Meet the Human-Focused Leaders of 2021: Tracy Conwell, people director at Nationwide Building Society

Tracy Conwell, people director at UK-based Nationwide Building Society, discusses respect, outputs-based metrics, how HR must practise what it preaches and what it takes to be a People-First Leader

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About Tracy Conwell

Tracy Conwell has been with Nationwide for the vast majority of her career having begun in the branch network as a management trainee straight from university, and then becoming a branch manager, before settling on a career in human resources.

She began her current role as a people director in October 2020, leading a team of people & change business partners, after spending time in a variety of roles across people & culture. Her experience spans areas such as organisational change, mergers and acquisitions and TUPE, performance management, employee relations, trade union engagement and negotiation, the I&D agenda and culture and behaviour in financial services. Last year was spent largely focussed on leading the employee response to the coronavirus at Nationwide and this year's focus is on supporting our leaders through our new operating model and a more clearly defined risk and controls culture, as well as providing strategic business partnering support to a number of senior leaders.

Edited transcript

We've always believed in the philosophy that by treating our people in the right way they would want to work for us and want to do well with us. And steeped in our ethos of mutuality is about doing the right thing in the right way. So it's very important to us that we work in that way and we encourage people to work in that way and we treat people in that way. 

So like any business we were impacted by the pandemic. Fortunately, we were able to continue trading. We were considered as key workers and we were considered as an important part of the UK economy. And therefore to keep the banking sector in general going was very important.

And our people really did step up and help us through this time. And one of the ways they really did that was by responding to our support of them by helping us in the areas that we needed help, by helping us with the various initiatives that we had to put in place. So we had to change some of the way we do business and they were really keen and helpful in wanting to do that with us, wanting to understand how they could do their jobs differently, but also understanding what jobs we couldn't do anymore. So a lot of the face-to-face contact had to stop in our branches for example, but a lot of those individuals who did the face-to-face work were really keen and willing to retrain and do other work, which they have continued to do.

And that has been a real testament to us that by committing to our people and helping them understand how important they are to us, the pay back, if you like, was there for all to see, and we've been able to have a very productive year keeping our members serviced and keeping our member needs at the forefront of what we did by ensuring that we treated our colleagues in the right way.

So at Nationwide, for many years, we have lived by and worked by a number of values that we describe as PRIDE. Each of those letters has some indicators underneath that explains what we mean by each of those letters. So, putting members first is the P in PRIDE and so on. But the importance of all of this is how we treat each other and embracing diversity and empowering each other is a really important part of PRIDE and how we are at Nationwide. Diversity is incredibly important to us, but also so are all the initiatives about respecting each other.

So it's an important part of how we work that we are clear that we are respectful towards each other and respectful towards our teams and the way we work together.

But we also have another saying at Nationwide, which is about bringing your whole self to work. We should be brave to be ourselves in the workplace and it takes all different sorts and types of people to make a cohesive and diverse workforce.

And we want people to feel free and free of fear of retribution or criticism to be able to come to work. However, our values are quite strong. We are anti-bullying, anti-racist, and we will pursue those values. And therefore we will challenge people and employees who do not support or comply with those or who act in a way that is contrary to those values.

And I do think the future is going to be challenging for leaders who have led in certain ways for many years. And we've worked in office environments for a long time, but Nationwide has been talking to its leaders across the organisation for a long time about the negative impacts of presenteeism and how moving to an outputs-based measurement of people, or of the work they do rather, is a much better way to provide an adult relationship with your workforce and adult relationship with your team, because measuring outputs is a much better way of getting the work done. Just being in the office doesn't necessarily mean the work has been done to the right standards at the right time. But some of our leaders did find it incredibly difficult when we first moved to remote, because they were used to seeing their team, having their team all together and being able to manage their teams in that way, in what we could call it a traditional way.

And each of our leaders and we've helped them throughout the pandemic in terms of providing toolkits, advice, guidance, and webinars about how to manage remotely and how to get the best out of your teams. And certainly the majority of our leaders would wholeheartedly support the idea that understanding what work needs to be done is the most important thing.

And once you understand the work that needs to be done, the timescales within which it needs to be done, giving people the freedom to do that work to some extent when it suits them, within timeframes because everything has to be delivered within certain timeframes, then actually you get the best out of people. And measuring what they deliver rather than how long they were in the office is a much better way of getting what we all want. So the organisation gets the deliverables it needs, which serves our members, and individuals get to work in a way that suits them. So it feels like a win-win when we take that approach.

But it's not always easy if you're not in constant contact with your team, because some people need more encouragement than others, but all that comes down to understanding your team, getting to know your team better and understanding those that need more encouragement than others, those that you can leave to work on something because they'll get on with it and they'll deliver, but others might need some extra encouragement. So it's understanding your teams and how to do that. And we've always been, I guess, real exponents of that at Nationwide for a long time. Understand your team, really get to know your team – and that is the way you can get them to perform best because you can then talk to them as individuals about how they are best motivated to achieve what needs to be achieved and the pandemic has simply accelerated or shone a light on the possibilities that then enables us in this regard.

We do consider ourselves probably as being – role models might be too strong; I'm not suggesting we're there – but we feel that we are in people in culture we should be practising what we preach. So we should be demonstrating to the organisation that we as a team are doing the things we are asking our other leaders and our other teams to do.

So we are certainly trying to operate in a way that fulfills all the initiatives that we're asking the organisation to do. So we all meeting as various teams and thinking and talking about how will we work in the future? What plans and propositions will we have in place? How do our individual team members feel?

And I've got an example in my team of where this has been, I think, really beneficial for some of our people, but I've a member of my team who previously worked part time and she is now considering coming back full time, because she can juggle things better now, because she doesn't have to rush to get in the car park at a certain time, she doesn't have to be wedded to the office between nine and five, so she can juggle her home life and now actually return to full-time working, which has just been fabulous. So it's a great revelation to her and to us. And so we will absolutely practice what we preach in people and culture, and we're trying our best to do that in terms of how we operate and how we present ourselves to the rest of the organisation.

I think I've learnt very much that, we've already talked about the importance of listening, but it is also the importance of talking and the importance of trust.

I assume all my team come to work with good intentions to do a good job. They feel, I hope, comfortable to talk to me as I do with my leader, comfortable to talk about what works for me, what doesn't work for me and also what might worry me about the new future. And we're really encouraging people to talk about it. It all comes back to trusting your employee is there to do the right thing. They are there to do a good job. But if they don't do a good job, it is your responsibility as a leader to make sure you have that conversation with them.

This interview is part of The People Space's Meet the Human-Focused Leaders of 2021 series in partnership with management consultancy 10Eighty. To watch more in the series please click here. For more on what makes a People-First leader read Taking a people-first approach to leadership 

Published 14 July 2021
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