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Thames Water early careers

Thames Water

How a humanities graduate became a Thames Water MD

'I've never had a defined career destination in mind. I've found that opportunities will come to you if you do a really good job in the right way,' says Kelly Macfarlane.
A Thames Water MD on  her career in customer service and consulting
Kelly Macfarlane
Job title: 
Managing director for customer service and retail

2000 Graduated from the University of Sheffield with a degree in modern history and politics
2000 Joined Alternative Networks as a customer service manager
2002 Moved to be head of customer operations at npower Communications
2004 Became head of customer operations at Tiscali
2006 Joined Deloitte as a consulting manager, operations excellence
2008 Moved to BT as head of regulatory programme management
2009–2016 Progressed to become general manager and director of customer operations at Openreach, a subsidiary of BT
2016–2017 Joined Thames Water as the chief customer officer and was promoted to current role

The importance of working hard and making change happen was instilled in me from a young age. At school, a couple of teachers in particular saw potential in me and encouraged me to consider university. They introduced me to the importance of building up transferable skills through extracurricular activities, such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and taking a gap year to teach English in South America. These became incredibly valuable when it came to university applications. I studied modern history and politics at the University of Sheffield and I was keen to get a job straight after graduating. However, I was conscious that it was not a vocational course and so I actively sought opportunities to augment and supplement my academic qualifications. This included being a member of sports teams and looking for industrial placements.

Telecommunications and consulting

My interest in customer service and telecommunications originated during a graduate summer placement at BT; I was involved in a project to revamp the training in operational service contact centres. After this placement I encountered a telecoms start-up called Alternative Networks at a graduate recruitment fair. What appealed to me about this organisation was that it was full of ambitious and entrepreneurial employees and there was an environment of encouraging healthy competition, which I found really motivational. This taught me early on how important it is to find an employer whose culture suits you, and this soon became my number one criteria when considering opportunities.

After around two years, npower was looking to set up its own telecommunications product to offer alongside its gas and electricity products, and I joined the organisation to help set this up. When, eventually, the organisation decided to sell its customer base to Tiscali, I was involved in supporting this transition. At the end of this process, Tiscali offered me a job. Its culture was also very results-oriented and I felt driven to do the best that I could.

A real milestone moment for me was applying for a management consultant position at Deloitte. I didn’t have direct experience in this, but applied thinking that I would be able to deliver the ‘operations excellence’ the job title asked for. Three interviews later, I was offered the job. Working as a consultant helped me to develop my personal confidence and professional skills. However, I really missed owning the delivery of operations as I frequently had to move on to new projects. So when BT, which was one of my clients during this time, invited me to join the organisation, I accepted.

My ‘perfect day’

I spent eight years at BT and Openreach before moving to Thames Water in December 2016. The organisation was looking for a new chief customer officer; I felt ready for a new challenge and the transition between telecommunications and utilities wasn’t particularly difficult. The industries are actually more similar than one might expect: they are both responsible for large infrastructures and field teams, and provide products that are extremely important to customers’ lives. My role is to ensure that our service is reliable, safe and continually innovates to meet customers’ ever-increasing expectations.

I’ve come to learn that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect day’. There are constant twists and turns and I frequently have to respond to customer issues and operational incidents, which can disrupt my daily routine consisting of a variety of activities from meeting with my teams and stakeholders and dealing with customer issues to making strategic decisions. Even if I do not achieve what I expected to at the start of that day, the most important thing is ensuring that I have made a difference for our customers and for my teams. Thames Water provides 2.5bn litres of clean water and disposes of 4.5bn litres of waste water every single day for almost a quarter of the UK’s population; there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with the role and it’s a privilege to be able to be involved in something so important to people’s lives.

Learning opportunities

I’ve never had a defined career destination in mind; instead, I’ve tried to focus on delivering in my current role. This is something that I’d also advise students and graduates to do, as I’ve found that opportunities will come to you if you do a really good job in the right way and demonstrate that you are able to make change happen. Graduates can feel slightly uncomfortable about taking on new roles and knowing whether they are right for them. I’ve learned to embrace this feeling as a positive sign that I am stretching myself and to trust that my personal qualities and work ethic will mean I can and will rise to the challenge.

I’ve had a couple of hugely influential mentors who have helped me to understand and define a ‘personal brand’, which I’d say is an infectious enthusiasm and determination to deliver. This is not something I knew immediately after I graduated; realisation has come with time and guidance. I now help my mentees find their own answers and ‘brands’ for themselves, so that they can know what sets them apart from their peers.

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