Pioneer Profile: Meet Karen Hutchison Adão

4th Oct 2023

It’s time that we recognise the people behind the evolving world of work. Our working lives have shifted to being more inclusive, more people-centric, more flexible, and just plain better for both employees and companies. 

These changes didn’t just happen: they were put into place and upheld by individuals and teams working to create a better working future for everyone. 

So we’re finally putting the spotlight on the people who make great companies great: the people-people.  

People-people are crucial to the success of every company. They find you the talent that drives you forwards, and they’ve taken on an increasingly strategic role in the past few years – often taking on responsibility for mental health, diversity and inclusion, culture, EVPs, Employer Branding and team happiness. 

Read more about the Pioneers List and go behind the scenes to understand how and why we’ve selected our Pioneers.

We were lucky enough to speak with Karen Hutchison Adão, Global Head of Talent Acquisition at Designit about her career, her experiences with flexible working and building great company cultures, and her hopes for the future of work. 

Let’s dig in! 

Tell us a little bit about your career history, and how you got to where you are now. What were the key milestones?

I started my working life in sales in the Travel Industry, which I loved! Then moved into Financial Services spending almost 10 years with Barclays Wealth in various Change & Transformation roles. Shortly after the financial services crash of 2008, I took redundancy and made a pivot into recruitment, first in agency and Recruitment Process Outsourcing and then since 2013 as an in-house Talent Acquisition leader.

I’ve had amazing opportunities in my recruitment career, found some life long friends, met and interviewed some super interesting people and travelled the world. I’ve also learned a lot about what makes people tick and the accumulation of this knowledge and experience is something I draw from every day.

When did you become interested in flexible working, EVPs and the future of work?

When I took my role as Head of Sales & Leadership Hiring at HCL in 2014, I was based in London with a team - and stakeholders - in both India and America from the East to the West coast. To make this role work for both me and the company, I had no choice but to find creative solutions to successfully manage work and life. 

My own flexible working started out as a tactical solution by splitting my working day up into 3 blocks to work across time zones, but it quickly developed into a way of working that was more holistic, and blended. I was definitely an early adopter of hybrid and flexible working and offered this to my team too.

I believe we can work on the move, whenever and wherever it suits, as long as you have the technology to support you. Being sat at a desk 9-5, 5 days a week doesn’t always suit everyone or have the most productive results. I’ve closed executive candidates on offer negotiations during a cab ride to the airport, I’ve supported team members with critical decisions on a Saturday morning walk in the park and I’ve been able to spend time with my husband, family and friends during important moments and been there for them when they need me, while delivering excellent results at work.

In 2017, I landed an interim role as the Global Head of Talent for a SaaS B2B start-up called Scandit, who had just had their Series B investment led by Atomico with other investors such as Ariel Ludi from The Hammer Team. I was living in London and commuting to HQ in Zurich, flying out on a Monday morning and staying until Thursday afternoon, then working from home on a Friday.  

This was one of the most interesting and varied roles I’ve done and some of the most exciting Talent Strategies I’ve developed: working closely with the Founders to define the company values, develop the EVP, and redesign and launch the new Careers Page. I built a new TA team, implemented a new ATS and created new assets for talent attraction.

The management team were great to work with and the high bar set for hiring was demanding, but very rewarding. It was this role that sparked my deep interest in company EVPs and the intangible benefits of being true to the company values. 

What's the most impactful change you’ve overseen?

At the beginning of 2022 when we were starting to come back to work after lockdown, a lot of people were struggling with their mental health after living through the pandemic. We saw a lot of companies talking about ‘bringing your whole self to work’. This got me thinking about creating a safe place to have difficult conversations at work. I played around with a few ideas and #BeBold was born! 

This was a first of its kind event for Wipro where we ‘opened house’ to employees, clients and suppliers in one room - held at the Wipro UK&I HQ in Holborn - and had a panel of speakers talking about a wide range of topics and sharing personal stories, from the use of inclusive language by an openly gay Engineering Manager and the impact it had on their team, to the opportunity bias there is in social economics and mobility. It was a thought provoking event that raised inspiring and sometimes challenging questions from the audience, and a great success. 

