Gillian Thomson, Head of People, recently spoke with Anouska Carling, Programme Manager of STEM Returners in a video interview.

Background to the Interview

As part of a partnership between STEM Returners, Global Underwater Hub and the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB), Verlume has now filled two 12-week STEM Returners positions within the business.

The STEM Returners programme facilitates paid short-term employment placements for professionals returning to work after a career break. The aim is to provide candidates with real work experience and mentoring during their placement, as well as supporting them to seamlessly adjust to life back in work.

Video Transcript

You can read the transcript from the recent recording below. The video is available here.

Gillian Thomson: Hi, I am Gillian Thomson. I’m Head of People at Verlume. We’re an organisation at the forefront of the energy transition, based in Aberdeen. A small organisation, we’re currently 38 people, primarily engineering-based and technician-based in terms of building the products.

Anouska Carling: Gillian, what motivates you in your role and what attracted you to a career with Verlume?

Gillian: I’ll maybe start with the second part. I started my career as an engineer, although now I’m in HR. Being part of an organisation that has lots of engineers in it, I felt like returning to my roots, almost. I am fascinated with how things are made, and built, and put together and I think I always have been interested.

I moved into HR quite early in my career and the reason for that was primarily because I enjoyed seeing people fulfil their potential. I worked originally early in my career with Mars, the confectionary company, in their manufacturing facilities as an engineer initially and then in HR.

Being able to support people to fulfil their potential to grow/develop and see people work through the organisation from working on the manufacturing lines to say, up to operations director and things like that I just find really fulfilling.

Whilst I had intended in Mars to go back to manufacturing, I ended up staying in HR and have spent my career primarily in learning and development and talent roles, mixed with generalist HR roles.

In Verlume now, I’m responsible for all the people processes, policies, systems and culture across the organisation as part of the leadership team. It’s a big remit and we’ve grown quickly since I joined. I’ve only been with the organisation since August 2023. At that time, we were 24 people and now, it must be nine months later, we’re at 38. We’re growing rapidly and it’s been great to work with STEM Returners on some of those roles too.

Anouska: Fantastic. That’s quite a career pivot. It really helps working in an engineering organisation, that you can really understand and empathise with those in those types of roles. It certainly breaks down that ‘us and them’ that can often exist in organisations between HR and those on the ground doing the work. So that’s really useful.

Gillian: I think it’s quite unique as well. I’ve not come across in any of my HR community very many HR professionals that have a background in engineering.

I think it really helps. Often HR can be billed as the fluffy side of the business. Certainly, from my perspective, that’s not the case. I think having that engineering kind of mindset really helps with that as well.

Anouska: Fantastic, tell me a bit more about Verlume’s purpose.

Gillian: We’re a company at the forefront of the energy transition. Our aim is to deliver innovative technologies that are supporting the energy landscape towards a sustainable future.

Our mission is around delivering clean energy to challenging locations to make things possible today that were impossible yesterday. Certainly, for me, I find that really inspiring. It gets me out of bed in the morning and I think it really does the same for our team as well.

Anouska: What’s the culture like in your team?

Gillian: It’s really inclusive, this is the first word that comes to mind. Very welcoming as we’re still quite a small organisation, 38 people, led by our founder CEO, Richard.

A year or so before I joined, we did a lot of work around our values. Our four values are Impactful, Innovation, Improvement, and Integrity.

It’s all about making things possible that weren’t possible before and we work with organisations across the subsea industry. Particularly with the renewable industry in the energy transition space and because of that we’re doing things that really have never been done. It is an exciting place to be.

It does make it challenging when you’re doing things for the first time. They don’t always go the way you expect them to. We’ve got a culture where it is about improving things. It is about innovating things but recognising that, with that comes mistakes, with that comes failure and embracing that and learning from it.

Just last week, I ran a session on a project that we finished a couple of months ago which was all around capturing the learnings, making sure that we capture what we did well, what we want to continue to do as well in, also capturing the things that we maybe need to improve on or do slightly differently next time.

