The commercial head
Adrian Harvey, commercial manager, British Gas Business
Adrian Harvey is commercial manager at British Gas Business (BGB), which supplies energy to the commercial sector and is part of the Centrica group.
He says: “I have an excellent relationship with HR. I’ve worked in several blue-chip companies and this is the first time I’ve ever got an HR function that’s broken what I called the ‘pain-in-the-ass syndrome’, where HR seems to be there to stop me doing things.
“Two years ago, our HR director Jill Shedden led a move to integrate HR more closely with the company’s different divisions. It was an inspired decision as it put a qualified HR professional within the divisions who reports to [Shedden], but for all intents and purposes is part of my team.
“The key point is that HR is involved from the start, and as a result we’ve been able to implement complex change programmes really successfully and in a way that has earned the directorate the highest employee satisfaction rating in Centrica.
“It also means that none of my reports have to remember to consult HR – they’re already in the loop. So we’ve eradicated the sense of ‘has anyone told HR about this?’.
“HR brings different things to each directorate. It isn’t a formulaic approach, and for me, HR is an omnipresent sounding board. It’s a trust-based relationship – I give them scope and it pays dividends. They know the team’s strengths and weaknesses and can compensate for them.
“The risk to this strategy is that you become reliant on a small number of individuals. You wouldn’t have the same risk if HR was more centralised. But this risk is by far outweighed by the results we’ve had in employee satisfaction within BGB and the divisions. In large companies where HR is heavily centralised, the relationship is often more combative.
“I wouldn’t operate in any other way now. With the complexity of compliance-type issues arising, the likelihood of me keeping up and not making mistakes is zero, so why would I want to work in such an environment without HR by my side?”
The executive director
Swag Mukerji, group executive director, First Assist
Swag Mukerji is group executive director at First Assist, a business-to-business healthcare and wellbeing provider, previously part of Royal & SunAlliance.
He says: “HR and I work very closely together. About eight months ago, I reorganised the office to make it open-plan and put the senior team on the same cluster of tables. The HR director sits opposite me. In fact, I can’t look up from my desk without seeing him, and it works well. Decisions that used to take two to three weeks now happen in seconds.
“First Assist is an old, traditional organisation that we’re trying to modernise. I’m the change agent and I need to work closely with HR to ensure what we do stays within HR policy, especially as we’re unionised.
“HR is very enabling – I say what we want to achieve and HR knows the best way of getting there. What HR also does well is keep abreast of constant legislative changes and make sure we stay on the right side of the law.
“Sometimes HR sees shadows where there is no light and might come up with an issue where there isn’t one, but I’d rather they did that than the other way round.
“In any change programme, financial and other directors should ensure that HR is brought in early so they are not the ‘tail-end Charlies’ as is sometimes the case. One of the things I try to do is help HR understand why the business has to behave as a business. Previously they didn’t really understand the commercial realities, but they are now called HR business partners.
“In general, HR professionals fall into two polarised pods: either very good, or pretty useless. Unfortunately, when the pretty useless ones are in senior positions, they can hold an organisation back. The good ones tend to be more enabling. If I was recommending someone to work in HR, I’d tell them to choose their organisation carefully. Ford, for example, seems to generate good HR people. Other organisations can leave a lot to be desired.”
Laura Frith, managing director, Reed Consulting
Laura Frith is managing director of Reed Consulting, which provides HR consultancy and outsourced services.
She says: “At Reed, people are our business, and as a consequence of this we like to be ahead of the game in terms of people practices. We have a really positive relationship with HR and understand and respect it.
“We practise what we preach: we do everything on a return-on-investment (ROI) basis with our clients, and we expect internal colleagues, including HR, to operate in the same way. Reed would not have grown to the scale it has if we tolerated practices that did not deliver to the bottom line. The alignment we have between our expertise in people practices and our commercially minded focus delivers real results within the business and to customers.
“One of the things I look for in HR directors is that they don’t talk about HR issues as being detached from business issues. As a managing director, I have real business objectives and it is what HR does to help us achieve those that I am most focused on.
“In many cases, because our business is predominantly people-focused, a people problem would stand in the way of success and, therefore, is absolutely on my agenda. Presenting an HR issue as a business issue is what I look for and expect from the HR team. To talk about it in any other terms does not respect or understand the pressures the management team and stakeholders are under.
“I feel strongly that professional qualifications [in HR] should help upskill people to talk in business terms and operate in a business manner. Senior HR people have a responsibility to stretch their junior people to understand that, and to show how less senior staff can add value. It may be a harsh thing to take on board, but it’s crucial that they don’t feel bewildered.
“If we roll the clock forward five or 10 years, because of global competition, UK businesses have got to work smarter rather than harder to stay in premier positions, and boards have got to do things that have an impact on the bottom line. So there has to be a move for HR to be more results-focused. Some HR directors are right on the money with this and will rise to prominent positions on the board those that aren’t won’t be working at all.”
The marketing manager
Clint Evans, marketing and business development director, Henley Management College
Clint Evans is marketing and business development director at Henley Management College.
He says: “It’s always a challenge for HR departments to know where they go strategically, given that these days the fashion for strategy is market-led, not driven by the competence of the organisation. Here, we are lucky in that our HR department has risen to the challenge.
“We have a strategic member of the HR team who plays a leading role in the executive committee. That relationship works well in terms of the future shape of the organisation and the options it presents us in terms of working habits and how we engage people.
“As with any business going through change, there is inevitably an impact on everyone involved.
“Having HR as a good sounding board to work through the implications of changing the organisation’s structure and the way people should deliver in their jobs is fundamental to me, because it means you get that missing 10% of the thought process. I wouldn’t think about moving forward on a change plan without closely involving the HR team.
“One issue that we haven’t yet conquered – and I think it is one many organisations haven’t – is where the balance of responsibility lies between HR and marketing when it comes to internal communications. I like to think of it as the HR team having ownership of the message, and the marketing department using their skills to get the message out with persuasion and impact.
“HR can be an insular activity sometimes – much like IT – because of the nature of the role and the fact that they’re one step removed from the customer. Every IT department can have the same look and feel, and every HR department can have the same look and feel.
“There is a tendency for HR to forget the business realities – not here, but at other organisations I’ve had experience of – and I think the commercial objectives sometimes need re-emphasis. Marketing can help HR with this more than most as custodians of the business message.
“At Henley, we’ve conquered this. The reason we’ve been able to is quite fortuitous. We had an interim change manager from the outside who came with all the skills of a leading HR director, so it was a natural follow-on to appoint them as the HR director here. So we had someone who came from the outside in – maybe there is a lesson in that somewhere.”
The operations expert
Simon Kelly, head of production, Taylors of Harrogate
Simon Kelly is head of production at Taylors of Harrogate, home of Yorkshire Tea and one of the few remaining family tea and coffee merchants in the country. Taylors joined forces with Bettys in 1962, which is famous for its tearooms, and the company is now called Bettys and Taylors.
He says: “Our relationship with HR is a true partnership. The HR team and the individuals within it are highly valued and are part of senior management like me. They play as big a part in the organisation as logistics, the buyers, operations or any other department. I have a lot of experience and knowledge of people management, but I rely on them to support me and guide me on overall organisational decisions.
“One of the reasons this works so well is that our HR manager, Caz Hewson, has an operations background with Taylors. She understands the tight production deadlines we work under and the issues we face. I’d say this is the best thing about the relationship. While she was working in operations, she was also gaining her HR qualifications.
“All the senior managers sit down once a week so I meet with Caz then, but we also have a one-to-one where we discuss any other people issues. It is probably this meeting that I find most valuable.
“To support HR, we appointed the office production manager as ‘recruitment champion’, and have now appointed a champion at each of our branches.
“It helps to give senior managers a good insight into the recruitment needs and processes, and this takes the pressure off HR. Also, the health and safety manager sits within HR and feeds information to us, so our approach is very much one of collaboration, with everyone feeding into and supporting each other. There is an honesty and respect among us and it is a good foundation on which to build. If HR suggests something and we’re not sure how it’ll work for us, we’re happy to try it.
“With such big numbers – I am accountable for 120 people and have around eight or nine managers who help me with this – we can help HR by working hard to ensure consistency when it comes to practices and messages. If we didn’t, we’d end up with a lot of unhappy people.
“The corresponding Bettys HR manager, Charlotte Diaz, similarly worked in operations for Bettys. The two companies came from two very different sectors – manufacturing and catering/retail – but our culture and people are now very much aligned. It is certainly their respective operations backgrounds and experience of the business that makes the difference. I’d recommend other companies to take this approach, even if they only send HR people on a short secondment to see how operations work. Importantly, it helps line managers build confidence in HR.”