What’s it like to work as Chief People Officer?

What motivates us to perform well at work? What are some of the barriers that get in the way of doing our job effectively? These are some of the questions San Johal, Chief People Officer at EDF Renewables, grapples with every day. Since it’s her job to make sure everyone in the business is motivated to succeed and the organisation is set up in a way to enable success and growth. Read on to find out how it’s done – and why she believes diversity and inclusion is integral to our business’ future success.


Day-to-day working life in renewables

Q. Where are you in the country right now?
A. I’m working from home, which is in the West Midlands. I started my job during lockdown, so I haven’t actually been to any of our offices yet! But when I was recruited, the plan was to spend three or so days a week travelling to our offices around the country.

In the post-lockdown world, I see myself travelling probably two days a week and being based at home the rest of the time – we’ve all proven that it’s an effective way of working.

Q. What does your job as Chief People Officer (CPO) involve?
A. It’s a broad role, as I’m responsible for HR; health, safety and environment (HSE); external comms; internal comms; and all our office locations.

One way to think of my job is that it takes me down lots of windy roads through a village. On a typical day, I could have eight or nine meetings scheduled, covering each of these different areas. There’s always a healthy dollop of one-to-ones with my team members too. I have six direct reports, so a lot of my time is spent catching up with them and making sure they’re well – especially in these times – and on track with what they need to achieve.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve also spent a lot of time making sure that we’re set up in the right way. So is the way we’ve organised ourselves in the CPO function going to enable scale and growth? Can we deliver what the business needs today –and in the future?

Q. What work have you been doing in each of these areas?
A. We’ve been doing a lot in the HSE space. We launched a strategy last year to make sure the way we look at HSE is in line with our business vision and wider strategy.

From an internal comms perspective, we’ve been working on our purpose, mission and values. And now we’re deep into embedding this, so we’re using our purpose and mission to define our business and organisational strategy.

Then in the HR space, we’re spending a lot of time at the moment looking at how we grow our headcount. We want to grow the business in 2021 by a net head count of 80 – which realistically means recruiting another 100-120 people, once you take into account internal promotions and leavers.

The challenge is we’re not recruiting a bulk number of people for the same role. But often specialist roles in an industry that is becoming more and more competitive. And so we’ve got our work cut out to make sure we attract the best people – and that they’re the right people aligned to our values.

At the same time, we want to make sure we keep the talented folk we already have, by developing career pathways for them and managing our people in the right way. There’s never a week when these topics don't come up!

In the organisational space, I’ve been working with Matthieu, our Chief Executive Officer, on organisational design and how we enable the business to scale and grow. We don’t want to make the company overly bureaucratic, but we need systems and processes in place to enable people to work effectively.

More than that, we want people to have rewarding work – not just from the monetary side of things, but being able to work in a frictionless way. Can they do things efficiently and smoothly? Thinking about these kind of challenges takes up a lot of my time, as problems pop up in all sorts of different ways.


Developing a career in the renewables industry

Q. What’s your background – did you start in HR?
A. After graduating, I gained my post-graduate qualifications in HR. I then came up through the ranks, originally working in HR in the aviation industry. I spent some time in the Middle East working for Qatar Airways – this was pre-kids and I really enjoyed the work. I love learning about people and what motivates them. I’ve always really enjoyed looking at how you enable people to realise their full potential.

Then I moved into the energy sector, and I worked for businesses that had large field-based workforces, which was a new challenge for me. Next, I spent some time working in environmental services for a private equity-owned business, so they had a huge growth agenda. There was a big focus on the bottom line and how you fully leverage a business’ assets to be successful.

After this, I took on a role with Highways England. It was at the time they were emerging from the civil service and becoming a separate government-owned company. I was in charge of the organisational transformation and HR. It was a massive cultural change journey. I had the time of my life in that role for over four years, but from a resilience perspective, it was hard work.

I moved into HR consulting after I left and became an independent consultant, which had always been one of my career ambitions. I had a great time for a year but concluded it was not for me, as I really enjoy working and being part of a team. So when someone approached me about this role, I was really interested. It sounded so exciting and it’s a whole new industry sector for me to learn about. I’ve become more involved in the impact of climate change through my kids. So it felt like the right move to make.


Diversity and inclusion in the renewables sector

Q. Do you think the industry could do more to promote diversity and inclusion?
A. We know as a society that homogenous thinking should be a thing of the past. So if we want to lead the way and accelerate to a net zero future, having a homogenous organisation is not the way to do it.

I’ve only been working in the industry a year, so it’s too soon to say if I’ve seen a difference in how the sector encourages diversity and inclusion. But the overwhelming sense I get so far – certainly in our organisation – is one of kindness and caring for one another.

So if we can improve the gender or ethnicity balance, I’m really excited about what we will create – since we already have that baseline of kindness, caring and respect for one another. We can be a diversity and inclusion role model in the sector, and that’s a huge ambition of mine.


Love what you do; do what you love

Q. What’s your favourite part of your job?
A. It has got to be learning from others. The broad nature of my role means that I can’t be an expert in all the areas I look after. But surrounding myself with people who have expert knowledge and putting our heads together to create a solution and move the business forward is overwhelmingly the thing that gets me out of bed every morning.

Q. And what’s your least favourite part of the job?
A. At the moment, I’ve only met one member of my team. And I’m desperate to see them all in the flesh. So I can’t wait for lockdown to ease and the chance to see everyone in 3D, instead of on a video call.

Q. What kind of hours do you work?
A. I try really hard to set an example. When I was more junior and trying to balance a young family, I didn’t have many role models I could look at and think, ‘they have it right, they’ve achieved a balance’. So now what I try to do is be clear with the people around me about my family circumstances and how I’ll usually end up working – and for them not to take my situation as a sign of what I’d like them to do in their own lives.

I block out my diary before 9.15am, so I’m around when the kids are getting off to school. And I try to make sure that meetings are done by 5.30pm, so I can spend a couple of hours having dinner with the kids. Then if it’s the case that they’re chilling on the sofa, I’ll sit with them on my laptop and do stuff like emails and admin. But I make sure my team know I don’t expect them to do the same. I’m really mindful of the messages I send to the people around me.


The future role of renewables

Q. How is your role helping the UK accelerate to a net zero future?
A. I’m helping by enhancing our business’ capability to grow and operate renewable technologies. This encapsulates our organisation’s safety, comms and people. We need these vital functions to make sure the business is set up for growth and supports everyone’s development.

Q. What would you say to a young person if they were interested in a career in renewables?
A. Go for it! It’s an opportunity to marry whatever you enjoy doing with making a difference and helping our planet. My boys are 12 and 15, and they have a very different outlook on climate change. For them, it’s not just something they’ve learnt about at school. It’s part of the lens they have on their life, and working in the renewables industry is a way for individuals to meet that intrinsic need.



Does working in renewables appeal to you? Search EDF Careers page for jobs at EDF Renewables. Or follow us on LinkedIn to get more of an insight into day-to-day working life in renewables.