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Culture Champion Karen Hackett on solving small issues and embracing big transformations

Karen Hackett recently won the Culture Champion award at the IOB Future of FInance Awards. We speak with her about the connection between customer experience and organisation culture, leading with trust and her learning journey.

“My favourite thing is working with people.” As Head of People Experience with Permanent TSB, Karen Hackett is ideally suited for her role. Throughout her career in banking, she has embraced opportunities to learn, drive positive change and support colleagues and customers to succeed.

Karen took up her current role in February 2020, just prior to the pandemic. One of Karen’s first major projects was overseeing one of the fastest and largest operational changes that likely ever occurred in the bank. “I can remember that I was due to attend our executive committee meeting and the Government announcement happening that day. It will always sit in my mind,” Karen says.

Karen Hackett Awards

Transformation at a time of uncertainty

Overnight, Karen together with the Executive Committee, Senior Leadership team and the wider incident management team would need to essentially move the entire workforce to work from home. The challenges were immense, but so was the need for continuity. “Obviously the financial services sector is so important,” she says. “The continuation of that in support of our customers and wider communities was pivotal for society over that period.”

Very early on, Karen and her team saw an opportunity amidst the myriad of challenges they were facing. New Ways of Working, technology and tools, were required to improve both the experience of colleagues and customers. There was a realisation. “Rather than taking a short term view in addressing the pandemic, why don’t we take the opportunity and really go for a full-scale transformation in building an inclusive organisation?”

Trust is key

Trust was a guiding value and principle that underpinned the project. As they sought to support staff through the changes, extending and demonstrating trust was critical. “At the end of the day, the majority of people want to do the right thing. Our people come to work every day to do the right thing. We trust our people. We manage our people and deliver on that basis,” Karen says.

When it comes to supporting colleagues, Karen has extensive personal experience to draw from. “We have 2,800 people across Permanent TSB. I see them all as my team, given their role in evolving our culture and experience. In terms of trying to propagate the right behaviours, the culture, the mindset… Actually, being close to the people and understanding their needs is really important,” she explains.

Karen explains that sometimes easing some of the day-to-day challenges colleagues face within their role can have a major impact. “It’s the little fixes that actually go a long way to making someone’s experience better,” she says.

Diverse experience

Karen also has personal experience in a variety of different roles across the bank, which has helped her to understand and appreciate the challenges different team members face with their work. “Because I’ve experienced a front-of-house role, I’ve also experienced a back-office role and I’ve managed the HR technology team – I could see the different needs and requirements. Nothing beats walking the floors though and seeing how people are working on the ground.”

Karen’s work led to the successful introduction of a new Ways of Working strategy, offering colleagues new technology, tools and opportunities for hybrid work. Prior to the pandemic 5% of the organisation’s workforce were availing of hybrid work. Now, over 65% of staff regularly work from home as part of their role.

Karen Hackett Awards 2

Measuring and managing culture

Karen’s nomination for the IOB Future of Finance Awards highlighted her extensive contribution to enhancing Permanent TSB’s culture. She led a key initiative within the bank to develop and deliver a Culture Index.

The initial challenge for the project was choosing which metrics and data to focus on. Existing data was analysed, along with attributes of a positive work culture and the findings from the Central Bank of Ireland’s culture and behaviour audit in 2018. The focus for a new culture index soon became clear.

“Intuitively, we knew there was a link between colleague engagement and customer experience, but it hadn’t really been proven,” Karen explains. A new employee engagement survey was designed and launched. “In year two, we were able to see the correlation between the customer experience by branch and the engagement scores. Where we had high engagement, we had high customer experience… It was a lightbulb moment.”

Listening to colleagues

In addition to measuring employee engagement and sentiment, the new survey also provides staff with an opportunity to contribute ideas and feedback to the business. To date over 2,100 pieces of feedback have been received. This feedback is shared across the business and broken down by key topics and functions, making it easy for ideas to be explored and shared.

The results from the Culture Index are shared publicly on Permanent TSB’s website and internally, every team has access to their own dashboard for key results. The project has strengthened the bank’s understanding of its culture. The Culture Index is key priority across the business, especially at a leadership level. “It’s great to see the level of conversation that happens at our executive table and our board table,” Karen says. “Because they really get the impact of addressing the challenges for colleagues and how much it matters in servicing the customer and the wider community. I think it’s been really important.”

Learning fuels courage

Education and training have been important to Karen throughout her career. Early in her career, strong results in her first banking exams with IOB brought new career opportunities. She achieved first place in the exams, which led to a move into a more senior role. “It catapulted my career forward,” Karen says.

Since then, she has always valued the opportunity to study and develop new skills and expertise. Karen holds a B.A. in Management from Trinity College Dublin (IMI) as well as several Post Graduate qualifications in leadership and human resources with UCC (IMI).

“Any form of study and education will always help you and propel you further. What’s even better is you meet other colleagues and you broaden your perspective in terms of what’s happening beyond your own networks,” Karen says. “There’s diversity in the room and you get to hear how others are championing various initiatives. It gives you the courage to try things differently.”

IOB Future of Finance Awards

Karen Hackett won the Culture Champion award at the IOB Future of Finance Awards 2023. Learn more about the IOB Future of Finance Awards the 2023 winners here.