Gillian Hibberd: Evolutionary leader

This year’s PPMA conference kicks off on 29 April, and incoming president Gillian Hibberd has quite an act to follow. In his impassioned keynote speech at last year’s event, current president Stephen Moir, corporate director, people policy and law at Cambridgeshire County Council, warned that public sector HR needed to evolve or be wiped out, and called time on the “self-obsessed navel gazers” and “dinosaurs” holding back the profession.

Hibberd, corporate director, people and policy at Buckinghamshire County Council, hints that her message will be along similar lines, pointing out that the PPMA’s clear leadership pipeline ensures a consistent voice for members (Hibberd is currently deputy vice-president, and will be followed in 2010 by vice-president elect Dean Shoesmith, HR director at the London Boroughs of Merton and Sutton, and then Jim Savege, HR director at Cumbria County Council).

“We know public sector HR needs to evolve – I’m going to look at what we need to evolve into, what the big challenges are for us, and where we can make the biggest difference,” she says.

“Over the next 12 months, we need to focus on the key priorities: the efficiency agency, the shift in the shape and size of our organisations, and the need to develop leadership to see our organisations through the year ahead.”

Hibberd says improving efficiency will continue to be a huge issue. “Many public sector organisations are facing severely restricted government funding, putting services under tremendous pressure. All the indications are that the situation is going to get even worse in the next few years, so the only way to protect our critical frontline services is to drive efficiencies in our organisations.”

She believes the answer lies partly in shared services, and cites Southwest One, the shared services centre with Somerset County Council, Taunton Deane Borough Council, Avon and Somerset Police and IBM, and a project underway between Cambridge and Northamptonshire County Councils and Slough Borough Council, as fine examples of the concept.

“I think we’ll see more and more of those projects coming on board across the public sector,” she says. “We’ve just started one here, in conjunction with three of our four district councils and the fire and rescue organisations. There are also tentative discussions going on with Hertfordshire and some of its districts to potentially collaborate on a big joint venture operation for back-office services. That’s going out to market now, and we’re hoping to award the contract by April 2010. Our most popular sessions in the conference are on shared services, which shows the level of interest.”

Hibberd says embracing shared services doesn’t necessarily mean job cuts. “I think we’ll see a reduction in the number of jobs required, but we can manage that through natural wastage over a long period of time. The onus on us is to do this properly to minimise the impact on people. For example, we recruit about 1,000 people a year. Yes, we’re cutting 400 jobs, which sounds dramatic, but it’s over a period of three years.”

Hibberd also believes there will be a significant shift in the way public services are provided, with the traditional model of local authorities providing everything from refuse collection to home care ceasing to exist. “There is a shift towards us becoming more commissioners of services, holding the budget but contracting with other organisations from the voluntary sector, other public sector sources or the private sector,” she says.

“There are already examples of that shift having taken place over a number of years – there are very few authorities that run their refuse collection now, for example. Children’s services are becoming much more commissioned, as is much adult social care, and courier services.”

Buckinghamshire recently contracted out its built environment service, such as roads maintenance and construction services, and will be the first council to outsource end-to-end recruitment. It was also one of the first councils to introduce a total reward service.

It seems fitting that the PPMA president’s own council is showing such strong leadership. Does Hibberd feel that Buckinghamshire is demonstrating innovation?

“I think we are. We’ve got an excellent reputation as a four-star authority, and are one of the highest performing county councils in the country. We have extremely low levels of council tax but are providing very high levels of service.”

Hibberd used to work at Hertfordshire, another high-performing council, and she is keen that examples of excellence from across the country should be showcased at the conference. “It’s really important that we share the learning from those and encourage other people to do similar things.”

One of Hibberd’s other key messages for the year ahead is leadership. “There are two angles to this: how we, as HR professionals, lead our organisations through the difficult times ahead; and the question of how we develop the leadership capability within our organisations to ensure they thrive and improve and come out the other side of the recession in a much stronger position. We are in difficult times, but now is a really great opportunity to look at every corner of our organisations and examine and challenge how we can do things better and improve.”

Hibberd’s least favourite aspect of HR is the tendency to get bogged down with process. “I think we need to strip all that away and focus on the outcome we are trying to achieve, rather than the process for getting us there. I’m passionate about making sure that HR people have the confidence to operate at the very top level within their organisations. If I can help and inspire them to be able to do that I’ll be incredibly proud.”

