[Podcast] Stepping Up - Careers advice for busy HR Managers

Posted in : HR Updates on 10 May 2019
Mairéad Regan
Clarendon Executive
Issues covered:

The first series of the HR bite-size podcast is brought to you by Legal Island in association with Clarendon Executive.

Clarendon Executive works with companies across NI to help maximise their leadership capabilities across all aspects of the employment life cycle from executive search through to organisational and staff development, retention and eventual exit. Their expertise spans the private, public and third sectors. The firm focuses on identifying talent at Board, NED, C-suite and senior executive level across management disciplines and operational effectiveness leadership roles.

We welcome Hugh McPoland and Mairéad Regan, Associate Consultants at Clarendon Executive. Hugh McPoland previously Director of HR at BSO with a considerable track record in organisational change along with considerable knowledge and experience in assessing the leadership credentials of directors across the public sector.

Mairéad Regan also Associate Consultant at Clarendon Executive, supporting both post-hire Executive Development and Senior Executive performance and progression. Previously Group HR Director at UTV Media plc, Mairéad has more than 25 years experience in HR at a senior level.

In this first instalment Hugh and Mairéad discuss the steps that an HR professional can take when looking to step up in their career and make the move to from HR Manager to more senior HR post.


Interviewer: Welcome to HR Bitesize podcast, in conversation with Mairead Regan and Hugh McPoland from Clarendon Executive. Clarendon Executive works with companies across NI to help maximise their leadership capabilities across all aspects of the employment lifecycle from executive search through to organisational and staff development.

Clarendon's expertise spans the private, public, and third sectors. The firm focuses on identifying talent at board and senior executive level across the management disciplines, including general management, commercial marketing, and digital, and operational effectiveness leadership roles such as operations, finance, risk compliance, technology, and HR.

Clarendon have recently been joined by Hugh McPoland and Mairead Regan as Associate Consultants. Hugh is previously Director of HR at BSO. Hugh has a considerable track record in organisational change along with considerable knowledge and experience in assessing the leadership credentials of directors across the public sector. Mairead also joins Clarendon as an Associate Consultant supporting both post-hire executive development and senior executive performance and progression. Previously Group HR Director at UTV Media plc, Mairead has more than 25 years' experience in HR at a senior level.

This podcast is a must-have listen for any HR manager or director, covering hot topics such as work-life balance, authentic selection, stepping up to director level, change management, and the importance of employer brands. Our easy-to-digest format makes these short but informative podcasts perfect for listening to at leisure, in the car, or during your lunch break.

So, Hugh, could we maybe start by getting your thoughts on making the start from HR manager to director level?

Being Strategic…

Hugh: Thanks. It's quite often that the immediate answer is strategic. You become more strategic, and sometimes I think strategy is an overused word. What does it really mean? Because people can do their business with a strategic view anywhere. And really successful HR people in the middle of an organisation are constantly looking rather than solving a problem or doing a task. How does this affect the organisation in the long term?

So the simple answer is about you move from being an HR manager where you potentially as an HR business partner and part of the organisation into your post where you're having to tend to and look after the entire organisation and its future. It's future organisational wellbeing, how it can compete.

Also impressed sometimes by the work of with David Urlich recently who has this outside-in concept that he has, where quite often HR departments see their customers as being the people in the organisation, the line managers, the staff, employees. Urlich, if I understand it correctly, said, "No, your customers are actually the organisation's customers".

So it's about when you go to that strategisation, it's knowing your business and knowing the business trends. It's understanding where that organisation is going, what's happening in the market it's in. If you're in a high tech market, what are your competitors doing? How can you position and contribute the position of your organisation to enable it to compete in the long term? That's sort of a sense I have of what strategy's about and working in a strategic way.

Influencing Business Strategy

Mairead: I mean, the reality is irrespective of whether you're an HR Manager or an HR Director. There will always be operational issues. But I think at HR director level, it's the ability to operate at both those levels. So to do the strategic, but also you will be called upon, every HR Director is called upon to do operational issues as well, be it their direct line reports or whatever.

But I mean, the reality I think is as HR Director, you should be influencing the business strategy. It's not just about the people policies. It's not just what's seen traditionally as the HR policies. That's your remit. You should have a voice and influence on the overall business strategy, and that HR should be seen to have a valued place at that table and to have an input to that.

You talked about understanding the business. I think at HR Director level, you need to be commercially aware. All HR Managers, Directors, all practitioners have done whatever relevant CIPD courses in professional development. We all know what best practice looks like. But to be effective at a HR Director level, you need to be able to balance the best practice and the HR policies with what's the business need.

