On the sofa with Clare Burles

Orange sofa

Click here to view this interview as a PDF.

Clare Burles is Group People Director at Stagecoach, a leading public transport provider in the UK. With more than 3 million customers a day using their bus and rail services, they employ over 25,000 people.

Clare began working in the transport industry in 2002. She went on to work at a number of train operating companies undertaking various roles within the HR function. In 2011 she was appointed as HR Director at East Midlands Trains and became People Director at Virgin Trains in 2015. In June 2018 Clare left rail and took up a role leading a business change programme within Stagecoach. She has recently returned to her passion of People, taking on the role of Group People Director in March 2019 for Stagecoach.

Clare is passionate about making a difference in transport by supporting and developing talent alongside making transport a more attractive career option for aspiring people. 

Clare Burles

What first attracted you to a career in HR?

I first got hooked on HR during my placement year at University. I was studying a BA (Hons) in Business Studies and after 18 months on the course was still not really sure what I wanted to specialise in – the opportunity for a placement in HR came up which looked particularly appealing. It sounds like a cliché but the real attraction for me was the opportunity to work with so many different people, from different backgrounds and experiences and seeing the art of the of possible. HR really allowed my personality to come through and grow my confidence in business.

And so from there, what was your first role in HR?

It was an entry-level position in the transport sector – I started out as an HR Assistant. Initially, it involved the real fundamental parts of recruiting; writing and placing adverts, interviewing, communicating with candidates, offering roles and feeding back to people. It evolved over time to include onboarding too – recruitment was very process based when I first started my career, thankfully it’s now much more intuitive and focused on the candidate experience.

Tell us about the proudest moment of your career to date?

My proudest moments always involve team achievements – I’ve been really fortunate throughout my career to have good people working with me who share my passion for the people agenda. One stand-out moment was with the team at Virgin Trains when we were getting ready for the introduction of the new fleet of Azuma trains. We had to recruit circa 100 new train drivers and received an incredible 15,000 applications. We experimented with how and where we ran our attraction campaign to reach out to a more diverse pool of applicants. The response we received was phenomenal.

The downside was, at the time, that we had no applicant tracking system for processing them and had to do everything manually! This involved many late nights and weekend working where the whole team pulled together. I remember a lot of pizza and chocolate being purchased! It was a real achievement for the team, and needless to say we got a system in place very soon after that!  

In my current role, I’m really proud of what we (as a very small team of nine) have delivered in the space of the last 12 months to provide real tangible benefits for the business. The size of the team has challenged my own thinking around the HR model; it really does focus you to think about delivering what is ultimately going to have the biggest impact on the business and bottom line.

We’ve started with the foundations and again I have good people working with me who are focused on making a real difference to the business. Two of the team have been focused on standardising our attraction campaigns, recruitment and onboarding, which has already delivered great results in a very short space of time. For example they’ve just finished trialling a new bus driver recruitment process which has resulted in 91% more applications and the conversion rate, from application to offer, has gone up 150%. That’s just one example; the amount the team has delivered in such a short space of time is extraordinary.

We’ve just launched our new leadership development programme Winning after Winning, completely overhauled our colleague communications and channels, introduced an internal incentive and awards scheme, given our graduate scheme a makeover (resulting in applications being up over 600%) as well as launching the UK’s very first bus driver apprenticeship programme. I’m incredibly proud of them all and the real difference they’ve made to the business.

What would you say has been your biggest challenge?

In my previous role at Virgin Trains East Coast, the business went through really difficult times when the Government terminated the East Coast franchise contract. At the time there was a lot of coverage in the media about whether we would retain the franchise privately or if it would go back into public hands early.

We had a really successful underlying business and had delivered so much benefit within the first three years. We were passionate and cared about our customers, and made a big contribution to the taxpayer. However, as a leader in that business, what was happening contractually and politically was something outside of my control and ability to influence. 

As a Director in an operational business such as that, you still need to lead the people even when you’re not sure what the final conclusion will be. Despite considering myself to be very resilient, I admit there were difficult days.  

