CIPD Podcast 49 - HR Leaders of the future

Date: 07/12/2010 Duration: 00:20:52

This podcast looks at the key behaviours of successful HR leadership. Senior practitioners, Imelda Walsh, Sainsbury's Group HR Director from 2004 -2010, Lee Sears, Bridge Consultancy, Hayley Tatum, Tesco UK and Ireland Operations Personnel Director and Siobhan Sheridan, HR Director, Job Centre Plus, talk about their experience and career progression.


Lucy Greenwell Welcome to the CIPD podcast. We’ve looked closely at the CIPD’s next generation HR work in recent podcasts now though we want to look in a bit more detail at what it actually takes to be an HR leader. What are practitioners currently doing and what must they be doing in the future to have a shot at the top job? We’re going to find out what excellent HR leadership looks like, hear from a handful of HR leaders at the top of their game on how they got there, and get advice for those with high ambitions. So what exactly do HR leaders of the future need that they don’t already have? Imelda Walsh spent ten years as HR director at Sainsburys.

Imelda Walsh: I think future HR leaders will still need to do many of the things that I would certainly feel were important in my career but with more oomph. So I think understanding the business will remain absolutely critical for those who want to reach the highest positions. For a number of years HR and marketing have been getting closer together and I think HR will need to become as good as marketeers at employee insight and what that should drive HR to recommend the business the company does as marketeers have become on understanding customers and consumers. Now for me and my career I have always wanted to be at the heart of the business and I think the HR people who’ll be successful and make a difference in the future will always be at the heart of the business team and that's the best way to make your impact, not to the side but I think HR people will always have to prod and challenge and sometimes be the uncomfortable voice in the room.

LG: So insight driven HR and the HR profession map have to be a priority for future HR leaders but what are the behaviours that are key to successful leadership? Lee Sears founded Bridge and led the CIPD’s Next Generation HR research.

Lee Sears: We encouraged people to do a self assessment against the new HR profession map, looking at the behaviours and in every sector, at every level the least effective competence was curiosity, the kind of behaviour that was least indexed in the whole of the HR profession and I think if there's kind of, you know, one seminal difference that we need to start making is having an HR function that's deeply curious about the business that they’re in, the context in which that's taking place, and what’s really happening around here. And if you then have a leadership candidate who are think about what’s going on rather than just being busy kind of doing what they’ve always done you start to get a function that can think its way into the future rather than just kind of get busy doing what it’s always done slightly more effectively. 

LG: Well that's what you need but of course that's only part of the picture, the challenge then is to get the experience that will lead you up the ladder. The routes into the HR profession is a big subject in itself, should you do your training and then go into HR or should you train on the job? How many people are coming into HR from other areas of the business and how many are coming in direct? We’ve asked a few senior experts how they did it, first of all Philippa Lamb talked to Hayley Tatum, she's the UK operations personnel director for Tesco.

Hayley Tatum: I started on the tills in Tesco which, if I'm honest when I look back, has taught me loads that I've drawn on year after year after year. So working very closely with customers, understanding what it’s like to do a job like that day in, day out, is really important. It now helps me with job design, with training, communication; endlessly I go back and think about my experiences. So I started through stores, worked my way up to become a personnel manager in stores and then ultimately went to work in Tesco head office in personnel but along the road I've worked as an operator, I've worked in IT, I've run our produce business and I've worked and run 20 hypermarkets for Tesco.
Philippa Lamb: You see this is the bit that interests me because you must have chosen to make all that happen. I don't imagine these opportunities just present themselves. So you took a clear decision that you wanted to work actively right across the business?

HT: Yeah I saw that lots of decisions that I was trying to take in HR I really was having to go out to the business and ask questions and observe and then I thought really to have firsthand experience of really having a role where I manage these individuals and my own performance is measured through KPIs so I have the stress, the contribution and to be honest some of the accolades for achievement firsthand has made a big difference to me.