And on occasions, there may be things that you end up doing that from a purest HR position, you're saying, "Well, that's not really how it should be done or I would prefer to have done it". But you have to take the realistic approach and say, "For this business at this point in time, the business need is to do X, Y, or Z". And I think at HR Director, there is more a requirement to be able to operate like that, make decisions which absolutely are HR zone, but also fit the business need.

Being Visible – internally and externally

And there's also something around being visible, and I don't mean just visible within your own organisation. It's both internally and externally. So being visible internally, yes, absolutely, it's all HR related. But I think people should be looking for opportunity to participate in whatever meetings, projects, all across the business. So if there are things . . . if there's organisation development going on, if there's change management, if there's employer branding opportunities, to be present and to participate in those types of projects, to spend time in all the relevant parts of the business.

But the risk of that is that individuals become so focussed on their own organisations, and people are very busy in HR roles that they don't lift their heads and look outside. And there's a real benefit to making contacts, networking with individuals outside of their own business, and being able then to access those resources in a two-way process to share and to contribute best practice, and information, and contacts.

So, I think at HR Director Level, yes, it's about being visible within your own organisation, but it's also about making it a priority to network. It used to be maybe perhaps seen as, "Oh, I don't have time. I'm so busy. I don't have time to go out and attend this networking event or this professional development". But actually seeing that as part of your career development, because not only will it develop your own career, but it will benefit your own organisation, because you're picking up insights and information, which you can then bring into your own company.

Networking in HR

Hugh: Yeah. At times, I think the networking is really important in that it helps to build your credibility. So much of this is about personal credibility, of being able to demonstrate to your organisation, or to a future employer, that you actually understand what they do. And it's not just about "HR says." We all know, and I'm sure most of the audience here is HR professionals, when we go into your corner, we always complain about everybody blames HR, right or wrong. There's that sense at times.

But if you can use those networking opportunities Mairead has mentioned, and use your professional knowledge, your expertise, that's building credibility and letting people across the organisation know that you're a person that they can trust.

They may not necessarily like your advice. It may not be popular advice. But at least they get to the point of saying, "I respect that and I'll take it forward". And that's by building that credibility through networking, through knowledge, through understanding HR, but also, again, I go back, I think, to understanding the business.

The question is stepping up to the director level. Again, if you step up in your own organisation, there's a greater chance of actually you understanding the business as you hit that director post. But if you're moving organisations, the first thing . . . people talk about the first hundred days. The first hundred days, I think, is about trying to understand. And certainly, I've seen other people come into organisations and sort of think, "I've arrived. I'm the new director, and this is how it's going to be". That's not a good strategy for me. I think it's about getting to understand what your people are doing, what your organisation is doing.

I know in the health service, our graduate training scheme, for example, you are our future chief executives. They spend the first six weeks doing [portering 00:08:17] jobs, working with nurses, working [inaudible 00:08:19]. So they know what actually it means before they can enter that stratosphere of executive positions in five or six years' time. They know the business. They know the importance of what individuals do to the clients in healthcare or in private sector companies potentially, what people do at the lowest levels at an organisation, and how that impacts our customers.

So if you're working for a company that has a call centre interface, it's knowing what goes on in that call centre, and knowing intimately, not from stories or what it's supposed to do, but experiencing that. So it goes back, I think, about credibility and knowing your business and what it actually means to the people you're delivering that service to.

Mairead: Just building on the point of the network and additional support. I think because we all work in HR, I think we're almost the worst looking at our own skills and our own experience. And, you know, we invest so much time in supporting our employees and other individuals that we don't actually take the time to support ourselves.

I always say if someone is doing up their own CV, even though they work in HR, and they know what makes a good CV and what doesn't, it's still useful to give it to somebody else to check.

But I also believe that if you are serious about making this move, it is very beneficial to have access to both mentors and a coach. And just to separate the two, obviously a mentor would be somebody who is more senior to you either in your own organisation or in another organisation in your area. So it would be an HR Director, somebody who can understand your path, and you can use them as a safe sounding board in terms of you go them for advice and guidance, and they have an understanding in the area of HR.

Coaching as part of your journey

But alongside that, a very useful support tool is a coach, and at Clarendon, that's a service that Clarendon strongly support. And a coach is very much about . . . I mean, fundamentally, if you look at what is coaching, coaching is allowing you to work with a coach to access your own inner wisdom. A good coach will ask you questions that will draw out from you the information that you have inside but you've perhaps not given yourself the space and time to look at that.

