Debra Corey is an experienced international compensation and benefits director having worked across a variety of industries in companies such as Gap, Honeywell and Quintiles before starting at PageGroup in 2014 as global rewards director.
Daniel Briselden at Michael Page Human Resources spoke to Debra about her career journey and benefits programmes at PageGroup and across the United Kingdom.

Tell us about the journey you have taken to get where you are now in your career?

I have to be honest; I fell into my career. I was a competitive gymnast at university for my first few years. When I left to "experience university life" I realised that I had too much time on my hands and took a part-time job as a benefits assistant. I liked it so much that when I graduated I continued in the HR department, but this time as a compensation analyst as there were no roles available in the benefits area.
My career progression has involved working my way up the rewards career path, both from a functional perspective (e.g. from compensation roles to roles which included compensation and benefits, and then ones with a total rewards remit), and from a geographic perspective (moving from US roles to EMEA roles and finally to global roles). It's been hard work expanding my knowledge base, but definitely worth it as I love having such diverse and international roles.
Over the years I've worked in a variety of industries (retail, banking, pharmaceutical, and finally professional services) and a variety of companies including Gap, Honeywell, Quintiles, Merlin Entertainments and PageGroup. This experience and exposure throughout my journey has given me a broad perspective on different ways to handle the activities and challenges of a rewards function.

What has been the most defining moment in your career so far and why?

The most defining moment in my career was when I moved from the US to the UK to take on the role as senior manager compensation and benefits for Gap. From a personal perspective, it was the first time I had lived outside of the US, and from a professional perspective it was the first time I had an international role.
I applied for the role almost as a dare. I was told that I wouldn't get it as I didn't have the right experience. Never say that to a former competitive gymnast! It only made me want the role more. I'm so happy that I took a chance on the role and that Gap took a chance on me, because it has defined and redirected my career, moving me into the wonderful world of international rewards.
From a personal perspective, if I hadn’t moved to the UK, I would never have had the pleasure of adopting my children as we adopted them here. They are our lovely British gems!

Who has been a role model for you?

I've had two key role models. The first one was my manager at Gap, Steve Finlan. As a competitive gymnast, it was in my nature to "fight" for everything, as you work hard to attain each and every skill and trick. He taught me to think through which "battles" I wanted and needed to fight, and which ones I should quietly and patiently leave alone. To this day I can still hear him in my head, acting as my filter when deciding where I am adding value and where I am just adding noise.
My other role model is my current boss, Kate Chapman. She is like the perfect recipe; the right portions of HR knowledge/expertise, respect from business leaders, and the ability to motivate her team to stand behind her and do whatever it takes to get things done. Working with her has shown me the importance of getting these ingredients right for your company and your role, while also being true to yourself.

Do you believe the reward job profile has changed over your career and if so, how?

Yes, it has definitely changed throughout my career. We have moved from being very much a back office technical function to a true business partnering function. I remember early in my career having a boss who forbid us from going out and talking to business partners when evaluating job roles, saying it wasn't necessary and would slow us down. I quickly left this role, as I couldn't understand how I could do my role properly if I wasn't able to work directly with business partners.
In order to make this transition into true business partnering, we've had to expand our skills from being able to manage technical work to being able to understand the business, link our work to the business, influence and effectively communicate to the business. These changes are what have kept me in the rewards area, as they are what motivate and challenge me, as well as make the biggest difference to the business and to our employees.

What do you think is the most significant barrier to progression within the reward function?

I've seen two key barriers to progression in the reward function. The first is not being able to think and act as a business partner. I've seen people fail as they either feel uncomfortable with this approach and/or don't see the value. I've always encouraged my teams to get out there and "experience" the business, whether that meant spending time working on the shop floor when I was at Gap, to sitting with a recruitment consultant as they coach a candidate before their big interview.
The other barrier is not being able to effectively handle the demands of a role that can change from day to day and minute to minute. In the rewards role, we need to be able to support the business, even if it means juggling a variety of important tasks and projects. We have to do this in both a strategic and thoughtful way, ensuring that business partners understand how and when we can support them.

As the first global rewards director at PageGroup, what have you found to be your biggest opportunities and challenges?

