10 September 2013

Kath Durrant (History, 1988, Lonsdale) is the first woman to have made it to Rolls Royce's executive leadership team. As such she is something of a trail blazer.

Now, as Human Resources Director for an organisation numbering 44,000 people all over the world and whose initials are synonymous with quality, she has developed a passion for persuading young people - and particularly women - into science, technology, engineering and maths.

She says: “We definitely need a more diverse workforce to come into the industry where we are making some of the most advanced products in the fields of aerospace, nuclear and marine engineering. When workplaces are too one-dimensional, it becomes difficult for people to see the alternatives:  Innovation starts with thinking differently.”

The most depressing statistic in her view is that women in the UK make up a mere 15 per cent of the total engineering graduates.

Kath had come to Lancaster University to study History from a church school in Bolton - the first in her family to do so - thanks to teachers who encouraged her to raise her academic expectations.  She was attracted by the college structure and the campus.  For a young person who had not been away from home before it also felt very secure.

Friendships were very easy to make through the Students Union, Labour Club and college socials including the young man she went on to marry and with whom she had two children. These were politically interesting times with the end of the miners’ strike, the rise and fall of the SDP party and questions about whether UK was about to become a three-party state which gave the politics and economics she also studied in the first year additional relevance.

Although she admits she did not work as hard as she might have done and was a pretty unremarkable student, she did enjoy her course and the research, analysis and thinking skills it gave her.  A module in Industrial relations in her final year sparked her interest. This persuaded her to look for a job in human resources.  She applied herself to getting ‘a decent job’ on the Milk Round and landed one - a two-year graduate development programme at the London Stock Exchange.

This set her up for her first real job at Glaxo, which later became GSK, and where she stayed for more than 11 years. Says Kath: “If Lancaster University was where I grew up emotionally, Glaxo is where I grew up professionally.  I was involved in some ground-breaking stuff early on in my career, involving organisational change, sales, marketing and manufacturing. I loved it!”

From there she moved to Rolls Royce via GUS and AstraZeneca, where she held a senior HR and Communications role in R&D.  She joined Rolls Royce in 2009 as HR Director - Global Resourcing and Development - and was appointed to her current role in 2011.

The hard work she has had to put in to make this successful career happen was a lesson she learned at Lancaster: “I realised you have to work in order to achieve, which I did not do quite so well as a student!  I have worked very hard since.”

Kath has maintained her links with Lancaster University and and has joined the Advisory Board for LUMS.  She is also working with Professor Cary Cooper to try and work out how to build a resilient workforce, able to withstand and enjoy pressure without it becoming stressful.