As a leader, there is a balance between showing your vulnerability and empathising with your people about what’s going on, whilst at the same time having a responsibility to keep the whole team facing in the right direction and providing assurances where you can because they’re relying on you to do that. No matter what, we still had a business to run and customers to serve. 

They were tough times, but I learnt a huge amount about business and myself, and that experience has made me so much stronger as a leader. 

Turning to the world of work and the role of HR, could you tell us what in your opinion has been the biggest change in the workplace since you began your career?

The most obvious answer is technology. We’ve become a much more digitalised nation. The technology we have now is incredible compared to when I first started my career. It’s fantastic how it has enabled a much more agile workforce and that people can pretty much work from anywhere. That said, I still believe interpersonal relationships between colleagues are really important; technology isn’t always the answer but it at least offers choices.

Product development in the sector I work in has also meant that our skills requirements are significantly changing due to technology. Some of the skills we have now will become less relevant over time and so we have to look ahead to make sure we’re upskilling and retraining our people in readiness for the future.

The other big change more generally is that society’s expectations have changed which of course has an impact on the people agenda – we have more choice in what we buy and where from, what services we use and we very much know what we want. We’re generally much more demanding!  

From an employment point of view, this similarly has led to a lot of change in workforce expectations. In my view, the world of work used to be a very transactional relationship between employer and employee but now it’s more balanced. Individuals are making sure that the employer is right for them and can meet their expectations and aspirations, which is a good thing. As employers it means we have to work harder at what we do to attract and retain the very best people.   

What in your view is the future role of HR and how is it going to change from what it is now?

There has been a clear transformation in HR over the years, what started out as an administrative function is now a strategic partner. At Stagecoach, the People function is represented on the main Board and the People agenda is very much aligned with the future direction of the business.

My personal view is that the HR function still needs to evolve as society changes and people have more choice about where they work. HR as a profession can still sometimes been seen as transactional and process-centric; it’s less about the people and more about operational efficiency.

Having HR fully aligned to the business is absolutely key, but we also need to be going out into the business to understand what our internal customers really want and need to drive their businesses / function forward in the same way that marketeers listen to customer feedback and use insight to ensure new products are designed to meet needs and that they stay relevant. I think HR often come up with the answers without asking these questions – if we want to stay relevant, we have to do a lot more listening and designing in line with the business needs rather than taking and rolling out solutions from the standard HR toolbox.

Looking at the HR profession today, what do you feel is the biggest challenge?

Adapting the HR model to future technologies and keeping abreast of the pace of change to make sure HR stays relevant as a profession. In our business, for example, autonomous buses are not that far away so we are already thinking now about the impact on the future workforce and what skills will be needed

Reflecting on your personal journey, who would you say has been the most inspirational influence on your career?

A lady called Margaret Kay who I first worked with in 2007 who had been an HR Director for many years in different sectors. She was HR Director when I worked at East Midlands Trains. Margaret believed in me, taught me well and gave me the confidence to go forward and progress my career.

She always had time for people – a great leadership trait in my view. I would spend hours early in my career listening to her career stories and she always offered me advice when I needed it.    

Her mantra was to try different things even if they went wrong: she was a great believer of failing fast. If things didn’t work out, then you dusted yourself down and tried again.  She was a great mentor who had a huge impact on my career – pushing me to stretch myself and giving me self-belief and confidence.  

She retired last year and I still ring her now for her wise words and guidance! A truly inspirational lady.

And finally, what piece of advice would you give to someone starting out in their HR career today?

Firstly, I would say make sure you take a wide view of the business. You have to see your profession as more than a ‘support function’, so you really need to take time to understand the commercials and speak the same language – this will really help to build professional credibility. When I start a new role, the first thing I do is sit next to the Finance Director so I can get to grip with the numbers and start to build relationships with other colleagues.

I’d also say use all the resources available to you to progress in HR – there’s a huge amount out there to help you keep abreast of latest thinking and a lot of it is free. I believe in reading widely, watching TED talks, YouTube, blogs etc

And finally, I’d say take the time to network really well – and in particular to network outside your own sector – this is a great source of fresh ideas and will challenge your own thinking.