Interview with Mike Dawson - Group HR and Corporate Services Director, Dale Farm Ltd

Posted in : HR Interview Series on 31 May 2018 Issues covered:

We recently interviewed Mike Dawson, Group HR and Corporate Services Director at Dale Farm Ltd. Mike explains the challenges he faces making HR fit a modern workspace and operating in a fast-paced competitive environment with ambitious plans. 

He shares his top office bugbears, who he most admires in business and offers some key advice for a successful career in HR.

Mike Dawson, Dale Farm

Name: Mike Dawson

Position & Organisation: Group HR and Corporate Services Director at Dale Farm Ltd

Number of Employees: 1200

Time in Post: 5 years

Previous Job: Head of Human Resources, Glen Dimplex

Tell us about your business in a sentence

Dale Farm is a leading dairy company, selling into UK, Irish, and International markets. As a Cooperative owned by over 1300 farmers across the UK, it is our mission to ensure long-term sustainability for our members through our people, products and processes.

What was your first ever job?

I will never forget my first job.  I delivered newspapers back in New York while in elementary school.  It gave me my first real taste of responsibility.  I had to collect weekly payments from all my customers and I had 6am starts every day to prep the papers for each mornings delivery.  From there I worked in a range of jobs from pizzerias to theme parks on both sides of the Atlantic while at school and then University.  I fell into HR by chance.  While working in North Carolina, I was asked to undertake some HR system work for an automotive manufacturer following a chance encounter with a friend of a friend.  It must have been a calling as I have been in HR even since.

What are the key challenges you face in your role?

Dale Farm has been undergoing a significant transformation in its strategy.  When joining the Company, it was clear to me that HR within the Group needed to change to be fit for a more modern workspace.  People are the priority for our business strategy.  We have very ambitious plans while at the same time the rate of change in the competitive environment continues to gather pace.  There is a significant amount of change internally and externally on the technological, talent and commercial fronts.  The number of moving parts that need to be addressed to effectively deliver the HR strategy in this environment is a challenge.  The team’s ability to adapt and evolve to these changes is critical to our success.  Having a strong team, systems and processes helps to mitigate those challenges. 

What keeps you going when things get tough?

I tend to focus on the mission and purpose.  Having this clear in my mind enables me to ensure that each challenge is viewed as nothing more than an obstacle to be overcome on the way there.  It isn’t always easy to adopt a stoic type attitude towards events but when I look back on issues from the past, I can see they have rarely been as significant as they may have felt at the time.    

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

As a kid, I always wanted to be an astronaut.   I was fascinated by the space programme and the men who had made it to the moon.  Sadly, that wasn’t to be.  I fell more into the liberal arts as I got older and science took a back seat.  

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

I was previously with Schrader Electronics for seven and a half years – more than twice as long as I had stayed anywhere.  The MD there, Stephen McClelland, was an exceptional leader.  He joined the Company in its start-up days and then led it to become a global leader in its field.  Being part of an exciting local business while it was rapidly expanding worldwide was a fantastic experience.  His approach to leadership, grace under pressure and his trust in letting people get on with their job was hugely beneficial to my development.  It was a great company with a great culture.

How do you unwind after a tough week?

Being able to switch off from a busy working week is essential for everyone.  Spending the weekends with my family and friends helps to put work in perspective.  I exercise regularly which I find helps me get some headspace.  That and it helps to balance out the less than healthy living that can be a feature of a busy week.  I have always loved music and reading and I try to give time to both every week.  Mind you, my guitar playing isn’t much better. 

What’s your top office/business bugbear?

I have two.  Unproductive meetings.  They kill engagement and enthusiasm.  The “Not Invented Here” mentality.  Many good companies have suffered at the hands of their own hubris.

What are the key characteristics of your top performing employees?

In any business that I have worked in, the top performers have always been those who have proactively sought out opportunities and new ways of working.  The status quo isn’t enough for them.  They regularly exhibit grit and determination but also have high levels of emotional intelligence.  They work well both with and through others.

What skills are essential for a top career in HR and will these still be the same in 5 years’ time?

HR is in a very interesting space right now.  The requirements for data to effectively run businesses are very real.  Few companies have fully grasped its potential - particularly in HR.   There is a significant opportunity for HR to further embed itself in the business at a strategic level if this is utilised effectively.  HR is ultimately about the business – not about HR.  The STEP and VUCA challenges that every business faces provide a real context in which HR can come into its own.  Data, commercial awareness, relationship building and enabling technology for collaboration and engagement will all be key skills.

How did you gain an understanding of a more strategic level of HR?

Ultimately it was the exposure to opportunities in progressive companies that helped to increase my understanding of what HR could do to add real value at a strategic level.  It helped bring to life much of what I had formally learned through University.  I took any I opportunity could find to show what more HR could do outside of the transactional/reactive work that seemed to dominate the landscape at the time. 

What is the best piece of business advice you have ever been given?

At the start of my career I was advised that no one will manage your career but you.  I took that to heart and I believe that it is even more true today than it was then.  Continuously learning and challenging yourself enables an entrepreneurial spirit.  I think that is key for managers in all businesses.


This article is correct at 31/05/2018

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