Vicki Saunders

Employer Brand, EVP, Employee Experience and Culture Lead, Currys plc

1. Do you remember a time when you were happiest as a child? Where were you, who were you with and what were you doing?

It would have to be one of our family games nights. I come from a BIG family….my parents divorced when I was 5 and when my brother and I went to my Dad’s we all used to play games on Saturday nights … we took it in turns to choose what we did – one of us would choose the game, one of us choose the CD, the snacks etc…..I always chose Pictionary. I bloody loved that game. We used to laugh so hard we could hardly breathe… there was a big age range between us all and an innocently drawn carrot by one of my younger sisters would have the rest of us doubled over. We played junior Triv quite a lot too but Pictionary was the best for us all playing on a level.

2. Who was your favourite teacher at school? What did you learn from that person?

Mr. Sutcliffe – our art teacher….he was just very ‘on a level’ with us. My school was a very old state grammar school….the kind where you had to stand up whenever a teacher came into the classroom..and Mr. Sutcliffe was just way more relaxed than the other teachers….he didn’t seem to feel the need to be strict to get us to behave. Somehow, him being less formal, made us respect him more so we didn’t take the mick. I loved how he used to take the time to find out what floated each of our boats. He wanted us to find our own way in art. I suppose I’ve always tried to be like that, on a level with my team, no airs and graces of being ‘the boss’… I like to find out what people are brilliant at and give them the room and tools to be brilliant at just that.

3. What habit or behaviour or belief have you recently acquired? Why is it now in your life?

So I did do quite a few of the lockdown bandwagon things like banana bread, PE with Joe, Sophie Ellis-Bexter’s kitchen disco but I completely missed the whole sourdough baking thing and only got into it in the last few months. I love cooking but I do like minimum effort, maximum impact, not complex techniques….so I have always been a bit “meh” about the idea of it taking days on end to make a loaf of bread….but I started reading about gut health earlier in the year – Tim’s Spector’s book….and I thought let’s give it a go. I bought a 40 year old starter from a place in the Lake District and started doing the whole feeding, discarding regime….and I don’t know, I just started getting fascinated with it. To think this thing is alive….. just water and flour and the natural yeast in the air and that that is all you need to make a beautiful loaf of bread. I’ve also fallen in love (to my utter shock!) with the slow nature of the process….patience is not one of my strengths generally….and maybe that’s why this has had such an impact on me ….it can’t be rushed and in fact the longer you leave it to ferment, the better the bread….I feed her (my starter, who is called ‘Sparkle’) on a Monday, mix the dough, do stretch and folds throughout Tuesday, bulk ferment overnight usually (unless it’s hot) and then shape and into the fridge for cold ferment on a Wednesday. I then bake her on a Friday night, ready for breakfast on Saturday. I find it really satisfying and actually calming to do something slowly for a change.

4. What do you think is true that most people think is false? What do you think is false, that most people think is true?

I suppose we all tend to believe that what other people think about us, our abilities etc is likely to be right. It’s kind of what we’re taught…..that our teachers and then our bosses are better at judging our abilities than we are. But I’ve seen over and over again that this can be not just wrong but also harmful. I got predicted B,C,C,D for A-levels and got 3 A’s and a B. If I had trusted my teachers’ views, I wouldn’t have applied to the University I wanted to go to because I wouldn’t have got the grades. Holding greater weight in other people’s views of you can really hold you back from fulfilling your potential.

5. What’s one misconception people generally have about you?

I often find people think I must have come from a middle class family, probably had parents who were doctors, lawyers or whatever….I suppose because I have quite a successful career, went to University etc. But I have a very working class background. My parents were intelligent so passed the 11 plus and went to state run grammar schools, but then were steered into the standard industries for their class and gender. My dad went into the leather trade because we lived in Walsall and it was a big leather town and my mum was steered into being a secretary because she was a girl. I was the first in my family to go to University. I suppose I am living proof of how we have levelled up a bit since the sixties, where social mobility is less of an issue, but there is still a long way to go….

