HR managers in unusual roles

Ian Meyrick, Zoological Society

When he saw the job ad, Ian Meyrick, HR director at the Zoological Society of London, knew he would never forgive himself if he didn’t apply. Since answering that ad, Meyrick has spent the past 13 years overseeing people management at the charity’s many animal-based attractions.

“When I tell people what I do, they say ‘that must be really fascinating’ – and they look as though they mean it,” he says. “There are not many jobs where that happens.”

Ian MeyrickBased at London Zoo in Regent’s Park, and spending one day a week at Whipsnade Wild Animal Park, Meyrick certainly has a different view from his office window to most HR professionals.

“The environment can be very quirky,” he says. “Very often if you want a meeting, you have to go out into the zoo. I have had discussions on a pony and trap, talking to the driver about overtime rates. And I once found myself on top of a camel being led by a union rep. As he was taking me over a particularly muddy patch of ground, he asked whether it was a good time to ask for a pay rise.”

Meyrick has always loved animals, but was mainly attracted to this job by the opportunity to do something different. “I said when I went for my interview that the zoo already had animal experts, but that I could help them get along and do their jobs,” he says. “I like the variety – I am doing one job one minute, then something utterly different the next.”

The variety of staff at the attractions – which play host to more than one million visitors per year – is far greater than in most industries. “We have top scientists, vets, animal keepers, catering staff, steam train operators and so on. But people are people. I have worked in printing, then local government, then here, and people provide the same challenges everywhere.”

But one thing that does make the HR role more challenging at the Zoological Society is the emotional involvement the employees have with the organisation’s primary stock – the animals. “People do care a great deal about animals, and the animals do get to know you,” says Meyrick.

But this high level of attachment can often spill over into business decisions, which HR has to deal with carefully. “We have all got our favourites – and animals die, and people get sad. We have to be sensitive,” he explains. “But if one section is down, then something good happens at another and they will be elated. We have to be aware of the emotions running through the team.”

And staff engagement isn’t a problem. “Most people work here because they really care,” says Meyrick. “Everyone has their pet projects, but we have limited resources and sometimes you can’t do certain things. We have healthy discussions.”

Meyrick would not swap his unusual HR job for anything else. “I would find it difficult to do anything normal again,” he says. “I’m happy with what I’m doing here. We have lots of exciting things going on and big challenges. And now my ears prick up whenever I hear a news story about animals.”

Meyrick’s CV

  • 1994-present: HR director, Zoological Society of London
  • 1989-1994: Personnel and training manager, Hampshire County Council
  • 1979-1989: Personnel director, Oxford University Press Printing House
  • 1974-1979: Personnel manager, Oxford University Press Printing House
  •  1972-1974: Assistant personnel manager, Oxford University Press Printing House
  • 1967-1971: Assistant training officer, Oxford University Press Printing House

Fiona Brazil, British Antarctic Survey

Most HR staff have had to deal with aggrieved employees moaning about pay – but few will have done it in a tent during a blizzard a few hundred miles from the South Pole. Fiona Brazil could never have imagined she would ever be in that position either, until her career took a huge change of direction in 2002, when she took a year out from her HR position at the Royal Bank of Scotland to undertake voluntary work in Rwanda.

“It was a radical departure, but something I had wanted to do for a long time,” she says. “I really enjoyed it, and it is fair to say that having worked for a year out of the commercial sector, I re-evaluated what I was looking for in a job.”

Fiona BrazilOn her return, Brazil saw an ad for head of personnel at the British Antarctic Survey, a scientific research organisation. “I thought it was fantastically exciting,” she says. “I have always been interested in the environment and conservation, and the Antarctic is one of the most spectacular places on the planet.”

After a full day’s interview – where she met plenty of people ready to tell her all about the difficulties of living and working in the Antarctic – she was offered the job. She now spends up to three months at a time in the frozen continent, supporting staff as they measure the effects of climate change. “It is a very hands-on role,” she says. “You do survival training before you go out, and then when you get to Antarctica, you learn things such as climbing crevasses and putting up tents.”

Apart from getting used to the extreme environment – it can reach -30oC and be light for 24 hours a day when Brazil is there – HR staff have to be ready to pitch in on the camp. “You have to get involved in all aspects of base life,” Brazil explains.

“The crossover to your private life is much more blurred. We can be there for weeks at a time, socialising and eatingwith the team, living under a microscope.”

