From Iraq to India, worldwide telecoms to fast fashion: meet Maria James

January 8, 2020
How important is the employee experience, and where did your passion for this come from?

I had worked in many companies before then, but Virgin didn’t just hire me, they welcomed me, made me feel a part of something bigger and soon had me excited and invested in their plan. From there, I learned that helping others to feel the same way, lit a real fire in my belly – a personal purpose that went deeper than job satisfaction.

What constitutes an excellent Leader?

Leaders who show their human, vulnerable side help create a culture of trust and relevance. 

When I led the Vodafone Group induction programme, I remember that some thought it ambitious of me to even try to invite Vittorio Colao, Group CEO, to the session.

I will never forget when he walked in that afternoon, straight from a full morning of investor meetings on the day of financial results.

He greeted 50 new joiners, embracing them with a warm smile, took a seat and invited them to ask him anything. A tense room soon felt at ease.

That, to me, was the sign of a leader who lived the values he aspired to see in the company.

From then on, his Executive Committee would take turns to attend each session, welcoming new joiners, by being visible and accessible.

I saw the same magic when Richard Branson visited the Virgin Contact Centre in Trowbridge. He arrived and politely skipped past the senior management team, pulling up a chair alongside 20 service advisors to hear about their experiences with customers and to find out a bit more about them as people. He really cared.

Aside from the leadership team, who else is paramount in shaping the employee experience?

It is not up to leadership alone – recruiters and suppliers also represent the values of a company and are an extension of the brand.

The employee experience starts the moment someone reads the job advertisement. The tone of voice, style, including human interactions need to be consistent with the brand’s personality and what it stands for. Reputation and admiration is everything and can be damaged in a heartbeat.

When did you realise that you wanted to devote your career to improving the workplace for employees?

I realised that workplace stress can feel even more challenging than the front line.

During my 10 years in the Royal Military Police (Reserves), including an operational tour of Iraq, I observed the pain of PTSD and the impact it can have.

This experience resonated with me, where I developed an interest in resilience which became an ambition to build wellbeing into my professional and personal lifestyle.

With the right framework in place, someone may only work with a company for a month, but their positive experience will influence them to speak highly of that company for years to come.

Creating a culture of wellbeing where it is okay to talk about stress and mental health has a huge impact on engagement levels, as studies have shown.

In 2018, I decided to leave ASOS and take a 12-month sabbatical, training as a Yoga and Mindfulness teacher and studying workplace resilience psychology.

This knowledge and time allowed me to give back to my community, with the tools and techniques to help others manage their stress and anxiety.

What advice would you give to successfully implement a positive working culture?

You cannot lift and shift a successful culture from one place to another.

Shortly after my time in Iraq, I relocated to India for three years as Head of Internal Communications and Culture for Virgin Mobile. It was here that I came to fully appreciate the importance of connecting the brand, values and purpose through the employee lifecycle.

Our people had to see this regularly, understand the ‘Why?’ and feel part of the process. It had to be authentic. By the end of my time there, you could ask any employee and there was no hesitation: “Regardless of our job titles, we all work in Customer Experience.”

In your opinion, how important is internal communications?

Internal communications is an enabler that does not work in isolation.

We speak to the business, for the business, from the business.

Communications and engagement thrive with leaders who are visible, transparent, authentic and human. When they are clear, the right values hold everyone to a shared standard – from the CEO to the contractor. This structure builds trust and belief in a shared vision, giving employees a sense of purpose with an abundance of other benefits including enhanced morale and improved retention. Delivering a better service to customers, which in turn positively impacts the company’s financial performance.

With this knowledge, today I feel more ready than ever to help people be happier at work and perform better as a result.

A new decade is a significant milestone for all, an opportunity to be brave, pursue what fulfils us and gracefully let go of what does not.

To sum it up, I’m incredibly excited by what tomorrow brings!

Culture + Internal Communications + People Experience = PURPOSE & TRUST

Greater than the sum of its parts.