“Don’t think you can plan your career, because you probably can’t! The best thing is to do the very best you can at the job you’re in, and then opportunities will tend to come your way.” Janet McKenzie, Reward Manager from Southern Co-op, speaks to us about developing a career in Reward.

As part of our commitment to supporting candidates to develop fulfilling careers, we’ve invited some HR Leaders to share the secrets of their success.

This week, we had a great conversation with Janet McKenzie of Southern Co-op, who began her career in IT before moving to work in HR & Reward.

Can you tell us how you got into Reward and why?

Career-wise, I don’t think many people start out by saying “I’m going to work in Reward!” – you often just develop into it. Some people come in through the HR generalist route but I was originally in IT as a Mainframe Systems Programmer.  I grew to manage a client account for Capgemini and when the contract completed, Capgemini said, “you’re quite good at talking with people, plus you know IT stuff, so why not come and do some technical recruitment?”.  And that was my gateway into HR.  After a few years, I moved from recruitment to Car fleet management, then benefits, and finally outwards into the wonderful world of Reward.

I’ve worked in lots of different sectors. People can get focused into a single sector, but I find it’s really interesting not to get pigeon-holed as you can pick up ideas and approaches that don’t automatically translate.  As you move, you can ask, “have we ever thought about doing XYZ?”, and that’s very useful.

Can you tell me about the themes that are emerging and the challenges that you’re seeing across the Reward sector?

There’s currently less focus on pensions than there has been previously.  We’ve got auto-enrolment fairly well embedded now and attention has switched to Wellness.  This area has grown hugely in recent years, looking at financial, mental and physical aspects of wellness.  It means thinking about someone’s ability to focus on doing their job and how we can help support them.  Anything that negatively impacts on that is not great for either the person or the organization they work for.

One of the current issues in the UK is the NHS funding challenge. The burden of providing medical support for employees is gradually shifting towards the American model where the cost lands with the employer. Medical insurance, for example, was typically only made available to senior employees, and is now often available to a much wider group.  The challenge this brings is how to manage your insurance bills given that medical inflation always seems to run ahead of normal inflation.  One option is to use an NHS plus model, providing private medical support for colleagues where the NHS isn’t able to respond within certain timeframes. Then there are healthcare cash plans, which can be funded or offered as a voluntary benefit. These are changing gradually to have GP consultations as part of their basic benefits structure, because people are increasingly struggling to get NHS appointments.

On the financial side of Wellness, there are a lot of providers like Wealth Wizards coming onto the market, who provide help with understanding personal finances such as budgeting or understanding compound interest in terms of an APR on a credit card, or looking at options for a loan. ‘Payday’ loan providers have been restricted following recent changes to legislation so it’s increasingly about digital providers such as credit unions, Salary Finance and Neyber; or pay advance companies that also integrate with payroll using new technology. These take the pressure off in the short term but also provide longer term guidance at reducing debt so both employees and employers have the comfort of knowing they’re dealing with a responsible provider with a sensible interest rate.

At Southern Co-op, we are also working to create meaningful careers.  We know that in the convenience sector people like flexibility – we have five generations in our workforce, all of whom have different motivations – and some people need a smaller number of hours to fit alongside other commitments.  But others need a full time salary to pay their bills.  The question for us is how do we work smarter?  We want to say “Right, we have a cluster of stores in a town, so perhaps we’ve only got 15 hours in that store, but actually we’ve got another store two miles down the road and we have 15 hours there as well”.  The challenge is legacy mindsets; you need to encourage more collaborative ways of working to achieve that kind of framework and to do that you need flexible managers who can communicate effectively.

One of the main things you have to do as a Reward Manager is assess what feels fair.  When you introduce a benefit, you want to make it available to as many people as you can. And you need to communicate it effectively as well which is especially challenging when most employees aren’t sitting in front of a PC.  We’ve just launched a new financial advice product for everybody in our business and it can be accessed from a phone or tablet at home or wherever is convenient. So, it’s really about doing something that’s appropriate for your population.

What career advice would you offer to someone either working towards a career like yours, or someone just getting started in their HR career?

Well, don’t ever think that you can plan your career, because you probably can’t! The best thing is to do the very best you can at the job you’re in, and then opportunities will tend to come your way.  If you’re constantly trying to keep an eye on what’s next, you’re tending not to focus on what you’re doing now, and you won’t necessarily do as great a job.

If people are thinking of a long-term career and progressing through HR, Reward gives you a really good grounding. You’ll often see adverts for HR Director roles with a specific requirement for a Reward background, so it’s a really good string to have to your bow.  And it’s fabulous!  Reward is brilliantly interesting!  You can be in Reward for years and years and it’s always changing, always developing. You’ll see trends, ideas will metamorphose, and there’s always something different coming along. Also, every organization is unique, so the Reward role in every organization is also unique. It’s not just about having a specific tool set of Reward approaches that you try and use regardless.  It’s about what is appropriate for that particular organization at its particular stage of development. You need to be pretty comfortable with change!  I also think you need to be emotionally intelligent, to recognize how you are feeling yourself, and then be able to translate that into how change is going to impact people on the ground. What is the emotion that it’s going to create, and how can you help people understand and accept changes?

Finally, you almost have to be two people to work in Reward. You need great attention to detail when you’re modelling a bonus scheme or doing the annual pay review – you need to make sure your numbers are spot on when dealing with people’s pay.  But you also have to be able to go out and talk passionately to get people engaged in a new benefit, and to get your leadership team to unlock budgets in the first place.  You need to be happy in that dark room with your spreadsheet, and then be able to come blinking out into the light to shout about what’s available to employees!

If you are interested in having a confidential conversation about your career or would like support growing your team, please get in touch today.

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“Don’t think you can plan your career, because you probably can’t! The best thing is to do the very best you can at the job you’re in, and then opportunities will tend to come your way.” Janet McKenzie, Reward Manager from Southern Co-op, speaks to us about developing a career in Reward.