Q&A with Katie Whitehouse, Senior People Director, EMEA ServiceNow

Katie Whitehouse

Katie Whitehouse is Senior People Director, EMEA at ServiceNow. The ServiceNow cloudbased platform and solutions help digitise and unify organisations so that they can find smarter, faster, better ways to make work flow.

We asked Katie to share her thoughts on HR, her career and the challenges facing her and ServiceNow.

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HRHQ: Tell us about your career journey and what originally attracted you to a career in HR?

Katie Whitehouse: I fell into HR, so to speak. I finished my A Levels and was considering my future as to whether I’d go on to university or not. The deciding factor was seeing all my friends who’d gone down the vocational training route earning money and being able to afford holidays and things like that. I felt I was missing out, so I made the decision to look for a job.

I began working for the high street recruitment agency Manpower and was, by sheer chance, placed as a talent sourcing consultant with the document company Xerox. My role was to source and place candidates for specific positions within their business.

I was only assigned one client, so I worked closely with their HR team, which sparked my curiosity. I was intrigued by the ‘other’ work they did, that went broader than the talent acquisition function. I was spurred on and started studying part-time for my CIPD diploma.

Whilst I was studying, I moved to my first HR generalist role. It was with Avid Technology, an American software developer. I was 21, and that’s where my HR career in tech started in earnest.

HRHQ: What has been the most significant change in the HR world since you began your career?

KW: There are two things – digital transformation and the new world of work.

Aside from the obvious changes digitalisation has brought to the employee experience, one of the most significant is the difference in workflows and processes. Without wishing to give away my age, when I first started, we literally walked around the office with pieces of paper, getting signoffs from various heads of departments and then stapling them all together–it’d be unimaginable in a large multinational enterprise now.

The second significant change is the new world of work and how employers navigate what this looks like. When I think about the positive social impact, we’re able to create as a profession, we have this tremendous opportunity to redefine the future of work for generations to come. To make it even more inclusive and accessible– it’s exciting!

HRHQ: What is the most important HR challenge facing you currently?

KW: The one challenge that stands out is something we at ServiceNow and peers I’ve spoken to on panels have all highlighted. And that’s finding a balance between delivering longer-term people strategies at the same time as overcoming the influx of shorter-term challenges.

We’re all trying to work out effective ways to reconcile how we move the business forward or continue to scale when the macroeconomy is slowing everything down. And, how we support our employees to manage their work and life blend and focus on their wellbeing whilst managing multiple priorities and delivering results at work to continue to make our businesses successful. It’s a persistent concern and something requiring constant and careful attention.

HRHQ: From an employee’s perspective, what does a great HR service mean?

KW: The world of work has changed so much, and employees are demanding more from their employers. Strategically, I describe it as giving employees a consumer-grade experience. It means creating employee experiences that are comparable to customer experiences like they get when shopping with Amazon for example. In practice, it’s ensuring they have the seamless, proactive, personalised experience they want, providing them with the resources and technological tools they require, and supporting them with human touchpoints at the right moments.

At ServiceNow, we talk about total experience– an approach that blends, rather than siloes, employee experience and customer experience. And why wouldn’t we? After all, evidence shows that engaged employees give customers a better experience and are, therefore, vital for business success. We pay special attention to ensure we provide great experiences during what we define as the key moments that matter throughout our employee lifecycle. We term these: ‘Find me’, ‘Hire me’, ‘Engage me’, ‘Grow me’ and ‘Wish me well’.

Our enterprise onboarding experience is one great example of our ‘Hire me’ moment.  It connects all functions involved in the onboarding journey of a new hire, including IT, Workplace Services and HR.  Before joining, a new hire can select their IT equipment, complete all their new hire paperwork, learn about their 90-day plan and start understanding more about our culture and values all through an app.  It accelerates their assimilation into our organisation and they feel part of the ServiceNow family from day one.

HRHQ: How should HR professionals design their career and how much can you realistically career plan?

KW: Career paths are an individual journey. I didn’t plan. I seized opportunities as they came along and judged them against what skills I wanted to build on and what I wanted to do next.

It is realistic to career plan in HR, but I’d recommend being flexible enough to recognise and take hold of chances when they present themselves. Not being so fixated on the end goal that you miss opportunities to build key capabilities and relationships.

Whenever I’m asked by people considering a career in HR, I give the same advice– make sure you do a generalist HR role early on. It gives you broad insight and experience of all the different facets of HR. Some of the best Centre of Excellence partners I have worked with have taken this path. The reason I champion this so strongly is because you gain frontline experience working directly with leaders and employees, which helps you better understand and connect the dots on the problems you might be trying to solve when you specialise.

HRHQ: What advice would you give a person at the start of their HR career?

KW: Apart from gaining generalist experience, I say get involved and stay curious. Embrace not knowing and put your hand up. You’ll only gain insight if you ask questions. Curiosity builds knowledge and capabilities.

