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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Inspiring Leaders – Ruth Kennedy, CEO, TalkTalk Business

Linda Walmsley, a seasoned professional interviewer and the owner of Walmsley Wilkinson, a UK executive and management recruitment firm, continues her 2024 series of interviews with business leaders who are recognised as inspiring figures.

A highly experienced senior executive with more than 20 years’ experience in telecommunications, Ruth joined TalkTalk in 2011. Since then, she has held a variety of senior roles across sales, commercial and operations in TalkTalk’s Wholesale (now known as PlatformX Communications Ltd.) and Group Business Units.

Ruth has a proven track record of enhancing operational performance and driving transformational changes to yield outstanding, sustainable results. Her inspiring leadership style, coupled with her ability to adapt to all situations, has enabled her to motivate and lead her teams to deliver exceptional business performance while maintaining the highest levels of professionalism and integrity. As Chief Executive Officer of TalkTalk Business, Ruth is focused on delivering best-in-class customer experience, optimising operations and driving product innovation for the over 80,000 UK businesses it serves.

Outside of TalkTalk Business, Ruth is involved in a significant amount of charity work, having most recently been appointed as Trustee of Wearside Women in Need (WWIN) – a charity established to provide specialist domestic abuse support.
What were your career aspirations when you were younger?
I wanted to be a nurse in the Army. It wasn’t a burning desire, but I clearly remember that I felt I needed something that motivated me and something that was very structured with direction, so the Army ended up being a great choice for me. There’s a lot of pressure on young people now to make a decision at that age. For me at that age, it was more about what I would find interesting rather than career aspirations.
Who or what, has inspired you in your life and career?
I believe you gain something from anyone that you look up to – whether it’s a peer, a leader in the industry, a politician or a person who has done great charity work. I genuinely believe you can learn something good and bad from everyone. So regardless of how many may feel about her now, Margaret Thatcher has always been an influence and as a trailblazing female leader, I admire her story. To be the first female Prime Minister – at a time when it was unheard of for women to have such power – is nothing short of exceptional. She’s the embodiment of determination and strength and reached the very top of her profession. And when you consider she was also a mother of two, I look back and think how hard that must have been. and what an achievement.
What five words best describe you?
Organised, Determined, Decisive, Fair and Fun
Do you have a favourite saying or quote?
It’s not a quote, however I have a couple of sentiments I live by – You’re always in charge of your own destiny and something else I remind myself of and my team is to always think about people’s intent. Just because you might take something one way, is that really their intent of what they were trying to say? Think of the bigger picture. The way you interpret something is your perception and may be quite different from the intention.
Is there a particular technology you are passionate about?

I think it’s really important to understand the benefits of AI and what it can do, not only for TalkTalk Business, but for the wider community. As a leader in the tech sector, I think it’s essential that we recognise the incredible potential of AI and embrace the positive change it can bring. People may worry about AI’s impact on them and their role – and this is an understandable response – so it’s important to manage people through that, to help them understand that change can be a good thing and how we can make the best of it.  AI is a key focus for us at TalkTalk Business.
How should the Human Resources function operate within any business?

As of September 2023, we have demerged from the TalkTalk Group and are proud to be operating as a standalone business with our own strategy. With this new independence, we have established a number of new functions and systems which were previously covered by Group, including our own HR function with our own HR systems. I have always worked in large organisations where you already have a HR resource, so this process has been a real education!

For me, HR is very much about the employee – they are pivotal. HR is a critical part of the management team and I think they should be engaged in every part of the decision-making process. Our People Director is with us from the beginning to the end of every conversation – we have to make sure that we’re doing the right thing for the employee and the business.
Has workplace diversity and inclusion now become embedded or is there still much more to do?

I’m pleased that at TalkTalk Business, we are very strong in this area. I’m proud to have a leadership team equally split in terms of gender diversity and we have no shortage of brilliant female talent at every level of the business. So, from this point of view, I don’t feel there is much more we need to do, although I recognise the importance of keeping a constant check on ourselves to ensure we continue on the right path.

However, I do believe that within the wider tech industry, there is more work to be done, with only around 26% of tech workers being female. Personally, I would also like to see a greater focus on promoting inclusivity for people with disabilities. How do we replicate the same great progress in this area as we have in the realm of male/female diversity and ensure that people with autism and neurodiversity issues, for example, can truly feel part of the workplace. I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

We work closely with Ambitious about Autism, and they have an Employ Autism programme, which TalkTalk Group are part of and we’re looking to participate in in the future. That’s where I think the next big step is. We will continue to hold ourselves to account in every way, from a female representation perspective, from an LGBTQ+ perspective and ensure that our policies are fit for purpose to support that element of wider inclusion as well.
What legislation would you amend or implement to support UK business?

I feel there is more the Government can do with regards to the Apprenticeship Levy and that this could benefit from reform. As the mother of a 16- and 18-year-old, I do think about how they and others can gain access to more options when they’re leaving school and the different routes they could potentially take. I believe the Apprenticeship Levy could offer broader and more effective support to young people than it does now.
In your opinion what elements are key to being a successful CEO?
I think for me, whether it’s a CEO or a senior leadership team remit, my job is there to motivate, develop and mentor people, making sure that everyone understands what they need to do and how they need to do it. I think why I have been successful is because I am a very fair, transparent person; I am clear and decisive on what needs to happen. I believe if you keep everybody motivated and empowered to be able to perform their role, then that creates the strong foundations to bring success for the wider team and drive business performance.
What is your biggest career highlight or achievement to date?

I am delighted to be leading TalkTalk Business into its next stage. It’s a wonderful opportunity. I’ve had a fantastic career within the TalkTalk Group, and I feel very privileged to have been able to learn from some of its great leaders, such as Tristia Harrison and Charles Dunstone. I think for me, over the last five years, I’ve been supported to take on a variety of different roles within the organisation. Every one of these experiences has been invaluable in shaping my growth, so while I can’t pinpoint it down to a single opportunity, I must acknowledge the immense support from Tristia and the wider opportunities she gave me to take experience from the Group.
What’s next for you and TalkTalk Business?
Since becoming a standalone entity last September, we’ve started a brand-new chapter with our own shareholders and complete independence from the TalkTalk Group. With this new autonomy, our destiny is firmly in our hands and we have a huge opportunity to take our business to the next level. We have been part of this wider group structure for the last 20 years and are currently hard at work demerging and untangling these systems and processes and establishing our own. We have our own HR, Finance and IT systems in place and the next year is all about setting ourselves up for success. Once these essential components are firmly bedded in, we will start looking for other opportunities.

We’re going to be more forward-looking and think bigger than ever. We’re laser-focused on embracing digital automation and we’re going to expand our portfolio with new and exciting products and innovative offerings. And throughout, our priority will remain to delight our customers and empower them to exceed their ambitions.

 What I keep saying to all my team is we have to get the next year right. If we don’t get the foundations right, then we won’t be able to do any of the exciting stuff in years two and three. It’s a really, really pivotal time for us as we set ourselves up with our own identity, potentially a new office location, a new leadership team – so watch this space.


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