change is what really defines the purpose of HR work.
“Making a difference - and seeing that difference when a manager takes your advice, and it works - is the most satisfying thing about working in HR,” she explains. “While we cannot have everything, we can try to change people's behaviours and mindset."
“When I first came to Lanes, HR was not taken as seriously as it should be with the senior management. Now, we have a much better working relationship with the leadership team, and we have altered their views on who we are and what we are here to do. We visit most of our sites regularly and work with the managers to enhance their knowledge of HR, meaning we are not just there when things go wrong; instead, we proactively work to train and coach our managers to be the best that they can be to manage their teams.
With her tenth anniversary at Lanes Group coming up in October 2023, Debi continues to face new challenges in her role, but believes that a dedication to continuous improvement – both day-to-day, and over the longer term – is the key to lasting success as an HR professional.
Debi continues: “Working in HR means having to tackle recurring challenges. Sometimes you will encounter managers who are reluctant to follow processes because they think they know best; as such, we continually train our managers to adopt best practice in all areas, and for them to understand what the consequences could be, for both them and the company, if they behave in a particular way.
“Another big challenge at the moment is recruitment and retention, as it has been for most businesses since the pandemic. Drainage is not a traditionally glamorous sector where people will be beating at the door to work for us, so this puts pressure on the business as a whole; this means the HR and recruitment team need to be creative and develop alternative ways of recruiting. Some of these will be successful, some will need ongoing refinement – this is part of the process.”
“For me, success is measured in terms of the increased benefits we are able to offer our staff,” concludes Debi. “While a medium-sized business like Lanes Group can’t always compete directly with the biggest corporate organisations, we work to continually build on what we have, and we will continue to improve as we move forward.”
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