Lee Slater, The Man Reimagining The Employee Experience

Lee Slater grew up in Liverpool, in the North West of England, at a time when Margaret Thatcher was taking on the Unions and Liverpool was the greatest football team on Earth. As a child, Lee remembers three things – frequent strikes, power cuts and King Kenny (one of Liverpool’s greatest footballers). He worshipped Kenny Dalglish, and alongside his father, he rarely missed a game at “The Kop”.

Tragedy struck when, as a young man, Lee lost his father in an industrial accident. That’s when he turned to the Marines. While one never gets over losing a father so young, what Lee gained in terms of experience and character building in the Marines has stayed with him forever. And when asked why he thinks the Marines are so successful as an elite unit he doesn’t talk, as you may expect, about strength or fitness, instead he recalls ‘we were taught how to listen, how to communicate, how to be aware... there were different experiences where the most important thing was to gain the trust of the civilians, and that meant showing up differently...that takes courage but also a lot of skill to be situationally aware, to listen and take in all the information around you.’

Decades later, this grit, courage and humour inspires everyone around him. Lee joined Standard Chartered Bank almost ten years ago, quickly building a reputation for nurturing talent and fostering innovation. He rose to Chief Operating Officer (HR), before transitioning to Chief Information Officer, for a number of functions as part of the new Information & Technology Organisation (ITO).

He’s changed the way people work in HR and now he’s on a mission to reimagine the overall employee experience at the Bank, and he won’t stop until the mission is complete.

Lee Slater, Marine. Lee Slater, CIO. No matter what the title, he is a force to be reckoned with.

Lee Slater, Marine. Lee Slater, CIO - he is a force to be reckoned with
Lee Slater

Lee Slater

E3: HOW DID YOU TRANSITION FROM BEING A MARINE TO A HR PROFESSIONAL AT A BANK?

LS: After my time with the forces, I was fortunate enough to get a number of assignments contracting in exciting and sometimes remote parts of Russia, Africa, Europe and Middle East. For a while I was based out of Moscow, setting up operations across 20 cities for Microsoft. There’s always been a strong people and HR theme to what I’ve been doing. Whether it’s recruiting and training people, setting up operations around people, or working as part of a close knit high performing team in the eld, I’ve always been interested in human performance and potential.

I moved from Russia to Dubai when I got a call from a headhunter asking me if I was interested in joining Standard Chartered Bank. I guess, fortunately for me, my name had come up in the research they’d been doing as someone who could build teams across a number of countries. The opportunity seemed challenging, it spiked my interest. And to be honest at that point it was my third winter in Russia, it was minus 40 degrees, and Dubai was plus 40 degrees. So it was a no brainer, time for warmer weather!

E3: TELL US ABOUT DUBAI...

LS: The warm weather was certainly a welcome change! And banking, like technology, was very fast paced, but this time with the added dimension of multiple regulators needing real time insight and governance. I rolled up my sleeves and got stuck in, looking at HR processes, people and capabilities. Working closely with the then COO for HR, I was leading a number of global transformation projects out of Dubai. I travelled through Asia, Africa and the Middle East to set up new Talent Acquisition teams as HR became more specialised and moved away from a generalist model. 

I set up a global PeopleSoft implementation, which involved new process design and implementation, and of course building the teams and training the people to perform the work.

My training in the eld taught me how to truly listen. My wife says I’m very curious and that I’m also like a dog with a bone! I always want to get to the bottom of WHY something is as it is, and with this, develop a deep understanding of the environment around me. Applying this in a corporate environment was equally as powerful and by the end of this period I’d successfully built and implemented teams across the Bank’s network, something I’m still proud of today.

E3: THEN YOU MOVED TO SINGAPORE, HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?

LS: I was appointed Group Head of Talent Acquisition while still based in Dubai, however given the Bank’s footprint, it quickly became apparent that it would be more beneficial for me to be based in Singapore.

When I arrived in Singapore I was still working through the second phase of HR transformation. The objective was to set up Centres of Expertise, identifying and moving operational processes offshore. After Dubai (which I’d enjoyed a lot)

I was amazed by how efficiently most things worked in Singapore society. What would have caused me much frustration in Dubai not only worked in Singapore, but was slick too. Moving was a seamless transition and we still very much appreciate being here now.

