People Talks

#11 – People Talks: from Army to People Ops with CJ Bedford at Wiser

#11 – People Talks: from Army to People Ops with CJ Bedford at Wiser

Today, we're joined by CJ Bedford, Director of People and Performance at Wiser. She talks about her experiences as an Army Officer, shaping Diversity & Inclusion in a large accounting firms to how to foster culture in teams.

The People Talks series is a knowledge base of learnings and experiences from the best minds in People Operations, Talent, and beyond. For this episode we tried something different and opted for a video podcast format.

I’d like to thank CJ massively for taking the time to chat and for sharing her story. I hope you'll enjoy learning from her experience as much as I did.

Transcript from the recording below:

Reebu: CJ, thank you so much for joining me today. As I said, when I started in humans, I was totally green when it came to all things People and HR. You were one of the first calls that I had with my colleague, Josh, and it was a real education in all things People Ops. And since then I've spoken to a lot of people in the space. Many of them were young operators. For a lot of them this was the first time that they're experiencing any real explosive growth in headcount. And I wanted them to hear from your insights that you've gained from your career. So to start off, I'm really fascinated by your army career. How did you find yourself there?

CJ: Well, thank you for inviting me, so kind, and hopefully, there'll be a few interesting stories along the way. So I remember being at school, so I moved from one school to a new one for Sixth form. And at Sixth form, on a Wednesday afternoon, you either had to do conservation, which meant digging out the local pond, you had to go and do social services and visit old people in old people's homes, you either had to do Duke of Edinburgh awards or do school cadets. And out of those four I've actually had done my Duke of Edinburgh, so I thought okay, cadets sounds like the one for me. So we played soldiers on a Wednesday and Friday afternoon, and I just really enjoyed it. I loved it, it was a laugh. I was quite sporty, quite competitive anyway, so that kind of worked for me. And then when I went to university, I did something called Officer Training Corps when I was at uni. So I went to Warwick and studied Ancient History and Archaeology, so far away from the military, as you can possibly imagine. So I did Officer Training Corps there, and I loved it. And I got my Territorial Army commission while I was at university to go and be an instructor at the Officer Training Corps. And I remember one of my staff sergeants turning around to me goes, are you actually going to join the army full time? And I was like, huh, I've never actually really thought about it but I think I might actually. So I always think about this because my dad said to me, when I told him that I was going to join the army, he said, you'll turn into a bossy cat. And I was like, I think that's why I am joining the army. I think it's also known as leadership! Yeah, so I went straight from uni into the army and had an amazing seven years there.

Reebu: That's incredible. And obviously from the army, how did you connect the dots to leadership consulting/ recruitment, what was the thought process there?

CJ: So I had an amazing time in the army, did loads of really cool stuff and was ready to leave and try my hands in the commercial world. I had a very short stint in recruitment, because the recruitment consultancy that I work for was actively recruiting for army officers. And that didn't quite work for me. I was like, I've been in charge of 70 people and then I was just in charge of a telephone, and like that whole change of context, it was a bit much. I had a friend, whose dad was running team building programmes on canal boats, super random. So I went to do that for a couple of years. And then I was really lucky to join an organisation called Inspirational Development Group and they are based at the Royal Military Academy Centre, so I was back where I did my training to be an officer and brought large corporates to get a sense of what leadership is like from the military perspective. So some really good lessons around Serve to Lead. So you, as a leader, are there to help your people be the best they can be. And that is your main and most important job. Everybody's got this perception of the military, that it's really command and control, and you do what you're told, which it is in some cases, but also is really good for enabling people at the frontline to make the decisions that they need to do, to help things move on too. There's a really good model called the Empowerment model that the army used to help people on the frontline make decisions.

Reebu: Could you tell me a little bit more about the Empowerment model? What does that mean?

CJ: So it's a model that I use when I'm doing leadership development stuff, I help people understand how to delegate really effectively. Understanding the big picture, why you are delegating the task, or the task could be important to the person who you're delegating to is really important. So why are we doing this? And the military is really good at helping you to understand the context in which you're making decisions, whether that be "what's going on, what do we want to achieve as the army and what was the enemy doing?" So we kind of set that context. So why is this important? And then there's a really clear articulation of what you want somebody to do or what you want the sort of military unit to do. So this is what you want to do with something called a "Unifying Purpose". So I want you to do this in order to do that. So I want you to do a draft of this project so that I can present it back to senior leaders next week. So really clear of identification and why and why it's important. And then to give people space in terms of time, resources, and ways they can make decisions. So here's your boundaries, I need it done by then I need it to this level of quality and you can make decisions around this area. But actually, if you have to go and speak to the CEO, then you probably need to check in with me. And then give people the space to work out how they do it themselves. So it's a way to enable people to have autonomy to make their own decisions to be self determined in the way they do their work within a really clear structure.

