Interview with James Kirkland, head of pensions, benefits and recognition at Telefonica Europe

James Kirkland, head of pensions, benefits and recognition at Telefonica Europe, still has time to play in a rock band despite the demands of applying reward packages internationally

James Kirkland, head of pensions, benefits and recognition at Telefonica Europe, was not planning on a career in pensions. But after graduating with an economics degree from the University of Kent, a job advert by consultancy Hogg Robinson (now Xafinity Consulting) caught his eye.

“I didn’t really know I was going for a pensions job,” he says. “The advert talked about dealing with insolvent companies and actuaries, and I thought that was quite interesting. I wanted to be an independent financial adviser (IFA), but with the pensions mis-selling back in the 1990s, I thought I’d start down a different route.”

At Hogg Robinson, Kirkland worked with ongoing pension schemes and the remnants from insolvent organisations. After two years as a graduate with the consultancy’s pensions legal and trustee team, he became senior pensions consultant. “I was helping employers with pension issues, writing the communications booklet and doing trustee support,” he says.

Ready for an in-house role to get more involved with pensions issues, Kirkland joined Telefonica UK as pensions manager in 2005. After seven years at the firm, part of O2, he became head of pensions, and is now head of benefits, pensions and recognition for Europe.

Looking back to when he joined Telefonica, Kirkland says: “There were jobs out there, but companies were reluctant to take someone without in-house experience. Once I got in, I found out why: the sheer number of stakeholders and the conflicting priorities they have to balance. Becoming a trusted in-house adviser is harder than you think.”

The biggest issue Kirkland faces in his current role is globalisation. “Telefonica has been able to operate quite individually in different countries, but as the industry gets more competitive, we have to leverage the organisation’s global scale,” he says. “It comes down to consistent reward and benefits.”

The countries he oversees, which are the Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland, Slovakia and the UK, have a consistent reward philosophy, but the benefits package is implemented differently in each country.

“We are reasonably paternalistic, but are a modern, technology-based organisation, so we are consistent in delivering flexibility, staff discounts and everything else,” says Kirkland. “We don’t want to provide the same benefits experience in every country, because each has different markets. In Germany, the company car is the top benefit and in the UK it is much more pensions-based.”

Auto-enrolment is another pressing issue for Kirkland. Telefonica’s staging date is March 2013, and he is reviewing its pension schemes, which include a defined contribution (DC) plan that has been in place since 2001 and two defined benefit (DB) schemes that were closed to new joiners the same year.

The review follows the introduction of a financial education programme this year.

“We have learned people are becoming just as disengaged about other financial issues as they have been traditionally about pensions,” says Kirkland. “People are living for the here and now, and our challenge is to get them on the medium and long term, so they become more responsible for their retirement.”

As for his own future, Kirkland is keen to stay in-house but move into a global role. “I would like to get to a position where benefits will have a global impact on the organisation,” he says.


  • What are your hobbies? I run the risk of being a jack-of-all-trades. I’ve got a daughter at home who I love spending time with, I’m busy and engaged at work, I play guitar and sing in a rock band, and I am trying to reduce my golf handicap. I always end up going to bed too late and getting up too early, but I won’t go to my grave thinking I have missed out.
  • Who are your role models? I love Jimi Hendrix and the fact he changed music altogether. Tiger Woods, whose indiscretions arenot exactly role-model behaviour, has changed the context of his sport by thinking about it differently. Those two give me inspiration to think outside the norm.
  • What is your favourite benefit? I love pensions, because it is the most valuable benefit. It is just so rich and evolved, and totally shapes the world at the minute. Every time you watch the news, there is something on pensions: people on strike, reform across Europe and the politics and economics that come along with it.

Curriculum vitae:†James Kirkland

2010-present head of pensions, benefits and recognition, Telefonica Europe
2008-2010 head of pensions for European region, Telefonica
2005-2008 UK pensions manager, Telefonica UK
1999-2005 senior pensions consultant, Xafinity Consulting
1997-1999 graduate in the pensions legal and trustee team, Hogg Robinson (now Xafinity Consulting)

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