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Sarah joined TalkTalk in 2019 and has over 20 years experience in HR leadership, having previously worked for companies such as Centrica and Wheelabrator.

Currently supporting TalkTalk through a demerger and period of significant change, Sarah is passionate about culture, belonging and employee experience.

Sarah is married and a mum to two boys and counteracts her busy role with a variety of exercise such as running, personal training sessions, boxing & yoga. She also enjoys spending time with friends and socialising.

At TalkTalk they use ‘100% human’ to describe themselves and Sarah describes herself as: 40% mum & wife, 20% runner, 20% friend, 20% ‘socialiser’ = 100% human.

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Jacqueline Conway  00:00

The organisational peak is a perilous environment. It’s more complex and challenging than anything that’s gone before. And as a consequence, both executive tenure and corporate longevity are decreasing. To survive and thrive at the perilous peak, executive leaders need to balance their functional leadership or focus on execution with enterprise leadership, that is ensuring the organisation adapts and our new world. That’s what we’ll be exploring in the advanced executive leadership podcast. Welcome. I’m your host Jacqueline Conway. I’m the founder and managing director of Walden Croft, a consulting practice dedicated to helping executives and executive teams anticipate, navigate and lead at the paperless peak. Against the backdrop of a highly competitive broadband and telecoms marketplace, that seen a great deal of movement over the last few years, executives are often faced with the dichotomy of how to change rapidly for strategic reasons, whilst retaining a strong and energetic company culture. On today’s podcast, I’m in conversation with Sarah bleak, the Chief People Officer of top top consumer about the demerger that’s eminent in the company. We explore her talk about change how the executive team play a role in this, and what all of this means for maintaining the essence of the company’s strong culture.

Sarah Blake  01:42

I am Sarah Blake, I am Chief People Officer at TalkTalk. Across the consumer business, which is 2.2 million customers Talk Talk is probably a brand known across the UK as a challenger brand as a connectivity provider. So we’re fixed line connectivity as opposed to mobile phones, etc. We have about 600 employees across the organisation internally, but then throughout source partners between two to 3000 employees that that support our customers on a daily basis as well. I’ve been at taught taught now for five years have seen a lot of change at talk talk. So when I first started in the business, it was a PLC. And then a few years ago, we went private, which was a big change in itself. And then more recently, we are currently going through a demerger where we’re decoupling our consumer organisation from our wholesale organisation. So that’s currently ongoing at the moment. So a huge amount of change as an organisation, which as a, as a people, leader, as a chief people officer, you have to be able to face into that change and lead through that change, which is always a bit of a challenge, which I think it taught talk, I wouldn’t say we get it perfect, but I think we do quite well at it.

Jacqueline Conway  03:04

So there’s been huge changes. And I mean, my goodness, you know, to go from PLC to private, you know, it’s a big enough leap from private to PLC. So to do that PLC to private, and then D mergers. I mean, what’s that process been like for you as an organisation, but also for you as an executive team as you’ve navigated? The, I mean, just the complexity of all of that?

Sarah Blake  03:31

Yeah, I’m not gonna lie, it has been challenging. And I think the key thing is leading through that change. And ironically, I was actually having this conversation with my CEO today. And we were talking about how we had the need to treat people like adults. So be honest, be open, let’s face into things. And, and a phrase that I use is human centred leadership, which is actually gone are the days where you have your work self and your home self, you know, you should be able to come into the workplace and be open and honest. And obviously, there’s some things that as a leadership team, and as an exec team, you can’t share that actually, there are a lot, there is a lot more that you can share that often organisations don’t. And facing into that I think people respect you a lot more as an exec team, if they feel like they’re being told the truth. And we might not have all the answers. You know, it’s also about admitting that and saying, You know what, we’ve never done this before. So we are trailblazing at this. We’re giving it a go. And we might make some mistakes along the way. But the key is just to be open and transparent and almost over communicate throughout the process. So we have a regular drumbeat in terms of our communication. We make sure that we keep all of our employees up to to speed on what’s happening, we have a two way channel as well. So our CEO is called Adam, we’ve created a channel called ask Adam, which means that anybody across the whole organisation can contact him on his email, he’s openly said, I want people to have access to me, they can come and ask me anything. We also set up a regular drumbeat of what we call listen listens, which means that people can come along, have a conversation with Adam, have a conversation with me talk about things that are on their mind, ask the questions that they want to ask. And so I think that it’s that side of things, it’s really, really important and, and not sitting in the ivory tower, letting people feel like they have access to that leadership team. And we’re by no means there, you know, we’ve still got a way to go. But I think that that has massively helped us go through that journey. And, and you know, we’ve got things wrong along the way. And it’s admitting that and saying, Actually, we could have done this better, let’s, let’s move on from that. But let’s learn from it. And the key thing is learning. And the one thing with Talk Talk is we do go through a heck of a lot of change. So we’re actually pretty good at navigating through it, so to speak, because the one thing you’re sure of at Tuck Tuck is that it will be continually changing. We’ve also got an employee body called one voice, which are the employee reps, and we meet them on a regular basis, we speak to them, we hear what people are saying, they’re the channel in and the channel out in terms of that accessibility. And they are always open and honest with us. They tell us what people are feeling. We also have a regular drumbeat in terms of employee net promoter score. So we do that on a quarterly basis, where we send out a suite of questions to all of our employees. And and it gives us that insight into what people are thinking and we can get verbatim comments from that. And, and we scrutinise it every time it comes out, we’re all over it and the leadership team are really competitive, which I love. And I do create a bit of that competitiveness, where it’s like, right, okay, let’s have a look who what’s the leaderboard looking like? Let’s understand. And if we’ve got some pinch point areas, let’s dive into that. And let’s work out what we need to fix and what’s not quite working. So yeah, we’ve got it’s continual back and forth communication, listening, as well as communicating outwards.

