Kevin Green: “HR can’t just sit at the side and create nice messages”

First Bus' chief people officer on the importance of putting sustainability at the heart of a significant transformation agenda

Kevin Green: “HR can’t just sit at the side and create nice messages”

He’s a former Royal Mail HR director who spent the best part of a decade as CEO of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, not to mention holding non-executive director positions with a plethora of organisations, including chair of Timewise. Over the last few years, Kevin Green has enjoyed, as he puts it, the “plural life”, boasting an enviable portfolio career. And yet, after joining FTSE 250 transport provider First Bus as interim HR director in 2021, he subsequently found himself signing up permanently in September.

At a crucial time for the transport sector, as both employees and customers begin to vote with their feet around organisations’ environmental, social and governance (ESG) activity, People Management spoke to Green about First Bus’s ambitious plans to improve sustainability and its impact on the climate crisis.

What is First Bus doing to improve its environmental impact?

As a provider of public transport with around 5,500 diesel vehicles, this is clearly a big issue for us. Our customers, partners and the government are saying this is important, and we want to be assertive and show that transport companies can take this agenda and run with it. By 2035, we’ll be carbon neutral for emissions – that means spending £100m a year for the next decade to replace our entire diesel fleet with electric and some hydrogen vehicles.

At the same time, we’re in the process of a big organisational transformation, moving from being an asset-based business focused on buses, to one that’s more customer and service-orientated, and trying to encourage more people out of their cars and onto the bus. So our culture is changing against the backdrop of big decarbonisation efforts, and we’re planning to use this to engage our people so they understand this is a differentiator in the market. Surveys tell us our staff love that we are trying to have an impact on climate change in a sustainable way.

What HR challenges will that bring?

It’ll change how we hire and train bus drivers. At the moment it’s about their technical skills, but we need them to think about how they engage customers. We’re starting to measure our NPS and compare ourselves to other service businesses rather than other transport organisations. 

It will involve retraining our engineers as well, as we move to electric and hydrogen. We’re thinking about how our apprenticeship programme can help, and looking into training and development, and management capability for frontline staff. The aim is to create an environment where people feel it’s not happening to them, but where we’re educating them about why this is a good business strategy. 

Why is it key for HR to drive this work?

We’re trying to unlearn what we’ve been doing for a long time. That creates tension, and that tension is what HR needs to work through. We’re changing mindsets, attitudes, skills, capability and how we do things, so HR needs to be at the centre. We can’t just sit on the sidelines and create nice messages: it has to be real and meaningful. If your people don’t understand, it will just be seen as a nice thing to do. That’s why it’s exciting: because people can see this isn’t just lip service. 

What advice would you give other organisations considering their impact on the environment?

Ask why this is important. Talk to your workforce and your customers, and if it’s in the top five reasons they choose your company, then you need to have a response. When you’re thinking about competing for young talent, consider if it can help you differentiate yourself and attract people you normally wouldn’t. It’s becoming a question HR can’t ignore; it needs to be a question of how you compete, make money and become successful, and sustainability is part of the answer. The government has been very clear about setting direction and focus, now every organisation needs to choose the right way to do this for themselves.