After serving as NFU Mutual’s Head of HR for six years, Kenny Graves has recently been promoted to HR Director. We sat down with Kenny to discuss the past, present, and future of HR at NFU Mutual. From the power of recruitment to their role within the organisation, and maintaining an award-winning workplace culture – what can we expect from Kenny’s team moving forward?

Thanks for talking to us Kenny. Why don’t you start by telling us about your career leading up to this point?
My first degree was in Economics, then I did a second degree in Psychology, and I think those both nicely represent my two biggest passions – people and business. What’s great about HR is that it sits at a crossroads between those two paths, so it was an area I was always interested in. Unfortunately, there was a recession around the time that I graduated, so it took me a while to find any HR roles. I started out as a teacher of maths and business straight after university, but I decided it wasn’t for me. After that, I joined the Greater Manchester police service for two years.

I eventually got a job as a Personnel Coordinator in an IT telecoms company. Since then, I’ve moved between various HR positions. I joined another IT company when I changed location to be with my wife, then ICI took me on as a divisional HR Director. After that I was Head of HR at at Phoenix Group (another Financial Services company), and then at Police Mutual – eventually joining NFU Mutual in 2017. And then, I was promoted to HR Director this July.

It sounds like you’ve always had an affinity for HR! But what drew you to NFU Mutual?
It was clear to me that NFU Mutual takes a long-term view, rather than being one of these short-term, cost-cutting obsessed companies. And the role itself played to all my strengths, especially how I love both financial services and HR. Plus it was local, so that was much more appealing than having to move to London. It was pretty much the dream job, and a step up from where I was before.

Living in the Cotswolds I was often told positive stories about NFU Mutual, because they’re a big local employer. I’d heard from people, including friends of mine who’d worked here, how there was a really great working culture. It’s funny because you always take stories like that with a pinch of salt, but the culture here really is more customer and employee-centric than anywhere else I’ve ever worked.

In the HR team specifically, the culture is all about quality of outcome and quality of relationships, both within the team and with internal customers. I also quite like to have a laugh, so you can take your work seriously without taking yourself too seriously. Keeping it real with each other, but always delivering on what you’ve promised. We obviously recruit very professional people who know their stuff, but you also need to be humble and have empathy.

NFU Mutual take on quite a few new starters each year - how do you manage to retain that culture?
I think what drives it is a focus on quality, both in the recruitment process and across everything. I want to keep all that care and thoughtfulness and the focus on doing the right thing for the customer – the ethical base. If you study culture, a lot of it is just the way you do things. And because we have so many long-serving staff and senior managers – our average length of service is eight years – we have that DNA, particularly in leadership. So, you’d be called out in the nicest possible way if you did anything counter-cultural.

Recruitment is so important because we need to make sure we protect that culture, and so far, we’ve been successful in recruiting and retaining great people. I think our recruiters are a lot like brand ambassadors, rather than seeing it as a purely transactional process. They put a lot of care into who they bring on board. At the senior level we also use business psychologists and psychometric evaluations – we take it very seriously because we care about the culture so much.

So, what do you find most exciting about your new role, and what are the biggest challenges?
There’s a lot to be excited by, because now I have influence over the entire people strategy, and I can directly steer where we go culturally and from an HR standpoint. We do things properly at NFU Mutual, so it’s given me the chance to look at things afresh – the external world, the data and metrics, speaking to internal stakeholders and taking a moment to ask if we’re going in the right direction.

We’re currently putting in place an HR strategy and service review, so we’ve gathered surveys from everyone in the company asking what they think about the services HR provides. The next step is to run focus groups and interviews with managers and employees, so we can see things from a range of perspectives.

We’re on a 99% figure for employee engagement across the company, and we’re one of only 57 companies in the entire world to have received the Gallup Exceptional Workplace Award 2023. So, things are in a fine state! But one of the biggest challenges we face is – where do we go from there? We need to avoid complacency in how we treat our people. It’ll be evolution, not revolution, but as a new Director I can come in, pause, and take stock.

For example, the company is going through a lot of change and investing a great deal in our technology, systems, and data going into new markets. If you want to go about that change in the right way, you’ve got to bring your people along with you. It’s pretty full-on at the minute and we’ve got to maintain that balance between people, finance, customers, and processes.

There’s also a war for talent at the moment – the financial sector is huge in the UK and it may get more and more competitive for employment as companies seek to expand post Covid. We need to stay sharp, hungry, and curious about what will appeal to different demographics and individuals. Which is why the work we’re doing around recruitment is so important – if you get that wrong, you start to dilute the whole organisation.

How do you think NFU Mutual views HR?
I think the fact that I was promoted to Director shows that they are happy with the work we’ve been doing in HR – otherwise they would have brought in someone externally. We get a lot of very positive feedback across a range of processes and policies, about the professionalism of our people and the respect and confidentiality that HR needs to display – we are a “trusted advisor”. The fact that we do a lot of benchmarking about policies and offerings, and the fact that engagement is high, I’d say it means we have a really strong relationship with the business.

There are some challenges, like tech and systems. I think we’ll need to take a long-term look at where we’re going from a tech perspective. But we’ve just won awards for our graduate and apprenticeship programmes, and we do a lot of staff development. Like our ‘iAchieve’ system, which gives people access to a broad range of learning resources and programmes. We’re also provide tons of leadership development programmes, an inclusive leaders programme focusing on diversity, and talent forums across the whole business. So overall, I think we’re very well set-up. It's going to be an evolution of something great, rather than a massive change of direction.

We appreciate you taking the time to speak with us Kenny. To finish off, why do you think someone should come and work for NFU Mutual?
It feels easy to say the culture, but I think more specifically it’s the consistency of culture. Whoever I meet, they’re always trying to do the right thing, it’s a fantastic atmosphere. And HR has a big role to play in maintaining that.

Interested in joining the team? If you’d like to find out more about the crucial work we do in HR at NFU Mutual, search our current vacancies.