Jacqueline Conway  07:29

And so the sense I’ve got from that is that there’s a kind of informality because of course, if you’ve got to really put yourself close to where it’s all happening, then the kind of old formality that used to exist between kind of leaders and followers, it doesn’t really work, does it? It has to be much more informal in order to have a proper dialogue with people.

Sarah Blake  07:56

Absolutely. And ironically, one of our previous employee value propositions was that you can be yourself here. And so you can bring yourself to work, you can absolutely be yourself. We don’t have a dress code, you know, you can turn up as you. And also I mean, the leadership team, I see them roll their eyes, every time I come up with these ideas where I want them to be accessible. I want it to feel informal.

Jacqueline Conway  08:25

It seems like lots of organisations have a sense of bigger and bigger, wider and wider, broader and broader. And yet, you’ve decided not to do that. And so what does what’s behind that? And what are the implications of that on culture.

Sarah Blake  08:42

So I’m actually quite excited about the D merger. And I think it will be hugely beneficial for consumers. So what it will mean is that our wholesale business and our consumer business and our b2b business will operate separately. And actually, when you look at it, they are very different businesses. And we’ve been part of a group and we’ve almost tried to make it feel part of a group. Whereas actually, I think by doing this, it will enable their identities to become even clearer. And we’re doing the demerger as part of investments so each of them will be invested in separately, which is a lot easier to do as a process because they operate differently, and they are different organisations and the wholesale business has just launched their new brand and then you title in what they called, we will be obviously taught to within consumer and so we retain that identity, but I’m quite excited. So we’re going to have in March almost so from the first of March, that’s when we start to properly separate and, and we’re going to have a big celebration around how we will be separate and how we can actually continue with that culture. We’re going to keep our values of we care which Once we commit, we’re going to still be that challenger in the market.

Jacqueline Conway  10:05

When I think then about when you’re recruiting for that leadership team, when you’re thinking about who is an appropriate person, particularly if you’re bringing people in that you already know, within and inside the organisation, but even if it’s an external appointment, it sounds like we can have cultural fit, feels important.

Sarah Blake  10:29

Absolutely, of course, we will test in terms of technical capabilities, etc. But in terms of the cultural fit, it’s really key. And, and you will know, I mean, I’m completely open and honest with people through the recruitment process in terms of what it’s like and talk talk. And I think I can pretty much tell now, when I interview people if they’re going to fit in or not, because, you know, on the rare occasion, we have seen it, where it’s not worked out, and taking the learnings from that, because also, the, the other side of Talk Talk is it’s got a real challenge a mentality, entrepreneurial spirit. And so at times, if people have come from an organisation where they’re used to a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of structure, then that talk to it might not work for them. And so actually, it’s seeing that full rounded individual and knowing that they can almost roll with the punches and be creative, roll up their sleeves, get stuff done. But then the flip side is that culture of belonging, being able to be yourself is really, really important. So somebody who is perhaps very corporate would would not fit in within the the total culture would be my view.

Jacqueline Conway  11:55

And so you’re saying, you’re talking a little bit about the culture, you’re also talking about the change aspect of it. So you’re an organisation that doesn’t just go through change every now and again. But it sounds like change is a is a constant, you’re constantly evolving. So in what way? Does the culture enable that change to happen? You know, what is it that’s flexible enough about the way that your culture operates? That means that you’re good at Chick, because you must be good at it in that case?

