As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Jacky Simmonds.
Jacky Simmonds joined Experian in July 2020 as Chief People Officer. She is responsible for the Global HR Strategy across the Group including Board and executive remuneration, reward strategy, succession planning, talent management and organisational design. Jacky has deep experience across all aspects of HR, but with particular expertise in employee engagement, transformational change, employee relations and talent management. Prior to joining Experian she was Chief People Officer for VEON, a global connectivity and digital services provider listed on Nasdaq and Euronext. She has also held the role of Chief HR Officer for easyJet plc and TUI Travel Group. Jacky is a non-executive director of Ferguson plc, where she chairs the Remuneration Committee and is a member of the Nominations and Audit Committees. She has a Master’s degree in Human Resource Management from the University of Westminster and a Bachelor of Arts in Modern European Studies from the Nottingham Trent University.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I started my working life as a personal assistant to a Human Resources Director and I was involved in graduate recruitment for civil engineers. I had a boss who really encouraged me to further my education and kept telling me I could achieve more. The company sponsored me to take further qualifications; initially, I took part-time evening classes and then I decided to quit my job and go to a university. I did think about options other than HR but I have always been interested in how organisations and people within them work, and although I looked at other roles and had some experience in sales and marketing, I felt that there wasn’t another function (apart from the CEO!) that gave you such insight into how everything works together and the impact that HR practices can have on creating a high performance organisation.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I joined Experian as Chief People Officer during the pandemic — it has been a challenging experience joining a company during a pandemic and meeting few people physically. When you actually meet people in person, they are nearly always much taller or shorter than you expect!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There is no one particular person — as I have had several people support me. However, my very first boss when I was a PA encouraged me to complete my formal education. He was a great advocate for training and development and didn’t pigeon-hole people. I have had a couple of really great bosses who believed in me, sometimes more than I believed in myself. With one of those bosses, I was promoted and then double-promoted and she actually took a lateral move so I could take her role — that was an amazing thing to do. She said she had to do it because she felt I would leave otherwise. Eventually, I went on to take the most senior HR role in that organisation and she left to retire but she was a big advocate of mine and really supported my development.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I make sure I give myself time to prepare. I am a reflector and I like to take time to think about things, so it’s really important for me to know what the topics are, have the background material and have had the chance to think. If I make sure I am familiar with the content and have time to think through different perspectives, I feel more confident. To calm down, I slow down. I practice breathing techniques or go out for a walk beforehand, so I feel calm.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Diversity is integral to becoming a successful company; we want to be one of the best companies in the world to work for and that means having the best talent in the world want to come and work with you. Not only does it inspire our colleagues, but having a culturally diverse team drives innovation and increases our understanding of customers’ needs. We know that this is a journey and that it must start at the top — in our recent Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Report, we outlined our commitments to drive this important agenda forward. In that report, we set targets for gender diversification, where we intend to have women represent 40% of our senior leaders and 47% of our total workforce within the same timeframe.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
If you take a ‘People First’ approach by valuing people and treating them with respect, and you ensure that is part of your culture, it drives you to understand where people come from and different perspectives. It allows you to create a business that is reflective of your customer needs. This starts with looking at people’s behaviours and recognizing and promoting people who demonstrate good behaviours and values — not just good results.
Creating this culture is what gives us our license to operate and our ability to succeed. We hired our first-ever Chief Diversity Officer in our North America business and our global leaders are serving as executive sponsors for our key diversity pillars, including gender, race and ethnicity, disability, LGBTQ+ and mental health. This move will support our existing targets and increase the diversity of our workforce, particularly among the senior levels.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
An Executive is responsible for running not only their part of the organisation but also contributing to the wider organisation. They normally have a big leadership aspect to their role which is focused on engaging people and their visions, breaking those visions into tangible strategies and making sure they have the people, processes, support and positive culture in place to ensure the organisation performs at its best.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One myth is that there is a certain type of person that can lead in business. Diversity of thought and experience is important, but you also need different strengths depending upon the challenges of the role. CEO or Executives don’t have all the answers and that is why it is so important for them to have a great team around them.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The main challenge faced by female executives who have a family is really balancing work and home. It seems to me that social norms still have an impact on women executives and that balancing home life and work life still seems to fall on their shoulders. I still get asked how I manage my work life balance, but a man is almost never asked that question. We have seen through the pandemic that this has been exacerbated and I am glad to see that many employers have recognized this and have been very supportive to people in their home lives.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
My job is much more challenging and intellectually stimulating than I originally thought it would be. I have the opportunity to navigate a really complex organisation and develop a people strategy for a growing global organisation. Experian is a unique combination of a high-performance organisation with a caring and People First approach — it has been a pleasant surprise to work somewhere where we live in that People First culture.
Is everyone cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
As I said, Leaders come in all shapes and sizes, and diversity of thought and experience brings value to businesses, but some common traits that I see in successful executives are someone who can create a compelling vision and inspire people, challenge the status quo and operate in an agile way. To be a successful executive, you have to lead people, enjoy taking accountability and drive initiatives and projects forward.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Stay true to your values and beliefs. Don’t try and be what you think people expect of you. Trust people to do their job. Ensure you have a diverse and capable team that you would be happy to put in front of the CEO without you being in the room!
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
At Experian, we believe every consumer deserves access to fair and affordable credit. We want to provide that access so people and communities can sustainably support themselves. Our United for Financial Health program invests in communities across the globe and empowers vulnerable consumers to improve their financial health. Experian plans to reach 200 million people by 2025 through our Social Innovation program, including marginalized communities who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Experian has already reached 28 million people in the last year alone. We continue to remain focused on using our success to help consumers across the globe and help create a better tomorrow.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Take a difficult job. Chances are you will have very hard and difficult jobs and you will be tempted to give up. Stick with it — you will learn so much more from the difficult times than the easy ones. I worked in the travel industry for a long time — it’s an industry that was totally disrupted by technology and is really susceptible to external events (think of how it’s been affected by the pandemic). I had some years where I’ve had to make very difficult changes and drive an agenda that was difficult in order to transform the organisation — a big merger was one example — it was so difficult but it transformed my experience and I became a much better leader as a result of it.
- Hire people who are better than you.
- Sometimes, you can have a great idea but a business isn’t ready for it. I was once told, “Jacky — if I told you to go and run NASA, you would think you can do it.” She was basically telling me I was too ambitious and that the organisation wasn’t ready for what I thought it needed. She said I needed to break down the ambition into manageable steps. It worked and we eventually got there and I had to be patient.
- If you focus on the business needs, your career will take care of itself. If you focus on what value you can bring to a business instead of your job title or grade and work to deliver that value, your career will take care of itself. I have many examples of this where I was often asked to take on difficult roles and as a result got promoted and on one occasion double promoted.