Profile: Dean Shoesmith, joint executive head of HR, London Boroughs of Sutton and Merton

Dean Shoesmith steps up to become president of the Public Sector People Managers’ Association later this month. Kat Baker talks to him about leading by experience and his plans for steering the sector through looming budget cuts.

With first-hand experience of being made redundant and leading public sector organisations through complex efficiency programmes, Dean Shoesmith has already faced up to much of what is set to hit his sector over the coming year.

With 27 years’ public sector HR practice under his belt, the joint executive head of HR at Sutton and Merton councils hopes to use his ascendancy to president of the Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA) to put his past experiences to good use and lead by example.

The public sector is teetering on the edge of recession, with politicians warning of deep spending cuts to address a growing public deficit – which reached £743bn in December 2009 – while a recent survey by the BBC revealed that one in 10 council jobs in England could be cut over the next five years.

All change

As the voice of HR professionals working across the public sector, the PPMA will be at the forefront of the changes, giving guidance on how to address cutbacks with minimal damage to services and workforces.

Admitting it will be “difficult” to fill the shoes of outgoing PPMA president Gillian Hibberd, Shoesmith says: “I hope I can bring insight into efficiency, shared service agendas and organisational transformation – and obviously the agenda of skills, both for us as a profession and on a wider scale in the public service. These are all things I want to focus on for the coming year.”

He adds: “I think there’s a benefit of going through something yourself, using your own personal experiences. You then have an intimate understanding, including of what works and what doesn’t. You make mistakes and you learn from them, but the value is in being able to share that learning with others.”

And Shoesmith has not shied away from the change agenda. Since 2008 he has spearheaded one of the country’s biggest HR shared services programmes, in terms of its scale and complexity, designed to save £500,000 a year across Sutton and Merton.

Shoesmith’s CV

London Boroughs of Sutton and Merton, joint executive head of HR

London Borough of Sutton, executive head of HR

London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, head of HR for social services

Medicines Control Agency, head of training and development

London Borough of Lewisham, head of HR, housing department

London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, principal employee relations officer

Dalgetty Spillers, trainee personnel officer

He hopes the project, completed earlier this year, will act as a blueprint for rolling out shared services across other front and back-office functions at the councils. He is also investigating the benefits of ‘total place’ initiatives – sharing services with other public sector organisations, such as police authorities and NHS bodies.

As PPMA president, Shoesmith says he would urge other public sector HR functions to consider similar plans to maximise their efficiencies, and where organisations are already doing this, to share their best practice with others.

Job cuts

But sitting in his Sutton office, with detailed efficiency targets and diagrams penned out on a white board behind him, Shoesmith warns that public sector jobs will still have to go.

He says: “If economic predictions are correct, irrespective of political governance, any local authority is likely to have to undergo a period of retrenchment. So, sadly and inevitably, there will probably be some downsizing in terms of people – for most local authorities, their most expensive overhead is their people.”

And Shoesmith has already personally felt the sharp end of recessionary redundancies. In 1982 he was made redundant and “just told to go away, with no kind of support or help”, after just six months in his first HR trainee job at dog food producer Dalgetty-Spillers. This experience has shaped his handling of redundancies.

He says: “In my line of work, this [being made redundant himself] gives you more empathy, compassion and understanding of what people are going through, because it’s not an easy experience.

“You can learn lessons from things that are not done well, and think: ‘I would do them differently if I was handling this’.”

Shoesmith, who is currently overseeing staffing cuts at both Sutton (which will lose a “handful” of jobs) and Merton (where more than 200 jobs will go) is adamant the process will be more consultative and compassionate than it was at his first employer, offering support in redeployment and finding other work.

But as head of the PPMA, he says he will look to ensure HR practitioners “turn adversity to advantage”.

“It provides an opportunity to innovate,” he says. “Often, when you are facing difficult circumstances, you have to think differently and more creatively.”

Get ready

Shoesmith is calling for the sector to act now to prepare itself for potential cuts, instead of waiting until after the election, when the full extent of the cuts will be finally revealed.

“The first thing HR should do is read the manifestos of the current leading political groups, because that will give you an insight into the direction the political parties might go,” he says. “Reading up front is key to getting a flavour and steer for where the political priorities might be, which will then shape not just service delivery, but also people management decisions.”

Transformation agenda advice

Shoesmith’s advice for HR functions facing transformation agendas is: “Get yourself in an influential place in terms of the transformation – get up in the driving seat, leading suggestions on how the change might operate.

“Rather than sitting there in a passive reactive role, we need to become architects of change.”

He hopes to inspire HR to tackle the next year with a more proactive, business-planned approach, but warns that at the moment, the number of HR functions rising to this challenge is still “patchy”.

Shoesmith also reveals one of his presidential priorities will be to revamp the way the PPMA operates, pushing the association to collaborate more closely with other public sector organisations and associations to cut costs. “There are some new ideas about reviewing our membership and trying to increase and broaden its profile,” he says. “We are also looking at possible partnerships across the sector.”

Shoesmith will not name any associations the PPMA could work with, but says the likely partners would be other “associations of HR professions, rather than the more generic Local Government Association-type organisation”.

He adds: “We have got to look at our future as an association – I think there will be a squeeze on people being able to afford to belong to the PPMA. Because we are a public sector organisation, we need to look at affordability, and some of the lessons in trying to run our own local authorities are lessons we can apply to the PPMA as well.

“That might mean partnerships, shared arrangements and a different way of us operating as an association.”

Shoesmith says partnering with other organisations would allow the PPMA to offer broader professional development and networking opportunities.

Upskilling HR

He also hints that he will focus attention on the upskilling of HR leaders to ensure they have the necessary talents to lead change agendas.

He says: “Await further announcements throughout the year from me because this [upskilling HR] is something I am particularly keen to do, looking at the professional development of people working within HR and the PPMA in particular.”

HR has traditionally been focused on employee relations and employment law rather than organisational development but, according to Shoesmith, this will have to change if HR people want to move into generalist roles.

Away from the desk

Running a 100-strong HR function covering two councils with 11,500 staff is no small feat, but to unwind, Shoesmith turns to an equally hectic pastime – ice hockey.

As a season ticket holder for the Guildford Flames, he says: “When you’re the head of HR, it’s a good release – it’s something different.”

But Shoesmith prefers to stick to the stands for a game, rather than taking to the rink himself. “You have to be fairly suicidal to play ice hockey – it’s a very hard contact sport. It’s pretty brutal.”

“Those able to make the transition to a wider role will be in a much better place to be proactive, because the organisational development aspect is about coming up with the architecture and solutions to the various organisational problems.”

Meanwhile, he adds, a major focus of his inaugural presidency speech and his year as leader of the PPMA will be on the broader need for HR to upskill their workforces so they can make the most of the upturn when it reaches the public sector.

“If you read a lot of the predictions from economists or employment specialists, their commentary really is that the way out of it [the recession] is through skills improvement and development.

“The global holy grail of business is how to improve leadership and management and performance management capability.”

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