TARGETjobs black logo
BT banner


Life lessons and career reflections from an HR director at BT

Steve gained a wide range of experiences early on in his career. Now, in HR, he uses his unique perspective to shape corporate cultures.
Never underestimate the value of genuine warmth in the workplace.

From a young age I’ve apparently been very good at pointing out things and asking questions. Looking back, as a child I was probably quite rude! But that interest in people and understanding what drives their behaviour has continued throughout my career. My first real experience of business was my Saturday job in a tile shop, around the time of my O levels (equivalent to GCSEs), I began to become more interested in economics and how it can impact everything you read in the newspaper.

Onto the career ladder

My first step on the career ladder after university was a graduate role at Commercial Union. It was a great first move as it was an all-round role encompassing leadership and sales, and it gave me my first experiences of managing: managing my team members as well as managing the expectations of customers. This was primarily a sales role; sales is all about understanding people and what they want. Starting my career in this role has, I believe, had a huge impact on how my management style has developed. While I was at Commercial Union, it merged with a competitor and I was given responsibility to bring together two previously competing teams. This gave me an opportunity to design the structure of business in order to achieve specific outcomes and try out innovative solutions.

Broadening horizons

I completed an MBA to get a wide overview of the different benchmarks and models used in various industries and contexts. As well as directly learning about business, I really valued the opportunity to meet the other students who came from a variety of different industries, and talk to them about their experiences. After my MBA, I wanted to continue to discover more about different approaches to management in many industries, and find out which ones led to the best results. That’s why I moved to a consulting firm – working with private and public sector clients gave me the invaluable opportunity to interview and observe hundreds of leadership teams and executives.

Global reach

One of the highlights of my entire career was at Vodafone, where I had my first role in HR. I was responsible for the global talent agenda for the company and, over the course of seven years, I established an ecosystem around leadership and talent and found a way to embed them on an international level. This system is still being used today, and it’s heartening to know that all my work in that role paid off: both my successes and my mistakes.

Transforming cultures

I joined BT in 2017. One aspect of my role is making sure the company has the right operating model, systems and processes in place to support our 110,000 employees. The other is being involved in the annual cycles of talent and managing performance. BT has a proud history that traces back to its origins around 1870 and this underpins everything. When I first joined I was curious to understand this rich history and culture, particularly how things were done at BT today. I wanted to see how I could make a positive contribution and impact by identifying what ‘levers’ I had at my disposal to effect change. The world is experiencing a period of huge development in terms of the technology that people use every day. With this in mind, my goal is to build on BT’s innovative culture and help to establish a more agile way of working so that we can respond to these changes. My breadth of experiences in other industries and companies helps me bring an outsider’s eye to things at BT – I’m able to draw on those insights to solve problems and find new ways for BT to get things done.

Yet to create a truly agile culture, we need everyone at BT to be and feel personally accountable and have the freedom to explore new ways of approaching tasks. I incorporate this same philosophy in my management style. I try to focus less on directing my team according to my own perspectives and biases, and more on supporting and coaching them to make their own decisions. A large part of this is what I’d call ‘non-possessive warmth’. This is being warm to people – being humorous, offering considered opinions and support – but with an understanding that you cannot personally solve everybody’s problems. Never underestimate the value of genuine warmth in the workplace.

Starting your own career

Although it’s understandable to want to progress as fast as possible early in your career, my advice is to focus on getting a diverse breadth of experience and understanding. As you can see from my story, you can’t rush your way through your learning the same way you might a textbook. When it comes to interviewing for more senior positions, recruiters want to know that you have a solid grounding in how business and, more broadly, the world works.

A picture of an HR director at BT
Steve Cunningham
Job title: 
Director of leadership, learning and talent

1991 Graduated with a degree in economics from Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University).
1992–2000 Worked at Commercial Union as a business manager.
1997–1999 Completed a masters of business administration (MBA) at the Open University Business School.
2001 Joined Hay Group as an education practice leader.
2006 Promoted to the director of telecoms and media practice at Hay Group.
2008 Moved to Vodafone and progressed to the position of group HR director.
2014 Joined Pearson as a senior vice-president of HR enabling functions.
2017 Appointed to current role as director of leadership, learning and talent at BT.

Exclusive content for The UK 300 2018/19. Copyright of all material written by TARGETjobs lies solely with GTI Media.