Sarah Blake  12:26

So I think we are I do that I don’t think we’re successful at every piece of change. So I’m just going to caveat it there in the fact that I don’t think we’re experts, I think that we go through a lot of change. And we don’t always get it right. But I think we also do sometimes get it right. So I would say from a cultural perspective, the key is that ability to be agile and approach. So if we almost pivot quite quickly, just because of the need to change, assess the market, and it is a very challenging market at the moment. So we might need to pull different levers in terms of our success and how we perform. And it’s that ability to continually shift and change. So if you’re looking for something very planful and rigid and approach, then that is not right. So that that culture of being able to pivot and being able to shift direction quite quickly. It is really key in terms of how we operate as an organisation.

Jacqueline Conway  13:33

And has that gotten any easier with a different governance structure? Because, you know, we hear about well has has it changed since you would appeal seats private for you went private to PLC, PLC back to private? I mean, what what has the impact of that structural change in the business had on your ability to be more agile and responsive in the way that you in the way that you manage change?

Sarah Blake  14:02

So I would say that is the one piece that we need to get better at is the governance. And so that is the area that we’re looking to improve at the moment because, ironically, talk talk, we like to talk talk so so there’s a lot of meetings of which we’re actually undergoing a process at the moment to try and strip back in terms of the number of meetings that we have, as an organisation. And just having some really clear guidance in terms of is this a decision making meeting? What is it we want to get out of it? Let’s have a really clear agenda. And I think actually COVID is to blame for that. I think a lot of organisations have become constrained as a result of COVID which meant a lot of people went working from home, there was a need to have meetings to have any kind of a discussion rather than just bumping into each other in the office and then you get As in this in this approach of having back to back meetings, which is not healthy for anyone. And so I would say from from a top top perspective, one of the things we as an exec team are discussing at the moment is how can we shift our way of working from a governance perspective so that we absolutely have the key meetings in place that we need to have for decisions, but stop this continual meeting, to discuss things, let’s just get stuff done, rather than talking about it, and also, that need to present things back as well.

Jacqueline Conway  15:38

I think everybody is grappling with that, aren’t they that, you know, COVID was one thing locked down, required, you know, as to be home, we got into a new way of working. But clearly that way of working was all key in an immediate crisis, but not all key in the longer term. And we start to see the consequences of that. One of them is what you’ve outlined that there are many, many others. I mean, I guess one of the things that I particularly worry about, is are younger people, how do we socialise them into a business? When they’re working from home all the time? How do we ensure that people are well looked after, when they spend the whole day, and their work is all mediated through a screen, and then they potentially live alone and the whole evening is mediated through a screen mean that I don’t think that that’s good, I think that that is a, that is a potentially really big societal problem that we’ve got, we’ve got right now. But I think we wouldn’t see the really extreme consequences of it for some time. And then there’s, and then there’s that thing you’re talking about around the informal catch up at the coffee machine, where we’re able to just share things with each other. That informally just, I mean, it’s amazing how that sort of greases the wheels, if you like that, that things happen in those informal spaces as much as in those formal spaces, like the meetings that you’re talking about.

Sarah Blake  17:07

I completely agree. And, and we have an approach at Talk Talk, where we say our expectation is that you come into the office for one to ones and for collaborative meetings. So we are completely hybrid where, you know, you spend some time working from home and you also come into the office, we are not 100% working from home, and we’re not 100% working in the office. And and I think that’s a really healthy approach. Other things that we did previously as well, which I massively encourage our walking one to ones, so maybe not when it’s chucking down with rain at the moment, but in the summer months, get out of the office go for a walk together. And actually, the conversation that flows is obviously is often a lot richer than just sitting in a meeting room, and also all the benefits from a health perspective for getting outside having some daylight, which, ironically, is a bit of a segue into one. So we’re currently rolling out a leadership programme at Tuck Tuck, which is called scientist of yourself. And it’s from a company called ch X. And it’s all about the self that you bring to work. And it focuses on sleep, diet mood. And it’s completely different to what you would see in a normal Leadership Programme, it actually talks about you looking at yourself and assessing your mood, there’s an app that you download, and you you monitor your mood, you look at your sleep levels, your diet, exercise, how much daylight you get. And I think I heard a stat recently where six hours of daylight behind the window is the equivalent of 30 minutes if you wind the window down and actually stick your head out of it. And so it’s all those types of things that if you feel positive in your mindset, if you feel healthier in the way that you’re operating as an individual, then you bring a much better self into the workplace as a leader, and you lead better, which enables you to be there for your team as well. And for me, I mean, I know if I if I’ve not been for a run, if I’ve not exercise and I you know, that’s my thing that keeps me sane, I love to go out running. I operate completely differently in the workplace. So I think it’s such a key thing that organisations should be embracing in terms of how we treat ourselves as individuals.

