15 minutes with: Rachael Brassey
Our experts are on the frontlines of bringing ingenuity to life for our clients. They accelerate new growth ideas from concept, through design and development to commercial success. And they revitalise organisations with the leadership, culture, systems and processes to make innovation a reality.
In this series, you’ll meet some of the brilliant minds creating change every day.
When Rachael Brassey fell into consulting, she fell on her feet. Now, she heads up PA’s People and Change team, working with clients across all industries to help organisations empower their people and lead into the future. In the next instalment of our 15 minutes with… series, Rachael explains how she started out in her role, explores the ingenious projects she is working on with her team, and offers advice to budding change agents with a passion for people and purpose.
What is your background and how did you come to PA?
I was born in Cheshire, growing up in a home in the middle of the countryside with lots of animals. I went to Exeter University to study politics, but I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I first came across consulting at a careers fair. My first experience of consulting was in strategy, working alongside ‘human performance change’ people. The more I worked with them, the more I realised that what they were doing was my real passion. In 2000, I joined PA to focus on people-centred transformation and business change.
How would you explain what you do to someone who had never heard of your role before?
I help organisations of all kinds, from consumer goods companies to defence organisations, to overcome complexity through a focus on their people. Every change that organisations go through – whether that’s buying another company, introducing new regulations, implementing a new technology solution, or creating a new product – has a people component.
My team and I assess and enhance the people impact of change in three stages. First, what is the change and why is it happening? Second, how will it affect people, what skills or capabilities will they need? And third, what will motivate people to drive and own the change? When people understand the change and how it affects them, they can apply their skills to make it happen. By effectively communicating with your teams and empowering them, they are more likely to deliver change successfully.
But there’s more to it than just change management. My team is full of HR experts, business psychologists, and ‘people people’ who help organisations truly understand their employees, and what matters most to them. We help leadership teams develop workforces and cultures to be proud of, enabling better employee experiences for all.
How has your work changed in recent years?
As the world around us changes, we’ve seen organisations change with it. There has been huge change in focus for organisations in recent years. The pandemic had a seismic impact on the appreciation of the people component of strategy, highlighting the importance of the human-centric element of business. Trends such as ‘quiet quitting’ and ‘the Great Resignation’ have changed the psychological contract between employees and their organisation. Now, people expect more from employers beyond the nine to five.
As a result, we’ve spent a lot of time helping organisations define their workforce strategies – how do they transform their workforces to ensure that the right skills are in the right place, at the right time. There’s also been an explosion in employee experience – from culture change to Diversity & Inclusion, to the importance of psychological safety. Leaders are realising that by empowering their people, they’re supercharging performance and creating genuine competitive advantage. Great people want to work for great organisations, it’s as simple as that.
What’s the role of ingenuity in the work that you do?
We take a radically human approach to everything we do, putting people at the centre. You can come up with the most amazing algorithms and the most life changing technology, but ultimately it’s people that are ingenious. And if you unleash that power, anything is possible.
It takes time to build the change muscle. Rather than running a traditional training programme and issuing comms, the client nudges its people to do small-scale activities every day for 10 to 30 seconds. Nudges can be sent via SMS, WhatsApp, or Teams, reminding people to do the activity until it becomes the normal way of working. Bringing people and technology together in new and exciting ways is something that I’m really passionate about.
Another brilliant example our team developed is helping our clients solve some of their most complex recruitment challenges through an attitude and aptitude approach. Take cyber skills. These skills are highly sought after, but scarce, and the public sector struggles to compete with private sector wages. We helped a defence and security sector client to access a rich throughput of cyber talent – critical to achieving their purpose.
A beautician and a hairdresser, now in middle management roles in cyber, might not have considered the career had they not seen the advert and given it a go. This opened up whole new opportunities for people, while helping the client to increase diversity of talent and thought. As well as helping the client fill their vacancies, we delivered an accessible approach that can now be used by other public sector organisations. Rather than just recruiting from red brick universities, they have access to a more diverse, representative talent pool across the UK.
What’s really exciting you at the moment within your work?
I’m really excited by the idea of shaping the future of leadership. One of the projects that really encapsulates this is the work we’ve done with Macmillan Cancer Support. Macmillan is the UK’s leading cancer care charity, and in many patients’ and their families most challenging moments, Macmillan step in.