It’s that kind of environment I really love, that means that we are not blaming each other when there’s mistakes made. I think on the inclusivity part it is very welcoming. We have people from all sorts of backgrounds, increasingly from different industries that are bringing in transferable skills and that’s giving us a whole new perspective. We’ve had somebody recently join us from the space industry, for example.

We are very supportive of flexibility. We have flexible working/hybrid working. We’ve got a number of remote workers now and so it is very much about your output rather than clocking in and clocking off and doing your hours. It’s much more around what is it that you’re delivering? And how are you delivering it? And making sure that you’ve got the support to do that, particularly as we grow with the people that we have remote working, we want to make sure that they feel supported as well.

Anouska: Great. It’s really refreshing to hear how you embrace the mistakes, as well as the progression because innovation doesn’t happen without them does it? So, you absolutely need that.

Gillian: Exactly.

Anouska: Hearing you reference the link to a no blame culture – we do see in organisations where the culture of no mistakes are allowed and everybody’s so preoccupied with covering themselves/making sure they’re okay. They’re terrified to actually make a mistake where they might have been a bit bolder and done something that could actually be really good for the organisation but actually, it sounds like Verlume is a place where real innovation and creativity can thrive, which is fantastic! And I guess that does largely come down to as well, that approach to your diversity and inclusion.

You’ve answered this quite a lot in that last question around culture, what does diversity and inclusion mean to you and why is it important?

Gillian: I think the two are very different, we often lump the words together, diversity and inclusion, but you can have a diverse organisation where people don’t feel included and then they leave because it’s not a nice environment to be in.

The two go hand in hand, and if you’re wanting to have a diverse organisation, then you need to make sure that people from diverse backgrounds all feel included in the day-to-day. I think from our perspective, as an organisation, it’s really important.

If we have a whole load of people all from the same backgrounds, with the same education, social backgrounds, etc. then we’re just going to get a lot of similar thinking and actually we want innovation. We want creativity. We want those different perspectives that people bring from the different life experiences, backgrounds etc. that they have.

That’s really important to us from an innovation perspective and we recognise that that doesn’t happen easily. So, you bring in lots of people and you have different opinions. You also need to be able to manage disagreement and conflict in order to nurture that creativity, because I think a lot of organisations they’re not good at, how do you bring in different views and different perspectives and manage those conversations in a really effective way that gets the best ideas. Often you can find that you end up in conflicts and arguments and creating then the cultures that don’t work and don’t drive innovation.

It’s really important to me that not only are we recruiting people from diverse backgrounds with different experiences, but then, once they come into the organisation putting all those different perspectives into the discussions and the conversations.

Anouska: Ok, that concludes my questions. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Gillian: We’re really excited to be working with STEM Returners. I will say that in my experience, whilst we’re focused on the energy transition and the renewables industry – historically, a lot of our candidates have come from oil and gas, and I think, particularly in that industry, there is a tendency to believe that you need to have come from that industry, or you need to have relevant up-to-date experience.

Actually, I think as in conversations that we’ve had around STEM Returners, so many skills are transferable. My perspective always is that I’m looking for people that have the ability to learn and absorb new stuff and the right behaviours that align with our values.

If you’ve got that, then the technical stuff that you’ve maybe missed for a few years could be relearned, you can catch up with that quite quickly. And so, I would never want that to put somebody off coming to work for Verlume because for us the most important thing is that alignment with our values.

Anouska: Brilliant. Thank you. I just thought on that another brilliant aspect of your experience of engineering combined with HR. It’s very reassuring having you in that position of making a decision where you can actually appreciate where skills can be learnt from a transferring sector as well and not just have to take the hiring manager’s word for it. Although I must say the hiring managers have been amazing at Verlume, so that’s really good. But, it really is great that you have that knowledge yourself where you can push back if you think – no, I don’t think that’s true, I think we could do something here – that’s fantastic.