The Interview UK
Sheffield Hallam University
Chief People Officer and Pro Vice-Chancellor

Sally Jackson

Too often, universities and organisations can think of Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) in terms of complying with regulations rather than the real, lived impact it has on people’s lives. EDI is intersectional and can impact different people in entirely unique ways. When we focus on established patterns to address people’s various roadblocks to success, we could be missing the fact that they may not suit every person or situation.

Luke James, Co-host of The Interview, spoke to Sally Jackson, Chief People Officer and Pro Vice-Chancellor (PVC) for EDI at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) about helping people to find their own version of success.

Sally’s Journey

Luke: What led you to your current role?

My career didn’t get off to the start that I’d hoped for. I had a car accident when I was seventeen, which disrupted my university plans. So I joined NatWest Bank, which was in many ways a really great employer. They helped and supported me. They sponsored me through my Human Resources (HR) qualifications, then a diploma, and then my Masters. When the Royal Bank of Scotland took over NatWest, I decided to leave and then worked for the National Trust for four years as Director for Organisational Development. I then held various positions in the private sector, but when I moved into Higher Education (HE) in the early 2000s, it felt like coming home. I really love everything about HE. I love the ambiguity, the complexity, the vibrancy. No two days are ever the same. And I suppose having never had the undergraduate experience, I really value how important it is. Overall, my fundamental philosophy is that we never stop learning. 

I did my doctorate in Coaching and Mentoring female academics in the pursuit of their authentic career, i.e. not following the male model of success. And I had a wonderful period working as a professional interim specialising in HE across a range of universities. But it was the Organisational Development (OD) element that really excited me, seeing the connections, working out the strategy of how we get to point K when we’re still tussling with the starting point of A. I joined SHU in the autumn of 2017 as the interim HR director and quickly then changed that to being HR and OD, because I feel if we can get the OD in place, it can solve a lot of issues before they become HR issues. And in 2019, I was offered my ideal role. It’s a wonderful mixture of being part of the senior team, leading and driving forward SHU’s strategy combined with academic and professional services work too.

Luke: How do you approach your current work surrounding culture and inclusion? 

Our strategy is called Transforming Lives and that is genuinely what we try to do for our students and staff. It’s all about learning, growth, and connecting with a purpose. Everyone has a fundamental role to play in elevating our ambition and achieving the outcomes we want. SHU educates more students from underrepresented backgrounds than any other UK university, and our roles as senior leaders are absolutely key to this. We need to be overt and positive role models. Never give up. Keep an open mind. The value of true discussion is important. Talking and listening to each other to form relationships and trust. Creating and nurturing collaboration and shared purpose to foster that innovation and creativity, all of which fits with our values which are ambition, collaboration, inclusion, innovation, and integrity. 

We have a number of EDI objectives, which apply to all protected characteristics and recognise the intersectional nature of people’s identity and experience but also really extend beyond simply complying to governmental rules on protected characteristics. We need to include all areas of society: people with caring responsibilities, menopause, neurodiversity, disadvantaged socioeconomic circumstances, and those across the gender spectrum. And everything we do revolves around themes. There’s the theme of cultural competence, which empowers our students and staff with skills to respect different cultures and to study, work, and lead inclusively. Then there is the theme of equality of access regardless of economic experience so everybody can succeed and thrive. Inclusion is the obvious one, supporting everyone to bring their whole selves so everyone knows they belong. This includes increasing disclosure, as long as people feel comfortable to do that, whether that’s LGBTQ+, disability, etc. We strive to be a leader in inclusive practices and provide an environment of safety. 

Anyone can be affected by EDI. I was a very fit, strong, athletic seventeen-year-old until a car accident rendered me disabled, and it could happen to anybody.

Luke: How do you navigate the challenge of getting people to engage with EDI?

It’s difficult. I have a wonderfully supportive senior team, and we have EDI champions for all protected characteristics and areas. We have a menopause group, a gender equality group, LGBTQ+, etc. Even with that, it can be difficult to get engagement. We have some really good pockets where people are really alive and committed to it, and we have areas where they think it’s not important at all. But we have a number of development programs to try to help and support, such as the Aurora program, through which we run a lot of mentoring to support women, particularly from ethnic minority backgrounds, on their career aspirations. We have a program called Aspire, to coach and mentor people who want to become profs or associate profs. We also have a leadership management development program called Leading Into the Future which is typically for academics and Grade 7 up to Grade 9 staff who may have suffered some form of adversity in their career keeping them from achieving their true potential. I constantly think about what else I can do to really get people to realise this is important and it isn’t somebody else’s responsibility, it’s everybody’s.

Quick-fire Question

Luke: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received over your career?

As a female leader, you will be noticeable. Make sure what you do is notable.

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