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Unprecedented with Alex Quinn

Published 18th November 2021

At Unprecedented, we had the opportunity to speak to Alex Quinn, Head of Talent, Leadership and Organisational Effectiveness at Rolls-Royce, who spoke to us about making a positive difference to the people she leads and her own priorities and goals post-pandemic.

A background into you?

I’m Alex and I believe that businesses can significantly improve their performance by putting the ‘human’ into HR. Through working with people as the unique humans they are, we get insight into an incredible world of opportunity and potential to be explored. As the Head of Talent, Leadership and Organisational Effectiveness in Civil Aerospace at Rolls-Royce, I put this into action.

What does being a leader mean to you?

To me, being a leader is about making a positive difference to the people I work with, the organisation I am working in, and the community around us.

What would you like your Leadership Legacy to be?

I’d like to be known as a leader who enables their people to reach their potential, leaving a lasting impact on the business. “Work hard and have fun” is a motto I have used a lot in my teams, if either one is out of balance, we aren’t doing something right!

What are the “non-negotiable” behaviours that you expect you and those around you to live by?

I start with kindness – I expect those around me to care about the people they work with, look out for one another, making sure we all manage to deliver incredible work we are proud of.

What impact has covid had on your business?

Covid-19 has had a monumental impact on our business, we work in aerospace, so when air travel was reduced significantly, it hit hard. We had to move quickly to protect our people and business, restructuring, whilst making sure we keep hold of the magic we need to pioneer the power that matters in the future!

Where were you and what were you doing when you first realised that Covid-19 was very serious?

There are two moments that stick in my mind around the severity of COVID-19:

The first was sitting in an incident support meeting in our office, following the initial spread of the virus in China. I was updating the team on our approach for our teams in China and that it looked like a few weeks until we would open the office. A member of our risk team sat across from me, explained the risk mitigation plan in case of a pandemic. I remember thinking, fantastic, someone has been planning for this and has procedures written down…the plans have evolved a little since then! 

The second moment was during Boris Johnson’s press conference. We were in the middle of our first remote GirlGuiding meeting and we streamed it to our Rangers (ages 14-18). I cried my eyes out, it was as if the magnitude hit me all at once. I then had to explain and convey my emotions to those young women when we didn’t have any answers, we only knew that the world was going to be different to what any of us had planned. Being open, sharing our thoughts and feelings has been essential throughout, even when it’s been hard!

Are there any people within your support network who made a big positive impact on you as a Business Leader during those early weeks/months? 

I was in awe of the whole team I worked with during those early weeks and months. They navigated uncertainty for themselves, unprecedented business conditions and treated our people with care. They have continued to do this for the past 18 months. Our People Team are incredible – true HR Heroes.

What were the 3 biggest (or best) decisions you made during the pandemic? 

  1. Moving fast to protect our people, keeping the human in hr

  2. Seeing the longer-term opportunities in the short term decisions we had to take

  3. Investing time in people; my family, my friends and my team

What remain your 3 biggest challenges?

  1. Knowing what’s around the corner with this virus

  2. Moving fast with little information

  3. Being physically distant but socially connected

At the beginning of 2020, we were in a talent short market. What is at the top of your "people strategy" agenda going into 2022?

Prioritising our talent and diversity; retaining, developing and stretching our people to reach their potential as the technical and people leaders we need to make the business successful.

Has "succession planning" risen up your people agenda?

Succession planning has always been important in our People Agenda, but I think the pandemic and how we reshaped and resized our business crystallised a few things.

  1. You have to know your people, what their strengths are, what makes them tick, what their aspirations are and what their potential is

  2. We must have diversity in our succession plans and if we don’t have that internally, we should look at the market externally

  3. Specific roles will likely change, so succession pools are often more useful than specific plans

What are you doing to retain your superstar / Leaders of the future? 

Retention is very personal, so a one size fits all approach doesn’t work!

We started by identifying the talent we needed to retain, working with line managers to facilitate the right conversations. Based on these conversations we put plans in place.  

Specifically for our leaders of the future, we have launched a number of new development programmes to retain and progress them.

Fast forward to 2050 .... what would you say to your future self...That you did well or badly during the pandemic to learn from.

I’d pour myself a large glass of wine and say ‘you did your best, working hard and caring about those around you – give those colleagues a call, meet up in person (!!), say thank you and reminisce about everything that happened!’

What advice would you give to those entering the workforce today?

Stay curious and always look for opportunities  

I say to my GirlGuiding Rangers (aged 14-17) that I would never question what happened to you in the pandemic but I will look at how you responded.

So your A-levels were cancelled, what did you do with the time? 

So you were made redundant, what were your next steps? 

So you were put on furlough, how did you use the time to give back or learn?

The Pandemic has caused many of us to reassess what is important in our lives. In what ways have you recalibrated your own priorities and goals.

I had a baby boy in June this year, so life has completely changed! I think the motto of “Work hard and have Fun” still works though…in fact, it is even more important and it is exactly the ethos I would love my little boy to learn. 

If you have enjoyed this blog and would like to learn more about Alex, you can connect with her on Linkedin or follow her on Instagram at @thehumaninhr. Alternatively, you can learn more about Rolls-Royce from their careers website.

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