Karen Callaghan

Interview with Innocent's People Director

I left university with a chemistry degree and considered all manner of careers from accountancy to fashion buying. But after going to a graduate assessment centre at United Biscuits, I joined its HR scheme and have never looked back. Coming from a scientific background, I am interested in analysing the root of an issue rather than its symptoms, but I also have a real passion for understanding the human dimension of work and finding ways to enable people to be at their best. I’m not afraid of discussing uncomfortable issues and I think the combination of these traits has been instrumental to my career progress.

A pivotal move for me was leaving my role as a consultant at Andersen and joining Standard Chartered Bank as an executive assistant to the HR director. The company was doing some amazing work transforming its HR function and I got first-hand experience of what strategic long-term people work looked like. That was a real turning point, and I went on to work there in organisational effectiveness, diversity, and graduate recruitment and development roles. I joined Innocent Drinks following a career gap year, attracted to its fast pace and strong ambition. It was a very people-centric business, looking to professionalise and step up its HR agenda. Both Standard Chartered and Innocent are values-led entrepreneurial businesses that really believe in the power of collective effort.

I’ve been at Innocent five years now and the first few were about ensuring we had a robust people infrastructure and set of practices, and an alive and vibrant culture, while we were growing. Recently we’ve been concentrating on how we can professionally develop each team, and I expect over the next few years the emphasis will shift back to expanding the business and our geographical reach. The organisation has nearly tripled in size since I joined and we now have about 280 employees. When we were hiring in large numbers, a lot of people were nervous it might dilute the culture. But if you keep values at the heart of your recruitment process, you will bring in people who enrich and strengthen the culture. We are also in the middle of delivering a leadership academy, which has been a great team effort, and will give us a pool of future leaders.

There is a need to balance acting quickly and decisively with being patient; people professionals also have to play the long game. Trying to embed cultures or develop people takes time, and some of the proudest moments of my career are when things that have taken years to create come to fruition. In the past I have made the mistake of trying to be all things to all people and, while addressing a whole spectrum of things is admirable, I think we need to be more discerning as a function, able to downplay some elements of the HR proposition and up-weight others.

I’ve recently completed a masters in people and organisational development, having been given the backing to go part-time. I am particularly interested in HR strategy, culture change and coaching, and how to increase the quality of everyday conversations and discussions within organisations. A higher level of insight is needed in HR; we have to step away from box-ticking and develop critical thinking skills to deliver a real difference to the business. I am really positive about the future of the profession. While I think there is much value in people coming into HR mid-career, people management is also now a key part of business degrees – so HR could be yet to see the best generation of graduates ever entering the field.


Education: Roffey Park Institute (masters in people and organisational development); Leeds University (chemistry degree)

Previous roles: Head of graduate recruitment and development; diversity and inclusion manager; organisational effectiveness manager; executive assistant to HR director, Standard Chartered Bank (2002-05); people strategy consultant, Andersen (2000-02); HR manager, United Biscuits (1997-2000)

Hobbies: Skiing, yoga, photography, training for Everest Base Camp trek