Jacqueline Conway  19:37

Yeah, absolutely. And I’ve got a question then about where does the responsibility or I mean, this is a kind of philosophical question in a way, you know, where does the responsibility sit with the organisation around well being, you know, because I guess at one end of the spectrum, it’s like, well, you know, it’s up to the individual to make sure that the air Getting enough sunlight or their diet sufficient or they’re, you know, they’re getting enough sleep so that they’re able to function the next day. And that the other end, you’ve got, I guess, kind of slightly paternalistic kind of ways to make assumptions about what the organisation is there for.

Sarah Blake  20:16

So I think that wellbeing sits with the individual, I think it’s for the individual to own their own well being. However, the values of talk to a car, we care, we challenge we commit, and we care is really key. And it’s that we care about our employees, and we care about our customers. And so what I as the Chief People Officer want to ensure is that we provide a wraparound of tools, mechanisms, ways to show that we do care. And if the individual decides to take them on brilliant, if they don’t, then that’s their choice. And the key is that everybody has a choice. If people decide that they don’t want to go to the talk that we’ve got next week on sleep and healthy sleep, that’s their decision. However, you know, if one employee find some benefit from that, and it results in them feeling better at home with their family, and in the workplace, as well, that’s a massive tick in the box for me. So I agree with you in terms of that paternalistic approach, I think it’s about offering a suite of different things to people have to if people choose to take it up, that’s their decision. It’s not forcing it. It’s not saying right, we’re going to mandate that you have to do this. It’s about actually choice. And and if we, if we didn’t offer those things, we wouldn’t be living our values around, especially the peace around we care.

Jacqueline Conway  21:47

Absolutely lovely. And so what we’re talking about is, is really, in some ways, the changing nature of business, and the changing nature of both the both the HR function and the executive in terms of what are we here to enable support, facilitate? What else is there for on the agenda of the executive team in terms of thinking about how you make this a great place to work? Or how you make work more effective? I mean, what are some of the other things that you’re grappling with?

Sarah Blake  22:20

I think, and it’s such a cliche, but it’s still prevalent across all all organisations, which is diversity, and we are not there with talk talk. We are I think we’re ahead of most I think that we as an organisation, have a great depth of diversity, which is brilliant. And interesting. We have a number of networks across talk to say we’ve got women in tech, we’ve got talk, neurodiversity, we’ve got talk pride, we’ve got Empower, which is for our bein population, we’ve got talk families, talk to UK armed forces, and we’ve got Net Zero heroes, so and we can an employee’s can create a network, whatever they choose to create, they can do that. And it’s about affiliating with people like you. And we have a number of events that happen for each of those networks. And we want people to feel included, we try to overly index in terms of having diversity across all of our leadership teams in terms of race and gender, and also where possible neuro diversity. And so I think, I think that that is a big, big hot topic across organisations, that we talk about it, but I think we could be better at it and, and also, diversity in terms of thought. So in terms when you think about an exec team, so we use a tool called insights, which is where the executive team, you complete a questionnaire and it will give you your colour. So the colours are red, yellow, green, and blue. And it’s your thought process. It’s how you communicate, it’s how you operate. And it’s really interesting, because you might look at a leadership team and go, that’s a really diverse leadership team. But then actually, if you complete this questionnaire, they could all come out with read, which is quite directive quite forthright and approach. And so I think that’s the other layer below it in terms of the diversity of thought. And so there’s all these different layers, as an organisation that you need to make sure that people can relate, relate to the leadership team, relate to their manager, relate to the culture, and it’s about that being all encompassing, but I do think I think the hot topic for us especially is that diversity piece, and I do think we could do more even We do quite a lot in that space already.

Jacqueline Conway  25:02

What we know is that the upside of diversity is that there’s more creativity, the ideas are more diverse, because people come with different perspectives, and therefore the solutions tend to be richer, and, and deeper. And the working of that is in the moment, sometimes harder when we’re working with people who are not like us, in whatever we and so, I mean, what’s is that? Is there a way that you try and smooth that out for people?

Sarah Blake  25:34

Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s about being able to embrace opinions. And as a leadership team, making sure that everybody has a voice. And I think it was interesting, actually, I was having a conversation with a lady this week, and she was talking about how a number of females on executive teams struggle to have a voice, which which I found really, really interesting, because that’s not in my view. That’s not the case in tort. Org. But apparently, it’s one of the most challenging areas across a lot of footsie, 250 footsie 100 organisations where female leaders sit at the table and feel like they aren’t listened to. So if that is the case, and I don’t know, I’ve just heard it from one individual, I think that that’s an area that needs to be addressed. Because I know that in fact, I would say that the female leaders on our leadership team are very vocal and very much have a voice and, and have a strong voice as well, which is good.