People working in these conditions for long stretches require careful management. “I often play the role of counsellor or confidential support,” says Brazil. “Procedures cannot always be run to the letter – you have to make judgement calls.”

Occasionally, staff crack under the pressure of being so far from home for so long, and have to leave. It was while escorting one such worker on the 18-hour flight across the Antarctic that Brazil became stranded during a snow storm. “It was scary and gruelling putting the tent up,” she says. “I was a bit surprised when we got inside that he wanted to talk about his end-of-tour bonus – I was not as polite as normal.”

But Brazil is very happy with the direction her career has gone in. “I really enjoy the excitement that every day brings the sense of teamwork when everyone is pulling together to resolve a situation. I also like doing something beneficial and high-profile in tackling climate change. And the environment is spectacular. We are so used to seeing such images these days, but it is still extraordinary.”

Brazil’s CV

  • 2003 – present: Head of personnel, British Antarctic Survey
  • 2002 – 2003: HR consultant, Voluntary Service Overseas, Rwanda
  • 2000 – 2002: Graduate resourcing manager, Royal Bank of Scotland Group
  • 1998 – 2000: HR manager, Natwest
  • 1996 – 1998: Overseas banking manager, Natwest
  • 1995 – 1996: Corporate business development manager, Natwest Corporate Banking Global Trade and Banking Services
  • 1993 – 1995: Graduate programme, Natwest Bank

Sue Waldock, Rank Group

Asking job applicants to sing songs, tell jokes or recite the 35-times table at interview may be frowned upon in some industries, but for Sue Waldock it is just part of everyday business life.

Sue WaldockAs HR director of gaming business the Rank Group, which incorporates Mecca Bingo and Grosvenor Casinos, she has to make sure she has the best bingo callers, croupiers and card dealers in the land. And with last week’s announcement of the sites of the new ‘super-casinos’, she will be watching the recruitment market for casino workers carefully.

“For bingo callers, we look for microphone skills, confidence and presence. For dealers, we look for manual dexterity, so we ask them to handle chips,” she says. “We also test people by asking them to hold two or three numbers in their head while they have a conversation.”

Waldock has spent more than 17 years with the Rank Group, and also spent her formative employment years at Butlins. She cannot imagine working outside the entertainment and gambling industry. “I like the people aspect of the business,” she says. “We deliver products through people directly to customers.”

The opportunity to influence the business through people is unrivalled in the gambling sector, according to Waldock. “We work very closely with operational managers. It is all about having the right people in the right place at the right time. Things in one geographical location might not work in another.”

Perhaps the most bizarre role the Rank Group HR team has is overseeing the X-Factor-style audition process for the company’s all-singing, all-dancing troupe, Mecca Stars. “Anyone within the company, from cleaners to croupiers, can apply to be part of the Mecca Stars summer tour,” explains Waldock.

Wannabe stage stars send in a video of themselves performing, which is judged by a panel made up of an expert from an external theatrical booking agency, a voice coach, and a Mecca general manager. Those who pass this stage are invited to attend a workshop with a voice coach. They then sing two songs in front of a panel, and also face questions about being away for a long time on tour and working closely with other members of the team.

The final touring group performs to thousands in Rank’s Mecca bingo venues. And for bingo hall openings – in a move reminiscent of TV comedy Phoenix Nights – staff perform a version of the S Club 7 hit Don’t Stop Movin’ – with the lyrics adapted to reflect the Mecca brand.

Waldock often finds herself at club nights or in a casino while other HR directors are tucked up in bed at night. But this is something she relishes. “I get out and about as much as I can. We also do our training schools at night, so people understand the environment they are going into. But it is a pleasure.”

She certainly has no plans to leave the environment she is in. “I would miss the buzz and excitement if I worked away from gambling. I worked in the Civil Service for four years, and I missed the challenge. There is no way I would get bored here.”

Waldock’s CV 

  • 2006 – present: HR director, Rank Group
  • 1997 – 2006: Divisional HR director, Rank Group
  • 1992 – 1997: Personnel director, Rank Entertainment
  • 1989 – 1992: Personnel controller, Rank Entertainment
  • 1985 – 1989: Recruitment organiser, Civil Service Benevolent Fund
  • 1979 – 1985: General manager, Butlins
  • 1977 – 1979: Trainee manager, Butlins

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