As far as Jo Telfer is concerned, her job at the Sellafield nuclear complex on the West Cumbrian coast is allowing her to challenge herself and use her skills for which Lancaster University prepared her.
The Head of Organisational Development at Sellafield Ltd feels she has a real opportunity to leave the world a better place than she found it, through her leading role in the nuclear plant’s change from power generation to nuclear waste management.
Born and bred in Whitehaven, where Sellafield always dominated her skyline, Jo expresses pride in the 11,000-strong, close-knit workforce that needs to adapt over the next 5-7 years to accommodate the organisation’s role change. Whilst working in the nuclear industry is controversial with some, she disagrees and says: 'I want to make the world a safer place. The spent fuel from the nuclear reactors is a reality, whether we like it or not, and I feel proud of doing my bit to finding the best way of managing it.'
The first facilities to close at Sellafield Ltd are scheduled to close in 2019 so her whole timetable is centred on the future use of the buildings and reconfiguration of the workforce, as the whole organisation moves into a new gear. She says: 'Now I am actually putting into place all the things for which Lancaster University prepared me.'
Jo has been based at the Cumbrian site for 18 years, now working for Sellafield Ltd and before for British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. Many of her colleagues too have been there for decades, as she explains: 'It is very geographically isolated and it’s such an amazing part of the world that people tend to stay here.'
She loves her work - partly because she loves the variety. Until February 2016 she led a team as Head of Transformation, but now operates more as a loner, who spends her time working with the senior operations staff on the change management journey. In one day she may find herself coaching and mentoring and chairing meetings, as well as also looking for ways of increasing the organisation’s efficiency and effectiveness. She is supported in this aspect of her work by her Lean Six Sigma Black Belt qualification, which is designed to give participants change tools and techniques to drive and organise others to search out streamlined ways of working. She says: 'I prod and poke and ask awkward questions about why things have always been done that way, and I also look at the company’s strategy and vision.'
In a company dominated by scientists and engineers, she feels that her right-brained, creative approach is invaluable for altering the dynamics in discussions and opening up new ways of looking at the decisions Sellafield Ltd needs to make about its future. Going to Lancaster University was a big step for her. The first of her family to do so, she had not seen much beyond Whitehaven School and the town she lived in, but was soon captivated by the small campus and friendly colleges, which made her immediately feel at home.
She was lucky enough to find that one of the top universities for studying Organisational Psychology was on her own doorstep. 'I was so fortunate that Lancaster, with its fantastic reputation, was so close by,' she says. It was a step change academically, but she relished the opportunity to learn. Psychology, Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources competed for her attention, with Behaviour in Organisations expert Professor Karen Legge acting as a mentor and role model, as well as a frequently-cited name in her text books. Says Jo : 'I felt as if I had gone to the moon and back, it was so exciting! I was keen to know anything about how people ticked both as individuals and within an organisational setting.'
Placements during her undergraduate years included six months with the NHS in North Cumbria on organisational change and a spell with a chemical company, Albright and Wilson, looking at their organisational transformation, on which she wrote her thesis. Academic learning was what drew her to Lancaster and she emerged with a First Class degree. She admits that this left little time to socialise, except for the occasional drink in the Pendle bar with friends from the college.
Her first job was with an independent training centre in St Bees, Cumbria, moving soon after to develop training programmes in the NHS. Before she had time to look beyond the county, she was lured to Sellafield - the company with such a dominant influence on the skyline - in Operations Support. She has stayed there since 1997, rising through the ranks via a variety of roles including Human Factors, Industrial Design, Magnox Transition Manager, to reach Head of Transformation in 2014 and now Head of Organisational Development.
Even looking back on Lancaster from a 20-year distance, she appreciates -and still draws on - what she learned there. She says: 'I often think Lancaster had it spot on. The basics, the awareness, the appreciation of the fundamental concepts of my trade – they have all stayed with me, and I’ve just added to it with the latest thinking..' She values the flexibility that Lancaster offered and the opportunity for placements, which made her very employable.
'If you turn the clock back to when I arrived at Lancaster, I was curious about so many things,' she explains. 'But three years later I was confident enough to have a go.'