End of an era: Valerie Hughes-D’Aeth on five years at the Beeb

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This year Valerie Hughes-D’Aeth entered our HR Most Influential Hall of Fame and the BBC won two gongs at our HR Excellence Awards. The outgoing BBC HRD looks back on all that’s been achieved in her tenure

Where to start? It’s the question that hits any journalist as they research and prepare to report on a particularly large and complex organisation.

But it feels especially pertinent as HR magazine sits down with outgoing BBC group HR director Valerie Hughes-D’Aeth (who leaves at the end of this year) to talk about what she has achieved during her five-year tenure.

Walking in on day one back in July 2014, and faced with an organisation of around 16,000 staff (now 19,000) – whose previous HRD had left amid criticism, and with the Jimmy Savile scandal still reasonably raw – what does the first hour involve? How about the first day, then week? How do you decide what your first priority should be?

The answer is: you don’t. Instead it’s clear that all things BBC have become Hughes-D’Aeth’s ‘Mastermind special subject’. No step-by-step, one project or department at a time approach; Hughes-D’Aeth had to get to grips with all that the Beeb does, and how this could be better structured and supported by HR, as fast as possible.

“I’ve brought a few notes, I hope that’s OK,” Hughes-D’Aeth says as we settle into one of the sofas at the BBC’s Broadcasting House (located near Oxford Circus and home to around 4,000 staff). But she barely glances at them, rather drawing a deep breath before taking us on a whistle-stop tour of some of the biggest reforms in the BBC’s 96-year history.

Charter renewal

A simpler answer to the riddle ‘where to start in heading up HR at the BBC?’ might lie in the new Royal Charter. Although this didn’t come into force until 2017, the greater focus on value for money and efficiency it set out was something the organisation was already driving towards.

“I don’t know Lucy Adams, I’ve only met her once,” Hughes-D’Aeth says on how it felt to come in after her predecessor had left in controversial circumstances (Adams was criticised by the Commons Public Accounts Committee for her part in the
£25 million paid to departing BBC executives, and for saying she did not know of an email about the payoffs and then changing her evidence).

“What I do know is that Lord Hall [director general Tony Hall who took up his position in 2013] said to me we needed to focus on things like building a very open transparent culture… along with the simplification of what we did and organisational efficiency.”

The charter set out a number of changes including disclosure of highly-paid on-air talent and managers’ salaries; the BBC giving greater focus to ‘underserved audiences’; the National Audit Office being given a stronger role in looking at how the BBC spends its money; and programme-making to be opened up to greater competition.

The latter has come in the form of BBC Studios separating from the BBC to become a commercial subsidiary producing content for the likes of Netflix and ITV as well as the BBC (all profits go back to the BBC Group).

Another critical part of the charter was a new ‘unitary board’, which replaced the external BBC Trust and internal BBC Executive.

“That was a very big piece because overnight we had a completely new set of non-executive directors – not one or two but literally all overnight,” says Hughes-D’Aeth, pointing out that such wholesale leadership change is pretty unheard of in other organisational contexts.

Getting HR’s house in order

Another first port of call was strongly linked to the new charter’s call for efficiency and effectiveness. Though looking internally to HR might seem an odd start, it was critical to get this right to set the right tone, explains Hughes-D’Aeth.

“We had to build a function able to support the organisation as it moved into the next charter renewal period and make sure it was fit for the future,” she says. “When I first joined the HR function had been without a permanent leader for a period of time. So it was very much meeting the team and finding out what was going on.

“The decision had already been made that we would move the function predominantly to Birmingham. So you had an HR team who were potentially being made redundant in some cases and obviously wanting to know what the future held for them.”

Some of the biggest HR restructuring decisions for Hughes-D’Aeth were around outsourcing versus insourcing. In the end it was decided to bring recruitment back in house. “There’s no right or wrong,” she says.

The key was to weigh things up quickly though, and to rapidly bring together different historically-dispersed bits of HR to create a more “holistic function that could service the whole of the BBC”. “Examples were internal comms, D&I and the academy, which weren’t initially part of HR,” says Hughes-D’Aeth.

She adds: “I’d also been asked to take out cost if I could. So I took out £10 million per annum… That’s a nice feeling. But it was a very significant upheaval; about 60% of the function were new in those first two to three years.”

A feat of multitasking

It wasn’t, however, a case of “just wait until we’ve sorted ourselves out to support the organisation,” says Hughes-D’Aeth. “You’ve got a mix of things and it’s not a question of let’s do one and move on to the other.”

The other “professional support” functions (IT, finance, procurement) received the same scrutiny as HR. “We did a big piece of work looking at all the functions that aren’t directly content related… It was finding out how much we were spending on those activities. What was right and proper? How many people were needed?

“So we spent a lot of 2015 sorting out what was right strategically. Sometimes it was right to have a centralised function… Sometimes it was right to be slightly decentralised.”

On the simplification front, the HR team first looked at whether the BBC was organised divisionally in the best way. A wholesale review of layers within divisions formed part of this. “There were instances of 12, 13, 14 layers, and that’s not ever conducive to great comms flowing up and down… We decided seven from the director general to the frontline was the right principle to set,” says Hughes-D’Aeth, adding that redefining spans of control for managers was also important.

