Date: 12/03/2021

Construction has the greatest issue with gender diversity in the UK, a survey to mark International Women’s Day has found. Fortem, as an employer operating within the Construction and Housing industries, is committed to ensuring the business is a place where people can develop, no matter their background, their gender or any other characteristic. The company has a long and successful tradition of developing and investing in its people, and the recent appointment of Sonya Holmes to HR Director demonstrates this commitment. Here, Sonya shares her journey from Management Trainee to HR Director.

Bold Beginnings

After leaving university, Sonya was employed in the financial department of a manufacturing industry. However, she quickly became disengaged with the prescriptive nature of their practices; their policies were apathetic, treating employees like the cogs in the machines they manufactured. It was during this time that Sonya became interested in HR as she saw all around her the untapped potential in the people she was working with. It was this vocation, to get the best from people, that inspired her to apply at her local college to complete her CIPD accreditation. While Sonya was working towards her HR qualification, she saw the advert for a HR specialist trainee and became Fortem's first management trainee in 2006. A scheme that has now supported over 50 trainees into full-time work with Fortem.

Joining the Culture Club

Sonya explains:

"I noticed a change as soon as I started at Fortem, there was a real buzz about the place; everyone was motivated, full of energy and ready to give 100%. In my previous company, the attitude was very laissez-faire, and this was reflected in the workforce. It was amazing to see blue sky thinking be the norm amongst my team; their motivation to be great made me want to strive for greatness too."

What Sonya coined the 'buzz' of Fortem was actually the effects of like-minded people working hard for what they believed in: leaving a legacy in the communities where they worked. Fortem, as a values-based company, has a different feel than most corporations and it's that whole culture that is the secret ingredient behind the 'buzz'.

In her own words, Sonya describes this culture as one of people who genuinely care about each other:

"It's a culture where people are actively developed to reach their full potential, where there is a huge pride in watching people develop, not because of the business benefits, but because of how it benefits people's lives."

Making Moves

When Sonya joined Fortem she desired to get the best from people that drove her passion for HR; she held onto the belief that each employee would feel like a valued individual instead of just a number. However, as her traineeship developed, she realised there was so much more to explore behind the scenes.

"There are so many areas of HR and aspects that make up each department, no two days were ever the same!"

Sonya quickly became an integral part of her team as her dedication and hard work made her stand out from the crowd. She embraced every opportunity available to her and excelled as an individual and as a team player. Therefore, it was no surprise when she won trainee of the year in 2009.

Sonya won Trainee of the Year in 2009

Sonya won Trainee of the Year in 2009

"As a specialist trainee in a small team, I got to learn lots of different aspects of HR quite quickly which was really motivating because the more I learned, the more I was able to do and the more my horizons opened up in front of me. I was trusted with a large variety of activities and encouraged to take every opportunity I could."

Words of Wisdom

When you're dealing with sensitive issues that could involve both work or personal based problems it's not always an easy line to tread between professional and empathetic, but Sonya has got it down to an art:

"As you can imagine, HR is highly detail orientated so it's important to quickly identify what information is relevant. You do this by actively listening to people's concerns so you can thoroughly understand the issue and the personal impact it's having; ten different people will need ten different things from you and it's up to you to find a compromise that suits everyone. You can't just listen in HR; you have to hear too."

Motivation Master

As the Head of Human Resources, Sonya has seen many people develop through the business to achieve things they never thought possible. Since starting at Fortem in 2006 as a management trainee, to becoming Director Of Human Resources in 2020, Sonya has always managed to get the best out of herself and her team, but this positive productivity cycle comes solely from her passion for the job:

"It isn't difficult to motivate yourself when you genuinely enjoy your role and the same is true for my team. Communication is key within the HR team as we deal with some very difficult people, and circumstances, so the ability to lift each other up is essential. Positive reinforcement is at the heart of my team's ethos, I make sure people get the recognition they deserve when they go above and beyond for the job and this inspires people to keep pushing and working harder."

The Future is Female

As a newly appointed Director, Sonya is ready to revolutionise Human Resources and put Fortem on the map as the industry lead in engagement and recognition: "I want to help create the best company for the best people."

Sonya has spearheaded many people investment initiatives including her most recent endeavours Fortem Advance and Fit For The Future; this is something she is looking to continue and develop in her new role:

"Watching people grow and develop beyond their expectations is the best thing about my role and the best thing we offer as a business; being able to set the HR strategy for the business and see that come to life is such a rewarding job and I would recommend it to anyone."