Several other regions then went on to adopt the framework that I created for the #BeBold agenda. The Wipro UKI MD and SVP, Omkar Nisal was the Executive Sponsor. He also leads the Diversity & Inclusion Committee for Europe and since the #BeBold event series we piloted in the UK, there have been many more events on the D&I agenda. So, I’d like to think I created a bit of a catalyst for the team to continue creating safe spaces for difficult conversations at work.

I’m also really proud to have set up and Chaired the first Women@EXL UK Chapter when I was Head of TA for Europe at EXL. As part of that role, I created a successful Mentorship Program for women. This was launched as part of an International Women’s Day event I curated, including a panel discussion with guest speaker, the legendary Anne Minto OBE, who sits on the Board of EXL, Shire plc and Tate & Lyle. Anne is also on the Board of the International Women Forum UK and Vice Chair of the University of Aberdeen Development Trust and a pioneer herself, as the first woman ever to work on an off-shore oil rig! It was an honour and inspirational to partner with her on this project. It was the first ever global live-stream panel discussion at EXL and we had a lot of fun doing it too!

What’s the biggest impact flexible working has had on your own life?

As a career contractor for many years, I was lucky enough to be in a position to take time in between roles to focus on personal projects, family commitments and pursue my passion of travelling. But I was acutely aware that many of my friends and colleagues were not able to enjoy such flexibility. 

As the shift to flexible working has developed over the last few years, so too have many companies who support it, making it much easier for permanent employees to have the flexibility to meet the needs and wants of their personal life as well as their organisations’ demands.

For me personally, one of the biggest impacts flexible working has had is the chance to be present for ‘moments that matter’ - school meetings, graduations ceremonies and medical appointments. As a (grand)parent of children with neurodiverse tendencies this has been invaluable. 

During the last 2.5yrs in my role as Director, Strategic Hiring at Wipro and Global Head of Talent Acquisition for Designit, a Wipro acquisition, this has been made much easier for me by the relaxed and positive approach to flexible working that Wipro have. There is a big trust factor at Wipro and this goes a long way to helping employees manage their lives while delivering outcomes. 

What’s the biggest challenge of being in your role right now?

It’s difficult to see so many good recruiters and TA leaders on the market right now with many firms laying people off. There needs to be a careful balance of the immediate commercial needs of the business with medium-longer term cost of rehiring, training and building talent pipelines when the market takes an upturn and the hiring engine needs to get going again. 

It can sometimes feel a bit short-sighted. I would urge firms to consider redirecting your top TA talent to your Sales, Consulting, Marketing and Operations functions - you will be amazed at the value they will bring to those functions and they will appreciate your commitment to their skills and experience. There will also be a quicker lead time to ramp up when it’s needed. 

What do you think the next big trend is in working culture?

A key push/pull I’m seeing is the perceived need for employees to return to the office. I enjoy meeting people in real life, but I wouldn’t want to be committed to such a structured and restrictive policy of 5 days in the office any more. I think this story has a few more twists and turns to go before it finds its way back to some kind of equilibrium. 

However the scales will keep swaying both ways depending on many external factors, like the rising energy costs of running an office. If we are unlucky enough to have another global pandemic, and the attitudes and preferences of employees to live a more fulfilling but minimalist lifestyle full of experiences, focussing on wellness, travel and social impact. All of this we’ll need to consider amongst the growing distrust some employers have about remote and hybrid working following the ‘quiet quitting’ debate, the increasing cyber security concerns around remote accessing company (and client) data, and the as yet unknown impact of working with AI as a HR team.

AI is going to impact all of this and potentially bring in more issues around bias that HR and People teams will need to figure out how to tackle. 

As I consider new opportunities right now, after leaving Wipro in July and enjoying an extended summer break, all of this is certainly something I’m taking into consideration - watch this space!

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