“We did a whole raft of work around those roles and identified that the BBC had about 2,300 team managers, which for an organisation of our size is perfectly respectable. That gave us a very clear community of people… who we needed to support and develop, and who we need to communicate with.”

Comms and leadership

Given the difficulty for any one person to get their head around the whole of the BBC, deciding how to best communicate changes and its overarching purpose has been key.

Last year the HR team asked all employees what their experience of the BBC was and what they’d like to see change. The first finding was “about very clear meaningful work”, reports Hughes-D’Aeth. “They wanted to understand what the direction of the organisation is… and to regularly know what’s going on and their individual part.”

In January the Press Pause Moment initiative was launched. “Tony did a video for the whole organisation. People were asked to watch the video in their teams with their manager, and then discuss it in teams,” says Hughes-D’Aeth, adding: “Every few months Tony will speak to the organisation.”

Two-way communication has also become a much stronger part of leadership development. And this has received a huge refresh, with Tony Hall describing this as “the biggest investment in leadership development for a generation” at the BBC, Hughes-D’Aeth reports.

“Last year we went out and listened to all of our leaders and basically said: what is good leadership at the BBC? On the back of that we developed six leadership competencies and 2,300 leaders were taken through sessions last Summer,” says Hughes-D’Aeth.

She adds: “One of the biggest parts of the HR business partners’ roles is to sit round the table with small groups of managers saying ‘today let’s talk about handling difficult conversations’, for example.”

Culture and values

“People said [during the listening exercise in 2018] they really wanted trusted leadership – leaders who really care about them as individuals,” says Hughes-D’Aeth. Which brings us to the area she’s most proud of.

“It’s the broad culture piece; the BBC I believe is now much more open, transparent, fair and inclusive than it was five years ago,” Hughes-D’Aeth says. “I was particularly proud that when I announced I was leaving [in June], a very key individual from the unions said to me how much more reassured they’d been since I’d been in post… That was one of those moments when I thought ‘all of that hard work was worthwhile’.”

It’s certainly required a lot of hard work on the culture and unions front. “One of the things I was very much asked to focus on was what we called ‘the BBC ethos’,” says Hughes-D’Aeth.

“I had a lot of feedback from staff and unions early on about consistency on that. On the back of what had been happening with bullying and harassment just prior to me joining [evidence provided to MPs in January 2014 showed eight BBC staff were disciplined over allegations of bullying and harassment in the first nine months of 2013, but only one was dismissed], the general secretaries of some of the unions very much wanted me to focus on the experience of the BBC not being different from one part of the organisation to another.”

This took the form of putting various speak-up mechanisms in place and better promoting the BBC’s values. “We did look at our values and asked if they needed modifying or updating. We didn’t think they did but we needed to articulate them better.

“I don’t really like the term but we’ve developed a code of conduct: the way we work around here. There were various things but it was rather fragmented, so we needed to pull it all together in one place and reissue it.”

D&I targets

Critical to this endeavour has been the HR team’s work on diversity and inclusion. Targets were set back in 2016, all designed to fulfil the mandate set out by the charter around giving ‘greater focus to underserved audiences, in particular those from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds and from the nations and regions that are currently less well served’.

On gender a 50/50 by 2020 target was set. This was 15% for BAME, 8% for LGBTQ+ and 8% for disability (revised up to 12% by 2022 a year-and-a-half ago to reflect that mental health issues are now categorised as a disability). All targets are for senior level as well as overall.

The trickiest characteristic, admits Hughes-D’Aeth, has been socio-economic status. “We’ve been doing lots of work particularly on outreach. Because some people think the BBC is not for them,” she says, revealing that the challenge is defining class. “We were advised that the best question to ask is parental occupation when someone was aged 14,” she says.

The BBC has met all its targets apart from gender in leadership (tracking at around 44% currently) and BAME leadership (11.5%). The BBC’s work around better representing the regions, kickstarted with the establishment of MediaCityUK in Manchester, is now feeding strongly into content, feels Hughes-D’Aeth.

“We’ve now got Glasgow [offices], Wales, Belfast, Birmingham… The real test is can we make programmes relevant to those audiences? I think definitely that’s manifesting now. If you just listen to the radio and TV there are lots of voices over the past few years that weren’t there before,” she says, pointing to a recent BBC Two programme featuring the BBC’s media editor Amol Rajan on How to Break into the Elite.

But there’s still much more to do on D&I, she says: “It’s something we need to keep really focused on because more than ever the country is divided.”

The BBC now has five work streams on different characteristics with an exec committee member or senior leader sponsoring each. And last year each published a report, available for anyone to find online, on what it’s like for women, BAME individuals, LGBTQ+ staff and other minority groups to work at the BBC.

“We have 128 recommendations from those,” says Hughes-D’Aeth. “I track them every Friday: red, amber, green… Virtually all are in progress, half are completed.

“Really standing back it was decided there were seven big things our people want”, she says. These have now formed the BBC’s culture programme. Relating strongly to D&I, and particularly socio-economic status, one of these seven was fair recruitment.

