Interview with Robin Arbuthnot - Director of Human Resources & Organisational Development, Simon Community

Posted in : HR Interview Series on 20 June 2017 Issues covered:

In this interview, Robin outlines some of the challenges working in the third sector, highlights the importance of commercial awareness for any HR practitioner and explains how praise and good communication from management can drive higher performance.

Robin Arbuthnot - Simon Community


Name: Robin Arbuthnot

Position & Organisation: Director of HR & OD

Number of Employees: 300

Time in Post: 6 months

Previous Job: Director of HR & Support Services, Praxis Care



Tell us about your business in a sentence

We exist to support people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness to achieve a meaningful and independent place in their community.

What was your first ever job?

My very first job as a student was selling music subscriptions at the Ideal Home Exhibition, sorry if I sold one to you!  After graduating from Queen’s with a MSc in Occupational Psychology, I started as a HR/Management Consultant working for Sx3.  I was closely involved in the design and delivery of assessment and development centres and administration and interpretation of psychometric tests.  The majority of my career since then has been spent working in health and social care, both in the Health Service and in the third sector.

What are the key challenges you face in your role?

Simon Community NI, like the rest of the third sector, is under huge pressure from cuts to public funding.  Managing our cost base and maximising our resources is critical if we are to continue to successfully support our clients.  Planning and delivering services in the context of a 5% reduction in income while meeting increasing and more complex need is a major strategic challenge.  Throughout this, the key priorities for me are to attract and retain the people with the right values, skill them up to meet the changing needs of our clients and to ensure they feel engaged both in their specific roles and with the organisation. 

What keeps you going when things get tough?

The clients we support.  We are a group of people who support people.  My role only exists in order to help our people to support our clients to the best of their ability.  When our people help a client to find somewhere they can call home and become independent within their community, it makes everything worthwhile.  When things are tough, it is about putting things in perspective and seeing the bigger picture.

If you could do any job in the world, what would it be?

When I was at school I wanted to be a pilot.  My careers teacher told me I had to learn Spanish in case I needed to land in Spain.  Somewhat surprisingly, I ended up in HR. 

Who do you most admire in business locally and/or internationally? Why?

One of the biggest influences on my career was my HR Director at Green Park Health Care Trust, and following RPA, my Co-Director in Belfast HSC Trust, Therese McKernan.  I really admired her values, ethics and principles and how she handled situations.  Therese gave me an opportunity to work for her early in my career and I learnt a lot from her.  That experience has greatly influenced my approach to my work now.  Other than that, I’d love to have the guts to chair interview panels like Claude from The Apprentice, but I’m still trying to work out how I could objectively justify that behaviour at a tribunal.

How do you unwind after a tough week?

Spending time with my family – I have a daughter who thinks she is 10 years older than she is and two boys who never seem to rest!  Other than that, during the summer I play a bit of cricket and no matter what the time of year I always enjoy watching a bit of sport on TV!

What’s your top office/business bugbear?

People stating the problem, but not coming up with the solution.  If you see something is broken then take responsibility, show some leadership and fix it!  It’s easy to say what’s wrong; it takes leadership to do something about it.  I’d best go and calm down…

What will be the key skills for leading HR practitioners in 5 years’ time?

I don’t necessarily think the core skills will ever differ for HR practitioners, I think the fundamentals are:

  • Being able to understand the end product of your business.  Only with insight into what the organisation does can an HR practitioner design solutions to meet the needs of the business. 
  • Having commercial awareness is critical in producing the right solution to business issues.  Managing cost and producing efficiency is central to organisational life no matter what sector you work in.  Being able to navigate the line between best practice and business expediency is a skill.  I hate hearing HR practitioners say they are a people person and not good with numbers. 
  • Building personal credibility and trust is key.  Managers and Senior Management have to be able to trust your advice and judgement.  Without this, life in a HR Department can be very difficult.

In your view what is the best thing an organisation can do to motivate staff and drive higher performance?

It’s important to give praise when someone has done something well and let people know you value their input.  Too often low morale stems from poor communication by managers or managers only communicating when they want to criticise or let someone know what they’ve done wrong.  When people feel valued and their contribution is important and valuable, they will perform.

This article is correct at 20/06/2017

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