David Stephenson is head of learning and development (L&D) at O2. To coincide with Adult Learners’ Week, Stephenson talks Personnel Today through his career in HR and highlights what he enjoys most about working in L&D.
How did you get into HR?
I wanted to find something easy to do while I was studying for an MBA! I suggested to the MD of Shanks & McEwan Ltd – the market leader in the UK’s waste disposal industry at the time – that I become the training manager for the company as we didn’t have one. Turns out it was a lot harder than I thought, but I loved it.
What do you enjoy most about HR?
Making a difference to people, seeing people genuinely grow and develop. That’s why initiatives like Adult Learners’ Week are so essential – they get people feeling energised about learning new things, even when they feel they know all there is to know about their day jobs.
What do you find most difficult about working in HR?
As someone who works in HR, I feel we can sometimes be our own worst enemy by acting as a separate function rather than being integral to the business. We need to see ourselves as business people first, rather than as a support function. Otherwise that’s all we will be – a support function.
What is your greatest career achievement?
Turning my training managers into HR business partners (before the term was coined) in Volvo UK, which was then copied as a model across Europe. Being able to track their progress from the beginning all the way through to the top was very rewarding.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?
Don’t underestimate the human factor in any business activity, especially organisational change – we should never underestimate the emotional impact this has.
What was your biggest career challenge?
I worked as the HR director in China for a joint venture between Volvo and China National Heavy Truck Corporation, a bankrupt company with 80,000 employees (who hadn’t been paid for six months) and very little commercial understanding. We merged five factories into one, started producing trucks and coaches, and managed to turn a company in trouble into a working automotive manufacturing business with a happy workforce.
What’s the next big thing in HR?
Transactional HR activity is already moving into call centres and self-help is going online. When I was in the Royal Navy, we had no HR function and everything depended on line managers doing their jobs well. Unless we can really demonstrate how HR has genuine business value and can add something tangible beyond the work of a good line manager – strategic business partnering, for example – we may find ourselves out of a role.
Who do you most look up to in the industry?
The ones I call the rebels, like Tim Miller, Tony McCarthy and Dan Walker, for example. Dan in particular brought his fresh thinking to Apple’s HR department all those years ago, declaring “all we are is a talent factory”, and set about bringing in the best people in the industry. It worked, and that’s exactly why JC Penney has brought him in recently as chief talent officer.
If you didn’t work in HR, what would you be doing instead?
I used to be a climbing instructor and love the outdoors, so I think I’d be running an outdoor team-building organisation. It’s the perfect way to take people out of their comfort zone, and I’ve always found that’s exactly where people really grow and develop.