Taking time out or a tactical career break can be the best way to learn the
new life and business skills that the modern HR director needs. We speak to five individuals who have
bravely added this new perspective – not always by choice. Sue Weekes reports
The Gap Year
Susan May, 31
Current status: Recently appointed manager, group HR at Centrica.
Brief biography: May spent 10 years in HR with BT after graduating in
economics. During her time there she held both HR operations and line manager
positions and most recently was HR account manager for BT operations. The
division restructured and in March last year and she took voluntary redundancy
at the age of 30.
The break: May took the redundancy after deciding "to take my
gap year 10 years late". She planned to go off travelling but wanted to do
more than just visit other countries. "I wanted to do something that would
be more beneficial. I wanted to use my skills but in a way that took me outside
my comfort zone."
May’s personal objectives tied in perfectly with those of Raleigh
International, the youth development charity that organises expeditions around
the world for those aged between 18 and 25. She applied to be a staff member
and, after an arduous selection procedure involving camping out and night-time
orientation exercises, she was given a job as project manager. She opted to go
to Belize – "It’s got a really dramatic landscape and it has the second
biggest barrier reef in the world", she says – and was appointed to an
environmental project with her group being given the task of building a 70ft
bridge and a cultural centre for a local Mayan community.
In addition to the international team of 36 venturers, which ranged from
ex-offenders sponsored by the UK Government to former public school students on
a gap year, May had an assistant project manager (a former ballerina who had
retired at 30) and a medic, but the buck stopped with her. She frequently had
to make use of her HR skills.
She explains, "I had to have one-to-ones with the team and found myself
writing appraisals in the jungle."
The main difficulty the group had to face was transferring to different
projects because there wasn’t enough work for them to do on the initial one
they were assigned to. There were also some difficulties with locals. "It
was a case of crisis management in the jungle," says May, adding that
other problems to hit the workforce included one team member getting bitten by
a scorpion and another injuring themselves with an axe. "And there was
always the possibility that an individual could go stir crazy in the jungle if
they’re not kept busy," she says.
Despite all this, May would definitely recommend the experience to
others."You just have to be prepared to throw yourself into the unknown in
an extreme environment," she says. "It increases confidence and makes
you feel like you can have a go at anything. It’s also excellent in terms of
developing people skills."
What’s next? The senior HR role she has taken is an international one
and this, she says, is important to her. So how have potential employers viewed
the Raleigh International experience? "It proves a big talking point in
interviews," she says, adding: "As a recruiter myself I’d certainly
look favourably on something like that because it shows initiative. It also
taught me how to manage a budget of 20p per person a day."
Paul Kennedy, 37
Current status: Director of HR strategy and associate development,
Brief biography: Kennedy began his career at the London Borough of
Enfield in the operations side of leisure services and finished up as HR
manager. Following this, he moved as HR manager to executive travel company
Rosenbluth, which has more than 700 associates across Europe. He went on to
become director of HR in late 1997, with policy-making responsibilities across
Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India at a time when the company made seven
acquisitions and set up two new start-ups.
In late 1999 his career took a twist when he accepted the position of director
ofbusiness development with profit and loss accountability for the regions
The break: Included in Kennedy’s business development role was the
brief to do such a good job that his position would become redundant (he was
always going to return to HR) so he had to ensure the country managers
reporting to him were self-sufficient. "I spent a lot of time with senior
managers and put them through training, coaching and mentoring so they could
stand alone," explains Kennedy. "It was also good for my own personal
development because I learnt an awful lot about business. It gave me an
opportunity to hone my business skills as well as deploy suitable people-driven
skills to other people."
In February this year Kennedy returned to his roots as director of HR
strategy from his broader business role where there was no need to replace him
because he had met the brief of making his role obsolete. Since his return to
HR, the department and business are much closer than they’ve ever been he says.
"People [outside HR] come to me for advice and my opinion since my
exposure to broader business issues. They also use me as a listening
board," he says, adding, "I’ve earned more credit and trust. People
know when I give advice it’s not just contributed from a personnel standpoint.
As HR director, I’m now also part of a sales team and a sales pitch."
The first thing he did on his return to HR was to invest in a bigger HR
team, appointing three general managers for the UK, central Europe and the
remaining countries. "I wanted to put new people and new structures in
place having had a detailed insight into where the pressure points were,"
Kennedy agrees that some HR traditionalists may challenge this broader role
but believes that you can’t be a true HR professional today unless you
understand the mechanism of business. That said, he ensures that the core
touchy-feely HR skills are still very much part of his armoury, taking time out
to visit someone different in the company every day. "You have to know
what kind of things are impacting on people in their daily lives," he
Tangible benefits of his approach include employee turnover being halved to
12 per cent and innovations such as Associate Appreciation Month (employees are
known as associates), where staff enjoy activities such as barbecues and trips
to the zoo. This has earned him the titles Minister of Fun and vice-president
of global happiness.
What next? At the moment Kennedy is happy to stay in his current role
and his message to others is "to take time out to look into the business
side of things and change what you do in your job if you can".
Peter Cox, 48
Current status: Interim sales and marketing director, SportBusiness
Brief biography: Cox has a long and proven track record as HR
director in the retail sector, having worked at Dixons Stores, Safeway,
Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer. After over four years at Dixons Stores,
and having felt he’d "done retail", he decided to set up his own management
consultancy and has been working as an interim manager through Courtenay and
The break: Cox has always believed that HR is a commercial function
and his time as an interim manager at a range of companies since 1997 has
reinforced this view. "HR directors can have a very positive role to play
in terms of being a mentor but they should also understand where the business
wants to go. This is exaggerated in my case because I’m working as an HR
Cox enjoys going into a company and applying what he calls a good
business template and principles of good management and admits he has had to
learn more generalist management skills over the past few years. While at Chubb
Information Security (July 2000 to April this year), where he worked as vice-president
of business and professional services, he was part of a team involved in a new
He was responsible not just for HR, but also marketing and commercial
professional activities such as education and risk assessment. He was also involved
in the corporate website and contract management. Similarly, a spell at Madge
Networks as global vice-president of HR and information systems _ actually a
permanent position which only lasted a year – saw his remit extend beyond HR,
being responsible for the organisational changes required to convert Madge from
a technology manufacturer to an Internet services company. This included
leading two acquisitions and three downsizing activities. "I don’t see
myself as an interim manager. I am change oriented and I’m commercially
oriented," he explains. "Constant development is a hallmark of a good
company and I’m at my happiest in an organisation like this," he says.
"I see interim as one particular method of employment out of a wide
range of options – including full-time, part-time, temp, consultancy etc. Since
I have been employed in the past through a number of different types of
contracts, I’d expect a similar level of variety the future. I suppose what I’m
saying is I don’t really see interim as a profession in its own right, merely a
particular contractual status – though it is fair to say that such a contract
requires specific skills to make it successful."
What next? While enjoying the interim life, Cox admits it has its
down side in terms of lack of security and benefits and while he says it has
been good to him so far, it is still a month-to-month existence. Consequently a
more permanent move could be on the cards though he isn’t putting a timescale
on it,. "My ambition is to be managing director or CEO of an HR business –
this would combine my commercial skills and utilise my experience and knowledge
of HR," he says.