Interview with Sandra Wright - Senior HR Manager, Ulster Bank

Posted in : HR Interview Series on 29 March 2019
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Sandra Wright - Ulster BankName: Sandra Wright

Position & Organisation:  Senior HR Manager, Royal Bank of Scotland (parent company of Ulster Bank)

Number of Employees:  2000 in Ulster Bank NI

Time in Post: current post 6 months

Previous Job: HR Business Partner supporting another part of RBS

Tell us about your business in a sentence

Ulster Bank is a leading bank in Northern Ireland – committed to making the lives of its business and personal customers easier through innovative digital solutions and expert advice. We serve approximately 600,000 customers.  Our ambition is to be the number one for customer service, trust and advocacy to make a significant and sustainable difference for our customers, colleagues, and communities.

Give us an idea about your early life and career?

I am one of 5 children brought up in Donegal.  Both of my parents worked when I was growing up giving me a really strong work ethic from an early age – my first job was babysitting!  After I finished school I took a year off before going to University – principally to save some money but looking back it was one of the smartest things I did – I worked in a t-shirt making factory and not only did I save some money I got some good work experience which I was able to rely on once I graduated looking for my first ‘proper job’!  I studied psychology in Queens and graduated with an MSc in Occupational Psychology.  I moved to Dublin after graduating and spent a few years working as an Occupational Psychologist before moving back to Belfast where I joined Deloitte’s Human Capital Consultancy Practice.  I joined Ulster Bank in 2006 and have been here ever since.  Being part of the RBS group has meant that I have enjoyed several careers in my time here – working in Ulster Bank and more recently in the wider Group. 

What are the key challenges you face in your role?

Banking is undergoing significant transformation and that pace of change shows no sign of slowing down.  Customer behaviour has changed at a very rapid pace over the last few years meaning that people want and expect to do more at a time of their choosing in a way that suits them.  Helping the business respond to this challenge through effective organisation design, talent management and recruitment and retention strategies is critical

What keeps you going when things get tough?

Great colleagues and strong coffee!  I am really fortunate to work with excellent people both in the HR team and wider business and I know that there is always someone to rely on when things get tough. 

If you could do any job in the world, what would it be?

Gucci recently advertised for a Global Head of Diversity/ Inclusion – at the time I joked that would be my ideal job – combining two of my great passions – handbags and creating more diverse organisations!  Unfortunately I couldn’t convince my husband and daughter to move to New York for that particular opportunity!  Seriously though I feel very fortunate to be in a job that I love that challenges me every day. 

Who do you most admire in business locally and/or internationally? Why?

Locally its probably Denise Hart – I met her through the Love Equality equal marriage campaign and she has a fantastic and very brave story to tell – when she spoke at the launch of that campaign I was very moved by her courage to put her head above the parapet for something she believed in.  Internationally it might be a bit of a cliché but its Sheryl Sandberg for me – she has done so much to advance gender equality through the Lean In movement.

How do you unwind after a tough week?

As I travel a lot in my role weekends are very family focused so getting out with my husband and daughter and the two crazy dogs plus the odd trip back to Donegal.  I also like to get a few longer runs over in over the weekend especially now the days are getting brighter again!

What’s your top office/business bugbear?

Someone who has a default negative position on everything.  A bit of critical thinking can be good and help shape a better outcome but when someone is persistently negative and sees no good in anything I find it draining. 

What are the key characteristics of your top performing employees?

Principally it is about the right attitude – flexibility, willingness to push themselves professionally and personally, being able to adapt to change and deal with ambiguity. 

What skills are essential for a top career in HR and will these still be the same in 5 years time?

For me it’s about commercial focus and acumen, relationship management and the ability to influence at a strategic level. I think that these skills will remain very relevant but what will change will be the tools we have available to us to do our jobs whether that is digital or automation tools – this should in theory free us up to be able to add much more value to our businesses through for example better data analysis and insight. 

How did you gain an understanding of a more strategic level of HR?

I have been extremely luck to have excellent sponsors in my career.  These people have helped open doors for me and lead me to opportunities that stretched me and move me on to the next level.  I seized every opportunity that came my way to develop and stretch myself.  I also take every opportunity to learn about the business, the wider industry as well as what is happening in business in general – senior leaders expect their Senior HR leader to not just be able to have a point of view on HR matters but also contribute more generally – this has been invaluable in helping me build my credibility with all of the teams I have worked with. 

* Ulster Bank have been shortlisted in the Best Employer for Equality & Diversity in NI, Best Gender Initiative and Best LGBT Initiative categories at this year’s Equality and Diversity Awards & Gala on Friday 5th April 2019.

This article is correct at 29/03/2019
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