Post-COVID, the team at Macmillan were faced with mounting pressures, including the threat of new disruption. The leadership team saw this as an opportunity to reconnect and re-energise, to ensure they felt equipped to guide their people with care and be the best team they could be. Traditional development approaches can often be underwhelming and tend to focus on negatives. Instead, we designed a leadership development programme that was underpinned by a strengths-based approach, guiding the team towards a deeper understanding of their personal strengths and how to use them to build their resilience, motivation, and performance. After six months, the team reported feeling a greater sense of mutual trust. And they said they felt more able to confidently tackle challenges as they arose, drawing on their colleagues’ strengths. The team are now well-placed to support more people living with cancer than ever before.
What project are you most proud of?
I'm very proud of the work that PA have been leading for the HYDRA team in the UK Royal Air Force (RAF). HYDRA is a team focused on creating new, modern infrastructure across radar sites, helping to support the UK’s air defence strategy. In such a high-pressure working environment, this team risked burnout. To prevent this, they needed to maintain high levels of psychological safety. We stepped in to help the leaders of the HYDRA programme understand psychological safety, and how it could help develop a sustainable, high-performing team.
This was an opt-in process, and every individual had the opportunity to meet our coaches so they could choose the right person to work with. We had to bring people along with us. It helped that our insights and interventions came from a varied and expert team, including a psychologist, and a team member bringing experience from elite sport.
What are your key goals for the future?
One of my key goals is to shape the future of leadership in client organisations and beyond. Our ‘new way to lead’ research is our most downloaded research report. I can't think of any C-suite leader who doesn't want to talk about leadership, and what to do individually and as a senior team to lead their organisation successfully into the future. The pandemic has had a significant shift on what people expect of their leaders… Some leaders are comfortable with that, others less so. It’s critically important for leaders to recognise what people need and adapt their approaches, both in terms of employee experience but also how they lead people throughout their career. One leader doesn't have to do it all – it can and should be a shared endeavour.
I’m also very focused on working with the team to shape People & Change at PA, enabling it to be the best that it can be. That means helping to ‘make the market’, not just responding to it. Identifying what clients will need from us in 12 months, two years, five years and beyond, and planning for that. A key part of that strategy is – unsurprisingly – our people. I want to develop incredible learning experiences for my teams and continue to build a community of passionate and extraordinary people. Mental health and wellbeing are very close to my heart. We have safe drop-in sessions within the team where we openly talk about important topics and themes, and it’s made a real difference. It’s something I think the team really appreciates. I’m very proud of the team we’re building here at PA, and the impact their work is having in the world.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps?
I'd love to tell you that I had this all planned out, but I didn't. Going into consulting was accidental.
My advice is to keep an open mind, because career paths are rarely uniform. My career path definitely wasn't what I anticipated. Be open to opportunity – I did a secondment for 18 months in 2011, working in-house for a global bio-pharma company. I truly believe that I'm a better consultant for having spent time out of consulting. One of the things I love about PA is the ability to boomerang. When people step out of consulting and come back again, they bring rich experiences with them.
We spend a lot of time at work, so try to do something that gives you energy. Don't be too fixed in what you think the future should be and how quickly you should reach a certain level.
What’s different about working with PA?
At PA, we roll up our sleeves, get in the mix, and deliver with our clients. We’re integrated in their organisation. Our experts have real-world experience, and truly understand the challenges organisations are facing.
We build strong, deep relationships, and that’s why our clients come back. I’ve worked with some of my clients for 20 years. They are friends as well as clients, and that says it all. When you work at PA, you are part of close working teams, and you develop lasting relationships.
People and Change at PA is full of inspiring individuals, and when you bring them together, they become incredibly powerful teams. We work across entire organisations, delivering end-to-end innovation and ingenuity for our clients. Take, for example, the emerging opportunity that AI can bring – we’re helping our clients to not only outline the technology strategy, but also understand how they can use it to better support their own people, develop trust in it, and embed it fully, encouraging their people to embrace change.
What are you looking forward to right now?
Simply I’m an optimist. I try to find the bright spots. I love the expression ‘commit random acts of kindness’. In the context of PA, we’ve come so far since the company started in the 1940s. Just look at the incredible work we do at our technology centres, genuinely changing the quality of peoples’ lives through innovation in medical devices.