Thursday, November 08, 2007

Elizabeth Divver - The Big Issue

How old are you?

What’s your occupation and who do you work for?
I am the Group HR Director for The Big Issue.

The inspiration for The Big Issue came from “Street News”, a paper that Gordon Roddick, Chairman of the Body Shop, saw in a visit to New York. John Bird launched the Big Issue in London in September 1991 with start-up funding from the Body Shop Foundation.

The guiding principle of The Big Issue remains unchanged since it was founded: self help. If someone is insecurely housed (which could mean rough sleeping, but could also mean living in a squat, a hostel or council bed & breakfast) they are eligible to sell The Big Issue to support themselves legally. Big issue vendors buy the magazine and sell it to the public, keeping the profit. We do not give credit or sale and return, so from the first day someone starts selling The Big Issue they must also start managing their own money, working out what they can reasonable expect to sell, and generally start thinking like someone running a small business.

So selling The Big Issue changes people’s mindsets and allows them to take control of their lives in a way that no other agency working with the homeless replicates.

Massive step forward though this is, we realised that it was not enough. Our vendors have all sorts of needs and so, in 1995, The Big Issue Foundation was set up. The Foundation also embraces the principle of self-help; when one of our vendors reaches the point that they are ready to take control of other aspects of their lives, whether it be dealing with addiction or a health problem, or equipping themselves with skills to enter (or re-enter) the job market, the Foundation is there to support them to achieve their goals by their own efforts.

The Big Issue Company Ltd was such a phenomenal success, that other Big Issues were set up. The group currently consists of The Big Issue Company Ltd based in London and covering the South East, East Anglia and the Midlands of England, The Big Issue South West based in Bristol, The Big Issue Cymru based in Cardiff, The Big Issue North East based in Newcastle and The Big Issue in Scotland based in Glasgow. The Big Issue Foundation (our charity) is based in London. There are also Big Issues companies in the North of England, Japan, Australia, Namibia, Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa. We call ourselves a ‘movement’ as we all share the self help ethos and work together, even though some of the companies are legally completely independent. In the UK, we are proud to say that The Big Issue outsells Time Out magazine and The Independent newspaper.

How long have been doing this?
I joined The Big Issue in 1999. I took over from Sue Hollowell, who had been one of the founding team. Sue was seconded to The Big Issue for 6 months by the Body Shop – yet another way the Roddicks supported us – but stayed for 9 years. I joined Sue’s department on a 6-month maternity cover contract and have been here ever since – employee engagement is not a problem for us!

What’s the best bit about your job?
Being part of such an amazing organisation. I love the fact that we believe in the possibility of redemption. I do not want to think of my country existing without The Big Issue. When someone’s life has gone to pieces, when they have smashed through every safety net of the welfare state, The Big Issue is there to catch them and help them pick up the pieces of their life. If someone is homeless and wants to work, we will not turn them away. The Big Issue has changed the perception of homelessness in British society. Even though my job in the HR Department is behind the scenes, I am part of an organisation that is changing the world.

I have some fantastic colleagues. No one works at The Big Issue because they just want a job. My office is on the same floor as the people who produce the magazine and, week after week, they strive to make it the best publication on the market.

What’s the worst thing?
There isn’t a worst thing.

What have the last 12 months been like for you?
The Big Issue has just gone through a time of consolidation. The directors of the Big Issue companies in Scotland and the South West gifted their shares to the original Big Issue company, so we are coming back together. Many HR professionals will have dealt with mergers and acquisitions. The difference for us is that the cultures of the separate companies are very close; Big Issue staff everywhere already share an ethos. But there have still been issues around different terms and conditions in different companies and restructuring to take advantage of the changes.

What were you doing before?
Before I worked at The Big Issue I had always worked in the private sector in big, market-leading companies. But immediately before joining The Big Issue, I had taken a career break to do an MBA.

What was your very first full-time job?
My very first full-time job on leaving university with a degree in French and Russian, was as Personnel Manager for a small group of companies that imported various products from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. They recruited me to set up a Personnel Department, although I had no experience in the field, because they thought a Russian speaker would be useful to their business. I had to make knowing nothing a strength rather than a weakness; I made no assumptions and researched every decision. The lesson that has stayed with me throughout my career is that best practice is only best practice if it is right for your business. Don’t do what everyone else does, find what works best for the culture of your organisation.

Have you got any plans for the next 12 months you’d like to share with us?
We will continue to increase the sales of the magazine, as that means we are helping more and more homeless people to take control of their lives. We will continue to find ways for the Foundation to work alongside our vendors and help them in their journey back to mainstream society. We will continue to develop co-operation between the various elements of the Big Issue movement.

What do you do to relax?
Nothing burns off adrenaline like cardio or heaving weights about in the gym. To switch off from work, I enjoy reading contemporary and classic fiction, and non-fiction such as history, popular science and literary criticism.

Who do you live with?
I live with my husband.

Whereabouts do you live?
South East London

If you were Prime Minister, what’s the very first thing you do?
When I first started in HR, I could advise managers that if they tried to do the fair thing, they had probably also done the legal thing. Now employment law has become much more procedure driven. You can treat someone ethically but fall down because you have not ticked every box of the procedure. While it keeps me in a job, I would scrap the lot and replace all the recent procedures with enabling Acts that set standards of fairness.

Have you got any guilty carbon secrets?
I drive a gas-guzzler and I love it. My excuse is that, living in London and commuting to work on public transport, my 2.5 litre V6 only comes out for a few miles at the weekend, so I contribute very little to carbon emissions.

What have you done that you were most proud of?
I still get a massive kick out of telling people I am the Group HR Director of The Big Issue. In my private life, probably getting my MBA with Distinction.

What are you most concerned about in the world at large?
There are so many causes for concern - famine, war, torture, cruelty to children, racism … …. The amount of human despair that must exist in the world every day is too much for my brain to cope with. I am thankful there are other people who can take those battles on, but I am glad that I can have my own tiny share in making the world a better place by working at The Big Issue.

Which person in the public eye do you most admire and why?
On 23rd October I attended Anita Roddick’s memorial service – what a woman! Even though I have read her books and work for an organisation that would not exist without the Roddicks, I had no idea of the extent of the work she did. The theme of the evening was standing up to be counted and that people are powerful. There was a booklet on every seat listing all the causes she supported – page after page. She didn’t just send them a cheque, she would turn up and get involved. She was not above nagging people to do more. On the back of the booklet was a quote (I paraphrase from memory) “If you think you are too small to count, you have never spent the night in a room with a mosquito”. As a professional person, I am filled with admiration and respect for someone who created a successful ethical business and changed the way we think about what business can and should do in society.

What advice would you give to someone wishing to embark on the same sort of work as you?
The conventional way to start a career in HR is by coming in at the administrative level and studying with the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development. This certainly gives you a solid base to work from, but I would say that if you want to reach the upper echelons of the field, you need an all-round background in business. It really helps to get a generalist qualification, such as an MBA, and to get management experience outside the HR silo. Senior HR people need to be business people first and foremost and speak the language of the business.

What’s your website address?

What are your three favourite other websites?
The 3 sites I use most are probably Transport for London’s Journey Planner at and That’s not the same as my favourite websites, but the website hasn’t been developed yet that can replace a book.

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