HR Director Profile: Kathy Osborne

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HR Director Profile: Kathy Osborne, Executive Director of People at Macmillan Cancer Support

During her early career in the retail sector Kathy Osborne, led large, multi-disciplined HR and operational teams for well-known brands including Hamleys and Barratts. When a diagnosis of cancer in 2011 stopped life in its tracks, Osborne felt it was time to re-assess the direction of her career. It was a move that took her to Macmillan Cancer Support and, she says she will never go back to the commercial world again.

Early career:

When Osborne told her parents that she didn’t want to go on to study her A-Levels they gave their blessing with a caveat. She had to go and do something ‘proper’. She obeyed their wishes and taking direction from time spent in retail in holiday posts she decided to stick with the industry which she had already fallen for. “I loved retail. There was a management training scheme being offered at House of Fraser which at the time was called Kendals based in Manchester. It was the northern flagship store.”

It was a crucial first foray into the world of retail where Osborne says she felt very supported. “We were given day release to go to college. It was great because you learned a bit and then you went off to study. It was enormous fun. I moved around from department to department. I learned people skills very quickly.”

An early challenge showed her just how tough she could be: “I was put in charge of 100 beauty consultants and it was a big challenge. I was just 19 but it was great and I learned a lot.” Osborne not only developed hugely beneficial sales and people skills but she ended her time with two important qualifications that prepared her for taking her next step into junior management.

In 1982, a year in which the Thriller album by Michael Jackson was released, becoming the biggest selling album of all time in entertainment history, Prince William was born and Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands – Osborne decided it was time for a new adventure.

A brand new organisation, Next opened. “I told my boss at House of Fraser and he said to me, it will be gone in six months!” Not put off by his warning, Osborne took the job and was excited to be the store manager with her own set of keys but it was a culture shock and away from the cosseted world of House of Fraser where maintenance dealt with a lot of the practical issues, Osborne had a steep learning curve. “I was used to making an internal call and getting someone to change the light bulb. Next was brand new and there wasn’t any of that support there. You had to change the light bulb yourself!” But whilst it wasn’t as cosy as the House of Fraser, Osborne wouldn’t have swapped it because she learned what retail was all about.

After seven or eight years at the retailer she progressed through the ranks ending up as General Manager of their clearance operation. “It was an exciting time because Next were buying up stores and the business was growing. I decided it was time to move on however.”

The mid-years:

After a brief spell working with the Alexon Group which owned the ladies’ brand Dash and an independent toy retailer, Osborne was lured to Wallis Fashion. She joined the business in 1992. The world had moved on and, the Maastricht treaty, which founded the European Union was signed, the first Nicotine patch was introduced to help stop smoking and DNA Fingerprinting was invented.

Wallis Fashion which was part of Sears clothing for women which also owned Miss Selfridge and Warehouse was enjoying a boom. “I started as a Regional Manager and then I moved onto become Head of Operations. It was based in London so this was my first move to the south and importantly it was also my first move away from the field. I had to find out what it was like being at Head Office but it was a fascinating time because Wallis was at the time making 40% of its own clothes.”

After eight years at the business, Osborne received a call from her previous boss who had moved over to work at the toy retailer, Hamleys. “By this time Arcadia had bought out Sears and the business was changing. I felt it was time to do something different. My old boss said he could do with some help. At the time Hamleys was loss making. He offered me a job as Head of Retail Support which would also incorporate personnel. I told him I didn’t know anything about personnel but he persuaded me I’d be fine!” Osborne actually had plenty of people skills and experience managing staff so she needn’t have worried. The bigger challenge was turning around what was a fairly old-fashioned culture but before she knew it her job had morphed into that of HR Director.

“I immediately knew that I loved it and that was the direction I wanted to go in. As a retailer I had learned that you get good results through being a good people manager so I had all that practical experience and importantly I could see how an HR policy might actually land in practice.”

Life changes:

She left Hamleys in 2007 in order to relocate to South Wales.  The move forced her hand and she decided to start her own consultancy. “It was hard because one-minute people wanted to talk to me because I was the HR Director of Hamleys and the next they wouldn’t talk to me because I was an unknown business.” Determined as ever, she did, however, make a success of it and enjoyed the experience for three years but her long-term relationship broke down and when she was approached by the shoe business, Barratts she decided to take it. “It was a very traditional business and they had two brands but sadly the business was in decline and after surviving one administration another struck but this time the business folded.”

