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Career interview, Consumer Goods : Donna Hannah, Hovis Ltd

24th June 2022

Donna Hannah has had a varied career in Learning & Development roles in the Consumer Goods sector. Donna’s journey has taken her from Arla, Buckingham Foods, Allied Bakeries, Kelly Deli and now to Hovis where she has been for four years as Head of HR – Organisational Development & Support. In this interview, Donna talks us through her instinctive career moves, how an effective L&D function should operate and the effect of the last few years on Learning & Development at Hovis. Thank you, Donna!


Hi Donna. You’ve taken a really varied path through several Consumer Goods businesses before arriving in your present role at Hovis. How have you approached your career in terms of a strategy or direction?  

Well, I’ve never followed a structured path! I studied for a Psychology degree at Middlesex University. Back then I wasn’t sure how I would apply it. For me it was an interesting subject that I wanted to explore. My family owned a Fish and Chip restaurant and takeaway for 25 years in Torquay so I suppose food is in my DNA. While at University I found a part-time job at Arla foods, in Palmers Green in North London. I worked Saturday mornings and holidays serving food to employees with the on-site catering team.

Then I was offered a job in a laboratory at Arla and as research was part of my degree the role appealed to me. That was my first job in Consumer Goods and the culture was fun and collaborative. I also loved the teamwork, the challenge, and the busyness of it all. It was like a family with a great team ethos. Arla Foods with their Danish farming heritage had a great culture and were at the forefront of people-centred approaches, so it was a great start for me in my career.

I didn’t plan to work within Learning and Development but at Arla, I was asked to deliver compliance training and my career journey began there. It appealed to my strengths and like I said I loved the teamwork aspect of Consumer Goods. The FMCG culture can be challenging but, in my opinion, if you can work in FMCG you can work anywhere. You need to be resilient, agile, decisive and you must get on with other people. I was offered a site-based training officer’s role, then progressed to multiple sites and then regional responsibilities.

What about career strategy? How have you approached this?

consumer goods

In terms of a career strategy, I haven’t always been decisive or planned. I’m very open-minded and I look for opportunities and new things to try so that has guided me in my career choices. Over 13 years I had multiple L&D roles in Arla and worked on some great project initiatives and as such had a good site-based network. You must sharpen your listening skills to work in L&D. We’re here to support Supply Chain operations and sites. I loved putting the ‘whites’ on to walk into a dairy. Throughout my career to visit sites and feel part of a team. It is essential that central functions recognise how they can enable operations which are at the forefront of our business.

Arla was a fantastic experience and gave me a foundation in L&D processes as well as operational knowledge, but unfortunately, I was made redundant. Then I was approached by Buckingham Foods (Adelie Foods).  I held a regional standalone role which enabled me to deploy my skills in a smaller sized organisation with a greater level of autonomy. Then I was made redundant again! The life of an L&D specialist means you live consistently with the threat of budget cuts. You need to be agile and flexible and show resourcefulness and tenacity. I don’t get distressed about budget cuts and change, my outlook on life is to always see things as an opportunity to re-set and do things differently.

Change at work can present huge opportunities for some can’t it, and it’s also a real test of character. What would you say those experiences have taught you? 

Well, I travelled the world for a year after my second redundancy. Which I would highly recommend for building character and strength! Then I was offered a project role at Allied Bakeries. It was a different product but fundamentally still Consumer Goods with the same principles. I believe, and I’ve seen repeatedly, that anyone can learn anything if they’re shown. But attitude comes first. My next role was at Kelly Deli; a sushi company that operated a franchise model across Europe.

There was an entrepreneurial atmosphere there where you were empowered to create initiatives and processes which needed to fit a start-up business but with the potential to scale up. It was very creative and multicultural. I had the opportunity to work with people from all over the world. The culture was fast-paced with an underlying mantra of “Think big, have fun, get sh!t done!”. I really enjoyed the role, and the people. I learnt a lot and was able to be both creative with new initiatives. Also to consider how to engage both Colleagues and Franchisees with a focus on performance and delivery.

L&D ebbs and flows in business journeys, but it’s essential to business performance, retention and attrition rates these days as people expect more from their careers now. Attracting, and building capability are essential in the current climate and this is where a great L&D team will help drive engagement and performance.

Do you think people expect a long tenure from their role now? Employee requirements seem to be shifting, don’t they? 