Jacqueline Conway  26:41

I’ve been in the room where there are some organisations which just culturally, there’s a style, it’s not that the women wouldn’t be, their contribution wouldn’t be welcomed. It’s that there’s a particular dynamic that goes on in the team, which some people, sometimes women just think, Oh, my goodness, this is just too tedious, I’ll engage with this outside the room, I will get done what I need to get done. Because these conversations are torturous. And so their voice isn’t heard, not because of the say that they would be ridiculed or put down. But because there’s a whole kind of play going on the women or others, some some people just find just tedious. Yes, yes. And

Sarah Blake  27:32

Yes, and thankfully, we don’t have to deal with that at all at all. And that is, is not the culture across the leadership team, which I’m grateful to say. And also hopefully take some credit for that. Because I wouldn’t allow that to happen. I think it’s really key that and it’s the role of all of the leadership team to face into that, that, you know, we’re human beings, we come to work, and, and we spend a lot of time at work, we need to make it enjoyable. It’s not about having lots of conflict. I’m not saying that we all become Yes, people that, you know, respect each other’s opinions, have an opinion, but also be able to leave that in the room and walk out as one and agree, and that that’s really important as a leadership team, have your discussions have your disagreements, but then once the decision has been made, you all align to that, and you walk out of the room aligned, and all of the organisations see that you’re aligned.

Jacqueline Conway  28:28

I mean, it’s huge, isn’t it? You know, it’s, it’s absolutely enormous, because people, people execs might think, or people don’t necessarily see it, but they spot it a mile away when there’s a fracture like that. And usually, they’re listening for the words between them, or of what’s being communicated between the words aren’t the and it’s amazing work when, you know, those of us who work in those sorts of organisation pick things up and the exec think, well, how do people know? But it’s, there’s some data being communicated when that’s not there.

Sarah Blake  29:02


Jacqueline Conway  29:06

So that’s a another thing, the final thing that I’m really curious about in talk talk. So one of the things we sometimes see is that people who are really dedicated to their own development and work hard, whether it’s within the organisation or elsewhere, and they enjoy it, the exec level, on their development, to prepare themselves for, you know, these big roles which are complex and which require that they have a breadth and depth of experience so that they’re able to do the whale, that once they get to the C suite, the development sometimes stalls or it stops. There’s a sense of like, gosh, I’m here I just need to try and get on with it now. I mean, is that something that you see? What do you do about it and what in particular, do you think is the kind of begged of Mental conundrum to be solved at the C suite, you know, what, what are the what’s the developmental agenda for people at that level?

Sarah Blake  30:08

That’s a really interesting one. And I would agree with you, it often almost gets to the point where you’ve reached, you’ve reached the top now. And so stop developing, which is the worst thing you can possibly do. Because you need to learn and continue to develop and, you know, look externally, and look at other organisations look out in the market. And the development might be slightly different, but but still keep doing it. I think often, at C suite level, if you can have a mentor, if you can have a coach, actually a person that you can speak confidentially to you can bounce ideas of that in itself is worth its weight in gold, because it’s quite lonely. In particular, for a CEO, I would say it’s probably the loneliest job you’re gonna have. And so it’s about having those mechanisms in place outlets, where you can just go and speak openly and talk about issues that you might have encountered in the workplace, just bounce ideas around confidentially, and just be vulnerable as well. Because often at that level, you think, oh, I should know it all now. And that is the worst thing you can think because it’s that continual learning, which will make you a better lead.

Jacqueline Conway  31:32

Better leaders and better leadership is what we’re all about here at Waldencroft. This episode is the last of this season. So please hit the subscribe button on your preferred podcast platform. So it shows on your feed when the new season begins. And if you’d like to find out more about how we’re working with executive teams like yours, to continue to develop leaders once they reach the C suite, or how we support leaders who are readying themselves for an executive role then you can reach out via the link in the show notes.

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What’s required from Executive Leaders has changed. Find out how executive leaders and executive teams can survive and thrive in our disrupted world. Interviews with CEOs and insights from Waldencroft’s Dr Jacqueline Conway.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Dr Jacqueline Conway works with CEOs and executive teams as they fully step into their collective enterprise-wide leadership, helping them transform their impact and effectiveness.

Jacqueline is Waldencroft’s Managing Director. Based in Edinburgh, she works globally with organisations facing disruption in the new world of work.