It was a hugely difficult time for Osborne because not only did she have to deal with closing down a business and telling people they had lost their jobs but she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. “I’d only been at Barratts for a year when I was diagnosed with cancer. It was a complete shock. The CEO was amazing and said I should take off as much time as I needed. In the end I did take time off for the actual chemotherapy and radiotherapy but I found I needed to work. It’s funny because when you are going through it, you are on a journey and you are almost cocooned from the awfulness of it but it’s only when the treatment stops that you have time to take it in and that can be the hardest part.”

Osborne beat the illness and went onto support Barratts through its final stages. It was perhaps fortuitous because her new partner secured a job back in London and Osborne decided she needed a new chapter to begin. She saw a job advertised at Macmillan Cancer Support and she knew she wanted to do something that ‘wasn’t just about filling shareholders pockets with money.’

“They don’t employ you at Macmillan just because you’ve had cancer but at the same time, I felt very motivated to work there. I knew they were struggling to find the right person and in January 2014 I joined the business.”

She transformed the HR department to fully support the modern workforce, from recruitment, staff development, recognition and retention, to advising the Executive team on all HR-related matters. After a re-organisation she is now Executive Director of People, responsible for the Human Resources and Volunteering departments. Her team supports over 1,850 staff and the tens of thousands of Macmillan volunteers.

Today’s challenges:

“A typical day would consist of preparing for meetings. There are a lot of those! There has been a high degree of change and we are working towards our aim to ensure that ‘no-one faces cancer alone’. It’s a huge ambition particularly as the landscape is constantly evolving.”

There’s also the small matter of all the work involved in raising funds as well as working with the NHS, managing her own direct reports too and advising the Chief Executive. After an amazing career that started out as a 17-year old’s interest in retail, Osborne feels now that the charity sector is where she will stay: “I want to be here for the rest of my working career. I have a massive job to do and I can’t imagine going back into the commercial world again, so as long as they want me I’ll be here!”

A huge challenge is establishing Macmillan as an excellent employer not just within the sector but as a career to those from all backgrounds/or starting out their careers: “The third sector is not necessarily first choice as a career for people but it is vibrant and interesting, full of inspiration innovative people and there are fantastic career and development opportunities.”

In the absence of any financial levers, the charity has had to use other motivators and Osborne says that a combination of excellent communication, personal development and flexible working options has helped achieve that.

Top tips for HR Charity candidates:

Looking back at her own career, Osborne says that anyone wanting to get into the sector needs to take their opportunities: “Whenever you have the chance to learn or try something new, grab that opportunity, it’s important to keep developing no matter where you are or what your position is.”

Putting people at the heart of everything is also really important and, with that comes recognising people’s fantastic work and not only that of employees but also the sector’s supporters, volunteers and the people you help.

Understanding the core aims is also really crucial: “Remind yourself how your organisation is making a difference and the impact and the crucial role it plays – no matter what role you play whether front line staff or backroom like HR you are part of a team making a difference. If you are office based try to get out to visit the services/projects your organisation runs to see the fantastic work you are helping your organisation to deliver.”

The next chapter:

Osborne has a lot to look forward to in her personal life too. She’ll be getting married in August and she is enjoying getting into shape with pre-work gym visits. The weekends are busy too because she leaves her house in London for her family home in Doncaster and spends Saturday and Sunday meeting friends, spending time with her partner and his children or if in London exploring Kew and Richmond.

Whilst Osborne describes herself as ‘an open book’, some might not know what an avid football fan she is. She closely follows Sheffield Wednesday and often gets tickets to see the games both home and away. It’s a passion that she is proud of and gives her time to switch off.

Osborne says that she loves working in the sector because of its talented people and she’s not alone, 96% of staff at Macmillan say they are proud to work there whilst 80% said they would recommend Macmillan to a friend: “Staff are very passionate in the third sector and this is a huge asset.”

She would admit that life after cancer gave her a different perspective on life but she feels that she is now more focused than ever on what she wants from life and says that everything is going in the direction she had hoped. “I know this sounds like a cliché but I have a lovely life, I love my job, my home and my partner.”

With so much to look forward to in her personal life it is no wonder that Osborne feels like she doesn’t want anything to change, which is Macmillan’s good fortune too.

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