Karen Poulter is the Head of Information Systems Department (ISD) at Hutchison Ports UK. It’s a critical role that oversees a team of 42 people to deliver IT services and change programs. To give you an idea of how critical port IT is to the wider community, Hutchison Ports handle 40% of the country’s container trade and an IT outage could mean disruption to the supply of much-needed goods and, if not rectified quickly, empty shelves in shops. Thank goodness for Karen and her team, who are on-call 24/7 to make sure things run smoothly.
When we spoke to Karen, she was deeply engaging and open to sharing her journey, especially overcoming adversity which we found so inspirational. Now a successful leader in her field, she shares with us her wisdom in this blog.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing
When we asked how and why Karen got into technology, we were very moved by her career journey — which was very non-traditional for someone at the top of their field. Her story proves that anything is possible.
“I was studying psychology at uni and then fell pregnant at 19. My boy’s dad didn’t hang around. It felt awful to have no job, no partner, nothing. I had to go back to live with my mum. I felt there was a lot of prejudice [for having a child at a young age]”.
“It was a desperate situation. When my son was two, I got a job working in an electronic components factory, as much for human companionship as for the money. I was in the production line and was promoted to a team leader role within a few weeks. I left to work at a computer training center and whilst I was there, I did the whole suite of qualifications. This opened a door for me as I was able to move into a trainee software tester role in a software house. And that’s where my IT career started.”
Karen’s career quickly accelerated after that and went onto becoming Head of Technology roles for several years. Her success is due to her love of people, process and embracing change.
“I am a big believer in change and taking charge and control of my destiny. You can wait forever for someone to tap you on the shoulder — or you can make it happen for yourself.”
From the air to the sea
Karen looks after the operations and systems across three ports which have to be maintained 24/7. Her strong team of IT operations & developers ensure all systems run smoothly to enable the business to do what it does as quickly and efficiently as possible.
“If there are impacts to the operations, it has a knock-on effect far outside the Port itself. The IT systems we support are safety-critical. If they lose access or there is a radio outage, it can be dangerous. Nothing is more important than the safety of our workforce and people visiting the Ports.”
Karen previously spent many years in aviation and has been with Hutchison Ports UK for one year. Working in ports was definitely uncharted waters. She says anyone who has been here under ten years is considered to be a newbie.
“It’s a unique environment here. Some have worked here forever, since they finished school. We just had someone celebrate their 40-year anniversary! When I started, my team hadn’t had someone directly in this role for about 2-3 years, so there wasn’t direct line management or much strategy. When I started, I had to understand and differentiate quickly what was going to add value and what was white noise.”
Some processes have been around for a long time — sometimes as long as some of the longest-serving employees. But despite that, there is a positive appetite for change — and the great thing for Karen is that technology is an enabler.
“Everyone was welcoming from the start. People were very open to sharing what was working and what was not working. Because of their openness, I feel there is now a common sense of purpose and strategy and clarity on what they do next.”
But the appetite for change certainly didn’t happen overnight. It took Karen’s meticulous ability to listen, lead, and steer people to common ground.
“One of the biggest challenges was to get people to understand the importance of their engagement on what to do next and how they felt about it. I talk about not doing more but doing different things. How do we reduce that ‘busyness’? What can you do differently or stop doing?”
Karen believes in empowering people to come up with solutions to make their jobs and lives easier and more interesting.
“We created an IT strategy early on. I wanted to empower the team, so I asked them to carve out their own objectives. Some of them struggled conceptually because people are used to objectives being handed to them. It helps to allow people to express who they are and what they want to achieve — rather than dictate it for them.”
Importance of diversity
The ports are a major local employer and contributor to the local economy. Hutchison Ports UK recognizes that it has an aging workforce and have been very conscious in the last couple of years to shift this to attract a diversity of talent.
“This environment is still quite culturally old school, more so than the places I have been. There are more and more diversity initiatives. There are many people that are open to acknowledging the challenges. I think that any place that acknowledges this has a lot of potential because there is a lot of self-awareness.”
Karen points out that ports are a mechanized environment, but with technology coming into play and automating a lot of tasks. More specifically, remote control of yard cranes and key cranes has been a game-changer. This means it opens up a lot of opportunities for new skills, people and jobs.
“These cranes required people to sit high up where they were hunched over and isolated all day. From a health and safety perspective, it’s not good. Now that it’s being automated, it can be controlled in an office. This will attract a wider group of people.”
Health and family first. Always
Karen has a long commute to work and spends the time with her son in the car, listening to their favorite audiobooks which can range from anything from comedy to current affairs.
No doubt, COVID has been tough on everyone, and for someone who loves to run, she recently did a virtual run in the London Marathon.
Karen hasn’t always had a spotlight on health and family, but caring for her husband, who had bone cancer — and is now recovered — certainly put things into perspective.
“In 2018, he had bone cancer. He is fine now. He went through six months of chemo and operations. It was a challenging time to manage everything — a full-time job, childcare and cancer. One thing I remember was I used to put my family second. I remember sending my son to school one day. He was six years old at the time and was begging not to go to school because he was sunburnt. I had mum guilt. For me, I realized there are no prizes for the people who sacrificed the most.”
Today, Karen is always taking stock of her work and life balance.
“Nowadays I am conscious of how hard I work. At 7 am, I leave the house and get home at 7 pm but I always take a lunch break. It is non-negotiable.”
It was such a pleasure hearing Karen’s story. She left us with a beautiful quote, which was,
“What drives people forward is adversity. If you have nothing to lose, then you have everything to gain.”