I go back to my days in the forces and how important it was to listen, be aware of your surroundings and build resilience.

E3: CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE KIND OF CHANGE YOU’VE LED IN HR?

LS: As both a Group Head of specialist functions and also the COO of HR, I’ve led a number of changes in both the operating model and creating and building key enablers for HR professionals.

I’ve implemented a number of global applications, including payroll and bene ts systems, learning management systems, and compliance related systems (to name just a few). But of course systems related data, or put another way, applications that hold people related data, are only one aspect of enabling and transforming HR - processes and people are of course equally as important.

Understanding how people get the work done today, to inform more effective working practices tomorrow, has been something of a preoccupation. In HR, understanding data, following data lineage and being able to drive different people and commercial outcomes in the business as a result, has long been a passion of mine. It’s incredible what you can do in terms of performance! I built a people analytics capability from scratch in HR, initially two teams focused on data governance and analytics, later combining them to form a full blown human capital analytics capability. I’m very proud of how far we’ve come given our starting point. Today, HR enjoys the benefits of a strategic data warehouse that’s leveraged with a business intelligence layer and data visualization tools that hold significant insights. HRBPs and specialists alike can leverage these tools to help inform key decisions in their day to day jobs.

Towards the end of my time in HR we built a physical Design Lab in Chennai, India, to foster innovation and challenge the status quo. It’s important we create the right environment for people to come up with ideas, experiment, fail, and/or succeed. Having a physical space to do this sends a signal that we’re taking it seriously. It’s now the destination for User-Centred Design at Standard Chartered and many cool innovations are coming from this lab.

E3: HOW DID YOUR PASSION FOR USER-CENTRED DESIGN DEVELOP?

LS: I go back to my days in the forces and how important it was to listen, be aware of your surroundings and build resilience. And even further back than that, I remember my father being a great listener. He was always more interested in what others had to say, rather than being the one talking. In fact, until about five years ago, my leadership development had focused on the fact I was listening too much! I wasn’t vocal enough so I’ve had to learn to do this more as I’ve progressed in my career. When I started working at the Bank I was able to successfully drive change because I listened and was genuinely interested in hearing different perspectives. I guess this is where my ‘User-Centred Design’ mindset came from.

I was able to start formally applying the User-Centred Design methodology two years ago when there was talk of some departments having to move from our central location in Marina Bay Financial Centre (MBFC) in Singapore, out to Changi airport.

Obviously this was going to create some discontent and potentially lead to disengagement. I thought about it like this – we could either be a first mover, and take all of the advantages that come with being a first mover, and create a truly 21st century workplace, or we could wait and follow what other departments did.

We knew we had to put our users at the heart of the design process and think through all the ‘pull’ factors that would get people thinking positively about the move. Collaboration, connectivity and enablement through the workspace were on our list. We worked with an external design house and started running workshops, empathy mapping and spending time in the minds’ of employees to understand their work days.

We came up with archetypes and personas to match the different working styles and activities. People in HR do very different jobs and as a result their work styles are different too. Some people need quiet spaces, where they can reflect and think deeply. Others are highly energised, where they need to work in groups and draw all over walls. Other people are bashing the phones, speaking to 50 people a day. Some people do all three.

Lee Slater with his wife Elizabeth Runham and their three children

E3: WHAT DID YOU DO ONCE YOU STUDIED BEHAVIOUR AND WORK PATTERNS?

LS: We had to challenge conventional team zones and tear down the barriers, both physical and mental. This was quite disruptive at the time, particularly in a South East Asian cultural context. We knew if we wanted to create a truly innovative workplace we had to get people thinking differently about where, when and how they work.

For example, Reward used to sit with Reward. Recruitment used to sit with Recruitment. HR Generalists used to sit with HR Generalists. The new mindset we wanted people to adopt was for them to think about the activity they’re performing at any given time and then choose the space to do it in.

If people need to be reflective, we designed spaces for just that. If they need to be collaborative, hold scrums or meetings, we designed spaces to enable this. If they are likely to be noisy and busy hitting the phones we created space separate to those who need to be reflective and quiet. Of course I’m simplifying, but this was how we arrived at our design principles. 

