The Interview UK
University of Birmingham
HR Director

Gillian McGrattan

In the dynamic landscape of Higher Education (HE), institutions are facing a myriad of challenges and opportunities. From fostering a culture of inclusivity and belonging to pursuing ambitious growth plans while maintaining quality, the University of Birmingham stands as a prime example of how these complex goals are being tackled head-on. 

Luke James, Co-host of The Interview, sat down with Gillian McGrattan, Director of HR at the University of Birmingham, to discuss her unique path to her current role, the integration of her past experiences, and the strategies employed to drive positive change in terms of people, culture, diversity, and inclusion.

Gillian's Journey

Luke: Can we begin with an introduction to your current role and institution?

I’m the director of HR at the University of Birmingham, a research-intensive university that employs around 8,500 people and operates in the UK but also in a number of other countries.

Luke: What brought you to this role?

I never set out with a specific plan; my personal motivator is variety rather than climbing a career ladder. I started as a medical student here and did a research year. However, I decided I didn’t want to do it any longer and went to Oxford to do PPE, following which I went to work as an economist. I was offered a job with NatWest running their training and development team at their centre, where they put people through their residential training programme. That gave me a way into HR and gave the institution a chance to invest internally. Off the back of that, I was selected to do an MBA at Warwick on a full-time programme. My final piece of work looked at the link between HR and business strategies, so I then went back to NatWest to look at senior leadership development before it was taken over at the end of the 1990s by the Bank of Scotland. I felt it was time for a move and became the Director of Training and Development for Grant Thornton. I moved into HR Development and changed my role over the years. From there, I went to National Savings and Investments, where I became a board member before starting my role here.

Luke: How do you use your experience and learning from previous roles in the work you do today?

It was good training in an analytical way of viewing the world, which is very helpful in HR. I think it’s useful to have a broader understanding of how businesses work when doing a role like this.

Luke: What are some of the main programmes you’ve focused on regarding people and culture?

The sector as a whole suffers from very poor industrial relations, which began with pensions but are now about pay and status, especially in areas like Arts and Humanities. Negotiating as a sector is a particular challenge. We negotiate locally with three unions, and we have been negotiating for a year now to reform the pay, rewards, and conditions. We want to modernise them and make people better off. Sometimes it can be difficult to affect change in this sector particularly.

This institution is very ambitious. We are currently in the 80s in the world rankings, and we are looking to get into the 50s within a short period. This means judicious and ambitious recruitment of high-performing academics, getting the best out of our people and investing in them, it means tough decisions because no university has endless funds, so we have to prioritise where we spend. We have students with rising expectations and a declining source of income from those students if they are home students, which creates another dynamic. There are a lot of things we are trying to balance — students and the growth of the institution. 

Luke: Given this drive for growth, how do you aspire to build a sense of inclusion and belonging across the university?

My particular ambition is that everyone that works here says that they work for the University of Birmingham, and not at it. There is sometimes a tendency for academic staff to feel that they are lending themselves to an institution. It’s about attracting those people but also making them feel part of the institution as well as belonging to their own discipline.

We’ve changed the career framework recently for academic staff, where citizenship features alongside leadership and management in the criteria for development and promotion. Engagement scores in Higher Education are generally pretty high and ours is in the 70s, and having worked in banks and for the civil service using directly comparable measures, is actually pretty high. But it’s very variable across the institution and generally, it is higher for professional service staff than it is for academic staff. Professional services staff tend to have more experience working in different kinds of organisations, which often makes them less critical. Academic staff are trained to critique what they see, and rightly so.  There is also the fact that, particularly in arts and humanities, academics are working in a difficult environment due to falling student numbers.

The other area where we’ve made considerable progress is diversity and inclusion. This isn’t just about seeking accreditation but genuinely trying to understand how we promote inclusion and excellence concurrently. We operate in a very diverse city, so within local recruitment, we tend to reflect the population of Birmingham, but when we do wider recruitment, that isn't always the case. The critical thing is making people feel that they are part of a single organisation, and we invest a lot in communication to make that happen. 

Luke: How do you engage everyone across the organisation when it comes to buying into diversity and inclusion work?

I think the most senior leaders here are very committed to an inclusive agenda. One of the challenges, though, is the definition of excellence in academic performance. Traditionally it has been a narrow definition of research excellence, so we are trying to develop a broader set of indicators and think of excellence in different ways. If you don’t do this, people recruit in their own image. You cannot force people into a different way of thinking, but we can encourage them.

Luke: What is the most important piece of advice you have received over your career?

The best piece of advice I’ve received was to ignore a piece of advice, actually. It's to know your own mind and have courage in your convictions. Be very clear in your mind about what works for you, and pursue that.

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