An Interview with Michelle Williams – HR Director at Safestyle UK

An Interview with Michelle Williams – HR Director at Safestyle UK

Parkinson Lee Executive search are delighted to be sharing a series of interviews with Business Leaders from across the region. Each month we will be publishing “an interview with…” highly respected Executives from across the region.

Our ninth interview has been conducted by Emma Noble, Partner, with Michelle Williams, HR Director at Safestyle UK plc. With over 20 years HR experience across various sectors, Michelle is also a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development.

Safestyle is the UK’s No. 1 retailer and manufacturer of PVCu windows and doors to the homeowner replacement market. The Group’s business has grown from its founding in 1992 to become the largest company in the UK homeowner window and door replacement market, manufacturing almost 200,000 frames and carrying out over 45,000 installations in the last 12 months.

Since joining Safestyle UK in 2017, Michelle has developed the business’ people strategy in alignment with their corporate vision, values, and objectives.

In this interview, Michelle has given an incredible insight into her career journey to date, how she’s overcome some tough challenges and setbacks and how she manages burnout in an increasingly pressured and communicative world, post pandemic.

Interview with Michelle


Could you tell us about your career journey and how it led to your current role as HR Director at Safestyle?

My journey into HR wasn’t conventional; it wasn’t a conscious choice but something that was forced upon me.

I considered going to university to study journalism, I loved writing, reading and I enjoyed being around people.  I would have been the first in my family to go to university.  My parents were very proud, but I knew that it would have been a financial burden that they couldn’t really afford, which was a great excuse for me not to actually go as being honest with myself now, I was daunted by the thought of it at the time.

Instead, I secured a job at a Management Development company as an Administrator, and from there, joined a nationwide scaffolding business to support their Health & Safety team.  I began to see that profession as a career choice.  Soon after, the business was taken over by a PLC and they made huge structural changes – all subsidiaries were required to set up their own HR function.  As their “up and coming, bright young thing”, I was picked to change roles to support the HR Directors. It really wasn’t something I wanted to do but I wasn’t given an option.

I ended up working for a fantastic HR Director who opened my eyes to the profession. He encouraged me to take my CPP (showing my age now as that’s the old name for the first level of the CIPD qualification) and then complete my Diploma.

I went on to become HR Manager and was able to recruit my own team, which was a great experience. But after 11 years in the business, I returned from maternity leave and felt it was the right time to spread my wings.

I then joined ABF, as HR Manager for one of their food manufacturing businesses, before moving into the public sector for a short stint, which was pretty refreshing after the grit and speed of my previous role. But funnily enough, I quickly realised that I liked the challenge, fast paced, high volume workload of the private sector, which led me into the role of HR Manager at UK Greetings and it was whilst working there that I completed by Masters degree

In 2006, I landed my first Head of HR role for a private equity backed business, which then steered me into the HR Director position at Symington’s, where I stayed for 9 years. And from there, I returned to the PLC world, joining Safestyle, which has been a fantastic experience.

What has kept you motivated and inspired throughout your career?

On a personal level, it would be my parents and the hope and pride they had for me. Sadly, my dad passed away when I was 30, so he never saw how far my career developed but he was always a strong support.

On a professional level, it’s been more about the challenges I’ve faced over the years and feeling like I’ve done a good job at the end of it.  Things haven’t always been easy, but I thrive in high pressured environments.

I’m inspired by being part of a good team, whether that’s an executive team or my own HR team. It’s rewarding to see people grow and realise their potential and I love to see the younger generation coming through and shooting for their own ambitions.

Who has been your mentor and how have they impacted your career?

I don’t really have a mentor as such, but there are a few people that have positively impacted my career, either through timely advice, constructive feedback or just being there as support.

The first HR Director I worked with was there for me at the perfect time, where I didn’t really want to be in HR but he opened up a career path for me.  He helped me find my passion.  Since then, I’ve been fortunate to work with some great CEOs and CFOs, and I’ve learnt things from every one of them.

Then there is my husband. He’s worked all over the World in commercial businesses for a long time, so he has incredible insight and lots of advice.  He challenges me and always offers an alternative perspective.  He is the wind beneath my wings.

Last but by no means least, I need to mention the employment lawyer I work with, he’s fantastic, we have worked together when I have been in a number of challenging situations and not only have I learnt a lot from him, he always finds the time to ask how I’m doing, and that’s very rare, but very much appreciated.

Have you experienced and had to overcome any major challenges/setbacks in your career? If so, what were they and how did you manage them?

I’ve been through a few challenges in my career. Working in predominately male led businesses, I’ve found that people often see the ‘female’ before they see the person.

Thinking journalism was the route for me, I joined a newspaper when I was 18 , and experienced very inappropriate behaviour from one of the owners, which led me to quit on the spot and never return. I would say that was very difficult to handle at such a young age.