Reebu: That's incredible. It sounds very similar to goal setting, KPI's, that corporates have. So you jumped into leadership consulting? What does that mean? What was that phase of your career like?

CJ: So I really enjoyed my time at IDG. I moved from a junior consultant, up to running global leadership programmes. So we worked for big organisations such as HSBC, GlaxoSmithKline, Zurich Insurance. And I designed leadership programmes for their senior leaders. I then delivered the facilitation, all of the follow up, coaching those kinds of things. So, for example, we ran a five module leadership programme for HSBC, in Hong Kong, where we we flew out five times in a year and developed a set of modules to help people firstly understand themselves, how to work in teams, how to make decisions for the business, how to bring change in the business, and then like a follow up at the end where we got them to present back on some projects they done. So really sort of integrated, sort of immersive leadership programme to help people sort of supercharge the next level.

Reebu: And from there, you move to I think, Grant Thornton, am I right in thinking that?

CJ: Yeah, exactly. I had little in and out at that particular time. But my next sort of big role was at Grant Thornton, where I was Head of Early Talent. So I looked after the talent development of the early years coming into Grant Thornton and we were bringing in 300 people a year into the business. So there were quite a few at any one time on programmes. So they do a three or five year accountancy programme, there were about eight to 900 people who I looked after their development. And during that time, the government brought in the Apprenticeship Levy. So I sort of moved all of those people from being on qualifications, that we pay directly, to moving them to be on apprenticeships. I also chaired the Accountancy Trailblazer Standards. So I got together people in the accountancy world to really define what we meant by a chartered accountant, a Level 7, between an Accounts Assistant at a Level 3. So we define those steps, and then publish those Trailblazer standards and they're still running and updating now.

Reebu: What I'm hearing through all of these experiences is that you really like structure. You like putting down processes and making sure everything's defined.

CJ: Yeah, I do like a framework. My boss at the moment is like "You love a framework Ceej". And I do, because I think it helps anchor people. But I think what's really important is to have flexibility within the framework. So if you go slavishly to, this is how we're going to do stuff, it rubs people the wrong way. So like, my kind of motto is "Flexibility within a framework."

Reebu: Speaking of frameworks, you also headed up Diversity & Inclusion at Grant Thornton and Grant Thornton is obviously a huge organisation, you said yourself, you're hiring 300+ people every year - and that was just the early function - I'm sure many more and other functions as well.  So how do you foster or what's the framework behind including more people and making sure it's diverse?

CJ: So when I took over that role, Grant Thornton were really, really good at social mobility. And one of the reasons why I got so passionate, because we were bringing in so many young people to the business, but I wanted to make sure, like people from all backgrounds, had opportunity to get into the accountancy sector, it's something that business was very passionate about, and did really good stuff around. So Grant Thornton came first on the social mobility index for the first time it was run, because it's a real passion of the business. And I wanted to say, "Like look, we're great at social mobility. But if we look at diversity, inclusion, other areas of the business, there's definitely some work to do there." So I was looking to replicate some of the things that we changed for this social mobility perspective and help them to include everybody at Grant Thornton. So people can bring their whole selves to work. So what we did there is we started to set some networks up, so people could feel that they could convene and talk about stuff and make change with people who, who sort of identified with the same characteristics as them. But when I look at that, in hindsight, I think, like identifying people by particular characteristics, I find it more and more uncomfortable as I look back on it. So where I'm going with the work that I do with clients on Diversity & Inclusion at the moment, is to probably sidestep a little bit in putting people in buckets and characteristics. Everybody identifies in some way, everybody's got a story to tell, how can we make everybody feel included, no matter what their background. And we do that with clients at the moment by getting them to get a sense of "What does representation look like in your organisation? How does that match against the general population? Or your competitors? Or your customers or your clients'', depending on which sector they live in? And then "How can we create an environment where everybody has equal opportunity and can bring their whole selves to work?" And that is looking at both culture, how strong is trust in the business? How psychologically safe do people feel to put their hand up and challenge how well the leaders lead the diversity inclusion agenda? And also it's about structure. If you think about the people lifecycle when you're attracting people, How open is that to all backgrounds and all people from different experiences? If you're looking at your recruitment process, do you think it has any adverse impact on people who identify with characteristic groups? And if so, how can you take that bias out? How can you build a recruitment process which is open to everybody as possible? And then looking around the employee lifecycle, how do we do performance management well? How do we make decisions about people's pay and promotions? And how open and inclusive is that? So we work with clients at Wiser now to help them get a sense of that and to really make sure that inclusion is the heart of everything they do.

