The HR World, a professional networking platform in association with Resource Management, speaks to Matt Elliott about work ethic, career priorities and how his past has shaped his leadership skills.

My experience of diversity as a youngster has shaped a lot in my life: In the 70s and 80s in Sheffield, there was a real cultural mix and this set my frame of reference for diversity. My first school was very multi-cultural and, as it was my first, that became my ‘norm’ expectation around diversity. Later on, I found it strange and unusual to live in a more predominantly ‘white’ area, it didn’t seem real to me. I’ve since seen how society brings prejudice into play as you grow into and through adulthood. When you’re young you don’t see any difference in school friends on the basis of skin colour or religion. I’m committed to making sure that’s the case now at work – we must ask ourselves, why shouldn’t it be?

I developed people skills intuitively to protect myself. My Dad’s career progressed really well in education and he became a headteacher. We moved to a lovely old house on the edge of a modern housing estate in Sheffield – so from that point on we stood out a bit! Some of the kids at the local comprehensive I went to saw me as something of ‘a rich kid’ because of the house we lived in and it made me a bit of a target. I became intuitively skilled in reading behaviour and understanding what was going on, so I could make sure I kept out of trouble. This helped develop management skills I use to good effect today – reading and understanding human behaviour and being able to adapt my approach.

Social circumstance has an unfair impact on the opportunity for talented people to realise their potential. The degree to which school mates realised their potential had more to do with their social circumstances than their own talent. We waste an enormous amount of potential in the work force as a result. This has been a huge motivating factor for me in HR. The ability to support and enable colleagues to fulfil their potential, whatever their start-point in life, within the company is incredibly rewarding. We are in a privileged position in HR to have this responsibility.

Making a difference requires bravery in our personal and our working lives. Some 25 years ago I was at a family dinner, and when talking about relationships, a family member told me they were seeing someone. It turned out they had been in a relationship for some time but weren’t sure how friends and wider family would react to it being a same sex relationship. I felt I reacted supportively, but I know having talked about it many years later, I had missed a real opportunity to help with the confidence and trust to be more open sooner. I regret not being more encouraging and supportive. I’m lucky that as a HRD I can use the motivation from a personal regret at work every day to create a safe working environment where people can simply be who they are. I don’t want people to come to work and feel they can’t be themselves, it must be exhausting.

There is no substitute for hard work. I was lucky, after completing my post-grad in HR RBS appointed me as the only graduate at a time when it was a relatively small bank. I joined a small team and received a lot of support and opportunity. I found myself getting unexpected opportunities over the first five years of my career, doing strategic work as well as responsibility for implementation, working with amazing people. I always thought I was lucky, but now realise I created my own luck. You have to work hard to gain, and take, opportunities. As the Yorkshire saying goes, “you don’t get ‘owt for nowt”!

You’ve got to be happy at work to thrive. As my career progressed, I felt I was spending too much time managing company ego-based politics than getting on with doing a great job – it was exasperating. I’d grown as a person, my perspectives were changing, and I started to question if I was happy and in the right company. Feeling that way started to affect the contribution I was able to make. It was time to move on and experiencing a different environment at BP helped me feel happy at work again and make the right contribution.

Be sure you understand what you need from your professional life. I loved working at BP, the company had significant challenges but was full of integrity in seeking to resolve them. So, when Jayne-Anne Gadhia, then CEO of Virgin Money, asked me to join her team it was a difficult decision. In the end, I decided it as too good an opportunity to be part of a company to make a difference in Financial Services, and to be able to cut my teeth as the standalone HRD. I’ve loved the accountability of being the leader of the function and a member of the Exec Team who over eight years successfully integrated Northern Rock, listed the company, became a national leader in D&I, and developed a culture I’m immensely proud of. We transformed the company in every sense. But to make the move, I had to recognise my desire to take personal accountability for a company versus be a cog in a big wheel.

Be clear on what you stand for. To be a good leader, people need to know what you value and believe in. I used to keep that to myself a little too much, just because of my personality. If you aren’t clear on what you stand for and how you go about things, unsurprisingly people wonder how they can get behind you. I’ve learnt to say more about what I’m thinking/feeling, and why - and then back it up in action.

This is a special time in business - things are changing and business can help lead societal change. Passion and inspiration is what is needed to make change happen and this will only come when leaders open their minds to what is happening in the wider, real world. CEO’s are now understanding a responsibility beyond delivering business results, and increasingly have an ambition for an impact on wider society. Richard Branson talks about ‘Business as a force for good”. I think it’s inspirational and the business focus around diversity and inclusion is a good example of this. In business, and in HR, we need to aspire to making a difference in the world. It’s hard work, but nothing worthwhile comes easy.

Be honest about your priorities in life. Spending time with my two boys, Luke and Jake (aged six and eight) is always my happiest time, so I make sure I protect time with them. I love being with them – and I’m enjoying it while they are happy to spend their time with me! In the end, what really matters in my life is how happy they are. When Jake asked me recently what it is I do at work, I said “I help people to be the best they can be”. He was happy with that. And, therefore, so was I.

Matt Elliott is Chief People Officer of Bank of Ireland.

He is one of the UK’s leading champions on workplace diversity and is regularly recognised for this contribution in places such as the FT’s OUTstanding Lists 2018. You can read more about his thoughts on diversity here.

The HR World’s This Much I Know series concentrates on business leaders and their careers. You can find more articles here.

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