I do think short-term moves are more commonplace now, maybe ‘opportunity’ is a better word. I am hearing more new starters ask me early on ‘what are my career opportunities?’. They are clear on their own capabilities and keen to know what a business can offer and in what timeframe. Different areas of a business have different employee lifecycles. It’s great to see people building up their own portfolios. As always, the challenge to supporting our people will be managing budgets wisely, adjusting to change and looking out for how things can be done differently. It is also important to make people accountable for their own development and provide tools and signposting to develop this activity.

I think the nature and style of learning has changed so much over the last few years. It’s more ‘on the job’ lunchtime learning, micro training and ensuring that the training focuses on the specific identified need and a practical output. The main challenge in FMCG is how to fit training in with the demanding environment, cost pressures and being efficient with delivery methods. It’s not all about 3-day courses away anymore. Virtual learning now firmly has its place and people are taking more responsibility and ownership for their own development. People are more curious and challenging about their own future which is great. This will enable them to positively impact business performance if they’re supported in their growth.

In a business such as Hovis with a nationwide presence, how do L&D work cross-functionally and impactfully, without getting pulled from pillar to post?

There are informal and formal ways. In the last few years, functions and sites have faced various challenges. L&D have had to really listen to the priorities of the business and find ways to deploy training that really adds value and can be absorbed into the day-to-day activity as efficiently as possible. It’s essential to build relationships, pick up the phone, as well as signpost and pass on relevant information.

We’ve delivered several really positive initiatives throughout the pandemic. Including the designing and deploying of our new Learning Management System; the Hovis Learning Academy in 2020 which was developed with our internal functional experts. We also worked with Supply Chain experts to develop a Line Manager Development Passport. The business wanted a way to be able to identify capability and provide practical solutions to address development needs. Which was very much a cross-functional activity sponsored by Supply Chain. The solution was undoubtedly more impactful due to the cross-functional input and sponsorship rather than being seen as a pure L&D initiative. Ultimately there are always a volume of things that need doing or would add value and you need to be selective in what you choose to do.

How have you adapted training over the last few years with the move to online? How have you found it? 

Some of us were nervous about online training due to the importance of eye contact, body language etc but it has worked well virtually. Some people have really preferred it because the screen can create a perceived filter which for some can take away the feeling of exposure in a face-to-face situation and they are more relaxed. Removing travel time in a business of 12 sites has been a game-changer too, we can deliver training so much more efficiently and cost-effectively. I think we all recognise the pros and cons of alternative training delivery, and our current strategy is definitely now a hybrid approach.

How do you keep in touch with such a broad cross-section of the business? 

We are a go-to team for information and expertise, and we are also the listeners of the business. I make it my mission to know people. L&D professionals in our industry can’t just sit behind a desk; you’ve got to be interactive and know your people and the challenges they face. The business needs to know who you are and what you can provide to support them.

I’ve personally found psychological profile tools like Insights Discovery, Facet 5 and Myers Briggs helpful with this. Knowing people’s personalities and preferences enables more intimacy at work, it deepens relationships. A central L&D function doesn’t just run courses. They should penetrate the business and demonstrate emotional intelligence to fully understand the business. Sometimes it’s as simple as connecting people to each other, introducing and networking. Often there are ‘bubbles’ that arise in teams when people are so busy, but L&D is a team that needs to enable the connection between others.

With those psychometric tools in mind then, what have you observed about the return to the office?

Looking at my team, I think we’ve become closer because of working remotely during lockdown. We are more considerate and empathetic towards each other; We have valued each other’s company which has been terrific mental support.

Getting back into the office I’ve observed that people are more open and there is a genuine interest in each other’s wellbeing. It humanises people at work. I feel there is more openness and consideration given the challenges everyone has faced. We have all had to adjust significantly. Onboarding virtually created a need for a different approach, for example, phrases like “show us your slippers”, and “can I see your cat” broke the ice when the normal body language signposting was missing. Returning to the office for many was like seeing old friends but for those who joined during lockdown. We have had to consider how to fast-track that integration process.

I think many people are more open now and confident to express how they feel. They wanted to both listen and be listened to. We need to consider how we manage retention. People have considered every aspect of their lives during lockdown and are clearer when it comes to career choices and what they want. Obviously with the impact on the cost of living as well as the financial challenges businesses are facing, we are facing some tough times. I believe the L&D function is integral to delivering our business strategy in terms of driving capability, performance improvement as well as improved employee engagement and retention.

I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. Thank you for your time and insight, Donna! 

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