PL: How important is that credibility that you have with your commercial colleagues to doing the job that you now do within HR?

HT: I think the fact that I've actually been out as a line manager, particularly running a group of stores, has given me immense credibility with my colleagues. I can speak from live experience. I have colleagues in the business that used to work for me who have now developed themselves and are working as partners to me, running business units and we all laugh and joke about, “Do you remember the day this happened…” and using those real life experiences, the relationships that we forged together back then just really continues to help me in the job that I do today.

LG: Hayley had a pretty clear plan from early on but that's not the case for every successful HR leader. Siobhan Sheridan is HR director at Jobcentre Plus having been HR director at Defra before that. Philippa asked her about her own career path.

PL: Did you have a clear strategy from day one? 
Siobhan Sheridan: I wish I could say yes ((laughs)).

PL: So no?

SS: No I didn’t. having left school at 16 and joined retail banking in my local bank branch I didn’t have a strategy for what it was I wanted to do with my career at all so I kind of found my way into HR and then I think there were a series of points at which I realised that potentially I could do more than I was doing, so moving from being a professional in one area to having a boss who encouraged me to broaden myself and to consider some other things and it’s just sort of developed almost organically I suppose just by taking those opportunities and listening to the people around me saying, “Actually you could do something that's a bit more or a bit different.”

LG: Despite different approaches Hayley and Siobhan have both had varied careers and have risen to senior positions but if you’re currently planning a career in HR what can we learn from this? Is there an obvious path that we should plot or are there days when you could walk into an HR department and logically climb from bottom to top gone forever?

HT: I think it’s not entirely gone but I would stress, certainly my own experience is work outside of HR and also has certainly allowed me better knowledge of the business, more connection and more engagement with my colleagues but largely has allowed me to jump through layers of the HR structure because I've learned things along the way in a different way and gained credibility with business leaders as I've done so.

PL: Okay so you’d say it’s accelerated the pace of your career progression by going out and back in again?

HT: Definitely, definitely. Along the way I've continued to work with the CIPD, I've done a Masters degree in HR, so I've kept my hand in but actually I did all of that whilst I was not working in the HR function.

LG: Philippa Lamb put it to Lee Sears.

PL: The path to leadership is much less rigid than it used to be isn’t it?

LS: I think so I mean, you know, the whole idea that an HR professional has to start at the kind of bottom and work their way up over 20 years to the top this whole way of thinking about HR I think kind of explodes that myth at some level. It doesn’t mean that you can’t chart a kind of valuable HR career for life but equally often the most inquisitive and savvy business leaders who’ve had nothing to do with HR kind of come to HR late in life, they have those kind of moments where they realise that much that we need to do can’t be done unless we really understand how to get these people in this place to make it really happen and they can be some of the best HR leaders. So multiple paths, multiple routes of entry is just going to be what our future looks like.

PL: So it’s a much more exciting prospect isn’t it for perhaps people coming into the profession than it was in the past?

LS: I think so.  I mean that idea that HR has it’s kind of people heritage and there's a box in which you sit no I don't think so at all. I mean in many ways it’s just going to be the ultimate kind of applied business discipline. It’s going to sit right on the interface I think between people, culture, consulting and change.

LG: Imelda Walsh has had very broad cross-sector experience, something that's certainly given her valuable insight.

IW: I started life in the FMCG world, it’s now Diageo and in my time it was Grand Met. I moved from there into Coca Cola and Schweppes Beverages which at the time was a joint venture between Coca Cola and Cadbury Schweppes and then into banking which was a very deliberate move and from banking into Sainsbury’s. challenge…

PL: And how did you acquire your leadership skills along the way, just by absorbing them or were you directly taught, mentored, trained? How did it work?

IW: I had some, I'm so old now, there weren't…people didn’t really talk about mentors necessarily when I was starting off but actually looking back I was lucky enough to work alongside people who gave me real-time feedback on what I did that worked and what I did that was going to be less helpful, in particular they were very good at ironing out perhaps more forceful sides of my character that might have been endearing in a graduate trainee but were definitely unhelpful if you were going to be a future HR director.

