Unconventional HR backgrounds: A world of difference

Although many Personnel Today readers have worked their way up the career ladder via the classic professional HR qualifications and training route, others have discovered the industry almost by chance.

We asked three HR managers with less traditional CVs to describe what they did before entering the profession, how they discovered HR, and how their eclectic experiences feed into their current roles.

Muriel Crout, Highlands & Islands Enterprise

Muriel Crout is an HR adviser at Highlands & Islands Enterprise in Inverness, and is currently studying for her Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Professional Development Scheme qualification. A former croupier and ‘pit boss’ who has worked in casinos in South Africa’s Sun City and in Moscow, Istanbul, Bulgaria, Latvia and elsewhere in Africa, she says she has had enough of the gaming industry for now and wants to focus on her HR career.

“After working in a Russian casino that turned out to be run by the Chechen Mafia, I became an inspector at a casino in Istanbul, where my job was to train people to run the blackjack, roulette, poker and punto banco tables. I got involved in the recruitment side of the business in Turkey, which I found fascinating, and have loved the world of HR ever since.

When I returned to the UK in 1998, I moved to an IT recruitment firm, where the fact that I didn’t even know how to turn on a computer didn’t prevent the HR department from apparently spotting my potential.

I moved to Inverness to be closer to my family and took a job with another recruitment firm, Global Highland, while training for my Certificate in Personnel Practice. I met someone from Highlands & Islands Enterprise at a CIPD function and subsequently joined my current employer in 2005. I am responsible for about 200 staff, dealing with grievances and disputes relating to anything from their salary to the lack of promotion opportunities.

When I worked in Turkey I realised that people’s talents are what matter, not their outward appearance, and while it is important to look glamorous when you are mixing at a glitzy casino, it shouldn’t be so important for a role in HR – as long as you are fairly neat.

I have also learned that some of the most talented people out there don’t conform to society’s stereotypes. One of my great successes was persuading my Turkish colleagues to take on a very talented gay man. I knew that there was hostility towards him simply because Turkish culture can be homophobic, but I also knew he was perfectly suited for the role. His subsequent success at the casino was a great personal and professional triumph for me.

In interview situations back home, I am often more at ease with candidates from multicultural backgrounds than many of my colleagues are, and perhaps more prepared to give them a chance.

I am told that I am very good at conflict resolution work, and that’s simply because in casinos, you are trained to do everything you can to calm down potentially explosive situations and keep your own feelings in check.

I’ve got about 10 years’ worth of gaming on my CV, and my goal now is to match and exceed that record with some really good HR roles.”

Kathryn Kendall, Candyking UK

Kathryn Kendall, HR manager at sweet merchandising firm Candyking UK, is a former actress and a current Equity member. She gave up her acting ambitions for love, but still harbours ambitions to tread the boards.

“For the first 21 years of my life, I thought of little else but acting and certainly had no interest in business,” she admits. “I studied drama to A Level, took a BA Hons in Acting (Musical Theatre) at what was then the Birmingham School of Music and Drama, and subsequently got my Equity card.

Around the time that I started talking seriously to agents, I fell in love and all my priorities changed. To the astonishment of my friends and family, I decided I wanted to settle down and live in a nice place with my partner, not subsist on baked beans in a grotty bedsit, so I put my acting plans on hold.

After a brief period as a secretary, a colleague introduced me to HR and I quickly realised that the prospect of judging someone else in an interview setting, rather than being judged myself at an acting audition, was something that really appealed.

I did some research into the profession, enrolled on my Certificate in Personnel Practice, and landed an HR assistant role all in the same month. I joined Candyking, which employs 240 staff, at the beginning of last year, and I am now studying for the final year of my CIPD qualification.

Candyking is a pick ‘n’ mix sweets merchandiser that supplies cinemas and retail chains such as Woolworths and Sainsbury’s. The bulk of our people are hands-on merchandisers, and the HR department consists of myself and an administrator.

While I don’t consider myself to be the slightest bit ‘luvvie,’ my acting experience forms a big part of any training programmes that I run. I always expect people to do some voice training and vocals work before the session begins and I also like a physical warm-up. Luckily, they’re all used to me and don’t seem to object.

My acting and singing training have made me enormously aware of how people use their voices and their body language in business situations, and of how important personal presentation is when you’re going for an interview or meeting clients. My background helps me to explore presentation issues with people without making them squirm.

Although the acting side of my life has probably made me an egotist and attention-seeker in some respects, it has also allowed me to open up to other people in my HR role. After three years of drama training, I know how to accept criticism without going to pieces, and I also know how to give it sensitively at work.

Telling people I used to be an actress has really opened doors for me professionally, but I still want to act later on perhaps after having a family.

I’m fine about putting it off until later, especially as the best parts for women definitely kick in when they’re a bit older. Something like Oklahoma! or a Stephen Sondheim would do me fine for starters.”

Claire Robbins, Lloyd’s Register Rail

Claire Robbins is a Derby-based food scientist who currently works as an HR business partner at Lloyd’s Register Rail, the specialist team of rail consultants within the Lloyd’s Register Group. She was previously interim HR manager at the credit-checking firm Experian. She has three overriding passions in life: travelling in the developing world, the HR profession, and the food industry. To date, she has successfully juggled the demands of all three.

A former graduate trainee technical manager with Associated British Foods (ABF), her overseas expeditions have included a year in the Sudan setting up and managing feeding centres on behalf of Christian Outreach, as well as prolonged stints in Sri Lanka, Senegal, the Congo and Rwanda for the Save the Children Fund and Oxfam.

“I was at ABF one grey November day when one of my friends told me she was going to Nigeria for a year with international development charity VSO. At the time, I was making a batch of custard for a new trifle product, wearing a statutory food industry hairnet and white wellies. I thought to myself: there must be more to life than this.

Since then, I have catered for severely malnourished children while living in a straw hut in the Sudan sipped tea with nomadic tribesmen in Ethiopia while we took a break from weighing and measuring their children been holed up in Sri Lanka waiting for the Tamil Tigers and Indian peacekeepers to stop fighting, and visited mountain guerrillas in Rwanda. I have also travelled extensively with my husband in South America and New Zealand.

My various trips abroad haven’t made me forget my career though, and after doing an MBA at Cranfield in 1990, I joined Hazle­wood Foods (now Greencore) as a technical manager, where my first job was to implement safety standards in a pickle factory. In 1995, I was offered the role of HR manager and I jumped at the chance. For me, the biggest challenge for any organisation lies in delivering the business objectives through people, and I was very keen to learn more about the profession. While at Hazlewood, I completed my CIPD qualification.

In 2003, my husband and I sold everything we had, including our house, and spent 10 months travelling through South America and trekking in the more remote parts of the Andes. Although we still want to travel, for the moment we are staying in Derby, and are keen to further our careers.

At Experian, I was told that I’m an independent thinker who uses reason, not aggression, to get a point across. My travels have made me very resilient when it comes to change and meeting new people. I’m told by those I’ve helped appraise that I’m frank and fair when it comes to treating others properly, which I hope is true.

I consider myself a good communicator and listener, which again comes down to having travelled to so many different regions of the world. My current role keeps me up to speed professionally, while giving me a real intellectual challenge.”

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