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Women in leadership interview: Kristine Pitts - Director, ExperienceLab Middle East

Name, Job Title, Years in Serco

Kristine Pitts, Director of ExperienceLab Middle East, 7 years in Serco

Tell us a little bit about your role.

I’m the director for ExperienceLab Middle East. I lead a team of customer experience and service design specialists. Serco is all about delivering superb public services that transform outcomes and make a positive difference for our fellow citizens. ExperienceLab’s human-centred design approach puts the customer at the centre and delivers empirical, objective evidence from real customers to transform the very way in which customers use, interact with and embrace a service or experience. Our purpose as a team is to make life better, one service at a time.

Describe your career progression, and what has supported you to progress to a senior leader position?

One thing that’s really enabled me to progress is my willingness and ability to spot an opportunity that many would walk away from. I started with Serco as a senior consultant in ExperienceLab UK in 2014. At this time, the team was experiencing a total change in staff. I went from being the newest to longest serving team member in the matter of 6 months. As the experienced team I had come to learn from left for other opportunities, I stayed with ExperienceLab and took the opportunity to go for a promotion and became principal consultant in 2015. In 2018 I took on the of head of practice. During my time with the UK team, I had the opportunity to play a key role of rebuilding the team and the business.

In 2019, I took on the opportunity to support the Dubai Airports Guest Experience bid. The success of this bid led to a secondment with Serco Middle East to set up an ExperienceLab team and function in Dubai – an opportunity I jumped on. Then COVID-19 hit. What followed was probably the most challenging 6 months of my life because I was away from my husband who was still in the UK, away from family and friends, setting up a new function, building and being in charge of a team and function of my own.

I did a lot of growing as a leader during this time. We definitely had some highs and lows, but the support I had from the ME team was invaluable. When the opportunity to make the role permanent arose, I didn’t hesitate.

At Serco, 44% of our Executive Leadership Team is made up of females – how do you feel the business has supported you?

Serco Middle East is unique in this way. The number of women in the ELT was a factor in convincing me to move here permanently.

I am lucky to work with a global ExperienceLab team that is made up of over 75% women and lead an all-female team here in Dubai.

I’ve always felt encouraged to take on more responsibility and found support when I needed to progress. It’s good to be able to say that my gender has not been a barrier to progression within Serco.

What barriers have you personally faced in your career when progressing into leadership positions, and what advice would you give to others to overcome these?

My first job as a graduate was as a university researcher. I got the role without having a PhD or even a masters, which is the usual requirement. It was meant to be a temporary position, but my contract kept getting extended. The work was interesting and before I knew it eight years had passed! The job taught me a lot, and I had a lot of “sink or swim” experiences because my manager at the time had blind faith in my ability. These experiences shaped how I deal with ambiguity and challenge today.

Looking back at this role, I see that staying as long as I did has slowed my progression. Not having the “right credentials” meant there was no real progression path. Professional development for employees who didn’t want to be a lecturer was also not particularly well-structured. For a long time, I lacked the encouragement to progress.

When I made the jump from academia to the commercial world, I undersold my skillset and abilities and I’d never considered whether I wanted to be a leader.

Lack of encouragement comes in many forms and has a big impact on career progression.

What makes a good leader?

It’s a mix of a lot of things. Managers are appointed by managers. Leaders are appointed by those who choose to follow them. The best leaders I’ve met inspire people. They make people feel part of the team, not just a cog in the machinery. The goal is to motivate followers to invest the energy required to make an organisation successful. Leadership is about relationships, knowing how to build trust and being aware of your impact on others.

Leadership requires emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and empathise with others, as well as the ability to value people for who they are.

How do you balance work and life responsibilities?

Over the past year and a half, the lines between work and life blurred more than ever as home became the office and many things were put on hold. I try to start and finish work at the same time each day. Once I leave my desk for the day, I try to switch off from work. My husband and I make the most of the weekends and ensure we both get a decent break. Working over the weekend is by exception only.

What has been the highlight of your career?

Being part of building an amazing team of talented individuals, first in the UK and now here in the Middle East. ExperienceLab has been on quite the journey of transformation, but I look at where the team is now and how we’re expanding globally and I’m so proud of what we have achieved. When I look back at my time with Serco, the individuals I’ve had the privilege to work with will be what I remember for years to come.

Who inspires you and why?

People who are authentic inspire me. They are those who have the courage to be imperfect and vulnerable in a world that expects us to be perfect and impervious. There is a bravery to it. I’ve been as inspired by my peers and people who have worked for me, just as much as I have been inspired by people that I have worked for.

What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders in Serco?

1.) Get an independent mentor. I’ve had many mentors over the years that I’ve worked with or worked for. However, one of the best things I’ve ever done was pluck up the courage to ask someone to be my mentor. She later told me how flattered she was that I asked. My advice is to go ask that person, who’s career or leadership style you admire, if they would be your mentor. You might very well be surprised.

2.) Learn from peers and juniors, not just senior leaders. I have learned a lot about being a leader from people who were my direct reports. They’ve thrown some crazy challenges at me, kept me honest, taught me about my leadership style and who I want to be. Some of the most helpful feedback I’ve had was from people who reported to me.

3.) Get yourself a support group. Being a leader is tough and it can get lonely – the more senior you are, the less you can realistically confide in your colleagues about your struggles. It’s very important to avoid venting to my own team and bringing them down with me. I have a group of amazing female friends – from very different companies and industries – who have bonded over a shared journey into leadership roles. I know I can reach out to them and vent my frustrations, discuss my challenges and celebrate my successes. They have helped me keep my imposter syndrome in check, kept me sane during difficult times and often helped find solutions. I think all female leaders can benefit from this.