‘Be adaptable, keep on learning and follow your passion’: in conversation with Kim Atherton
Kim Atherton, based in the UK, discusses a range of topics with us from mentors and life mottos to building a successful career and the future of HR. Co-founder of an OKR software tooling company, previously Chief People Officer at OVO Energy and occupational psychologist by background, Kim chats with us about her range of experience with agile practises over the years and offers career advice.
Q: What is your career background and experiences with agile practices?
A: I started my career as an occupational psychologist and I specialised in psychology of change. This was way before anyone had used the word agile, but essentially it was a very similar mindset. For the first seven years of my career, I worked on how to recruit for learning agilities and how to foster a growth mindset within organisations. I was helping to coach Leaders and CEOs around how they can lead change and role model ways of working.
In 2012 I joined OVO, a green energy tech start up of around 50 people. Coming into a startup allowed me to take different and fresh approaches. I was the Chief People Officer so I worked on the end-to-end employee journey, from recruitment and development to organisation design. This is when I started learning about the concept of agile and helped the CTO to re-organise into value streams and outcome based nested teams, a concept which we then took organisation wide as we scaled the business to 2,000 employees and Unicorn status.
After we had gone through this transformation, I was being asked all the time whether our people were focused on the most important outcomes. Our HR system, whilst being the modern market leader, could only display hierarchical reporting lines rather than value streams, so we couldn't tell where our talent was allocated. The same system could also only show goals in a hierarchical nature rather than nested value, and very importantly our goals weren't transparent.
I wanted a tool that had radical transparency so that we could tell who was in which team, what everyone was working on, and how the outcomes were nested. I couldn’t find one, so I built my own, called ‘Just 3 Things’. I had never done software development before, and it was not my background, so I hired some help. After two years of success at OVO, I spun J3T out as a separate business in 2019 and I became the CEO and Founder of a startup with clients including Deloitte, NatWest Group, and Domestic & General. I just sold the business in December, and here I am doing consultancy.
Q: And how do you maintain a work-life balance?
A: It's really hard to resist the urge, but I make sure I don’t work on the weekends, so I try to plan things with my kids. To chill out, I do lots of yoga and I try to do meditation - although it's all still a work in progress!
Q: Who is your mentor and how have they influenced you?
A: Barry O'Reilly really was an amazing mentor for me during the last four or five years. I met with him about once a week and he helped me with the product led lens because I had never done product led development before, and he’s an expert. He is also just a really patient listener if you are a startup entrepreneur.
He wrote a book called ‘Unlearn’ which was really helpful in thinking about which skill sets I need to unlearn to be successful in new environments and how failing fast is the key to learning quickly. The thing I take through my career is that failure is not failure, but a learning opportunity, and it's only when you've failed as many times as I have, that you become really good at recognizing that it's not personal.
Q: What is your life motto?
A: I think it might have to be “enjoy the journey” or “always keep learning,” whichever sounds less cheesy :)
Q: What advice would you give your 25 year old self?
A: Work in an area that you enjoy because then you'll be motivated to do it. There's no point in trying to do something you're not motivated to do. I wouldn't have changed what I did for my 25 year old self. I'm really glad that I chose a degree and a masters in something I was passionate about and motivated to study.
Q: What are your long-term career goals?
A: For better or worse, I have never mapped out my career! I am good at grasping opportunity even when it might be going into the unknown. It was a bit scary to go from being an occupational psychologist to being a Chief People Officer of a scale up. It was really scary to go from this to a software entrepreneur, but it’s been a fun journey.
Q: How do you stay motivated and engaged in your work?
A: If you get the secret to this one, then let me know! But I tend to be motivated by either client or people interaction. I'm also really motivated with things I think will make the workplace better.
Q: What is the most important aspect of building a successful career?
A: I think it always goes back to not relying on the skills that you've had in the past to make you successful in the future. As an occupational psychologist, the skills that made me successful are nothing like the skills in HR and nothing like the skills I used for software development. It's about being adaptable and always learning.
Q: In your opinion, what is the future of HR?
A: The name Human Resources is hideous, the idea that humans are resources is awful. People in HR are seen as these dragons that are old fashioned and they don't know anything about agile ways of working. But typically people go into HR because they want to make employees happier…so I can see human resources evolving into a leading force for ways of working, which would be great because I think people in HR would be really motivated to do that because they really do want to help people.
I can see it evolving even further than just being called a “people department” … I can imagine HR becoming a Ways of Working Department that specialises in mindset changes.
Q: And finally, what are your top three takeaways from your experience?
A: Fail often and fast, enjoy the journey and stick with your passions!
Interview conduced by: Reena Ahdout
Edited and written by: Annabelle Smart and Kendall Floyd