Isobel Hunter had two hectic jet-setting decades in jobs that swept her as far a field as Uganda and the Czech and Slovak Republics before she parachuted into her office in London’s Saville Row just over a year ago. Her target? The HR director’s chair at one of the country’s leading non-governmental organisations, English Heritage.
Part of the lure of the job, she admits, was the chance to “spend a bit of time getting to know my own country a bit more”. Besides, Hunter adds, she has always enjoyed working with value-driven organisations where she can clearly relate to the goals they are trying to achieve.
Her previous post as HR director of Plan, an international non-governmental organisation that helps children in the developing world, is a case in point. It’s an affiliation that has kept Hunter rooted within the not-for-profit sector for her entire HR career, which began in general management 20 years ago.
Now responsible for an HR team of 26 people representing an 1,800-strong workforce in an organisation that last year received £115m in government grants and earned more than £38m in admission and membership fees, Hunter readily admits she is “on a fantastic learning curve”.
“We have lots of specialists working in particular areas of archaeology and historical buildings, and this is a new field for me, so learning about them and how they fit together is just fascinating. To do the job well, you have to really understand what the organisation is about.”
That in itself is a monumental task – literally. Hunter is currently working her way through English Heritage’s catalogue of more than 400 historical properties, which include Stonehenge, Battle Abbey and Dover Castle.
No doubt the job is made easier by Hunter’s passion for the subject. She talks enthusiastically about national treasures like Hadrian’s Wall. “I grew up in Northumberland, so that part of the world holds huge personal nostalgia,” she says.
This is a job that indulges Hunter’s bent for exploration – she visits English Heritage properties to gain an all-important insight into the working lives of the employees posted there.
“The first site I visited was Kenwood House in London, to talk to the custodians about the questions they get asked by the public,” she says. “It can be absolutely anything – from the obituarised history of the property, to ‘do you know what kind of underlay is beneath the carpet?’
“We need staff who can actually handle these questions, so it is really important to speak to people in the properties to find out what their jobs are like,” says Hunter, clearly relishing her post’s variety. One day she might be sitting with the executive board discussing development programmes, while another may involve negotiating pay deals with trade unions.”
Hunter occupies the hot seat in the middle of a major culture-change programme. Called ‘Coming of Age’, it is a two-year plan to modernise the way things are done at English Heritage. “A key part of this is changing the way we work,” says Hunter.
The programme, she explains, sees the HR function acting as a key partner to the director of each operational group. For instance, in the reorganisation of the Planning and Development Group (a group with around 500 staff spread all around the country), Hunter and senior HR staff were involved from the outset in initial design work, in developing the written communication, attending the face-to-face briefing sessions with regionally based staff, advising on recruitment and selection procedures and consulting with the unions.
“We have an active role in the management of change,” she says.
The programme is called ‘Coming of Age’ because the deadline for hitting targets, set to measure the success of the project, is March 2005, a month after the organisation’s 21st birthday.
“It is a very nice deadline to have,” says Hunter. But she will have her work cut out steering her HR department through to meet it, and not everyone shares her optimism.
In the summer, Hunter played down media claims of rebellion and discontent among staff over the redevelopment changes, including rows over alleged reneged pay deals and job losses, and the attempted boycott of the birthday celebrations (Personnel Today, 8 June).
“We have not reneged on any pay deals,” Hunter says emphatically. “We guaranteed a minimum award for everyone of 2.8 per cent – the rate of inflation – but some lower-paid people were given increases of up to 8 per cent. And I think getting up to 8 per cent in the current public sector pay environment is a reasonable pay award.”
She also points out that the redundancy situation will not be as grave as some previous reports have implied.
“We are going through a restructuring of our planning and development groups, which may result in between 10 to 25 job losses out of a total of 535 staff,” she says.
Hunter is equally keen to emphasise that ballots to strike over the summer, which may have led to the closure of monuments and historic properties, were only indicative ballots to gauge the strength of staff feeling and never actually amounted to any industrial action.
“There are a few people who are very angry [about the modernisation programme changes],” Hunter admits. “A large number are concerned about how this will impact on them, but have an understanding of why the changes are being made, while another group can see why we are restructuring and are very positive about that.”
HR has been charged with ensuring the organisation has an appropriate and effective management and development structure for the future. In response, Hunter has introduced an ongoing management development programme, designed specifically for English Heritage by training specialists Roffey Park, for the top 150 senior people at the organisation.