“We had always advertised all of our vacancies publicly. It’s not like you could just suddenly covertly fill a vacancy. But there was a perception that even if we advertised it there was already someone in mind,” she reports. “So we worked with an external organisation that went through all our job descriptions to strip out all the hidden bias. Then we did work on how we interview… stressing the importance of potential.”

The organisation has also sourced and trained 250 ‘interview champions’. “They’re people, not necessarily managers, who are very interested in this area and who want to ensure diversity on interview panels. We want to make sure it’s not three white men.”

There’s also been significant work on career progression and transparency of job opportunities. All jobs are now clearly outlined – with supporting career path frameworks – on the BBC’s intranet. Some feature vox pops from those currently holding the roles about how they got there.

“We also have something called Hot Shoes,” Hughes-D’Aeth adds. “That’s where you can go and try out a particular area for a couple of days.”

Pay transparency

No discussion of diversity and inclusion at the BBC would be complete without reference to a certain former China editor’s equal pay claim, and her decision to stand down in 2018 over a ‘secretive and illegal pay culture’. And no discussion of career progression and job roles would be complete without details of the huge journey the BBC has – necessarily as part of its simplification and efficiency agenda – been on when it comes to pay.

“One of the things I observed when I joined and was trying to navigate the different job types we had, was that there wasn’t any mechanism to understand it,” says Hughes-D’Aeth. “I think it’s fair to say it wasn’t a top priority for the organisation. And I think probably if you haven’t worked on something like that before it sounds a bit bureaucratic.”

Nonetheless Hughes-D’Aeth saw how vital this was to fairness and transparency. So 27 job families were created with seven bands, which “dovetailed” with the need to carry out terms and conditions reform. Which was where, again, close work with the BBC’s unions came in.

“We spent nigh-on two years working with them. Originally we said we’ll look at policies, allowances, working patterns, wellbeing. Then I said let’s put pay and grading in as well, because I’d already been doing the career path framework part and this was a great opportunity to formalise it.

“We spent those months in small working groups, consulting with staff as well as the broader unions… That culminated in going to Acas with a few things we couldn’t agree on last April. We took it to ballot and managed to win and have implemented the vast majority now… So then with 600 jobs we could do market-informed pay for each of those… Now we have a very transparent framework; anyone can go on the intranet and see it.”

Understandably this big push on pay – combined with Carrie Gracie’s high-profile departure, the on-air pay disclosures and gender pay gap reporting – meant heightened scrutiny from staff around their own pay.

“Back in July 2017 we said ‘look this is a huge pay scale reform, there’s a lot of conversation about pay. If you feel there’s an issue with your pay then raise it with us’,” says Hughes-D’Aeth.

This was something of an opening the floodgates moment, she admits: “We’ve now dealt with more than 90% of them. But it’s been a lot of time and effort. You often have to look back over many years. With the vast majority there is no issue; it just needs a bit more explanation,” she adds. “But there are a small number where we do recognise there are historic equal pay issues, and we’ve put our hands up and are dealing with those.”

Not that this has stopped the critical headlines coming thick and fast – on pay and beyond – something that almost put Hughes-D’Aeth off the job when the call came back in 2014. “It was the public spotlight and did I really want to put myself in a position where almost every move I made was scrutinised?”

In terms of dealing with this and the incredibly long hours, she says it all comes back to knowing the power of what her team is achieving.

“More than anything else you need to be confident and truly believe that what you’re doing is the right thing,” she says, adding the value of a supportive team and family.

And the results coming through certainly evidence the right thing being done. By January 2019 the BBC had reduced the number of senior managers by 46%, from 540 in 2010-11 to 245, and the public service broadcasting (PSB) senior management pay bill by £24.5 million (38%), from £64.1 million in 2010-11 to £39.6 million. It had also reduced spending in on-air roles, mainly freelancers, in PSB from £194.2 million in 2013-14 to £147.6 million in 2017-18.

Echoing several other reports, the National Audit Office (NAO)’s full audit into pay at the BBC, published in May, stated: ‘The BBC has taken significant steps to improve the consistency, transparency and fairness of its staff pay and working practices, and is well ahead of other organisations on pay transparency and the gender pay gap.’

The next chapter

So it’s a fitting time to step aside and let the BBC’s new joint group HRDs (former HR director for the nations and regions Wendy Aslett and former HR director for content, radio and education) take the organisation through to the next chapter, feels Hughes-D’Aeth –who this year entered our HR Most Influential Hall of Fame, with the BBC winning the Diversity and inclusion and Leading transformation awards at this year’s HR Excellence Awards.

“There’s a benefit to a fresh pair of eyes. Now it’s about embedding the efficiency and effectiveness work but not taking your eye off the ball on those OD things or your own HR team.”

But what next for Hughes-D’Aeth? “I think I want to get a bit more balance on my time,” she says, adding that
she’ll then probably pursue an NED portfolio career.

“But first I want a holiday!” she adds. And certainly no-one could begrudge her that.

This piece appears in the November 2019 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk

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