Leading the way in UK nuclear culture

Peter Mack

By Peter Mack

For countries around the globe to meet their net zero commitments, nuclear energy must play a much more prominent role in the energy mix. A significant shift across the industry is needed to make this happen. Especially in terms of culture.

Prior to COP26 we published The Connection Imperative. The report, produced in collaboration with the Nuclear Industry Association, outlined the role culture can play in boosting performance to deliver clean, safe, and secure energy as part of the net zero transition.

Since our report launched, nuclear’s role in the UK domestic energy supplies is more important than ever before, with the spotlight being further amplified at COP28 through the commitment to ‘triple nuclear energy by 2050’.

Culture will be critical to helping the sector realise its ambitions. In the original report, we provided five recommendations to the industry:

  1. Reframe and reinforce nuclear’s purpose
  2. Activate inclusion
  3. Create urgency for performance
  4. Collaborate to innovate
  5. Embed new mindsets.

Following the launch of The Connection Imperative, we worked with Rolls-Royce and Dounreay Site Restoration Limited to implement our recommendations. Most notably, we focused on culture shaping approaches. This included developing internal resources, implementing continuous improvement conversations about specific mindsets and behaviours, and understanding and responding to change using our measurement approaches.

To explore the impact, understand experiences of leaders taking the recommendations onboard, and outline how to use culture to accelerate the production of cleaner, safe, and secure energy, we interviewed Adam Ellis, Talent and HR Director at Rolls-Royce SMR and Mark Rouse, Managing Director at the NRS Dounreay Site.

Connecting people to purpose

Why is purpose so important to your organisation?

Adam Ellis (AE): People perform when they’ve got purposeful work, when they understand the value their work brings, and can contribute to something greater than a nine to five job. It doesn’t matter whether they’re doing administrative roles or high-end nuclear engineering. Purpose connects their world and what’s important to them to work in a way that is authentic.

For example, people are worried about climate change and that not enough is being done. I think of people who work for us whose kids ask: “Mum, Dad – what are you doing about this?” and they’ve got a fantastic answer to give them: “I’m working to radically decarbonise our environment and reduce our use of fossil fuels. That’s what I do every day when I go to work.”

There’s a powerful purposeful connection that motivates our people to perform because they feel they’re working for a clean energy business. I’m competing for talent across the across the sector, so we need to differentiate ourselves as being more than just energy producers. People want to feel part of something that’s new, novel, and gives them an opportunity to shape things that matter.

Mark Rouse (MR): Purpose is very important to our business. We need to be able to motivate people on the work we’re doing to clean up the UK’s nuclear legacy. We also need to connect with what purpose means for our people and their motivations. We need to connect these things together. It’s something we need to talk about together.

Shaping mindsets and behaviours

PA: In The Connection Imperative we talked about UK nuclear organisations needing to embed new mindsets. Can you give an example of mindsets that have been important for you to focus on?

MR: Collaboration and learning from each other. Dounreay is quite a compartmentalised place. This is because we work with small cells and hazardous materials with individual controls. So, ways of working could be very different in one part of the site than they are in another facility. There’s a lot of potential for us to learn from each other, and to be more consistent in how we work together. Another mindset is feeling safe to take improvement action. People in nuclear often, without thinking, are waiting to be empowered and have a bias towards thinking about problems. This can lead to a debilitating negativity. We needed to create a safe space for people to put forward and implement ideas.

AE: Mindsets that are important for us are around agility and creative thinking. We need agility because nobody's done what we are doing before: the modularisation and assembly of a power plant.

PA: You’ve implemented team-based conversations about specific mindsets you want to see more of. Why did you do this?

AE: Ideation happens all the time in business, but turning an idea into reality probably happens in less than one percent of instances. You can't do that without a conversation, so we implemented a structured way of allowing this to happen.

We needed a method, a tool, to collaboratively talk about our ways of working and how to improve them. For example: how can we make the plant a reality within the time frames we’ve set? Our ‘Big Conversations’ generate the ability to have a conversation across the business around where we're going, what we're doing, and how can we learn when we get it wrong. ‘Big Conversations’ is a really good tool to engage people, make sure they know all ideas are created equal, and enable the best ideas to be acted upon.