She believes the tendency of HR professionals to be navel gazing and anxious about their status, as highlighted by Moir 12 months ago, gets in the way of this aim. “Stop talking about being on the board, because it detracts from the key message,” she urges. “If you’re starting to influence in your organisation, if you’re enabling, then who cares whether or not you’re on the board, you’re doing the job you’re meant to be doing.”

But Hibberd is not a natural pessimist, and there is much she clearly adores about the profession. “I never tire of the buzz I get every day when I walk through the door – you never know what is going to hit you next,” she says, with obvious sincerity.

She says her greatest achievements in HR have been as a result of building strong teams. “You can never achieve anything on your own; you always need the help of a team. I love building teams and seeing them rise to the challenge.

“There are a few highlights that I’d pick out in my career that I’m incredibly proud of too. Bringing about the single status agreement at Hertfordshire was a massive job. Here at Buckinghamshire, seeing the team transform into a professional, strategic, core team that contributed to the four-star status that we achieved in March was a great achievement as well. And I’m really proud of the work we’ve just done around a new model for recruitment; I think it’s innovative and ahead of its time, and will pay dividends in terms of the quality of talent we bring in to the organisation and the talent we develop within. There’s no doubt our recruitment levels are going to slow down, so we need to make sure people within the organisation are working to their full potential.”

Having started out in retail management, first at Boots and then Woolworths, Hibberd swiftly realised her true interests lay elsewhere. “The psychometric tests I took when I was at Woolworths showed I was people rather than product oriented, and I was asked if I had considered a job in HR. I became personnel manager at a store, and quickly moved into the public sector, where I’ve remained for 24 years.”

There is, she says with conviction, “no better place to work”.

“There’s a great deal of satisfaction in providing public value and delivering public services that help improve people’s lives. The passion from our employees that goes into protecting the environment and safeguarding vulnerable people is really inspiring to work with on a daily basis. I can’t imagine working in any other sector at all, I absolutely love it.”

Whatever the detail of Hibberd’s speech tomorrow, there is no doubting her passion as she goes into this challenging role. “HR should operate with purpose, passion and performance. The passion bit is really important to me, and that applies to the private sector as much as the public. Performance is also key. In our sector, every penny we spend is out of the public pocket, so it’s not just how we’ve spent it but what value that delivers.

“If we can demonstrate our value over the next few months, and years, however long the recession lasts, it should put us in a stronger position coming out the other side. I don’t have any fears at all about the future for public sector HR – it’s very bright, as long as we step up to the plate and deliver.”

The people person behind the PPMA

Hibberd’s passionate approach to her job is reflected by an equally energetic personal schedule. At weekends, she spends as much time as possible with her seven-year-old daughter. “It’s hard to balance looking after a child with a demanding job, never mind two, and hopefully I can prove that it can be done,” she says. “I think it’s important to let people know that just because you’re in a busy job, and choose to take on another, it doesn’t mean you have to work all the hours under the sun. You’ve got to force yourself to focus on where to spend your time.”

She concedes that splitting her time between her roles at Buckinghamshire County Council and the PPMA will be tough. “I will have to plan my time carefully, and a lot of the PPMA stuff will be done in the evenings and weekends. But it’s a sacrifice I am completely prepared to make. The PPMA is going from strength to strength – we now have more than 900 members, and our target is reach at least 1,000 in the next 12 months. Our ambition is to be the voice of the public sector HR profession, and I think we’re well on the way to achieving that.

“It’s a big responsibility, and it’s one I don’t take on lightly. It’s a great honour to be representing the people that I have grown up with and those I have admired through my career.”

The fact that Hibberd is also determined to make time for the things she loves outside work makes her a reassuringly human face for this most people-oriented profession and sector. “I spend a lot of time in Manchester – all my family are there, and I moved the conference there quite deliberately, I felt it needed a change,” she adds.

“I love travelling, and spend a lot of time in Menorca – anything Spanish I adore. I am also a self-confessed shopaholic, anything to do with clothes, shoes, and handbags.

“And I love music as well, from The Killers to Amy Winehouse to Julio Iglesias. My downtime is my hour’s drive at the beginning and end of the day – I put my CDs on full and enjoy the time to myself.”

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