Workplace culture is not just about perks and benefits, but also about creating an inclusive and welcoming environment that fosters growth and success. No one knows this better than Laura McGowan, People and Culture Director at Sedulo, one of the UK’s fastest-growing business advisory firms.
Laura sat down with Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, to speak about her career trajectory in human resources, the importance of employee voice and transparency, and the challenges of fostering a collaborative culture of learning and growth.
I joined Sedulo as People and Culture Director in July 2021, just as we were coming out of the pandemic. Previously, I was at Mediacom for nine years, where I set up the HR function for the North of England. When I started there, there were around 135 staff and by the time I left, the headcount had grown to around 500 staff across the five business units I was responsible for. Before that, I spent around two years in London across the retail and financial services sectors, and I’ve also worked in warehousing & distribution, recruitment and travel. So overall, I'd gained some pretty broad sector experience throughout the 22 years I've worked in HR before I landed here at Sedulo.
It’s helped to make me the leader I am today. I’ve been fortunate to have some excellent managers who taught me the best HR practices, helped me to understand how to harness my strengths and showed me how to lead effectively and with empathy. Earlier in my career, I tried to get involved in everything, but as I’ve grown, I’ve realised that isn’t the best way. My role as an HR professional has to ensure I am focused on mitigating risk, ensuring corporate responsibility is taken seriously, and ultimately working with the people around me to create a culture of respect. Back at the start of my journey, I cut my teeth in warehousing and distribution, where my work was heavily focused on employee relations — dealing with disciplinary issues, absences, and so on pretty much every day. Moving into professional services businesses, I found I could apply this experience to an office setting — it might be a very different environment with a different set of challenges, but the principles remain the same. My priority now centres around shaping our culture and working with the leadership team to ensure we are driving the business forward in a positive direction.
My priority now centres around shaping our culture and working with the leadership team to ensure we are driving the business forward in a positive direction.
When I arrived here, we were still trying to get people back to the office after Covid. Everyone had been working from home for the best part of two years, and a lot of new hires had never been in the office at all, so they weren’t all familiar with our working environment and culture. We have a clear mission here at Sedulo — to create positive change for the community we exist in, and this is supported by three pillars centring around our team operating as a unit — having fun together, giving back together and getting results together. These pillars are underpinned by a set of common values and to ensure these were reinforced and everyone kept them at the front of their mind when we started to come back together, we created a Sedulo Charter: a set of eleven behavioural expectations, all based on our shared ethical values.
As a leader, I care passionately about ensuring we have employee voice and transparency across everything we do. You can’t just go around telling people what to do all the time these days — we need to give people the opportunity to speak up and let us know what they are thinking and feeling. In the last 18 months, we have put several mechanisms in place to support this approach: we have an anonymous engagement survey which we do twice a year, and we also have a non-anonymous weekly happiness score for all employees. This helps us keep our finger on the pulse, allowing us to understand how our team are feeling and what we can do to help if they need support. At first, there was a bit of scepticism around this tool as it was so transparent, but the feedback and impact has been incredible. We also have staff forums and an EDI committee which are all employee-led. It’s helped us connect with our people on a deeper level — that’s vital for a growing business.
For me, culture is what you feel when you walk into the building: Is there a buzz? Are people smiling? Is there a common purpose? And I want everyone who comes here to feel that too.
Our EDI committee now takes full responsibility for creating our inclusion action plans. The committee was created in 2021 and was given the budget and the authority to really move things forward. We have some brilliant individuals who are very passionate about EDI. I’m here to support them, but the work is all theirs.
In the last year, we’ve done a lot of work on a range of topics — for example, our menopause awareness campaign has been well-received. We acknowledge a range of cultural celebrations in our calendar, from Lunar New Year to Ramadan. Another focus has been period poverty, helping girls in schools to access sanitary products, and we’ve also been fundraising to support and empower women in leadership. We’re increasingly involved in social mobility work: I’m an Enterprise Advisor for a school in Gorton and working with the CDI Steering Committee for Leeds Rhinos Rugby Club. We also place great importance on LGBT+ representation and support — our MD, Cathryn Wright, used to lead Stonewall and brings invaluable experience to the table. As part of our quest to develop a culture of respect, honesty and transparency, it's vital that our employees feel seen and heard so they have the confidence to speak up about what matters to them.
You can’t force it. You’re never going to get 100% participation across the board. But what you can do is find a core of people who are very passionate about inclusion — and then it becomes infectious. It’s part of our culture to support each other. If you notice that your teammates care strongly about a cause, then it’ll matter to you too. For example, we’ve been offering unconscious bias training on a voluntary basis, and all but a handful of staff have taken it up. It’s one thing to talk about inclusion, but you also need to walk the walk. So we’re doing all that we can to ensure we are listening to our team to accommodate everyone and their individual needs — from doing this, we have made changes and now have a prayer space available at every office, halal options when we run events and there are facilities for new mothers in place for when they return from maternity leave. We also listen to our team members who are neurodivergent and to those with limited hearing and have made adjustments for them to ensure we are as inclusive as possible for all of their time on the Sedulo journey.
Make it accessible to everyone. People need to know they have a clear progression path in your organisation, so give them the best opportunity to do what they want to do. If we remove the shackles, nothing will stop our people from reaching their full potential.