Lessons in leadership: Vanessa Wright on recruitment and retention | newschoolsnetwork.org

Lessons in leadership: Vanessa Wright on recruitment and retention

With over 15 years’ management experience in executive positions at Pearson, Vice President of UK Schools Sales and Marketing at Pearson and Generations Multi-Academy Trust non-executive director, Vanessa Wright shares her insight into recruitment and retention. Vanessa is a mentor on our new multi-academy trust CEO mentoring programme. Find out more here: https://bit.ly/2GE1QCs.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I grew up in Thornton Heath, Croydon. My family did not have a university or business background, but they encouraged me to work hard and get a good education as they believed that education would open doors for me. I followed my passion and got a zoology degree – a subject I am intensely passionate about to this day. I graduated during the economic recession in the early 90s and found myself in debt and without the know how to find a graduate job at that time, and consequently I spent three years running pubs in Yorkshire. It was a tough environment to find myself in as a young, single female twenty-something, and I was working 120 hour weeks. I then decided to take a job in the University of Leeds bookshop where I made many contacts in publishing. After a couple of years, I made the decision to move back to London and I joined Pearson as a salesperson in our Higher Education business. After working in many different roles in Higher Education globally, I later moved to Australia on secondment for a year to manage the schools business. It was then I realised I wanted to make a difference to all learners in the education system, not just those who were able to make it through the system to university. From there I moved back to the UK to take on my current role leading the Sales & Marketing functions in Schools covering qualifications and learning resources domestically. I have moved around the organisation and the globe, and have now been at Pearson for 20 years!


Why do you think effective staff recruitment and retention is important?

Any business thrives or dies according to how good its people are. A business can’t have effective customer relations without good people, and will fail if it can’t look after its customers. Therefore, it is critically important to nurture and develop talent – failure to look after employees can be costly. There are the obvious tangible costs of job ads, recruitment and vacancies, but there are also intangible costs. Disgruntled former staff will tell others about their experiences with the organisation and why they left. This can have a very detrimental impact on any brand and it can make it incredibly difficult to attract top talent in the future.  


What’s the key to creating good culture in an organisation?

It’s about creating a place where people want to be, a place where learning, development and growth is prioritised and rewarded, and where there are opportunities to progress. Everyone wants to feel like they are valued and recognised for being good at what they do.

I recently celebrated my 20th year at Pearson, and shared an article discussing why I am still here. The first reason is purpose: everyone is united by the desire to improve the lives of teachers and learners. Secondly, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to so many different places in the world for work - from New York City to Soweto to Melbourne. Having the opportunity to move to different parts of the globe and the business has meant that there has never been a dull moment and I feel like I have been always learning.

Most importantly, it’s about the people. Thanks to my fantastic managers and colleagues, I felt at home at Pearson from the very beginning. I even had the opportunity to meet Marjorie Scardino, the first female Chief Executive of a FTSE 100 company – an incredibly inspirational woman!


What is Pearson’s approach to recruitment and retention? What is the organisation doing to attract and retain top talent?

When it comes to retention, Pearson places great importance on understanding people’s aspirations. We hold a quarterly cadence of career review check-ins to set out development plans for every individual. We discuss how the modern career experience is more like a career lattice rather than a ladder, encouraging people to travel, explore, and gain expertise in different areas. We have recently started talking about preparing learners for the 100 year career, and work on preparing people for a multi-career life. We also use a nine box grid as an objective, consistent way to map our talent population - there are actions and development plans to help people improve and ensure they are prepared for the next step in their career.

On the recruitment front, people want to contribute to a purpose for good, so we ensure the organisation’s purpose remains clear, and is translated in an accessible way. We also have inclusive and flexible policies to help colleagues balance the demands they have as parents and carers, learning days where colleagues can learn new skills, job shadowing and secondment opportunities and support through volunteer days and charity matching schemes to dedicate time and money to causes that our colleagues are personally passionate about.


Many schools are really struggling financially at the moment. Do you have any examples of good incentives for staff to stay that aren’t financial?

First and foremost, having passion for the purpose of helping learners achieve their full potential is essential. I have a personal mission to spend time with our learners and customers every week to always remind myself of why I do what I do. I try and use that opportunity to always look for ways contribute to help learners be more successful and to make teachers’ lives easier.

Examples I have seen through schools I have visited include giving people projects to develop their skills and experience can be beneficial. In a multi-academy trust setting there may be more opportunities to provide stretch and individual development through mentoring and coaching, or roles that span across schools. And as always, if people feel their contribution is recognised, appreciated and valued, then that also helps.


Can you share any tips on how to recruit and retain a talented, diverse workforce?

Removing gender bias from job adverts is essential. We have been currently trialling software that highlights gendered language and suggests more gender-neutral words.  More women have since applied – expanding the talent pool. Of course we continue to strive to be even more diverse to ensure we represent our learner population even better, but we have made great progress.

Pearson does a lot to nurture diverse talent. Internally, there’s an internal group for women in leadership who work with the 30% club, as well as internal employee representation groups such as the BAME and the LGBTQ+ group. Pearson recently partnered with Stonewall to create guides on how schools can create an LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum and have just received the news that they are in the Stonewall Top 100 companies to work for.


What advice would you give to a CEO looking to implement a successful recruitment and retention strategy?

I’d encourage them to make use of their networks and find ways to cultivate an even wider network. It can be very expensive to advertise for jobs - informal and formal connections will save on recruitment. Meanwhile, think about whether there’s anything innovative you can do to build a pipeline of talent.

There’s no silver bullet when it comes to staff retention. Different things are important to different people – be it purpose, culture, benefits or progression. It’s important to understand people’s individual needs and motivations, and to create an environment in which each and every employee can thrive. I’d recommend working to create an appealing culture and community – a good reputation can make all the difference.


Vanessa Wright is Vice President of UK Schools Sales and Marketing at Pearson and Generations Multi-Academy Trust NED and is mentoring a CEO of a MAT. Find out more about CEO mentoring here.




Blog topic:
General education