And through coaching, you identify the position that you're at and the position where you want to go to. And a lot of people in terms of, say, for example, the move to HR Director, their HR Manager is point A, and their HR Director is point Z, and they want to jump from A to Z. But actually, in the coaching process, you learn and you work with your coach to move from A to B. And as long as you are moving every day or every week or every month closer towards that goal as opposed to the huge leap . . .

So some individuals, for example, who have been in an HR position role with a certain company for a period of time will decide to step outside of that to get a different sort of experience, to give them a breadth and a depth. So it's to explore those options in a safe space where you decide what is right for you and your career. And it's with somebody who . . . I mean, we all have our own answers and we do know where we want to go. We know what's right for our own lives. But quite often, we don't give ourselves the space and time to do that. And sometimes we don't even have the tools.

So for someone to sit with you to look at "Are you at a careers crossroads?" I mean, there's almost a presumption if you're an HR Manager that you want to be an HR Director. Is that the case? Has anyone ever asked you? Have you actually sat and looked at where that sits in terms of your lifestyle, what you want out of life? Do you want to step outside an operational role? Do you want to move into, for example, working at Legal-Island, working in another organisation, getting a different sort of skills and experience so that when you go for the director's role, you have the broadest set of skills and experience and qualities?

So it's working alongside somebody who provides that space and that time for you to look at what's right for you, and yes, to make suggestions, but it's only suggestions that tally with where you believe and where you know intrinsically where you want to go.

Hugh: I think that's really important, because if I can maybe just share it, it's not about an HR role but because I've been in HR for a long time in the health sector and sort of moved up. So had a very strong network of people who I could phone very quietly and say, "Come across this. Have you ever come across this? What did you do? How did it work out? What should we not do?"

The short time there was an interim between chief executives at BSO, and I felt it for about three weeks. And there was just one day I thought, "A new person into a job, it can be really lonely". I had this conversation with another colleague in the Department of Health, and I thought, "Oh, I must tell David", who is my former chief executive, "that". Until they went, "David is not chief executive. You are". "Oh right. You're it".

And I suspect people moving in, particularly to a new organisation, will feel into an HR director post that until you build that internal network, it can be quite lonely. And you need to have a really strong sense of resilience, but also that network that you left behind, to keep in touch with it.

There's nothing new under the world in terms of HR processes. It's just personalities change. So that network, I think, is really important. But for people who are moving into a director post, you've got to realise that, in fact, it kind of tends to be quite lonely.

I was very fortunate in that the chief executive I always worked to were very supportive of HR. I know some people who didn't have that experience, and it can be quite torturous. Again, it goes back to some of the earlier conversations we've had in previous podcasts about organisational culture. So it's about knowing the organisation and having that supportive mechanism even at the highest level.

So there is something there about, as you move up into a director post, having that emotional resilience and that emotional support mechanism. That has to be around as well, because ultimately, in some of the HR issues, which we always talk, you have to be strategic. You will get dragged into the operational issues. And it's you that makes the call. It's you goes to the chief executive or chairman and say, "This is what we need to do". It can at times feel a little bit more like you don't have that network and you need to be really prepared to do that and have that sense of "I'm prepared to do that".

It's interesting you say that about some people not wanting to be director. Health sector about five years ago did this survey because there was a sense that our succession planning wasn't working right. And we asked a range of assistant directors across the healthcare sector.

And the strong message was . . . a lot of people were saying, "I don't want to be a director because you guys are under far too much pressure. You are", and particularly in the health sector, "blind and depressed for no good reason, under constant attention because of your salaries every year". There's a newspaper that runs a story about health service executive salaries. "I don't want that attention. I want to be here and do my job".

And that's perfectly legitimate, but if want to go director, particularly in the public sector, you have that level of scrutiny, which I'm sure a private company you'd get from your shareholders. But in the public sector, it's in the public.

And so, that's why it's very important as you go to your director post in any other sector that there is that personal resilience and recognise that sometimes it's you.

Mairead: And I think people, you know . . . it certainly is a compliment if somebody comes to you and asks for advice, or guidance, or support. But I think if you're particularly new to that role, Hugh, where you're saying that people are conscious of the impression that they're making and they're saying, "I've got to prove myself on this job. And if I go and ask somebody, that looks like I don't know", etc.

The reality is, and I think particularly in HR, that people are genuinely supportive, and it is a huge compliment. If somebody comes to you and says, "Can I talk to you? What do you think of?" So there's an element of being prepared to admit what you don't know, because you've come into an organisation and the organisation is new to you. Yes, you've come with all the HR practices and procedures and experience that you've brought to it. But I think if you go and say, "Well, I'm the finished product", then you stop learning. I think you need to be very open to that.

