Human resources holds the keys to the kingdom, says Syreeta Brown, Virgin Money's group chief people and communications officer

Human resources holds the keys to the kingdom of the corporate world, according to Syreeta Brown. She spoke to Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright.

ANYONE seeking to carve out a career in human resources would be well-advised to immerse themselves in a classic work by Charles Dickens.

“HR is not a function for the faint-hearted. You need quite a lot of steel,” according to Syreeta Brown, the new group chief people and communications officer at Virgin Money. “You have to be an advocate for the employee and also an advocate for the business. It’s very much a Tale of Two Cities.”

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In short, you have to be prepared for the best and worst of times. Over the course of her career, Ms Brown has worked for large organisations which have been through periods of change.

Syreeta Brown, group chief people and communications officer, at Virgin Money said: “We are often too quick to discount people, and I’ve found it really inspiring to coach and inspire employees to become high performers."

Throughout these upheavals, she has never lost sight of her core belief; that HR should be at the heart of every business. She believes it can transform any organisation by ensuring every employee reaches heights that might have appeared to be out of reach.

She also believes HR professionals must be committed to lifelong learning. She holds an executive Masters in HR leadership and completed the HR Executive Programme at University of Michigan and also won the leader in financial services category at the 2018 Black British Business Awards.

Not bad for somebody, who by her own admission, fell into human resources when she left university.

“I discovered this thing called ‘HR’ which was very intriguing,’’ she recalled. “What started out as a slight interest became a fascination, because HR is at the core of every business.”

She joins Virgin Money from Citi, where she spent 11 years in a number of HR roles, most recently as managing director head of HR for Global Functions, Operations and Technology, where she led the HR strategy for 20,000 employees across Europe, Middle East and Africa.

Prior to her time at Citi, she worked at BT Group for 11 years in a number of senior roles. At the time of her appointment in November last year, David Duffy, Virgin Money’s CEO, highlighted Ms Brown’s experience in cultural transformation and digital growth as factors that would help the company’s workforce adapt to the post-Covid environment.

She joined Citi just after it completed the repayment of $20bn invested in the company by the US government through the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a legacy of the financial crash.

“Citi was an amazing experience,’’ said Ms Brown. “I quickly became involved in global projects and gained an understanding of North America business culture. The pace of life at Citi was phenomenal. Working in HR, I found myself at the cusp of growth and efficiency programmes.

“They needed to re-size the business so there was a lot of downsizing to do and efficiencies to create. My previous experience at BT was useful, because the business needed to be efficient as well as grow.

“The North American business culture is very much driven by the desire to move quickly,” she recalled. “My work quadrupled in the last 18 months at Citi, which saw the company achieve one of the highest hiring volumes it had ever had.”

When the pandemic struck, companies had to be agile to adopt remote working.

“Financial services didn’t really stop during the pandemic,” she said. “We continued hiring people in different parts of the world. The pandemic taught us that things which seemed impossible had suddenly become possible. Remote working created the need to re-imagine how to do things.

“People became open to things they couldn’t do before. The key thing is to create a framework and philosophies and ways of working that you can flex.

“I’m a big fan of empowerment. Rigid hierarchical structures don’t work but people need to know where the guard rail is. In business, HR holds the keys to the kingdom. It’s important people see HR as a core part of the business.”

She hopes her triumph at the Black British Business Awards will inspire others.

She added: “All I wanted to do was a really good job, but after I received the award I received hundreds of emails from people saying it had made them think about what they could achieve. I’m the first black HR director of a FTSE 250 bank. I hadn’t really thought about the significance of it, but I do hope I can be a role model.”

This desire to make a difference was also reflected in her decision to become a board trustee at Access all Areas, an award-winning theatre company for adults with learning disabilities based in Hackney, London.

“I’m very passionate about advocating for children with special needs,” she said. “I thought it would be great to get involved with an organisation that helps young people thrive. It also allowed me to bring my skills into the arts sector. Their work is all about unleashing potential and it was very rewarding to see young people develop.

“We are often too quick to discount people, and I’ve found it really inspiring to coach and inspire employees to become high performers. It’s so important for people to be motivated. There is a real connection between a happy employee and a happy customer.”

Too often people are just seen as a cost element on the balance sheet, according to Ms Brown. This is a terrible waste of human potential.

“You have to see everyone as an asset and see the development of people as a critical aspect of a business,” she said.