PL: Okay so diplomatic skills.

IW: Yes. Probably still more work to do there.
LG: Leadership has been a hot topic for years now that there aren’t enough, that we’re facing a shortage and that the talent pipeline isn’t generating a sustainable number of future leaders and the same is true within the HR industry. So with that in mind the CIPD working with Bridge have launched the senior HR Leaders’ Development Programme in order to take positive action and build a movement for change. It began in September and it’ll last a year.

LS: We need to find a way of building a progressive pool of leaders within the UK and beyond who over the next decade will be able to take these concepts and bring them to life in reality. So we’ve been looking to build a cohort of so far in our first programme we have 21 of I guess these exemplar HR leaders who are really from three to five years away from being a global HR director and we’ve got our hands around them for a year and we’re essentially creating just a very deep experience which is enabling them to look at developing their own capacity to be a real insight led leader, looking at the extent to which the function, their organisation and their function to what extent really is HR an insight led discipline within their organisation and then together over the course of the year they’re going to be really looking at embedding some of these new ideas and challenging the way in which the profession thinks.

SS: I was particularly interested in the fact that the course really focuses on the development of insights in organisations which I think is really critical for us as an HR profession.

LG: Siobhan Sheridan is one of the HR directors on the leadership programme and she talked to Philippa Lamb about the experience so far.

SS: That, combined with bringing together a group of people who are more or less at the same stage in their careers as I am, thinking about the same kinds of issues but from very, very different perspectives and a very broad range of organisations and I think the research that CIPD have done into Next Generation HR and what’s going to be required from the profession moving forward I was really interested to see that played out through a development programme for leaders, so very, very excited to be on the programme. 

PL: Tell me what sort of things they’re going to be doing?

LS: So there are four modules over the course of the year that are joined up by a whole series of…there are eight coaching calls. They have expert senior mentors who’ll be supporting them through the programme and they’ll be grounding this all around taking some of the biggest organisational challenges that they face in putting them through the sort of insight lens. The first module we wanted to find a way of basically trying to take the concept out of the head and put it in the real world, so what we did is we worked with NACRO, the National Association for Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders, who have a pretty profound organisational challenge at the moment, the marketplace is changing hugely, services are really profoundly fragmented and what we did is we got our 21 delegates basically to have a deep emersion experience with NACRO over the course of the week trying to provide unique and powerful breakthrough insight, help NACRO focus on a small number of things that would make a massive difference.
SS: I think it was both a fabulous learning experience in terms of the way that it was structured but also for me coming at it from a public sector perspective ended up being a real demonstration, if you like, of big society in action and watching employers engaging with a societal problem of the type that NACRO is seeking to deal with… 

PL: Because this is about finding work for ex-offenders?

SS: Absolutely yeah and really seeing the light bulbs go on with some pretty major employers about how they could actually contribute to solving what is a pretty big problem for us all.

LS: So we had them working in prisons, we’ve had them in centres for resettlement and education, we’ve had them exploring with all the kind of key strategic stakeholders in the Ministry of Justice, etc. etc. working at particular, what we call a kind of insights hourglass. There's a process we’ve been working trying to develop their capacity to really become much more insight led and then over the course of the week they spent time constructing both a series of critical recommendations and some kind of prototype solutions for NACRO much of which they’re going to be working with them on over the course of hopefully the next year.

PL: It sounds like quite a confronting experience, you went into prisons I gather?

SS: We did yes, I did, I went into one of the prisons and it was both a confronting experience but also a really uplifting experience seeing the work that goes on in there and hearing about the hopes really of the people who were there some of whom had just made some of the mistakes in life that there but for the grace of God go we I'm afraid, very, very hopeful for their lives and for their futures. 