The one that I'm conscious of as well, and it might sound very basic, but if you are considering going forward, employers more and more will look at people's social media footprint. And it's just a word of caution. Just be very mindful.

And I am thinking of an experience that I had with an individual who, on their own personal Facebook, had gone home and something about an internal grievance and dealing with those two . . . and I'll not use the term. "I'm having a big glass of red wine tonight because I had to deal with those two", and you can fill in the dots. That was on their personal Facebook. But that is just explosive in and of itself.

So it is about . . . and I know we're going to do a later podcast on employer branding, but it's about your own personal branding, and ensuring that what you decide to put on your social media, be it Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, whatever it is that you're using, that will become accessible, and that is setting . . .

So you need to ensure that it is consistent and authentic and communicates the individual that you are and want to be seen to be. So it's being mindful of that.

Hugh: It's an interesting point, because I just want . . . maybe it's a separate subject another day. Should recruiters access people's social media? I have a personal view on that. Because sometimes when I'm on my social media and some of the people who befriend me and whatever it is, I sort of go, "You really shouldn't have put that on because it could come back". And certainly, my own children, I say, "Be very careful what you put on social media, because someone will look at it, and it will come back". I actually had that conversation with my granddaughter yesterday. Be careful.

Mairead: But whether they should or not, they are.

Hugh: Yes. Absolutely.

Mairead: It's just being mindful of that, yeah.

Influencing and Networking

Hugh: I think that'd be a good little point maybe. It's about moving that strategic level, I think we've touched on, but just to be really explicit about it, when you go to the director, it's not your knowledge or professional knowledge that makes a difference. It's the soft skills. It's about influencing and the networking. And that's where you can sit down and talk to people.

And sometimes, people who have worked with me who I do this more often, it is about just saying, "Yeah, well, here's my advice, and if you do it, you're entirely responsible for it because you've gone against my advice".

And again, it goes back to that credibility. The more you can influence people and demonstrate a track record of good advice and support to line managers, the easier it becomes and you're more credible in your organisation and people will listen to you. But equally sometimes it has to be, "Do this, and it's on your head".

Mairead: And in that role, you also get the opportunity to introduce things to an organisation. So say an organisation has been more traditional in terms of HR is seen as recruitment, selection, training, etc. You have the opportunity as the director to say, "Well, we actually need to be looking at areas like talent management, succession planning, organisation change, employee engagement", so all the lovely areas that HR can get involved in for the business and for the employees themselves and for future people coming to join the organisation. There's an opportunity to almost change the view of what HR can contribute to the business, and it can become involved and contribute significantly in those more positive areas of HR.

Top tips on achieving your goal

Interviewer: Okay. So maybe we'll just finish with a top tip from each of you on how an HR manager might be able to achieve that goal, or even what's the starting point from each of you?

Hugh: I've been very fortunate in that I've worked in healthcare and believed in the National Health Service. And for me, the basics for people coming forward is to like what you do, and not necessarily do what you like but to like what you do. And the more you like what you do, it's not work and you're more comfortable, and you just build that . . . it goes back to that credibility. If you don't like to work with people, don't . . . well, partly you are. And I think that's a little bit too trite, but like what you do. And when you do that, you'll rise to the top.

But also be prepared to work hard. Constantly develop your own skills and your own knowledge, and also be an innovator. Don't let the organisation get stuck into recruitment and selection, employee relations, payroll. Push the boundaries. Constantly push the boundaries and challenge your organisation to create an employer brand where they can recruit really good people and become successful. That's more than one thing.

Mairead: And I would say that, as an HR manager, prioritise it that you give yourself the opportunity to lift your head beyond the transactional operational stuff that you're doing. Make it a priority that you continue to develop, you build those networks, you are visible both internal and external.

And also, I think, fundamentally, build trust. I think if individuals trust you and you deliver on what you say you will deliver, then you are seen as the go-to-person. You are seen as the person who will be there, will be that safe port of call, and will be able to implement the change that's needed in an organisation.

Interviewer: That was Mairead and Hugh from Clarendon Executive talking to us about making the step up from HR manager level to director level. Join us again next time on the HR Bitesize podcast in association with Clarendon Executive, where we'll be talking about authentic selection.

This article is correct at 10/05/2019

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Mairéad Regan
Clarendon Executive

The main content of this article was provided by Mairéad Regan. Contact telephone number is +44 (0) 28 9072 5750 or email Mairead.Regan@clarendonexecutive.com

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