Another challenge was in the scaffolding business, it was decided that all the safety team were to be put through their NEBOSH certificates. I told my manager that I wanted to do the certificate as well, to which he said, “but you’re a woman …. this is construction, male dominated, it’s not for you.”

6 months later, the Group started delivering their own in-house NEBOSH courses and because it was free my manager said that I could attend.   I was the only female to take part and was actually the only person to pass – so you can imagine the feeling I had then!

To get through any challenge in work or general life, I’ve always just tried to remain the best version of myself and that has always got me through.

Burnout is becoming all too frequent in the working arena. Having such a role with great responsibility, how have you personally coped with that?

A couple of times in my career, I have been close to burnout. The most important things I’ve learnt is firstly to recognise it, and secondly not to make any rash decisions in the midst of an emotional situation.

HR can be really lonely and challenging; you’re always looking after someone else and there’s rarely anyone looking after you.

I work hard but also make sure I have downtime on a weekend. In a post Covid world, it’s become difficult to switch off, there’s always something going on, whether it’s a Team’s call or chat, Zoom, text message, WhatsApp, email, phone – it can feel impossible to disconnect but you have to do it.  Recharging of the batteries is essential.  I distract myself by walking 2 energetic Beagles, and by immersing myself in horticulture which is my hobby – I even work for free in a local plant nursery on Saturday mornings.  They say a change is as good as a rest, and that’s definitely a change from my Monday to Friday work!

In the current climate, the role of a HR Director, has become even more crucial for organisations as they navigate the challenges of Brexit and the competitive job market post-pandemic. How have you positively navigated through this? And have you had to adapt or change your focus?

Navigating successfully through any challenge is about planning, being prepared, and being able to proactively adapt to the circumstance. I tend to find, if you have the philosophy of doing the right thing, it guides you through.

Brexit has been less of a challenge for us than the pandemic was.  Everything we did was centred around the wellbeing of our people and our customers and that was received well.  Post-pandemic the biggest issue for us is the current labour market. There are less applicants, competition is high, and we have found that people’s attitudes towards working have changed they are more focused on flexibility, and on the Company ethos and less so on the job.  We’ve had to adapt to this to continue to retain and attract the best talent for our business

How do you add value to Safestyle? What are your personal strengths that you bring to the role and organisation? And how do you instil these into your team?

I strive to be a visible leader in the organisation, I’ve always tried to engage with people at different levels and I think that’s added great value to our culture.

I try to be a confidante, a person that people can trust, open up to, and gain support from, wherever they need it. I’m not a HRD, I’m just Michelle. I try to be non-status driven and I find that’s the best way to engage people.

I would say resilience is my biggest personal strength. Some of the roles have been extremely challenging, so I’ve needed strong staying power to navigate through and to bounce back.

I try to practice all of the above every day and let my team see me do that, which is a clear way of instilling these values into the team as they progress in their careers. You also learn from making your own mistakes, so I do take a backseat at times and give the team the autonomy to make their own judgement and if it’s the wrong call, they’ll learn something from that – but my door is always open and I’m always there whenever they need me.

Personal development is crucial, even when you’ve successfully reached C-suite level, how do you continue to challenge yourself?

I think it’s even more important at C-suite level, but I’d also say it’s harder – when you’re in the early stages of your career, you’re actively tuning into learning and developing your skills – at least that was my experience as I studied on the job

I take interest in the CIPD, I take part in regular webinars, use my commute time to listen to podcasts, and I read.  I have found that a blend of office and working from home has given me more thinking space to take time out for my own development.

I’ve also learnt and continue to learn from my colleagues. Many of my peers have held senior roles in large corporations, so I really take the time to watch, learn and talk to them – asking for advice isn’t something that does or should ever stop.

What has been your biggest career achievement/stand out moments to date?

My first HR Director appointment at Symington’s has to be mentioned, phenomenal feeling to get to that prevalent point in my career but the one that I’m most proud of is being a part of the Executive Team at Symington’s that won the British Private Equity & Venture Capital Association award of large management buyout team of the year. That was preceded by a huge amount of work but was very rewarding; I have very fond memories of that team and my time at Symington’s.

Bringing it back to current times, being part of the team at Safestyle has been an incredible experience. The double-glazing sector hasn’t had a great reputation, but it doesn’t need to be like that.  We are really turning Safestyle into a business to be proud of and that gives our hard-working, dedicated, talented colleagues the recognition that they truly deserve.  Only last month someone chose a career with Safestyle over a career with Nestle – and that shows that we are truly winning.

For more information on this interview contact Emma Noble, Partner at e.noble@parkinsonlee.com or to discuss how Parkinson Lee could assist your organisation in hiring an Executive or Board Level appointment, please contact our Managing Partner, Lee Bhandal on 07590 529 274 or l.bhandal@parkinsonlee.com.

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