What you immediately realise upon speaking to Hayley Simmons, Oxford Saïd’s Reception Supervisor, is that you are in the presence of an uncommonly decent human being.
When I sat down with Hayley for an interview, the very first thing she told me was an astonishing tale of courage in crisis that highlighted one of her coworkers and featured herself barely at all. I thought that this might just be famed English modesty. But it was more than that.
“I care about the school,” Hayley said to me. “I feel like it’s my home. If I see a coffee mug, I pick it up, and I shove it in the bin.” And she means it. Hayley is the type of person who revels in the success of her colleagues and in the success of the institution as a whole. She is precisely the type of person who you want as the face of your organisation.
I took Hayley away from her lunch break after dashing out of Jon Cowell’s first lecture to snag my personality packet. I was a bit flustered. Hayley noticed that, made a silent decision, and suggested we head to the Skoll Foundation Club Room.
The Skoll Foundation Club Room, normally the realm of executive students, is the sort of place that a modern-day Don Draper would come to decompress. It has rhubarb walls, a sleek bar, and lovely views. No Lucky Strikes for Don here in the 21st century, so he’d more likely follow Hayley’s lead: grab some orange-infused spa water and settle in on an overstuffed chocolate leather couch.
“I was working for the school for maybe about three years,” Hayley told me between sips of water. “I had been working as a receptionist, and I really wanted to progress. I got offered a job [elsewhere] as a head receptionist, but I really wanted to stay here! I was really sad at the thought of leaving. But then Catherine, the COO, found out.”
“So what did she say?” I asked.
“Catherine asked me to go up to her office. Which, for me, was quite intimidating, to go up to the COO’s office. But she was so sweet! She was so nice to me. She said, ‘We really appreciate you here, we want you to stay. We want to see people we care about progress.’ She even offered to be my personal mentor.”
“Wow, what did you think?”
“I was so happy that she even bothered! She’s the COO of the school! Why should she even care? But Catherine was so nice. She’s really someone to look up to.”
Even when describing a moment of real success and growth for herself, Hayley finds a way to turn the compliment around and pay it forward.
Then, there’s a second thing you realise upon speaking to Hayley. She’s deadly competent.
“See it, own it, solve it, that’s our motto,” she told me confidently.
“When you walk into the big reception, quite often there are big catering tables laid out. [The room has] big pillars and a huge, big, grand reception desk. It’s too grand! It’s too tall as well, so you just see these little heads bopping up behind it.” She shook her head, laughing. “Not great customer service as you’re walking in.
“We’ve come up with something called a Welcome Host. One [receptionist] per hour on a rota, carrying a tablet, in front of the desk. So if you imagine a big queue, the [Host] can come from behind, help with all these things that don’t require a computer, and instantly the queue goes down.
“An architect comes in and is really interested in the building? [The Host] can leave reception and just take them around. No problem. Someone comes for an EMBA interview or is an MBA candidate, and they’ve got their luggage with them? Instead of giving them the key and telling them to go to the luggage store, why don’t I take their luggage away and tell them to take a seat on the Barcelona chairs? And then, away from the scene, I’m already calling their [interviewer] to come to reception.
“[With a Welcome Host,] we can greet students as they come in. You can actually talk to people away from this big, huge reception desk, because it’s so grand, and no one can really talk to us behind it.”
“What sort of people come in from day to day?” I asked.
“We have tourists coming off the street, because they think they’ve reached the front doors of the University of Oxford. They’ve come off of the train from London, and they think the University of Oxford is just one building. So we get the maps out.”
“You do that for them?” I was incredulous.
“Yeah, yeah! We’ve got loads of maps behind reception of Oxford. We show them where all the colleges are, give them advice. We ask them if they want to see Harry Potter-type things, point them toward Christ Church, tell them to have a look.
“But then, of course, we have to make money. So it’s not just the MBA programme that’s taking place. So, seven days a week, we’ve got big conferences going on. One thing that brings the MBA and conference worlds together is the Skoll World Forum. They take over the entire school. The students all get involved, and the staff [from Skoll] are incredible. Really amazing people come. Annie Lennox and Richard Branson will just drop by. It feels like a homecoming.
“But there have been a few occasions where things have gone wrong. The year before last, the [Macdonald] Randolph [Hotel] caught fire. [The guests] were just about to head home, and they couldn’t, because all of their stuff was in there. So there was this emergency meeting back at the school, like ‘What are we going to do?’” [The number of guests were] the size of Egrove Park, our sister site, which holds accommodation. So we said, ‘Okay, you guys can stay there.’”
“I never would have expected the reception team to handle that fallout,” I interjected.
“Yeah, we’re the first point of contact, right? So that’s how we end up working on these things. The trick is to be like the floating swan. The swan looks really elegant from the outside, right? But underneath, they’re flapping, flapping, flapping!
“We never want to let the students stress. We always try to make sure nothing impacts the students in any way. It’s all about making sure the whole year goes as smoothly for [you] as possible.”
“So what can we do as MBA students to make your job easier?” I asked.
“Just be yourselves! We understand that sometimes there’s pressure. Just know that we’re actually here to help you. We want to help you. We’re on your side. If we can’t help you with something—say, a booking—it’s because we really can’t do it, not because we’re being funny.” She laughs again.
“Also, just think far in advance. Book that seminar room half an hour ahead of the interview. We even have signs in reception that you can put outside, saying ‘Interview in Progress.’ Just make sure you work with us, and we work with you. We really want to help everyone and make the MBA go as smoothly as possible.
“We know how stressed out you’re going to be…” She pauses and grins knowingly. “Because you will be.” She chuckles, checks the time, and then downs the rest of her water.
Hayley has to get back to reception. There is a new group of guests coming in, and she needs to go make them feel welcome.Back to top of article