Getting To Know Sue Murdoch - Bank North Chief People Officer

What are the main functions of your role?

The most important function of my role as Bank North’s Chief People Officer is enabling employees’ to succeed at Bank North, by creating an inclusive and progressive environment – where they can bring their ‘best selves’ to work and flourish. For me, creating the right environment involves defining and executing a hiring practice which attracts and retains people that share our values and passion for the business. As well as working with the CEO & ExCo team to clearly define our goals and align the whole organisation with those goals – creating that all important ‘shared purpose’. This is essential to defining ‘our way’ by translating our values into recognisable behaviours that our people believe, and helping leaders to lead their teams in a way that is consistent with our values and leadership ethos.

A really important part of my role is being the ‘custodian’ of our precious culture. Bank North has those special elements of culture that other businesses I have worked for struggle to achieve, elements such as:

We are in this together
Having a shared purpose
No hierarchy
Inclusive and safe
Supportive and encouraging

This is partly due to the start-up nature of the business but is also as a direct result of great recruitment. We take the responsibility of protecting that culture as we grow very seriously and it is a key consideration in everything I do with the people’s agenda and more importantly - how I do it. For example: reinforcing the link to our values and culture, attracting people that will strengthen our culture, assessing culture fit through our recruitment practices, onboarding and immersing our people in the culture through ongoing development and engagement, as well as working with our leaders to ensure leadership behaviours consistently reflect our culture.

Beyond this, in a fast-growing, young business, it is important to work on practicalities. We have built a HR function from scratch, so the focus is on building robust but flexible foundations that can grow with us. In a bank, this is really important - our people are key, they represent the business and what Bank North stands for - not just in terms of our personality but also our commitment to operating in an ethical and responsible way with our customers – this is in our DNA. We have to build robust processes and approaches to HR solutions that can support us as we grow, but we don't have to follow the established structures. I am passionate that HR are partners to the business, not merely support or administration, but trusted partners and advisers that work hand in hand with the business, and its people, and add real value. 

How important to a business’s success is instilling a good company culture?

Creating a sustainable culture cannot be designed or dictated, it has to be something that happens organically through the way we do things, a true belief that everyone shares. We often look at the likes of Google, Zappos, and Netflix to try and replicate those cultures and practises through design. Organisations can take learnings and adopt them - but unless it is authentic, it is unlikely to stick.

Role models, particularly senior leaders, are really important for setting the tone and reinforcing culture. I have a powerful example of role-modelling I experienced in a previous organisation I worked. Office life was a traditional 9-5, suited and booted, hierarchical affair, but we had an aspiration to modernise our culture – creating a more flexible and open environment. We decided to introduce a ‘dress for your day’ policy to support this move. The CEO agreed with the concept of a more relaxed dress approach but asked HR to hold fire on introducing a policy and instead asked for some time to influence company culture through his behaviour.

And that’s exactly how it played out. He turned up to the office initially without a jacket, then without a tie, returning to his suit for important external meetings, but day to day he would dress for his day. He started to run some of his meetings online and worked from home occasionally. In a matter of weeks, I started to see the other members of the exec team follow his lead; they started too dress down, work more flexibly and eventually this started to play out in their teams. Within the space of 6 months, we were all dressing for our day - without a policy or any kind of directive. The power of role modelling from the top is the most powerful way of shifting cultural norms and for it to stick!

What makes Bank North’s culture different from a more established financial services firm?

Bank North’s culture is massively different from the cultures I have experienced at more established businesses. As I have mentioned already, partly due to being a start-up and the inherent culture associated with working at a start-up. We have the opportunity to build something special; by focusing on the unique elements of our culture, to understand them, and why they are important – to then take that understanding and use it to develop approaches that help us to retain and evolve those unique elements.

As we grow, we want to keep those special elements of our start-up mindset - like our people feeling part of the whole story and forming a real connection and commitment to Bank North and to each other. We don't do hierarchy at Bank North, everyone has a voice and everyone is accessible. We’re all in this together and we’re focussed on making the bank a success and we will do whatever it takes to deliver the success - whether it is part of our job description or not. There are no egos here! Everyone is passionate about our proposition, and what that means for our customers - we all feel excited and proud. All we have to do is keep nurturing this essence of Bank north, through leading by example, ongoing reinforcement and clever hiring as we grow. 

HR plays a vital role in recruitment, retention, and training, but how is this role being challenged by remote working?

A large part of what HR does involves human contact and engagement but the pandemic changed this for a lot of businesses and HR teams. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw that remote engagement for activities like recruitment and development could still be executed successfully - remotely. Engaging employees generally to facilitate wellbeing and retention became even more important and we have all had to think outside the box and give this an increased focus and many companies have done this successfully remotely; nowhere more so than Bank North. My personal view is that this has really helped the evolution of very traditional organisations to a more modern approach to working which is great.As we transition back to a new kind of normal, I do appreciate more the value of human contact and face to face interaction - you can pick up so much in-person through body language, eye contact, etc. when you can see a person, and read not just their words but their body language. It can be more straightforward to spot problems, gauge fit, and deliver a message. Remotely, you have to work harder to pick up the signs of any problems, gauge fit and land communication effectively.

From an employee wellbeing perspective, remote working can be isolating for some people and issues can be missed by not having regular face to face interactions. Managers have a key role to play in talking to their teams regularly: checking in with them, being aware of the signs of poor mental health and wellbeing, and then proactively but sensitively responding to any signs of stress.

Every business knows that their greatest resource is their people. What top tips would you give to SMEs (Small and medium-sized Enterprises) to make sure their staff are always at the top of their game?

This won't be of any surprise - but truly engaged employees are committed employees and will always go over and above. An engaged workforce means increased productivity, lower absenteeism, higher retention, and better customer service. Focusing on employee engagement; measuring it, responding to it, and monitoring it will help inform an evolving HR plan. If our people are demotivated, there are lots of possible remedies, anything from more social interactions, more tailored benefits, rewards, development opportunities, more communication, and constructive leadership interaction. When I talk about engagement, I don’t mean a survey, I mean truly engaging with your people, listening, understanding and responding.A committed focus to employee engagement and all that goes with it is important.

Outside of work, how do you like to spend your spare time?

I have twin girls who are 21; one studying Fashion Design at Manchester University and the other working for The Fragrance Shop in Manchester as a degree apprentice in Digital Marketing. They have flown the nest this year and share a flat in Manchester – as they would say ‘living their best lives’. My husband and I are left rattling around a smallholding in a tiny village with lots of animals - something always needs feeding or fixing. Horse riding has been a part of my life since I was a child, and my girls also have the bug, which is why we moved to where we live - lots of land and stables. We thought that if we got them a pony – the boy thing wouldn’t happen – didn’t work! I've been a runner for about 15 years now, and I have numerous 10k challenges under my belt; half a dozen half marathons and a full marathon. Last year I fell in love with yoga, now I do some kind of yoga practice every day. Work life balance is important to me and balancing body and mind helps me do that.
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