“The programme focuses on the individual and looks at individual style and impact, leadership and managing change,” she says.
“It is not only key for me to launch this programme and make sure it goes through really well, but to develop something that is sustainable and goes on into the future. Development isn’t something you turn on and off,” Hunter explains.
“It’s about making sure people understand that management and leadership development is an ongoing process Ð and not just for the top 150,” Hunter adds.
“We then have to look at how we can take that down throughout the organisation to make sure that we are developing tomorrow’s managers today.”
According to Hunter, the programme has been well received and she aims to extend its scope to an additional 250 employees next year.
Hunter is determined to trumpet the initiatives the HR department is spearheading and has looked at ways of promoting all this good work. She is hoping that an HR page will now be included in the new, monthly, electronic staff magazine.
“This will allow us to write articles on current ‘hot topics’, for example, on volunteers, or on induction, to update staff and managers on changes to policies and to inform them of upcoming changes in employment legislation,” she says.
To ensure that HR is giving advice in a consistent and coherent way, Hunter also hosts a monthly HR managers meeting Ð which includes the five based in the regions Ð to discuss key issues, jointly solve problems and agree actions.
Hunter is also trying to elevate the HR department from being a largely administrative role to having a more strategic function within the organisation.
“I think if I’ve had any success already, it would be trying to get the message across that HR needs to be involved at the beginning,” Hunter says.
“When people are talking about change plans and restructuring or whatever it happens to be, we need to be there from the start. We will see angles that will impact on employees that may not be obvious at the beginning.”
Hunter also wants to make the process more proactive – “rather than people making all the decisions, and then coming along to HR and just saying ‘implement that’”. But she is aware that this is a quid pro quo scenario.
“The more effective we are, the more people will bring us in at the beginning, so we also have to earn that position, as well as educate people to see that is important,” she says.
Once these targets have been achieved, a further corporate plan will take the organisation to the next five years and beyond.
“It is an ongoing process,” Hunter emphasises. “We have very clear goals for 2005, but I don’t think you should stop what you are doing once you reach the target. We need to keep reinforcing the messages on a much longer-term basis, and that’s where HR will have a critical role to play.”
On top of all of this, she is also tied up in addressing the two big issues for HR, which are particular to the heritage sector. “One is how to offer an effective career-development structure for specialists and for the heritage sector as a whole,” Hunter says.
“There is a risk of recycling the same group of people, because we recruit from local government and also offer people back to local government.”
The other major issue is getting people into the organisation in the first place.
“It’s quite difficult to recruit architects and garden advisers,” she admits. “We work within a public sector pay remit, so we can’t always compete with the private sector, where we might actually want to draw people from. So there are some challenges about how to get the right people in.”
But she has nothing but praise for the English Heritage workforce.
“What I think is fantastic about this organisation is that people are incredibly committed and passionate about what they do,” she says.
There’s an awful lot to get done in time, but Hunter has every confidence in herself and her team, and is certain that achieving the goals will lead to more highly regarded, more customer-focused organisation for the future.
“We have to be realistic – change never stops – but in two years’ time, I’ll be pretty happy if people inside are saying that the HR function had really turned things around, and is really delivering what the organisation needs.”
English Heritage: the facts
Founded in 1984, English Heritage has around 1,800 employees, of which 26 work in HR
What is its status?
English Heritage is funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and is a Non Departmental Public Body (a quango)
What is the turnover?
More than £150m a year
How many historic buildings does it look after?
More than 400 historic properties including historic houses and archaeological sites
‘From the first traces of civilisation to the most significant buildings of the 20th Century, we want every important historic site to get the care and attention it deserves’
English Heritage: the aims
– Understanding Improving understanding of the past by research and study
– Discovering Opening up our national buildings to be enjoyed today
– Protecting Helping to protect the value of important buildings for their current owners and for future generations.
Isobel Hunter’s CV
Isobel Hunter has 20 years of HR experience in both operational and strategic HR. Prior to joining English Heritage as HR Director in October 2003, she spent six years as HR Director of Plan, an international NGO which works to improve the lives of children in the developing world. Her early HR experience was gained with the British Council where she worked on, among other issues, compensation and benefits, employee relations and recruitment. Isobel has lived and worked in Eastern Europe and Africa and has travelled extensively, particularly in the developing world, on internal consultancy assignments.