It was great to see the barriers come down and new zones emerge, based on activity rather than organisation chart. Now, people are sitting with people they’ve never sat with before. People are more flexible in terms of the space they occupy, and more thoughtful about what it means to be agile.

It’s rewarding to walk past different areas and see people using the space in ways that suit how they’re working at that given moment. It’s organic, we couldn’t predict how it would evolve but it certainly has taken on a life of its own.

It wasn’t easy. As you’d expect we faced resistance. I guess habits are always hard to break. You can invite people to change and create a space for them to move to, but in the end it’s down to them. Even the most compelling proposition can be ignored if someone’s heart isn’t in it. Agile is a state of mind. It assumes a certain state of readiness for participants, whether it’s ownership of a desk, resources or of people that preoccupies someone’s mind, all of these things are barriers to being agile and being ready for change.

Agile is a state of mind. It assumes a certain state of readiness for participants

E3: COLLABORATIVE WORKSPACES IS A HOT TOPIC, WHAT DID YOU LEARN ALONG THE WAY?

LS: Quite a lot actually! In our intention to create an ergonomic, enabling and productive workspace, some parts of the design have worked better than others and it’s not always what people have told you they want in the workshops. That’s the great part of adaptation - humans adapt, they deviate from plans and improvise, and that’s OK, it’s healthy and actually the start of trying to bring back more creativity and innovation.

Again we can only create the space, physical or virtual, extend the invitation and incubate. You can’t force the outcome. One of the biggest risks I took in design was a totally flexible space, completely flexible desks, chairs and screens.

I was curious if I would need to re-plan this after a period of time but it’s actually been a highly effective space and well adopted. 

E3: HAVE YOU SEEN ANY GAINS IN PRODUCTIVITY OR EFFICIENCIES YET?

LS: We’ve halved the cost of real estate. We’ve doubled capacity in terms of seating. We’ve increased places of touchdown, where people can go and work with a laptop, places like coffee bars, standing scrum areas, break out rooms, war rooms, by 30%. Collaboration within the function would be hard to numerically/tangibly measure but we’ve seen solid improvement and there’s a great ‘feeling’ as you walk the floor.

E3: CONGRATULATIONS! CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR NEW ROLE?

LS: I transitioned from HR to ITO late in 2015, and I’m really energised by the new challenge. In context of the ITO organisation, the CIOs deliver change in support of the business and commercial objectives. Understanding how employees work and what they need to be productive is fundamental to the success of this role. I’m ready to listen, observe, and put our users at the heart of everything we do.

I consider it my job to understand what impedes productivity and to solve such problems, remove barriers and make it easier for people to get their work done. We’re currently running studies to understand how long it takes for people to be productive, how many clicks and steps are required to access the information they need to do their jobs. We’re exploring how we can make access to software applications more intuitive and equally as secure as they are today. We’ve spent a great deal of time in the ‘empathy’ phase, with various user groups, to gain insight into their needs and unmet needs. It’s fascinating work.

Everyone wants the iPhone experience at work. My vision is to create it.

E3: WHAT’S YOUR VISION FOR IT AND THE EMPLOYEE EXPERIENCE?

LS: I love the concept of the frictionless office. Physical and logical access that’s intuitive, device agnostic and single-click. We’ve already shifted from a fixed-space arrangement to a fluid workspace, the next step is facilitating access anytime, anywhere, on your own devices.

Ultimately, I want technology to be unnoticed, as it should be seamlessly integrated into day to day work life. And what I mean by that, is it should enable and enhance, but not be the focus. At some point people shouldn’t even notice it.

As consumers, at home, we’re using products like Dropbox to quickly share media-rich files with family and friends. Video calls and virtual infrastructure are becoming the norm i.e. Spotify, Apple music, iCloud, Google drive and so many more. Single-click is expected, and so is significant bandwidth. Our software updates automatically and upgrade cycles are frequent. It’s seamless and instant. We don’t even notice it’s happening anymore. Compare this to the corporate environment, where people have to go deep into applications to get basic tasks done.

Everyone wants the iPhone experience at work. My vision is to create it. That’s the amazing challenge ahead in the corporate environment, to bring the two closer together in service of productivity, employee engagement and business performance. Ultimately for any business to prosper, its people need to be highly engaged, enabled to do their job and their talent allowed to shine.