MR: It seems sensible to try a different approach and engage people directly through conversations on culture and safety, with an emphasis on what we’re good at that we want to do more of.

Dounreay has been through a lot of change. But what glues it together is culture in a location where people are closely connected as a society, as a community. When I took on the leadership of the Dounreay site, the way I wanted it to feel was open and connected.

PA: Why is it so important to drive bottom up ‘social change’ from within?

MR: It’s what people do together that makes an impact on performance. It's important for supervisors to create conversations with their teams about behaviours and ways of working. We’ve provided some structure and a tool to enable that to happen.

I wanted to implement an approach that built confidence by starting with looking at what we’re good at and why, and how we can build on that to be even better.

We needed to go direct to the source, those who deliver the work and have ideas about how to improve it. We needed a way to get them involved in conversations about our culture, because culture is related to the safety of people who are doing the work.

AE: My 30 years in HR taught me this is how we need to engage people and teach ourselves to listen so that we collaborate. It’s not enough for, say, a team to cascade messages out and wonder why they don’t percolate. Or for engagement to be about ticking the box of an annual survey.

What’s stark and even more difficult post-pandemic is that teams are seldom together at once, so we need to equip them with conversations that reconnect them with purpose and improves how we deliver our outcomes.

Activating inclusion

PA: In The Connection Imperative we talked about purposefully activating inclusion, as opposed to simply setting targets around it. What does it mean for you, and why is it so important for UK nuclear organisations?

AE: To ensure our leaders are inclusive we screen them when we're hiring and promoting through our strength-based approach. We also give performance management feedback when people haven't been inclusive. If our leaders aren’t inclusive, they’re in the wrong company. We must be comfortable removing people from the business, despite how capable and competent they are in their skill sets.

MR: Inclusion can’t just be forced through the organisational hierarchy, though that might be where it starts. By helping our managers facilitate ‘Big Conversations’, we’re giving them tools and techniques to draw out voices and perspectives that are sometimes in the minority.

PA: You’ve taken a strengths-based approach to how you attract and recruit. What outcomes has that given you?

AE: We’re seeing more people coming to us because of our strengths-based focus on how we publicise roles. On average, most of our jobs are oversubscribed by a power of 10 in terms of applicants. Our hiring managers are now strengths-based recruiters, so they see people in a different way, compared to looking through a narrow competency-based lens. We've increased representation of women in the workforce by 12.5% in one year. And, 70% of our hires come from outside the nuclear sector.

PA: What are the challenges for leaders who want to activate inclusion in the way you describe?

MR: Understanding that working on culture isn’t a one off. It’s what I call one of my ‘forever tasks’ because culture is such an important part of the dynamic of our company.

Leaders also need to be able to articulate how culture and inclusion fits into the rest of the work we need to do, and how it helps managers achieve better performance through their people. Culture needs to be built into the plan if we’re serious about making it happen.

AE: Being serious about inclusion puts a spotlight on our leadership in a way that can be uncomfortable. But you've got to deal with it in an authentic and proper way. Be prepared to measure leaders based on their leadership and not on their subject matter expertise.

Rolls Royce SMR and NRS Dounreay are experiencing tangible benefits from focusing on their culture. These include:

  1. Targeted employee engagement, in the areas in which they focused their ‘Big Conversations’
  2. Implementation of improvement ideas, with hundreds of improvements surfaced and implemented by teams
  3. Significant changes in ways of working, particularly around collaboration, taking ownership for business improvement, and psychological safety.

These are recognised by both organisations as important indicators of their ability to deliver at pace and make their contribution to a cleaner and more secure energy future.

The Connection Imperative

How to make the UK nuclear industry pivotal to net zero and beyond


With the right leadership, innovation, and with commitment across the supply chain, nuclear will play a pivotal role to play in our carbon-neutral future.

About the authors

Peter Mack
Peter Mack PA people and change expert

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