When I joined the company as the first global rewards director almost a year ago, I was excited about the opportunity to walk into an organisation with a blank canvas but yet a lot of "paint". What I mean by this is that PageGroup already had in place a strong culture, values and clearly defined business strategy to work with, which provided me with the necessary tools (or paint) to develop the rewards canvas. There are so many opportunities to change or put in place reward programmes that will further drive business performance, increase employee engagement, and ultimately, assist in attracting and retaining our talent.
My biggest challenge is how to strategically prioritise the work that I'd like to deliver in our 36 countries. As with many of us, we want to do it all and we want to do it now, but in a new role such as mine it is even more important to be strategic in what we select to deliver, the timing and how it is delivered. It’s a challenge but an exciting one.

What have you done to review and change benefit programmes in the UK?

When I joined the company I found that we had many fantastic benefits already in place, but an opportunity existed to build upon these to align even more with our values and the needs of our diverse employee population, bringing together one holistic package. With the support of the leadership team, we began a project to define and develop a benefits roadmap.
We first gathered data, looking at what other companies were doing, and what was new and exciting in the marketplace, and then spoke to our employees about what was important to them. With this valuable information, we created our benefits roadmap, clearly defining where we wanted to go and the important "stops" along the way.

You said that you spoke to your employees, how did you do this and were there any surprises?

We spoke to our employees by conducting focus groups in offices across the UK, making sure we included employees at all levels of the organisation. We considered conducting a survey, but felt that when discussing potential new benefits it was (a) important that employees clearly understood the benefits before voicing their opinions and (b) employees had the opportunity to ask questions and provide robust feedback.
I know it shouldn't have been a surprise, but what I found was that as recruitment consultants, our employees were very aware of the variety of benefit programmes offered in the marketplace. This was invaluable, as they could not only speak from a personal perspective but provide additional insight as to what is happening in the marketplace. They were brilliant. I wanted to hire them all to come and work with me in the rewards function!

Why did you introduce a voluntary benefits programme as your first new benefit scheme?

We introduced our voluntary benefits programme (which we named "MyDiscounts") first for a few reasons, (a) because it was something that in focus groups employees consistently voted as what they were most interested in and excited about, (b) because it started the journey of bringing benefits online and interactive, and finally, because it was a quick win that would get employees excited about the beginning of our benefits journey.

How did you roll this new benefit programme out and what were the results from the launch?

Earlier in my career, I had heard that you need to communicate a message three times for it to be heard, so we came up with a three step communication plan. The first step was an email from me announcing the new benefit, second was posters which were hung up in office breakout rooms, and the third, was leaflets which were placed on desks. Just to make sure the message really got out there, we threw in a fourth communication tool, which was a text message at the very end of the launch period. By the way, as this was our first key benefits launch, we tracked the statistics on how effective each communication tool was, to assist us with further communication campaigns.
Another key part of the launch was a competition. We knew that once we got employees to the website, they would really appreciate this new benefit, but wanted to come up with a way to motivate them to register and get onto the website. We decided to have a competition, where anyone who registered would be eligible to win a reloadable card from the MyDiscounts website. We randomly picked 25 employees, who were quite excited about winning the competition. The competition not only got them onto the website to register, but by giving them a reloadable card it gave them their first taste of the benefit.

How has it been received by your employees?

We've had fantastic participation with this new benefit. Over 60% of employees have registered already, and savings have been made. I've also had employees write to me or stop me in the office to tell me how they've used the discount scheme and the money it has saved them.

What is next on your benefits roadmap?

Well I can't tell you too much, as I don't want to ruin the surprise for our employees, but as we've just announced our latest new benefit, I can tell you about this. We just announced that the next new benefit will be a cycle to work scheme, which will be launched in October. We are really excited about this, because it’s another benefit which during the focus groups employees consistently said they were interested in.
We've partnered with some keen cyclists from the business in selecting our provider, making sure that it will meet the needs of all levels, from novices such as me to those that cycle the streets of London.
The introduction of other new benefits on our roadmap will take place later this year and into the first half of 2015. After this we will start planning phase two, for as you know, when it comes to benefits, you need to keep looking at and refreshing your offering.

Page Executive Human Resources practice

Debra’s passion and drive has made her stand out in her sector. If you’re looking for your next Human Resources career opportunity or are looking to hire a top rewards professional, get in touch with Daniel Briselden for an initial confidential discussion.
T: +44 20 7269 2144