Victory for HR 200 years after Trafalgar

James Burnell-Nugent is the Navy Board member – equivalent to a board member in a company – responsible for Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel policy issues. The admiral, the third most senior person in the Navy, also has executive responsibility for recruiting, workforce planning and most on-shore training.

When we met in Nelson’s cabin on the HMS Victory in Portsmouth, he was putting the final touches on the Queen’s visit to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.

All very grand. And yet the challenges he faces are remarkably similar to those faced by others in HR.

The Navy is fishing in a smaller talent pool of people and fighting to plug a hole in skills in the same way as any other employer. It has the added pressure of competition from a civilian world that can offer flexible working and other comforts that are, by necessity, often out of the question in the Navy.

HR through and through

While commanding nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers might sound impressive, how does this prepare him for running HR for 38,000 naval personnel?

Burnell-Nugent said HR was entrenched in the Navy through the ‘divisional system’, which has been around since Nelson’s day. This originated in ratios dictating how many sailors each officer was responsible for. Once this responsibility had been divided up, the officer in question had a duty of care towards the sailors in his charge. The concept remains essentially the same more than 200 years later.

“The divisional system feeds up through the head of department to commanding officer, so each commanding officer not only has military command but is – in civilian language – the head of HR for his ship,” he said. “HR is completely embedded in the command, leadership and management of a ship.”

Unlike the Army, the Navy has enjoyed a distinct lack of headlines about bullying and harassment. This seems surprising bearing in mind Navy personnel spend up to six months at sea together, risking bouts of ‘cabin fever’.

Burnell-Nugent said this danger was countered by a culture of constant encouragement and personal development, which is realised by personnel being constantly pushed to gain the skills necessary for promotion.

Recruiting the right people is also important – the Navy concentrates its marketing heavily on the concept that ‘the team works’.

And that team looks very different now than it did in 1990, when women were first allowed to sea after hundreds of years of a male-only service.
The decision to let women on board was taken with trepidation. A memo from the then ‘HR director’, second sea lord, admiral Sir Brian Brown, read: “There are counter arguments: culture shock, spouses’ resistance, emotional tensions within crews, weakening of the male self-image… and the unpredictability of women’s availability because of pregnancy.”

Are women truly accepted on board? Apparently, without question. Having women on board “works brilliantly”, said Burnell-Nugent.
“Think of ship life like a village – if you had an all-male village, you wouldn’t last more than a generation. Having women and men living and working together is our normal way as a species.”

Add to this the simple matter of logistics and it’s clear why this is no longer an issue – the Navy has 50% turnover every seven years so, in 2005, only one in four sailors will have served on men-only ships.

In the old days, Navy ‘press gangs’ would stalk harbour towns looking for able-bodied men to ‘take the King’s shilling’. Often these men didn’t have a choice in the matter.

The press gangs are long gone, leaving the Navy to find new ways to recruit personnel. Recruitment levels have fallen constantly over the past three years. In 2002, the Navy recruited more than it needed (101%); this fell to 100% in 2003 and 98% in 2004.

Competition for staff

“It is getting tougher. We were in competition with other employers – now we are increasingly in competition with further education,” Burnell-Nugent said.

So the Navy is increasingly marketing itself as a place to gain a wide range of skills – from catering to guided missile building – while being paid at the same time.

“You can travel the world, being a chef in the Gulf or in the Mediterranean, and when you’ve had enough, you can leave and open your own restaurant – what a bargain,” he said.

All training is aligned with civilian qualifications. This is all summed up in the Navy’s new catch phrase: ‘Earn while you learn.’

The biggest challenge

Employees these days expect a lot in terms of creature comforts, consultation and flexible working. Burnell-Nugent said military personnel were expected to “go the extra mile” compared to the physical and mental standards of civilian staff. Finding people willing to accept this lifestyle over one of creature comforts is the Navy’s biggest hurdle.

But at the same it is an opportunity, as it gives the Navy the chance to differentiate itself from other employers as a place to find excitement and adventure.

“If you are on a ship in the middle of the Bay of Biscay and it’s a force-10 gale and something flammable is spilled on the stairs, you can’t just call 999,” he said.

“We want the sort of people [who can deal with that],” he said. “We want a career in the Navy to be exciting and fun as well as being professionally demanding.

CV: Vice admiral Sir James Burnell-Nugent

– January 2003 – made second sea lord, the Navy’s ‘director of HR’

– 2001-2002 – commander of UK Maritime Forces

– 1992-1993 – commanded the frigate HMS Brilliant during the Bosnia Crisis

– 1984-1986 – commanded the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Conqueror, carrying out many Cold War patrols

– 1971 – Joined the Royal Navy after reading mathematics at Cambridge

Lessons in people management from Nelson

Burnell-Nugent said the modern Navy owed a lot to Nelson in terms of good practice. Nelson had a particular reputation for caring for his men – making sure they had fresh fruit so they didn’t get scurvy, and making sure they got their mail.

Nelson’s ultimate piece of good leadership was when he lay dying – rather than being at the front of the surgeon’s queue, he insisted on waiting his turn. “Nelson was the ultimate divisional [Navy HR] officer. He took time to care about his men – every naval officer needs to do exactly the same thing 200 years on,” Burnell-Nugent said.

Comments are closed.