D&I in fashion and luxury: Interview with Erica Bourne, chief people officer, Burberry
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI)

D&I in fashion and luxury: Interview with Erica Bourne, chief people officer, Burberry

Erica Bourne, chief people officer at Burberry, discusses defining and executing on diversity and inclusion strategies and the future of work.
Erica Bourne
Erica Bourne image

Erica Bourne joined Burberry in 2019. Prior to that, she was executive vice president, Human Resources Advisory Services and Market Enablement at American Express, and manager, London at Deloitte.

Paul Russo was named Group CEO of KCB Group, a leading Pan-African bank headquartered in Nairobi, in 2022. Russo spent much of his career in HR, which is a relatively unusual background for CEOs.1 In his current role, he is taking a holistic approach to leadership development, team building, and driving transformational change, and is putting assessments at the core of much of that work. In this Q&A, he explains his approach.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Heidrick & Struggles: What leadership capabilities helped you take the steps from HR director to CEO?

Paul Russo: Well, I did a degree in business management. And then I interviewed for management trainees at Eastern African Breweries. It was a standard recruitment process, and when we got to the final, I was asked which function I wanted to join as a trainee. I said marketing. Then I ended up in human resources. But I consider myself highly commercial. I did that for two years. And then joined another FMCG as a head of human resources. And then ended up in banking, in human capital. 

What I would say across all that experience is I was involved in your typical HR role: transformation roles, leading change, right sizing organizations across different markets, supporting key business initiatives. I worked in five countries, which gave me experience in different cultures. So, one important thing was I always raised my hand, or I’m thrown into the deep end. 

When I joined KCB from Barclays as a group HR director, I was brought in on the basis of transformation. After two years, I ended up being a receiver manager of a bank, reopening a bank that had been closed, working with the resources to do that, which we did for three years. And I would say that was the opening. Success at that gave me the opportunity to move now to business. And the rest is history. 

Heidrick & Struggles: As you think about the challenges that KCB Group is facing now, to what extent would you say leadership and talent excellence are important to those challenges, either as part of the challenge, or part of the solution, or both? 

Paul Russo: When I look at almost two years in this role at KCB, there is no doubt the top line is growing, strongly. Our biggest challenge has been the quality of the credit book, because it has a negative impact on your capital and negative impact on return to shareholders. So, the last two years have been cleaning that up. I knew it would be a painful two years. 

Now, 2024 is the beginning. When you want to turn around an organization, people need to be aligned with you at the center of what you do. I have formed a core message for my people: I say three things are going to help us deliver our strategy: people, technology, partnerships. But if I sum up the three, it is actually all people. Because technology wouldn’t be anything without people. And at the core of partnership is people with a common objective. 

Heidrick & Struggles: Where did you start in understanding the executive team and the larger organization? 

Paul Russo: The first thing was we had to ask ourselves, was what is our purpose? Is it still relevant, do we need to refine it, or do we need to take a different position? That is work we just did before and when I was appointed. Because you rally your people around your purpose. It is away from any person; it is a collective. That definition of that purpose was both bottom up and from the leadership team. 

Our purpose is “for people, for better.” For every person we touch, everything we do, anything that touches on people, we must leave them better. Easy way to explain, right? Now, if you have got that purpose, how do you align the organization and everybody in the organization to that? Particularly on customer-centricity within that “for people, for better.” 

Two things must happen. One is typical communication. Everyone must understand. If you really want to change culture, it is in my view what I call heart, mind, and hand. You have got to gather people to understand, which is you communicate. And you need to let the people love it, which means they come to the table around it. The most difficult thing is the hand. How do you get people to do it, to practice it, to live it?

We did very good work on communication. But to get it into action we believe that you need leaders going down and living it. So I felt it was important that every leader went through the same level of assessment as I had during the CEO selection process—because I thought, if you believe leadership is at the core of transforming an organization culture, as well as performance, then we must all start from the same base. 

I found our assessment reports were nearly 99% accurate and reflective of the people. And I’ve had the opportunity to not only see my own report and reports of colleagues who were competing for the role, but also subsequent colleague reports. 

But this is a 127-year-old organization. We operate in six geographies. The question became, how do we make sure that it is inclusive, and we don’t run too far as a leadership team without having the rest of the team members on board? So, we then brought the rest of the executives to go through the same assessments and join us in building personal development plans and momentum. 

I actually stood in front of a forum and prepared a presentation of my assessment as an individual. I put out what I will do to address those areas of development and what is expected from the leadership team. And I really meant it, because as a CEO, I thought the only way to carry these people, to change the minds of those who think “those assessments may be for other things,” let me just step up and say, here it is, I am not perfect as a CEO. Therefore, you will not be perfect as an individual. The choice is yours whether you are going to take ownership or not. I have chosen to take ownership of my development. When we play back the 360 feedback for the team, we need to get to a level where we say, okay, here is how we will build a critical mass of people to drive change.