Reebu: That's a really nice tie into what you do now. I'd like to know what does Director of People & Performance mean at Wiser?

CJ: Well, for me, it means that I take ownership for making sure that our culture lives up to our purpose, "To change the way people think about work". And since I've come into the business, because I literally started a week before the first COVID lockdown, I spent a lot of time focusing on how we make changes for our people because of that. And then, like the whole business went into battle to make sure that we still had work coming in and that we could survive the pandemic. And now that we've come out the other side, I'm moving away from the client work that I was doing, and really focusing back on our culture because, well, if we say that we want to change the way people think about work, we’ve got to start from home.

Reebu: Absolutely. I'm really interested in the Performance part of your title. I assume that ties into what you said there. So what does Performance mean in Wiser? How do you carry that out?

CJ: So see, for me, this is a real balance between making the right decisions for our people, and making the right decisions for the performance of the business, there's got to be a balance of those in every situation you face as a Director of People. You balance between the performance of the business and the needs of the person. And we've got to genuinely know and understand and care about our people, and help them to be the best they can be. And we need to make decisions for them in the context of making sure our business is performing as well. So should you have people that are performing really well? What can we do to help them to perform even better? If we have people that aren't performing as well? What can we do to help them to perform to their best? What can we tweak? What can we change? They need to amend their role? Are they struggling with their mental health? Then we need to help them with that. So there's always a balance between people and performance. And I think it's really important in all of your decisions as HR professionals to balance the two.

Reebu: I got you. Do you use any particular tools in Wiser to facilitate that?

CJ: I don't think we've got any tools necessarily, we kind of go on intuition. So we've got a very clear set of values. And that helps us to recognise how our people are performing.  So this year, we have included something called the Culture and Performance bonus. So to give you a real example of how we balanced the two. If we hit the budget that we put on the table, and we've put a really reasonable budget on the table, if the business unit hits their budget, then everybody's got the opportunity to get up to 20% of their salary in bonuses. So we are balancing that, 50% on culture. So giving them some feedback around how they live our values by example. So really defining what our values are. They set five objectives every six months and they get the percentage of say that's 10 objectives over the year. So if you hit eight of your objectives, you got 80% of the performance part of your bonus. So it's a really fair way and really tangible way to measure and balance culture and performance.

Reebu: To wrap up, CJ, obviously, you've been a leadership consultant, your leading man, you've led many teams throughout your time as well. I wanted to ask you, is there anyone who sort of guided you in certain ways? Sort of a mentor kind of figure? If there is, Who was it? What kind of insights or pearls of wisdom that they shared with you?

CJ: So I think I've taken my mentorship from various people, not one in particular, but lots of different people as I've gone. I've been really lucky to work with such a wide range of businesses, internally but also in consultancy roles, and have met colleagues that I've been able to really anchor me and to give me the advice I need. I had a great guy at Grant Thornton, a guy called Ian Smart, he's no longer with the business anymore. But he was a real anchor for me. We ran some leadership programmes together. He always gave me very smart advice, especially working in a partnership. Working in a partnership is very different to working in another corporate environment. So he was really good at steering me and helping me to navigate those worlds. Also he's the person I go to when I was changing roles, bouncing ideas off him, especially around how we're going to work with clients and stuff like that. So he's been great, but I've taken a little bit of everything from everybody that I've worked with. I think even if you've had a bad experience with a leader or manager, there is a nugget or two that you can take from all of those experiences. And even if they're negative - and to be honest, you learn a lot more from the negatives than you do from the positives, I suppose - is that I don't want to be like that, I want to make sure that I'm helping my people in a different way. So I've tried to be really reflective around the experiences I have, and to reflect on how I react in situations to make sure that I'm constantly evolving myself as a leader, as well as helping others to grow and develop

Reebu: Any nuggets of knowledge that come to mind now?

CJ: So for me, there's always a thing that it's about the personal touches. And this has been a theme all the way through from, that there's an old saying in the army "Drink more coffee, smoke more fags" - and that was very old school cause this was in the army like 20 years ago - but that means sit down with your soldiers, talk to your people have those individual personal touch points, know about them, know about their family, be interested in them. And the more you're interested in them, the more they feel valued. And I think that's a really important thing to do. And there's always one thing for me, if you say you're going to do something for somebody, do it, because the reliability and the anchor that it gives people, I think is really important.

Reebu: CJ, this has been brilliant. Thank you so much again for your time, and we're gonna call it here.

If you have experience revolving around startups, people and culture, ping us on Twitter @HumaansHQ or drop us an email at We'd love to learn from your journey and share your learnings.

Simplify your people operations today. Book a free demo to learn how.

Enjoyed this? Why not share?

Get the next post in your inbox – subscribe now