Changing places

As HR professionals, we are constantly looking for ways to improve performance, motivate, develop and retain people in our organisations.

Best practice organisations tend to fill more positions internally than externally, but this also means that HR needs to re-think how it manages internal talent and be willing to take risks.

One approach is ‘internal mobility’. That means creating an environment that encourages people not just to develop expertise in their own area, but to consider lateral moves into different functions to develop experience and skills. Recent research by The Rialto Consultancy suggests this is a successful route to progress your career within the HR profession. My experience proves this point.

In 2002, PowderJect Pharmaceuticals was the UK’s second largest bio-tech company, with a focus on immunology and vaccines. The company had grown rapidly, largely through acquisition, and had become the second largest manufacturer of an influenza vaccine for the US market. I had joined a year before as group HR director.

Most of us have been vaccinated at some point in our lives as it is a key part of national health policy. Consequently, manufacturers have close relations with government health departments and with non-governmental organisations, particularly in North America and the EU.

Opportunity knocks

An opportunity came up within the company to move to a business development role, which focused on securing government contracts and support for strategic research, development and manufacturing projects.

After 10 years in HR, it had become increasingly clear that to progress to the highest levels of the profession, I needed to develop broader business skills and a deeper understanding of how businesses work. The prospect of testing my ability to be successful in a commercial role was also exciting, even though it meant operating outside of my comfort zone.

Most people, as part of the process when considering a career move, analyse the pros and cons of such a change.

In my case, the pros were:

  • The entrepreneurial company culture encouraged lateral career development and calculated risk taking.
  • It gave unique exposure to commercial and financial activities, and involvement in key investment processes.
  • The HR skills were a good fit for the leadership and interpersonal aspects of the role.

The cons were:

  • It was a big risk as I did not have a scientific or business development background.
  • There was no immediate route back to HR.
  • Failure could have damaged my reputation.

Internal mobility can require a leap of faith on behalf of the organisation as well as the individual concerned. You need the support of the line managers involved and you also need top management to be collectively supportive, willing to provide their time, coaching and advice.

As an individual, you need to be willing to learn quickly and, most importantly, approach the role with an open mind, asking questions and listening to feedback.

Developing a strategy

Initially, my focus was to develop a strategy for our approach. Then I needed to progress a key project relating to our production capabilities. The rapid learning curve included attendance at relevant conferences, desk research and talking to individuals inside and outside the company to build up a knowledge base.

Once the strategy was developed, some time was spent internally approving the plan and identifying a target list to work on. This resulted in five or six projects being progressed in the US and Europe.

HR skills played a very important role in building up a relevant contact list in government and non-governmental bodies. This involved seeking introductions via colleagues as well as cold calling, which I initially dreaded. I soon realised that my HR skills were a major asset in getting a foot in the door to meet key decision makers. Essential HR skills – such as questioning to understand needs, empathy, clear communication, persistence and persuasion – all transfer well into the commercial environment.

Generic skills, such as project management, were also critical to my success. The main project focused on a major investment in a new production facility. We formed a small project team, bringing together senior individuals from manufacturing and finance, and we were fortunate to have access to an expert external adviser.

Over an intense eight-month period, we developed a business case, and relevant responses to government bodies, mainly in the UK, were completed and reviewed. Colleagues in research were also able to secure a deal with the US National Institutes of Health.

After the first year, we had successfully secured two multi-million dollar deals. A calculated risk that paid off for the organisation and for those of us involved.

We secured investment in the facility and the new factory is currently under construction. At the same time, Chiron Vaccines acquired PowderJect and, in the integration process, an opportunity to lead the HR operations team emerged. I was selected for a challenging new role, responsible for leading the site-based HR teams to deliver policy, integration initiatives and operational HR support to the business. The business development position was back-filled and continues to make an important contribution to the company.

Undertaking stretching project work outside your normal role can greatly assist your career development. I have gained a deeper knowledge of business, helped to develop strategic commercial plans, and have gained a greater influence externally and internally. I now have experience in financial modelling and I feel able to take a wider view on issues, improve decision-making processes and more effectively demonstrate the value of HR’s contribution to the organisation. Above all, I now have a sense of real achievement.

There are many new and innovative ways in which HR can help organisations improve performance, motivate and retain employees. As a concept, internal mobility can be a challenging and risky approach for most organisations. However, when implemented well, it can have a positive impact – both on staff and the business.

David Wells’ CV

  • 2001 – Executive director of HR operations, PowderJect/
    Chiron Vaccines
  • 2000 – Global head of HR, Diligenti
  • 1999 – HR manager, Takeda UK
  • 1996 – HR and training executive,
  • 1991 – Training officer, Aegon/ Independent Insurance
  • 1983 – Officer, Royal Navy

Best and worst moments

Best moments

  • Working closely with a broad range of highly-skilled people in and outside the organisation.
  • Closing the big deal and gaining a great sense of achievement.
  • In at the deep end – having a rapid learning curve.
  • Seeing the new factory being built.

Worst moments

  • Thinking during my first week: ‘what have I done?’
  • The unhelpful reaction of some commercial colleagues who didn’t believe the move would work.

Have you been seconded?

Tell us what you learned outside your HR role. E-mail with the details

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