Shortlisted for HR Manager of the Year: Personnel Today Awards 2000
DLA Advance is the training arm of DLA, one of UK’s top 10 law firms, and the ninth largest in the world, with a turnover in excess of £135m. It covers areas as diverse as discrimination law through to cross-border European HR issues.
With 259 partners globally and over 1,100 lawyers, the firm has a major presence in the City of London, backed by a strong national network of offices throughout the UK. It provides an extensive international law service through its own offices in Brussels and Hong Kong and through partnerships in Paris and Barcelona.
It also has strong relationships with law firms in most other major cities throughout the world
Terry O’Brien was appointed HR director of Balfour Beatty Rail Renewals in October 1998. At that time the business was losing money, but within 12 months it was back in profit and is now exceeding its targets. The turnaround is due largely to good leadership and teamwork at the level of HR.
The company was created in 1998 from the merger of two companies that had been privatised when the Government sold off British Rail. An audit revealed a backward looking culture and a lack of professionalism towards the customer, in this case RailTrack. There were also serious barriers at middle management level to be overcome, and a lack of values, trust and understanding of job roles throughout the company.
In addition, despite the effort being put into training in safety and technical matters, there was no developmental training, nor a performance review system capable of identifying training and development needs. The organisation was also vastly overstaffed for the current workload.
O’Brien worked with the managing director from the start to gain an understanding of his vision, and to share it with senior managers, using visual aids.
She also brought in a strategic planner to help create an HR strategy that supports the business plan.
A key move was to boost the training and development function, focusing on areas such as communication, customer relationships and management development. Joint team events – training courses, conferences and management meetings – are held across the business, to allow employees to meet each other.
The aim was to provide a sense of direction, winning positive change quickly and with minimal cost. To help achieve this, O’Brien encouraged HR and management to try new ideas. “When I first joined the company there was a great deal of scepticism from the staff that anything would happen with regard to their suggestions for improvements,” she says.
“I have worked hard to ensure the business delivers on its promises and does what it says it is going to do. This has increased levels of trust: when we say we will do something, our people believe it will happen.”
She adds, “It is important as a leader of change not only to be strong in influencing and persuading skills, but to give people a vision of the possible, understanding their needs and delivering the solutions. This has been a key factor in our success.”
Company fact file
HR manager Terry O’Brien
Team Balfour Beatty Rail Renewals
Number in HR team 17
Number of employees responsible for 488
Main achievements Helping create a business that understands where it is going and how it is going to get there, with all employees involved and rewarded in line with performance
Priorities for next 12 months Identifying actions where business improvements can be made; sponsoring a “millennium project” aimed at encouraging employees to put forward ideas for innovation; adopting measures within the European Business Excellence Model to measure business performance
Judge’s Comment “The business has made a remarkable turnaround in its financial performance over the past year. There is no doubt in my mind that HR, and Terry O’Brien in particular, have made a real and significant contribution to delivering results through people”