“I’m nervous we’re quickly forgetting the wellbeing lessons we learned from Covid”

Helen Willis crop

Helen Willis, CFO at Costain is not your ‘typical’ CFO. She is passionate about people, and their wellbeing at work so they can thrive. She understands how intrinsically wellbeing is linked to good financial results, and wants to get ‘under the bonnet’ of her organisation to really understand how to do this, rather than sitting behind a big desk in a suit…

We caught up with her before her MAD World appearance on 12th October (if you haven’t registered yet, you still can here).

How far has workplace wellbeing come and what do you see as the barriers to progress?

A lot of progress was made through COVID-19.

We all thought differently. We thought laterally to solve problems and and we broke down preconceptions around presenteeism.

We proved that we could work remotely, which for me was a charter for real diversity because people who physically can’t get into an office, like carers, were able to work. I personally witnessed the world of work open up for my son, too, who is dyslexic and a painful introvert. 

We thought more freely about how to make work work.

I’m nervous that the world seems to very quickly be forgetting all those things we learnt because our habits are so deep seated. But I’m passionate about not losing the learnings.

How do you as a company not fall back into bad habits?

We’ve talked a lot as an executive team about our working patterns. We’ve committed to hybrid working. Myself and Catherine Warbrick, Chief People and Sustainability Officer at Costain, agree that’s a really important part of our attraction and retention strategy. 

Younger generations, as well as older workers, which I’d include myself in, want hybrid working because it gives them opportunities. In my case, it’s enabling me to elongate my career. Quite frankly, if I was expected to be in the office five days a week, that wouldn’t work for me. 

So you’ve seen hybrid working open up your talent pool?

Absolutely. I believe you get the best out of people who appreciate that flexibility. They’ll then go above and beyond. It all links to the culture of the business.

To me hybrid working makes sense for so many different types of workers for so many reasons. 

You mentioned your Chief People and Sustainability Officer – can you tell me about how you work together?

She and I work hand in glove. We’ve been driving a transformation across the business. 

We’ve been looking at everything from our narrative to organisational design, working on processes and systems. We both believe that culture and people are really important and if you haven’t got those right, nothing else will work properly. 

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I guess I’m probably not a very ‘typical’ CFO.

How are you not a typical CFO?

CFOs traditionally have the reputation of being suited, and black and white in their thinking. They would sit behind a very large desk and make demands!

Things are changing as the CFO’s remit becomes wider and wider. Digital transformation, for example, is often in a CFO’s remit now. I see my job as to look under the bonnet of the organisation and understand whether we’ve got the right people, processes and systems.

I’m particularly passionate about the people part. You need to have people with the right skills, who are engaged, who want to succeed and feel part of a company culture where they believe they can thrive, or you won’t get the financial outcomes you want.

What about how you measure wellbeing – how satisfied are you with the current methods?

There’s a lot more for us to do.

At the moment, we do pulse checks and surveys, and so on.

But we really need to think about the value of wellbeing and how this value is measured and I don’t think we’ve nailed it when it comes to costing. That is something we all need to work towards collectively.

You described yourself earlier as an ‘older’ worker who wants different things from the workplace now. Can you tell me more about that?

I’m menopausal and feel less physically resilient, but I feel like I’m in my prime in terms of my level of experience and the intellectual approach I can bring to work challenges. So I want to be in a flexible environment which takes both into consideration.

When I was juggling kids with my career, you didn’t ever talk about your children at work, or the demands of home. That would have been seen as weakness. I’m so glad that has changed.

I’ve promised myself now that I will only ever do a job where I can be true to myself and a big part of that is being a mum, even though my kids are now in their 20s. 

I want to be able to talk about what is important to me – and, yes, that is driving shareholder value in Costain, but it’s also whether my son’s going to get his next role in TV. I am able to talk about both things openly and equally at work now. And I think that’s a wonderful thing.

Helen Willis, a CFO passionate about people, will be joining us at the MAD World Summit on 12th October, along with an an impressive roster of speakers from Age UK, BAM UK&I, BBC, Belron, BITC, Britvic, Costain, Deloitte, Dentsu, EY, Goldman Sachs, Heath Foundation, Heathrow, HSBC, IBM, Ipsos, Mars, Metro Bank, Microsoft, Mind, National Grid, Novartis, Unipart, Royal Bank of Scotland, Starbucks, Village Hotels and many more

If you haven’t booked your tickets yet, don’t miss out. You can find full details and book here.

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