You have to find solutions as an individual and as a team. Because if you just handle the reports at the individual level, you will not tackle the institutional problems. Even as you work on your plan, as a leadership team, as a collective, these are the common things. If I fix mine, and you do not fix yours, we’re not turning around the organization. As a leadership team, we can now identify the core blockers. For example, we always said that we were approachable. 360-degree assessments showed us that nine out of ten executives made it difficult for anybody to give feedback. So, we’ll take that, and tackle the common top five blockers of the team.

Heidrick & Struggles: When did you first see the power of assessments as another way to help yourself develop and to help you get to know your team and how they can develop individually and together?

Paul Russo: With some assessments you go into them knowing it is life or death. Either you make it, or you don’t make it. When I was assessed in a way that got to a holistic view, that was a massive takeaway. The details and depth of the report in that kind of assessment make it different. You can really own your own personal development, and you can make progress working through. And we make sure that people are supported. 

Here at KCB there’s also ownership at the board level. There’s sponsorship at the board level. There is follow through by the board to track what management has done or what they have not done. I can anchor on that to drive the change. 

Heidrick & Struggles: How do you weigh the importance that you and the board put on assessments compared with other ways of understanding people’s achievements and potential as you build a team? 

Paul Russo: On this side of the world, and particularly in Africa, assessments are very important. Because first, they deliver independence. Typical interviews can be influenced in very many ways. It is always who you know. These remove that bias. The assessments show who fits the profile the board asked for. If you did not pass, then effectively you don’t go to the board interview. And nobody can say they were left out for any other reason. That is very powerful. Then, who the board picks among those who go through is their problem. Especially for an entity like KCB, of which the government owns 30%. The transparency of the recruitment process is crucial. That is why I now put everyone we are hiring through that process. 

Heidrick & Struggles: We have talked about assessments in hiring and assessments for individual and team development. Do you also, or do you plan to, link assessments to other processes like promotion requirements or executive succession planning or other parts of your executive HR function?

Paul Russo: It is there. The moment we linked assessments to performance management, it took care of all the rest. The performance development plan from your own individual assessment, the development plan from the 360-degree, the development plan for the team, all that is part of the assessment going forward. What I like about assessment is that it not only takes a performance position but also takes a potential position. So even if we do not promote you, we can work on your potential, right? So, we have internal candidates, for example, that do not get the executive role. But their assessment and their potential is already there for us to work on. It becomes the work of the person who takes over the role to follow through on the potential development of that person as part of succession planning. It also tells us if there is a red flag, when someone is not going to go anywhere, so we also take actions on that. 

Heidrick & Struggles: Are there specific metrics or ways you consider the return on KCB’s investment in assessments? Financial metrics or retention metrics, for example? 

Paul Russo: At the end of the day, if as a collective, as a leadership team, we do not deliver return on shareholders, there will be a question. Because you can all be top players, but if you are not delivering results, there is no value. But most important, it is the health of the organization that is reflective of the quality of leaders you have. I look at that from the organization and departmental level, and I do not look at a score, I look at the progress over time. Are you improving, are you deteriorating, as a unit? Then, individually, the 360s are a very powerful tool because they point out whether your peers and your direct reports are seeing progress. If we are measuring the right things, and you are making progress, then we are definitely making progress as an organization. Because it impacts people. 

Also, I am a big believer in signals. And, for example, there was a board meeting yesterday. Typically, they expect me to chair the meeting. Yesterday, the team ran it without me. Because that is another way to assess whether you are making progress. Quantitative and qualitative measures that you need to check. And now, I am starting to play with the leadership of the team to see how they will step up. 

Finally, at the end of the day, the brand index is very important. The quality of leadership must show in how the brand is perceived outside. It is not a marketing item. The culture, the customer experience, how we deliver customer experience, those influence how the brand is perceived in the market. I expect us to be improving from a brand index perspective as well. 

Heidrick & Struggles: Stepping back, do you have one most important piece of advice for other CEOs who are building and developing their teams right now? 

Paul Russo: I would say you have got to take interest to the lowest level of staff. It is extremely draining, it is energy expensive, but in Africa, if there is no connection, if there is no belonging, you will be leading with financials only. You have to be deliberate. People just do not matter, they are everything. 

And as a CEO, it is not just your direct reports, it is everybody in the organization. We have 300 branches across six markets. I make it my business to go to branches, to engage. By the time I come back, yes, I am tired, but the feedback I have received, the energies I have gained— it is just amazing. 


1 For more on the background of sitting CEOs in markets around the world, see Route to the Top 2023, Heidrick & Struggles.

Stay connected

Stay connected to our expert insights, thought leadership, and event information.

Leadership Podcast

Explore the latest episodes of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast