Personnel Today interviews: Jane Cotton, Oxfam GB HR director

As we emerge from the recession, it would be fair to assume that third sector organisations such as anti-poverty charity Oxfam would be under immense pressure to focus on financial outputs, leaving HR as an afterthought. With job shortages boosting volunteer numbers and a massive international restructure, Jane Cotton, Oxfam’s HR director, tells Personnel Today why HR is still at the forefront of driving change.

HR is a prominent player on the board at Oxfam but that hasn’t always been the case. Jane Cotton reflects that when she joined the company as HR director 11 years ago, the department was massively under-funded.

“It was with good intentions,” she explains. “People were saying we want every penny going to the front line to fight poverty and we should absolutely minimise our overheads.”

But Oxfam realised that they needed to improve HR and decided to bring in Cotton, who had experience as HR director at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. This was a turning point for the charity, Cotton says: Jane Cotton, Oxfam GB HR director“I was given permission to professionalise our HR function and say ‘actually, we’re not investing enough’. I really think that investing in a good HR function that understands your business transforms what you can do in the field.”

This wasn’t without its challenges. On home soil, campaigners, fundraisers and shop workers soon became accustomed to the idea of HR being an integral part of the business.

It took longer, however, to get some of the people working on their core international business to get on board with this idea – perhaps, Cotton speculates, because in some of those countries HR was still not a recognised or valued profession.

“Over time we improved it most by ‘doing’, by letting people see that it made a big difference. Although Oxfam had an HR person on the board before I came in, it was the first time someone came in as a natural peer.

“Having operated at board level quite a bit in the past, I could contribute as a general strategic leader that just happened to keep a particular eye on the HR end, rather than an HR specialist who only spoke up on that topic and didn’t otherwise contribute.”

Recruitment and the recession

HR and change management

The basics of HR – “right people, right skills, right place” – are still absolutely fundamental, says Cotton, but she also adds that HR can add much more value to the company by getting more involved.

“I can’t quite get my head round how HR could not be deeply at the heart of company processes. It seems to me that if HR isn’t involved in that way and it is just brought in at the end of the day to work out redundancy issues, then what really is the added value of that function?

“That would make it a technical personnel function and not the genuine HR function it should be.”

Recruitment has been under immense strain since the recession hit but it hasn’t been all bad news for Oxfam. With more people out of work and more graduates struggling to find jobs, there has been a boost in the quality of those willing to volunteer.

Cotton remarks that this is a win-win situation. Oxfam gets skilled volunteers to work with them and the candidates get great experience to put on their CVs, which can lead to jobs within the organisation or elsewhere in the charity sector.

“We have seen an incredible calibre of people prepared to come and volunteer with us as interns. Sometimes they work part of the week or for a short period on a project. It has always been a good scheme but it’s seen a whole new lease of life on the back of the recession. Volunteering in shops has also been boosted.”

But Oxfam’s recruitment process hasn’t been untouched by the economic crisis. With workers unsure of their job security during times of redundancy and budget cuts, people are less willing to take the risk of leaving fairly safe, well-paid jobs to move to Oxfam, especially if they have to take a pay cut to do so.

“It’s not that lots of people don’t want to join Oxfam, they do. But finding people in key senior roles of the right calibre can be hard,” explains Cotton. “You meet people from the private sector who think ‘I’ll join Oxfam for a bit of a wind-down’, but it’s not like that.”

There are two problems currently facing Oxfam’s recruitment process. One is a shortage of people with hands-on leadership skills and the other is that they do not always offer competitive salaries.

“Given that we’re not prepared to go out there and keep upping the stakes in terms of what we pay and given the skills shortage in a number of areas, I think that recruiting is going to continue to be a challenge.

“We have to get the balance right between paying enough to get really good people but not being market-driven and not assuming that higher pay will get you the best person.”

Despite the challenges, Cotton still enjoys getting involved in recruitment. Asked what the favourite part of her job is, Cotton says: “I never tire of doing recruitment as I still find satisfaction from having a CV on paper and then calling that person in for an interview. The person who walks through the door is never quite what you expect and they’re always interesting. That may be my natural curiosity about people.”

International restructuring

quotemarksI never tire of doing recruitment as I still find satisfaction from having a CV on paper and then calling that person in for an interview. The person who walks through the door is never quite what you expect and they’re always interesting. I think it may be my natural curiosity about people.

Jane Cotton

It’s a time of change at Oxfam and Cotton has been a big player in managing that process. The company is creating a single management structure for Oxfam International, which is made up of 14 different affiliates, including Oxfam Australia, Oxfam America and Oxfam GB. Cotton explains that this confederation of “Oxfams” has similarities to the European Union, adding “we’re all sovereign organisations”.

So what does a single management structure mean for the different Oxfams? They have always worked together on global campaigns, such as Make Trade Fair, and combine efforts on emergency response work, but when it comes to long-term development they have tended to work independently.

This means that in countries where there are several Oxfams, they do not collaborate consistently, although they occasionally work together.

“We realised it’s not credible to carry on like that. We’re going to have more impact on poverty if we are working on one strategy and on one plan. It’s clearly more cost-effective to do that. Once we recognised this, we decided to have a single management structure in every country.”

What this means is that up to a maximum of four Oxfams can work in any one country, but one of them will lead and the others will implement parts of the agreed strategy. Currently, Oxfam is working through the process of agreeing these strategies in each country.

So how is HR contributing to this process? A recent survey by XpertHR found that HR professionals want to be involved in organisational change at an earlier stage and Cotton is one example of an HR director who really plays a key role in this process.

“We had a little team who did most of the work on the design and then we had a steering group. I was in that group on behalf of all the Oxfams, not just Oxfam GB. I’ve definitely been at the heart of it and it’s been fascinating.”

Jane Cotton’s CV

1999 – Present: HR director at Oxfam

1997 – 1999: HR director at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

1996 – 1997: Change management director at the Department for Transport

1993 – 1996: Resources director at the Charity Commission

1983 – 1992: Various policy and HR roles at the Department for Transport

Oxfam have designed the process for the single management structure and have nine early adopter countries that are in the middle of going live with it. Over the next three years the others will follow.

The priorities for the future will be making sure the model works, while ensuring that each country feels empowered to design and make sense of the new system within the broad frame set out.

“In some of the cultures where we work, people keep asking ‘what are the rules?’ or ‘how do we do this?’ But the challenge is getting them to design it a bit more themselves so that it works well.”

Despite commenting that she finds implementing this new management structure exciting, Cotton is not in her comfort zone dealing with change in this very adaptable way. This is because, although she has done a lot of classic project management in the past, she feels that managing this task is much less structured. It involves steering the project in a broad direction and correcting the course as problems emerge. This means she has to be much more open as to where the project actually ends up.

“Personally, I find it exciting finding the confidence to work like that and giving other people the confidence to do so too.”

Related resources on XpertHR

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