Leadership plays a pivotal role in shaping the culture of an organization, setting the tone for inclusivity, and fostering an environment where diverse perspectives are valued and celebrated. Harvey Francis, Chief Human Resources Officer at Skanska UK, has put this understanding at the heart of his work, driving lasting change through effective leadership.
Harvey sat down with Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss the importance of inclusion and diversity, the differences between working in the UK and the US, and the role of leadership in building a culture of learning and growth.
I’m one of the Executive Vice Presidents of Skanska UK. I’m part of the executive management team and a board member. I’m responsible for overseeing people, communications, and the workplace. Skanska is one of the leading construction and infrastructure organisations in the UK, best known for building the Gherkin, expanding the M25, and working on HS2. Our parent company is based in Sweden and has a worldwide revenue of about £12 billion.
I didn’t start in HR — my initial career was in operations, specifically retail management. I worked for Virgin Group and House of Fraser before moving to BT, where I served as a training branch manager before leading the creation of a new internal training function. Then I was invited to move over to HR, initially to manage culture, change, and senior leadership engagement. After that, I was headhunted by Pfizer to set up shared services for their commercial operations division — while there, I also went to New York to manage the rollout of HR technology to all the company’s international branches. In 2007, I was asked to join Skanska, initially as an HR director for the infrastructure division. Ten months later, I was invited to board the newly created executive management team as the Executive Vice President for Human Resources — and the rest is history.
Well, there’s a large difference from a legislative standpoint. It’s been a while since I worked internationally, but when I was in the US, the concept was much more “hire-at-will”, so the employment laws weren’t as they are in UK — especially in terms of recruitment and dismissal. Though the pace in the UK is quick, in the US it’s even faster.
It’s easy to talk about, but it’s difficult to do and takes a long time. People expect quick results, but in reality, that’s not the case. First, there needs to be a rationale to guide change: you need to encourage development rather than mandate changes. People need to understand where you’re coming from, where you’re going, and why they should come with you. For me, culture begins and ends with leadership: if you want lasting change, it must be initiated and driven by an organisation’s leaders.
For me, culture begins and ends with leadership: if you want lasting change, it must be initiated and driven by an organisation’s leaders.
You can’t talk about culture as a single issue: it needs to be seen as central to how the business is run. It’s important to understand where there are competing priorities so we can try to reconcile them. Affecting change is a 24/7 operation, and it needs to be hardwired into the organisation — day in, day out.
Over the last 15 years, we’ve come a long way on our diversity and inclusion journey. But things really changed in 2020, following the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests. We have strengthened the role of our six employee networks, including our Origins, Nationalities, and Ethnicities (ONE) network, and we’re coordinating closely with them to improve our inclusion strategy. Around 18 months ago, we started a program called “Your Lived Experience” which consisted of a series of focus groups made up of people from different backgrounds to explore how they interacted with our culture. Based on that, we’ve developed a 12 to 18-month plan with some very tangible goals. As part of this plan we’ve implemented a co-mentoring program, pairing our senior management team with members of our employee networks, creating opportunities to learn on both sides of the partnership. We’re also investing heavily in supporting our site leadership to foster more inclusive work environment, including running active bystander training. By its nature, construction can be a dangerous business, and whilst we’ve focused a lot on physical health and safety, we’re now also spending more time on people’s psychological safety. Finally, we are focusing on equity rather than just equality. You need to create a level playing field — you can’t have equality if people don’t start on the same footing.
Again, I would say it needs to start with leadership. If leaders don’t buy in, why should anybody else? Leaders don’t only need to understand the business rationale but also the ethical value: after all, our purpose is to build a better society, and inclusion lies at the heart of that.
It’s shaped my whole approach to diversity and inclusion. Working with our ONE network has helped me comprehend the experience of people who don’t come from the majority. The construction industry is still overwhelmingly white and male: when you come into work and don’t see your identity represented, it can be alienating. So we’re trying to make our organisation more alive to the experience of minoritised groups. Once you hear people’s stories, you can never forget them. Inclusion needs to be about the heart as well as the head — you need to learn to care before you can make progress.
Everything goes back to leadership. You can have all the planning and all the tools, but if leaders don’t step up, you’re going nowhere. To help build culture, leaders need to also be learners and constantly be feeding that knowledge back into the organisation.