LG: As Lee says the people on this programme are pretty senior, three to five years away from global HR leadership and used to being in charge, in some ways the challenge was learning to work again as a team of equals.

LS: I think first and foremost it was summed up beautifully by one of the delegates actually, they came along and they said, “Well in truth having looked at some of the pre-read and the data prior to the NACRO experience I actually thought I knew what the answer was, turning up on day one and the ability to actually press the pause button and unlearn many of the things that you rely on in order to be successful so as you can get a load of stuff done very quickly if you’re not careful that gets right in the way of you developing new insight into an environment which you think you understand really well.” So the ability to move from just being a human doing to being a really thoughtful, inquisitive practitioner I think has been one of the biggest shifts that people are just starting to make and just realising that actually there's going to be a big shift on the whole volume value thing. I'm going to make a bigger contribution by doing less and all I'm going to be doing is focusing on the things that matter the most, rather than just meeting the multiple demands of massive organisations and the complexity that they engage with daily.

PL: The course lasts a year, off and on, what are you hoping to take out of it at the end? 

SS: For me it’s about seeking to take my thinking to the next level really and to look at some very, very different ways in which HR can contribute in the organisations in which we work and that and I hope to take away a really good network of colleagues and peers and mentors that I can turn to in the future as well.

LG: Starting at the bottom is something everyone has to do but if Hayley could give her younger self some advice what would it be?

HT: I think don’t be blinkered in how to develop a career path. Keep your mind really open so that you learn as your business perhaps diversifies, goes into different areas, be available, be flexible in your mind in terms of what you will do, who you might have the opportunity to work with and what each role will really give you in the long run. Sometimes you'll start work at five o'clock in the morning, it’s cold and you are wearing something that you really wish you weren't and thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? This isn’t where I really saw my career when I started off,’ but now I look back and think those are the experiences that have really shaped who I am and really make me think about how I deliver my job today. 

SS: First and foremost I would say make sure that the people that you’re working with know that that's the aspiration that you have. I think sometimes talent goes unnoticed as a result of the fact that people don’t speak up about what it is they’re interested in and that's certainly something I know I've had to do on a few occasions through my career and I think look for the people who you feel are the role models of the kind of leader that you would want to be and get close to those people. I've found that senior people, people at all levels in organisations are really generous with their time when you go to them to say, “Actually I'm really interested in progressing and I think you could help me, can we do a bit of work together or can we do some mentoring together?” and I think experiences are really, really vital in that development. So yes it’s somewhat about learning, knowledge, development but I think one of the great things about the way the CIPD qualifications are going is that we’re becoming much more about experiences and I think that's really vital.

LG: And finally from Imelda Walsh a tip on how to get to the top.

IW: I think it will become harder and harder to do the most senior jobs in HR if you haven’t had a general management experience exposure relatively early in your career. I think that leadership has now become so critical there will always be career opportunities for those who want to stay exclusively in the HR profession, I think my point is it may exclude them getting to the highest HR director roles but there will be lots of opportunities to do more specialist jobs but if you’re sitting there now in your early 20s and you have an aspiration to be the HR director of a business and you want to sit around the top management table I think that you'll need to have demonstrated in your career not only that you’re technically proficient in the issues that you’re responsible for but you have experienced running teams, running departments, managing of P & L and that will be important too.

LG: A fascinating insight there from some senior HRs who have risen to the very top of their profession. The CIPD’s HR profession map, a self-assessment tool can help you work out where you are in your career so for this and further information on the Next Generation HR research please look in our show notes. You can find them at . 

Next month we bring together the unmissable insight of John Philpott, Jackie Orme and some senior HR directors from different sectors who will be casting an eye across the economy and the HR industry to see what 2011 is likely to bring.


Subscribe, download and more

You can stream each episode, download the podcasts to your computer or subscribe to the series free via iTunes.

Trouble listening to podcasts?

If you are having trouble listening to the podcasts, you can access them directly via Soundcloud.