6. What is your untrainable superpower?

I’m a conceptual thinker. Ever since I was little, I’ve been able to connect seemingly un-connected things and see different conclusions than other people do. It means I tend to come up with lots of ideas and can often short-cut through complexity. Some of it is probably just that I’m very curious by nature….. but I expect I have probably also inherited some of my Dad’s neurodiverse tendencies. In recent years, with the brilliant steps forward we have made in attitudes around and understanding of neurodiversity, we are seeing it as life enhancing, bringing richness, not the debilitator it was seen as not so long ago.

7. When was the last time you felt like an outsider in a group? What/How did you learn?

I lived in Germany and Spain teaching English for a few years in my twenties. Of course, I expected to feel like a bit of an outsider about things like the language being different, but it was the smaller cultural stuff that I didn’t realise were different that made me feel “outside” until I settled in. Like the fact the most popular time for table reservation on a Saturday night in Spain is 10pm, not 7 or 8, and that people don’t meet up for a night out until midnight….I was shattered my first few months there until I realised that was why the Spanish have siestas.

In Germany, I was the only English person in the town….people used to refer to me not by my name but as the ‘Engländerin’ (the English woman). At first, I looked for chances to do the same things with my time that I did at home in England, but the nearest cinema was 20 miles away and I didn’t drive. The bars in my town were all very traditional, full of old men, smoking and speaking a dialect of German I had no clue about despite 2 years at Uni studying German. So instead of trying to find ‘my things’, I started just asking people what they were up to and could I tag along. People often said they were planning to do something I really didn’t fancy, like a ‘Fischerfest’ a BBQ festival of catching and then eating whole grilled fish at the lake, but I forced myself to go. Then gradually, I found I enjoyed stuff I didn’t expect to (even the fish with their heads still on). It’s the old comfort zone thing – you just have to push yourself sometimes

8. What do you think is acceptable today but will become taboo tomorrow?

Some of the common phrases we use relating to mental health, like saying ‘stop being so OCD’, or calling someone ‘bi-polar’ because they have a change of mind or mood. These are serious conditions that are so often misunderstood and using phrases like this doesn’t help us as a society deepen our understanding. The ones that are to do with suicide too like “I’m losing the will to live here” or “give him enough rope to hang himself”…they can be so jarring for anyone where suicide has touched their lives in some way.

9. What app or tech product have you most recently fallen in love with?

I’m of an age where I now need reading glasses as well as distance glasses and was dreading the need to be constantly changing glasses for different uses. Little did I know though that you can now get vari-focal contact lenses. They work in circles around the lens (unlike the top and bottom of glasses being for different uses), and so no need to change glasses. I’ve had them for a year now. Game changer!

10. What’s your favourite meal? Can you say why?

Any meal that is made up loads of different dishes that everyone shares like Tapas and Meze. It’s so much better than asking people what their meal is like and then getting restaurant envy (!). I love the fact you all get to enjoy the same thing together and typically these meals take ages to eat so plenty of time for chatting, drinking and laughing at the same time

11. If you were to own a bar, and you could design it how you wanted, what would it look like?

I think I’d go for it being a place of discovery…..probably a bit like Heston Blumenthal or Willy Wonka… where you can see all the ingredients that make up a drink and think where they come from, so it would be filled floor to ceiling of all the source plants, flowers, fruits, botanicals that make up all the drinks. You’d be able to see them all, touch them, smell them. It would be totally immersive – you’d be able to ask for the way you want to feel and the drinks would be created according to the properties of the ingredients – to give you an energy boost, clear your mind or just relax.

12. If you could witness one moment in history which one would it be and why?

The falling of the Berlin Wall. I studied German history at Uni, both pre WW2 and life in both sides of the divided Germany too. I remember seeing photos of families separated overnight because some were on one side of the road and the rest on the other side when the wall was built. They were left with only being able to wave at each other the day after and many never met again. The sheer magnitude of the wall falling. Being broken down by human hands. What it would have felt like on that night, and to have been part of history, would have just been awe inspiring and very moving.

13. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever received? Who gave it and when?

To know your strengths and play to them.

It was my boss at Boots about 15 years ago as part of a career conversation about what I wanted from my ‘next move’…. I’d been in the advertising team for about 8 years leading the biggest campaigns like Xmas and loved what I did. Until then I had thought it was because I loved Marketing in a technical sense and hadn’t examined what it really was that I loved and made me good at it. I realised then that it was all kinds of things that were hard-wired into me, part of my nature. I read a book by Marcus Buckingham called “now discover your strengths” and it blew me away. It made me realise that there is a co-relation between what we love doing and what we are good at. The stuff that energises you and you look forward to is usually where your strengths lie. And to be more fulfilled and ‘successful’ isn’t about putting all your focus on your development areas, but getting even stronger in your strengths and finding roles where you can use them even more. It’s shaped my career ever since, being really clear on what I want and need to thrive and finding opportunities for that. It’s shaped my parenting too. I think if I hadn’t gone on that voyage of discovery I would have looked at my daughter’s end of year reports and put all the focus on the areas where she was “weakest”… I want her to be fulfilled and so whilst there are some things where all kids need to have some level of competence, I want her to find the things she loves and go after those. Bizarrely for me, her favourite subject is physics (which I was rubbish at) but so be it 😊

14. What's a skill that isn’t on your resume, but your former bosses would recognise as one of the reasons you are successful?

I operate with integrity. I have been a right hand woman for quite a few of my bosses… partly because of my technical skills and capabilities but also because I can be trusted. I am never indiscreet with information I have been shared in confidence. And I don’t shy away from honesty when it comes to giving feedback that will help someone’s development. I do it with great care and my bosses would say that doing so has helped their own their development, not just that of my direct reports. I still ‘reverse mentor’ one of my ex-bosses now.

15. What role do you find yourself playing when you join a newly formed team? Can you explain why this happens?

Vision creator. I tend to be the one at the beginning of a new team being formed that asks lots of questions to get to the root causes of challenges or the goals we have and why. Superficial understanding leads to superficial solutions, so I’m the one that asks “what’s the problem we’re trying to fix?” and “what are we trying to achieve?”. Once we’ve got to a strong point of understanding, I’ll then put forward a starter for 10 on our vision and ask others to add to it, challenge it and then agree our way forward.

16. What’s one industry challenge you don’t actually think will ever get solved?

Unconscious bias, sadly. Because there are some people (and even more sadly they are often very senior) who deep down don’t actually see it as a problem or don’t really want to change.

17. What common wisdom in our industry needs to be debunked?

I see lots of people in TA and more specifically in my area, EVP and Employer Brand, focusing on what candidates think about an organisation. They look for ways to prove the perception wrong on a rational level or concentrate on ‘messaging’ that is designed to make people think something about an employer. But given scientists now think that 95% of brain function is determined by the subconscious not the conscious brain, if we focus just on what people think, we miss so much of what goes into candidate decision making. We need to be way more concerned with how people feel, not just what they think.

18. What is the one thing you wished you had learned earlier in life? That?

To be thankful for what you have. I suppose these days it’s called gratitude. But I often wonder if in days gone by, when society was more religious (any religion), if although people had much less than we have by today’s standards, whether they were actually more content because the act of prayer served as a prompt to be consciously thankful.

19. If you could add one question to the next person to answer what would it be?

If you were to win a fortune on the lottery, what would you do with the money and why?

20. Who would you recommend to do the next 20 questions with and why?

Leanne Knight – Global TA Director at SSP. One of the best bosses I have ever had and I learnt a lot from her

Thank you to Vicki Saunders for taking 20 Questions for The Brainfood Tribune. Make sure to follow Vicki on LinkedIn

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