Tim Miller had more jobs than there are days in the week. Up until last month, he was director of people, property and assurance at Standard Chartered Bank, with responsibility for the HR, corporate real estate, corporate secretariat, legal, compliance and assurance, internal audit and global research functions.
Add to this his role as non-executive chairman of the bank’s Korean business, and it is fair to say that for Miller, there is no such thing as a typical working week.
Speaking to him at Standard Chartered’s impressive London headquarters, it is clear to see the firm’s historical and continuing association with Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The bank’s roots can be traced back to the mid 19th century, with banks in Mumbai, Singapore and Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Artefacts and art from those regions are dotted all around the building, as well as in Miller’s office.
CV: Tim Miller
Since this interview took place, following an increase in Tim Miller’s responsibilities in Korea, in January 2010 his portfolio was streamlined to exclude HR, and renamed property, research and assurance. Group head of HR Tracy Clarke now reports directly to chief executive Peter Sands.
Miller joined the company in 2000 as group head of HR after spending a number of years at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline. He took on his expanded responsibilities in 2006.
Never seen without his trademark bowtie, Miller is one of HR’s most respected figures. He was a clear choice for Personnel Today’s Power Player award last year, with many voters recognising his long-standing contribution to the HR profession. Last year, he was made a Chartered Companion of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).
He sees his expanded portfolio as a demonstration of the great culture that exists at the bank. “Part of the culture of the organisation is that it will give people the opportunity to do different things, often outside their professional comfort zones,” he says. “I’m a living example of that – I joined the bank as HR director, then I was given the property portfolio to have a go at. I didn’t know anything about it; then I got this portfolio role, which has been truly exciting.”
Miller believes the past two years have been the most challenging and volatile time for the financial sector – although Standard Chartered has escaped the battering other banks suffered because its markets are in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. While many banks in the UK and US are now propped up by taxpayers’ cash, Standard Chartered’s latest results show pre-tax profits of $2.8bn (£1.7bn) – up 10% on the previous year.
“The fact is our markets haven’t faced many of the challenges the western economies have faced,” he says. “We also believe that we operate the bank in a prudent, thoughtful and relatively conservative way; good risk management, sound banking, the application of good policies, procedures and practices and, perhaps most importantly, good culture. So we believe a combination of good management and the markets we operate in mean Standard Chartered has weathered the storm.”
However, he acknowledges the serious damage that has been done to the reputation of the sector. “They used to say estate agents were bottom of the pile: now I think it’s bankers, in terms of public reputation. That’s regrettable as there are a lot of good things in terms of what banks do which have lately been forgotten,” he says.
Miller insists that both banks and individuals are “taking a long hard look” at themselves, but warns against over-regulation by the government. “There is a real danger of over-regulation and putting on layers of control without making the activity less risky. It’s finding the right balance to allow the organisation to operate effectively.”
Standard Chartered has signed up to the Financial Services Authority’s remuneration code, but Miller hopes the watchdog won’t be draconian in its application. London has to remain competitive as an international financial centre, he insists, and the City risks a loss of talent if overly rigid reward structures are imposed.
“We have seen one or two incidences of it becoming more difficult to hire from the international labour market,” Miller says. “If people can earn certain amounts of money in the US or Singapore, then [we shouldn’t] be surprised if they take that opportunity.”
‘Culture’ is a word that Miller mentions frequently during the interview, and he believes it’s an important part of any organisation’s business strategy. He also thinks it was the difference between some banks surviving the financial crisis and others failing.
“If you look at some of the failed institutions in the sector and examine their structures, policies and procedures, they’re not much different to the likes of us, Barclays or HSBC,” Miller says. “So what’s left? The culture and behaviour of how people operate; not just the structures that govern an organisation.”
While there is no question of schadenfreude at others’ well-publicised failings, you get the feeling that Miller is somewhat exasperated at how some banks have spectacularly collapsed.
A recent interview with RBS HR chief Neil Roden in the trade press prompted a backlash from some in the HR community, angry that he seemed to absolve HR of any blame in the bank’s downfall.
While Miller did not directly respond to that, he says: “If a firm fails because of a weakness in risk and reward then HR has to share the burden of the blame. So to that extent, HR has failed to manage that relationship. Usually there must be an issue around culture and values that played a part in their failings. That’s where HR has not been up to the mark in some of those institutions.”
So how do you create a ‘good’ culture? Employee engagement has a huge part to play, according to Miller.
“It’s about having a fundamental belief within the organisation, starting with the board, about playing to people’s strengths. So our culture is very much based on the positive psychology movement of playing to strengths,” he says. “We know that when people are doing what they like doing, they are going to be far more productive than if they are in roles where there is less interest.
“To use a chemical analogy: take an atom comprised of a nucleus and electrons whizzing around. That’s a little bit like a manager and his employees – how HR can stimulate those relationships is all part of building employee engagement. And we know through rigorous methodology and analysis that the most engaged teams in the business perform better than the less engaged.”
Much to Miller’s dismay, he feels engagement has been neglected by employers in the UK. That’s why he is backing the findings of the MacLeod Review on the topic, and has committed Standard Chartered to being involved in its ongoing work.
“If more firms were to positively tackle employee engagement, I think we would improve productivity and performance substantially,” he says. This is where Miller feels HR can make a real difference in organisations; supporting managers to drive performance and configuring the business so it operates effectively, underpinned by an engaged workforce.
The HR profession has come on in “leaps and bounds” and is going in the right direction, he thinks. “But I’m thoroughly impatient; I want it to go quicker. I think we’ve got past the navel-gazing stage and it’s now about HR with a bit of attitude and edge.”
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