5 Minutes with Sally Smith

Sally Smith, previous Chief People Officer for Places for People, a large Property Group with diverse interests, spoke with Mark Goldsmith, Head of Building Products and Construction at Collingwood Executive Search about the threats and challenges faced within the Building Products and Construction industry.

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Head of Construction & Building Products, Mark Goldsmith, was very keen to talk with Sally Smith previous Chief People Officer for Places for People. Given her extensive HR leadership experience, working within the Construction and Property arena Mark wanted to know more about the key challenges and threats the industry faces.

Here is what they discussed;

Mark:    Events in the last few years have created really challenging trading conditions for the property and construction sectors. What are the key people agenda challenges as you see them for the sector?

Sally:      The world of work has changed more profoundly than at any time before with people reprioritising what is important. This throws up changes, the nature of which will challenge the sector greatly, as for many firms, the areas of profound change that we are experiencing, exacerbate areas of weakness across the sector that existed before. Essentially the combined aftershocks of Brexit and Covid have caused talent and skills shortages threatening organisational delivery, and have permanently changed colleagues, customers and shareholders expectations around inclusion, diversity and wellbeing, flexibility of jobs, even in sectors where flexibility was non-existent or limited.

Mark:    We both agree that there has long been a lack of strategic intent and investment in bringing new talent in, developing talent from within, and a lack of workforce diversity. Through your work and experience, what can companies do to drive strategic improvement in its broadest sense?

Sally:      I think for much of the sector there has been less investment and focus on achieving performance through the workforce and people agendas than in other areas of the commercial world. To really alleviate or solve these issues strategic focus on culture, driving purpose and ESG principles throughout the company, , because these have started and will become increasingly important for investors and shareholders as well as the people who work for you. Driving this through as part of a systemic plan to drive that change throughout the company, its leadership and workforce in order to shift mindsets and behaviours, to drive the right business outcomes, deliver customer expectations and maximise profits.

Clearly getting the culture and environment right is critical, but needs to be supported and enabled by ensuring there is also equal focus on reinforcing factors that solve sectorial or company issues. Two issues we all need to look ahead and work to solve is improving the image of the sector/company to a wider audience, and the general workforce diversity of the sector.

Mark:    Developing this question what common mistakes do you see companies making when considering how to attract workforce and in tackling diversity.

Sally:      Unfortunately, the sector has a history of being reticent to bring new talent in at all, generally seeking for a silver bullet of previous experience in the sector and often the specific specialism. This approach worsens the widespread recruitment difficulties and has sustained the lack of diversity.  Failure to tackle this issue has and is causing spiralling wage inflation in the sector, at the same time the sector is further threatened by supply shortages and increased costs of supplies and energy, which is inhibiting margin growth and more generally profitable operation. This tendency exacerbates the lack of diversity in the workforce both in terms of gender and ethnicity, and limits an already limited talent pool.

For the future, investment is needed to develop resonant digital recruitment brands that create 'cut through' in a overcrowded 'noisy' recruitment market, extolling the positive cultural virtues of the company in order to present the factors that people want i.e. a clear purpose, a positive culture, and an inclusive, flexible and modern workplace. Also, key would be to develop a range of talent initiatives to create the skills, gender balance and diversity you need for the future, such as apprenticeships etc, and develop and support the best of your talent within with a strong and supportive leadership team, succession planning and high potential programmes.

Flexibility in work has been seen as a real challenge within the sector but does need to be explored because of its leading role in increasing gender and wider diversity in the sector and its contribution to increasing wellbeing for all. Taking aside the easier strategy of offering hybrid working between home and site for those who can, there has been great work by Construction Pioneers that has shown that output does not have to suffer due to flexible working. The pilots also showed that a little flexibility made a big difference to people's lives.

Mark:    What are the other threats across this agenda you see as key threats?

Sally:      There is a legislation threat looming with flexible working becoming a right in spring this year, and significant changes with a new statutory duty for companies to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace which will have quite onerous needs.

There has been a strong swing to shareholders and investors looking for companies building strategy around ESG criteria. As well as requiring companies to seek sustainable and ethical suppliers, this has of course a direct and important inference for a positive culture, as well as an inclusive and engaged workforce, so failure to focus on these issues could well mean failure to convince as an ESG businesses, which in turn threatens your abilities to attract investment.

My insight that I will leave you with coming from my experience in the sector, is that the lack of pace and tenacity to grasp, and invest in the people agenda generally across the sector will leave the door wide open for disruptive businesses with a different ethos around culture, and people that could threaten current profitable operators, and take their market share. Having applied positive people strategy across a number of businesses, large and small in this sector, I have seen not only leadership strengthen, diversity improve, but also sharp improvements in colleague engagement with the savings on productivity that brings. Also the same level of improvements in safety, quality and commercial outcomes as all colleagues on and off site, work together to create the best quality product for their customers. Simply put, sustained investment across the cultural and people agendas is critical for future success is generally good for business.


About the author
Mark Goldsmith
5 min read

With 23 years of recruitment experience under his belt, Mark has spent the last 19 focused on Building Products & Construction

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