Born and raised in the region, Helen Easton’s whole career has been focussed on building a bridge between corporate and personal – helping one to understand the other and appreciate how they can be the perfect match.
After a variety of senior leadership roles with brands including BHS, New Look, TK Maxx, Matalan and Pep&Co, Helen ran the North East team managing the National Census, and then became Head of People and Culture for a streaming organisation before joining Age UK in North Tyneside as Group Chief Operations Officer.
But it was within the culture and values of Darlington Building Society that she seems to have found her perfect place.
“I’ve always worked within organisations who have a social conscience as that appeals to me and I think when I met the team here, I instantly felt like I had found my tribe,” she tells me in the Society’s Morton Park headquarters.
“I knew early on how much I was aligned with the values and the vision of the people who were sitting in front of me, from Board members through to the Executive team. That was what decided it for me, I know that I would have been absolutely devastated had I not got the job because it’s a long time since I’ve had a feeling like that when I’ve been interviewed.”
Her brief is to effectively set and deliver the People strategy of the Society, making sure that there is a high performance thread running through the whole operation, with a fair and responsible approach to the way it responds to both colleagues and customer needs.
“We’re very good at what we do,” she says.
“But we could be even better, so I will be quite relentless in my quest to deliver things that benefit the Society as well as the people and ultimately must always provide a benefit for our members.
“For me, our best asset is our people. There are other building societies and other banks, but the difference is how you carry out your work and what opportunities that can create to support more people and to provide ways in which your teams can progress.
“We’ve got some remarkable longevity here among our teams, which is a wonderful thing to see, but we must keep providing opportunities for growth so our teams don’t stand still.
“So I will help create those opportunities and help people keep up with modern ways of working – always looking forward and embracing new ideas. That feeling of helping build a community is a big thing for me and has been throughout my career. I suppose I come from a humble background and people have supported me on my career journey, so it feels right to pay that forward and to help others to succeed.”
Alongside that longevity she mentioned and the deep levels of experience it brings, part of Helen’s role is to make sure Darlington Building Society remains a destination employer of choice for new starters – the lifeblood for any organisation with a long-term view of its purpose.
Like Helen, many will be drawn to work there by the way it reaches into its community, while others will be looking for job security and the opportunity to keep working in their own region.
She tells me: “Firstly, people have to be able to see it, to become it, and then to have appropriate roles for people for them to be able to aspire to be part of an organisation.
“One point that brings to the fore is that we don’t have as many females in high visibility senior roles as we would want in the sector, and I know, that’s an ambition of mine and of my Chief Executive Andrew Craddock to really support the opportunity that to give more female role models for those who want to work in finance.
“We signed the Women in Finance Charter this year and have developed an internal women’s network to help more of our women leaders with their self-belief and career progression, because they do think very differently about their career pathways compared to our male colleagues.
“The members of the network support each other towards achieving their goals, and two of our female board members are part of the group, so we know the Society as a whole is very inclusive.
“What we have seen already is a difference in the attitudes and skills, with people talking in different areas of the organisation where they wouldn’t normally have cross-pollinated their ideas or spoken to someone outside of their own area of expertise.
“That’s something that has really moved forward within the society in the last six months and is something that we are very proud of.”
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The blend of skills and talent means that there are now five generations working together at Darlington Building Society – from the baby boomers through to Generation Z, with each having its own outlook of what they expect from employers and view point of what a career means to them.
The baby boomers represent that vital longevity, where the Gen Zs are still looking for the right place to invest their loyalty and long-term goals and tend to want progress and promotion very early on, so that all has to be managed effectively.
In response, Helen and her team have developed three different leadership courses, from a junior level for new and emerging managers, a second programme for those who have been working for a while and have some development areas and then a programme for those at the top of their game who could be the next level of Executives.
She says: “As part of our Diversity & Inclusion approaches to our employees, we want to hear from people who want to progress here, or join us for the first time. I know most people can come in and do an interview to address the core skills, but actually, if you put all that to one side and you just have a real conversation with someone about their experience and what they can bring rather than them answering some set questions, it makes for a more natural experience for the candidates on their journey with us.
“There are still some elements we need to address during interviews for legislative compliance, but if you really want to get the best from someone, you need a conversation. That’s what has drawn me here and drives me each day – it’s such a people-focussed organisation from top to bottom.”
The region the Society thrives in is changing constantly, with opportunity and challenges in equal measure. Helen knows that keeping ahead of that curve is demanding, but vital.
“In Darlington, we’re fortunate that the Government is bringing its finance department up here, but that also brings a risk from a retention point of view. We could potentially lose talent to Feethams House. We will ensure that people are skilled enough to be able to leave, but invested enough in who we are as a Society and employer that they want to stay.
“London is where a lot of the financial institutions are based, however outside of London, it has been challenging at times to recruit into key specialist roles, to combat this we have our agile working and remote working options which have worked well for us. We have some amazing people onboard with the skills to take us forward with our strategy, some of whom are based in Belfast, in London and on the South Coast.
“That’s what our flexible employment approach and determination to keep skills levels at their highest has gotten us. The remote teams still come together for team meetings and we have staff update calls every month which the Executive team lead on to ensure everyone is included and informed.
We appreciate that people have different lifestyles and demands which are prevalent in society in recent years, and we need to continue to support our people to live a balanced life if the Society is to remain a successful employer. We confirmed recently that a personal well-being day is being provided for each of our team members during 2024.”
The breadth of her role and its influence on the whole organisation takes a deep level of understanding of the people, their potential and their commitment. As Helen fuses together those three elements, an evolving future is building for the Society.