Another piece of advice I often share is a line I stole from our CFO at ServiceNow–growth and comfort don’t coexist! Being tied to your comfort zone means you can’t grow. It simply doesn’t work like that. Growth comes from new experiences that you’ve not encountered before.

I also say, ‘Fail fast, learn quickly’. We’re all human. We get things wrong, or plans change, and that’s ok. But it’s important to adapt and reflect on what you’ve learned from your experience, so you avoid repeating those same mistakes.

It’s also important to recognise and acknowledge that this generation will have a very different experience in the hybrid workplace of today with a few additional challenges. The opportunities to network and build working relationships are very different nowadays. I’d recommend being very deliberate at reaching out remotely to immediate colleagues, the wider team, and other functions. And encourage them to make the effort to get to in-person meetings and events. Anything that’ll help create and build their network.

HRHQ: What soft skills do you believe are key to progressing your career?

KW: Drive or hunger, capabilities, relationship building and empathy. Empathy has come to the fore since Covid. As the line between work-life blurred and we all had a window into each other’s homes. Because we had this window and, to some degree, were contending with similar challenges managing the overlap between work and life, we were kinder to each other and considerate of individual lived experiences. With the continuation of flexible and remote work and the focus on work and life blend, that expectation for the same level of understanding is still strong, so empathy is crucial.

Drive and capabilities feed into each other. You have to have the internal motivation to build the key skills to progress in your own career. We, as people leaders, can provide the learning and development frameworks and resources, but the motivation to engage must come from within. No one can teach hunger and drive.

The ability, or willingness, to build relationships is another integral facet. Organisations are run by people, for people. No matter the policies or operating procedures, it comes down to people. Being able to interact effectively, treating each other with respect, and having that level of empathy are essential. Again, the realities of hybrid and remote work mean it’s more complex than the water cooler conversations of the past. But by that same token, we can literally speak face-to-face with anyone in the world via video calls from our homes, so there’s no excuse for not leaning in or not having that intentionality.

HRHQ: What experiences should HR professionals try to get as they build up their CV?

KW: Aside from generalist experience, it depends on where they want to land in HR. If someone’s goal is a leadership position, like a Head of function or Chief People Officer, then understanding wider business goals and how the business operates is a must. Like every other department, HR plays a strategic and operational function in ensuring an organisation achieves its objectives. Be that to make a profit, provide a public service, keep the country running, or support a charitable cause. Understanding what that top-level objective is and how HR advances that is fundamental.

If I were to call out one skill or capability to build, I would say talent development.  It’s always a key component of any people or workforce plan.  That’s not just because employees want to grow their careers at their chosen company but because growing and retaining top talent and having rich, diverse succession plans are pivotal in meeting corporate outcomes. So, ensuring the right talent is ready at the right time is imperative not only for HR success but also for the company as a whole.

HRHQ: What are you most proud of in your career?

KW: I joined ServiceNow as UK&I HR Director in November 2020. Right in the middle of the pandemic, when the world was upside down, and we were coming out of one lockdown into another. I’m a single parent, and I was home-schooling my two young sons at the time.

Juggling everything that came with that – the generalised fear, the uncertainty – and starting a new role was incredibly challenging. I’m proud of how well I, and everyone else who changed positions during lockdown, managed the unprecedented circumstances.

It’s also a reflection of what a great employer ServiceNow is that I integrated so quickly and had the support structures I needed in place. Culture isn’t something that’s just talked about. I learned firsthand that we really walk the walk here, even when the going gets tough.

HRHQ: What is the best part of your job?

KW: In HR we are in a privileged position. We get to connect with everyone, so for me, it’s about making a difference day to day, big or small. Anything from coaching conversations I might have with a leader or colleague to landing significant, broader, more comprehensive people initiatives. Seeing a problem I’ve helped solve is the best part of my job. It’s seeing that difference, even incrementally, that I love.

Since stepping into the EMEA leadership role, it’s been rewarding to see the wider EMEA people team developing and delivering on a comprehensive people strategy for the entire region.  It’s also exciting to see that our people strategy is our first priority in our overall EMEA business strategy – I couldn’t ask for more!

HRHQ: What do you think the Future of Work is?

KW: That’s the million-dollar question. For me, it starts with flexibility, inclusivity and empathy. The pandemic upended the world of work in such a short time. The rapid pace of change was pretty much unprecedented. But because it happened so quickly, employees could see and feel the difference it made to them. They had space to consider their own priorities for their working lives and what they wanted from an employer.

Whereas previous generations may have wanted a job for life, regular holidays and a pension at the end of their career. The workforce of today wants more. Not only do they want, but they also actively seek, organisations that align with their own values, where they feel trusted, are empowered, have flexibility, are listened to and have their voices heard, and are measured on their outcomes, not their time. They want to be part of an inclusive culture where they can be themselves and deliver the best work of their career.

I don’t see these expectations changing any time soon. So, if organisations want to attract and retain skilled talent in this new world of work, they must provide flexibility, champion inclusivity, and offer another level of empathy.

HRHQ: Many thanks Katie for taking part and we wish you and ServiceNow the very best for the future.