Michelle Wilkinson – currently senior vice-president of the multi-billion-pound jewellery company Pandora, soon to be altering her career path – speaks eloquently and has confidence in her every word, yet at the same time is not afraid to speak candidly or from the heart.
Her career has taken her from small UK companies through to Vodafone, Adidas, and now Pandora, and has seen Michelle champion the importance of people’s rights and career aims throughout.
Michelle says: “What’s the one thing that connects my roles? It’s people, isn’t it? And people want to feel significant and that what they are doing is good.”
Daughter to a builder and a homemaker, Michelle was born in Yorkshire but raised in Devon, as her father stayed in the north while Michelle moved down south with her mother and two older siblings.
Michelle considers herself blessed by her humble upbringing and for being raised by a single parent, and says her mother was always supportive but never pushy.
She continues: “When you grow up in a single parent family with no money – and unfortunately, we were even homeless at one point – those significant experiences make you go one of two ways. You either become a victim, or you decide you want to get out and never be in that position again. I was the latter.”
Michelle grew up fascinated by psychology, pondering questions about identity and emotions. Years later, Michelle was drawn to study human resources (HR) for its human aspect, and business to work with people in a business environment while building financial security.
Michelle says that studying a postgraduate diploma in Learning and Organisation Management at the University of Wolverhampton built her knowledge and confidence enormously.
“I thought, this is fantastic: people, business – a mix of the two. I also got some international experience from the diploma – we went to Lisbon – which was fantastic. I had never really been abroad at that stage, because I hadn’t had any holidays, as such.
“To be with other colleagues who were more mature, while others were young, felt very diverse.”
Michelle says that failing “was never an option”. While she admits that fear fuelled her hunger for career progression at first, her focus became more about helping people to build companies that are as beneficial for their employees as their stakeholders.
During Michelle’s first year working as an HR officer at a call centre, she admits she “didn’t have a bloody clue what I was doing.”
She says: “It was an important moment for me in terms of understanding the foundations of what HR is. It made me ask, what do I really like? What does HR mean, practically?
“I decided I wanted to go more into the learning, talent, and leadership space.”
Michelle says that the international experience she had working in Germany for Vodafone helped her attain her first role in leadership, when she became global head of talent for the luxury fashion brand Burberry.
She says: “I was able to put all that I’d learnt at Vodafone into practice at Burberry.
“While I was there, I did a lot of travelling and got exposure in China.”
It was a huge learning curve to go from telecoms to a luxury industry across Asia.
Michelle’s time with Adidas saw her move to America and climb the ranks via different roles. One of the most significant, she says, saw her become vice-president of human resources for global brands, which she said was “a transformational role that helped me gain more visibility in the organisation, as I was partnering with the chief marketing officer and working with the board.”
The gruelling responsibilities and work volume of the high-powered position came with pressure and, combined with learning that her father unfortunately had cancer, led to Michelle returning to England.
“I opened my own consultancy, and it allowed me to go back to the roots of what I love.
“I also became a property developer with my husband, getting the necessary qualifications to set up our own property business, which gives me my joy for creativity and also helps me build things for the future.”
Michelle’s last three years have been in Pandora, the world’s largest jewellery brand, here she rose to become senior vice-president of global HR.
Throughout her work for Adidas and Pandora, Michelle has affected real change in two vastly influential and profitable global businesses, transforming downward performances across the companies into successful upward trends, winning awards, and enhancing company culture.
Michelle has now decided to close her chapter at Pandora and move on to her next challenge – but first, it’s time to refuel again.
“I think it’s very important to have other hobbies in your life aside from your corporate role or your career. Unfortunately, it can become your identity and you can get swallowed by it.
“So my next goal is quite short-term: I’m going to rebalance, and consider what I want to do in the next chapter of my life.”
Michelle’s career shows that, as a University of Wolverhampton alum, the sky really is the limit.