A passion for people and HR

William Gibbon took up the position of HR director at Barclays Africa in 2002 following a London-based position with the bank. Previously, he was with Marks & Spencer (M&S) for 14 years where, after joining its management training scheme in 1987, he worked his way through the HR ranks to HR director of the food business.

Half of his time with the retailer was spent overseas, and he developed a “real interest and flavour for things non-UK”. Here, the winner of Personnel Today’s HR director of the year award 2004 answers questions about his career and tells us how he reached the top.

Why did you choose to leave M&S after 14 years?
The decision to leave was probably still the single biggest decision I’ve ever made. There was no real motivation to leave, but the stage I was at in my career meant it was now or never. I spent a long time looking at what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to go to another retailer, because M&S was seen as the best. I wanted to find the kind of HR philosophy that it had around people in another sector. I decided to move into financial services, and Barclays had that same kind of philosophy.

What professional qualifications do you have?
I have to say I’m not CIPD [Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development] qualified. At M&S, it wasn’t seen as something you needed to do. I was going to do it, but I was posted to Madrid and it would have proved difficult. I have done quite a lot of bespoke pieces in terms of either study or work with other organisations – subject-led, rather than just a generic qualification – and will continue to do so.

What’s your take on personal development and learning?
It’s important to keep learning, but you get to different stages in your career where you need to identify the actual issue, and then go and swot up. That’s what’s so fantastic about moving from one organisation to another – you bring learning with you to the new organisation, and immediately, you are confronted with lots of new learning. I’m a big proponent of learning by doing.

Did you plan your career?
I think the key to this is owning it. At some point in your career, an ‘a-ha moment’ occurs, where you realise that you have to take control, and not be at the beck and call of the organisation. Mine occurred at M&S when making the first significant management redundancies in 1997. We provided a fantastic safety net for the people being displaced, and I thought: if we’re putting this much thought into people who were leaving, then why weren’t we doing the same for our best people? Why don’t we give them as much investment in planning their careers?

Have you undertaken any HR specialisms?
I’m a real HR generalist now, but at M&S, I did quite a lot of research and development work, as well as employee relations, policy development and union relationship work.

Did any of those give you particular insight, or stand you in good stead for later?
Yes. M&S trained HR people very well, but I felt it never really tested me. You were given lots of skills and tools but weren’t expected to use them.
What has been fascinating about moving into a different organisation, is that I do use them. The key learning points at M&S were that in a commercial organisation everything has to have a clear line of sight to the profit and loss, and second – and absolutely critical – are relationships. The more senior you are, the more important these relationships become. It is about having an absolute relationship of trust with the senior executive team, the chief executive in particular, and with the trade unions.

Do you have a mentor?
I have several – you can never have just one. You have mentors for different purposes. I have three. They are different ages and stages of career – some senior to me, who I aspire to, and one is out here in Africa. They are significantly junior to me, but act as a fantastic mirror.

What’s the best piece of careers advice you’ve received?
That’s hard. I’ve had so much that has been valuable, but nothing specific.

How do you personally motivate yourself?
I have to have my heart in what I’m doing. If I look back at the times I’ve been most passionate about my work, at M&S, it was when we were building and establishing businesses in Europe, but more importantly, it’s been during my time in Africa – in a fantastically positive way.

Describe a pivotal career move?
Coming to Africa – it is the best thing I’ve ever done. The key with all this is doing what you feel is right, rather than doing what you think is expected. That is so important. So many people climbing the corporate ladder do what they think the organisation wants them to do. But people have to stand on their own two feet and ‘own’ their careers. Loyalty to an organisation moved out a long time ago, but commitment should replace it, and I’m absolutely committed to what I’m doing and to Barclays. I think we’re doing some great stuff together.

Have you made any career mistakes?
Not a major career mistake, but where I have [slipped up] is when I wasn’t true to myself.

What’s the single most important piece of advice you’d give to HR in terms of managing their own careers?
It comes back to knowing yourself, being comfortable with yourself and knowing what you really enjoy. This will convert into what you are good at.

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