Interview with Keith Smith - Director of People & Culture, Grafton Recruitment

Posted in : HR Interview Series on 4 April 2019
Legal Island
Legal Island
Issues covered:

Keith Smith - Grafton Recruitment

Name: Keith Smith

Position & Organisation: Director of People & Culture

Number of Employees: 250 core staff and circa 6500 Agency Employees

Time in Post: 6 months

Previous Job: Senior HR Business Partner – Belfast Metropolitan College

Tell us about your business in a sentence –

We are the largest Recruitment Agency in Northern Ireland and working towards being the largest on the island of Ireland.

Give us an idea about your early life and career OR What was your first ever job?

My first job was selling and delivering the Belfast Telegraph, I was 11 years old and I believe this is where my very strong work ethic has come from. My first full-time role in the world of adult work was with NI Water Service as an Admin Assistant based in my home town of Portadown.

What are the key challenges you face in your role?

At this time my key challenge is to manage a significant change management programme which involves the integration of three businesses following a number of successful acquisitions coupled with organic growth of £60m of the £180m of sales we achieved up to the end of 2018. All three businesses have different policies, procedures and terms & conditions of employment. The outcome of the consultations will result in a fit for purpose suite of policies and procedures which will have been consulted and negotiated on to drive a high-performance culture across all of our business units both North and South of the border.

What keeps you going when things get tough?

I relish the challenges I face in this relatively new role, although I already feel like I have always worked here. I know what my objectives are in this role and when things start to pile up and the expected progress is not achieved I review and revise my ‘to do’ list. I get energised by change and this enables me to cope when things get tough or are delayed beyond my control. I believe I have a very pragmatic outlook on life and work and this helps me cope with significant challenges my role entails.

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

I would like to work full time in a sports organisation, preferably a Premier League soccer club because I believe that environment to be filled with motivation and enthusiasm, and my passion for sport would be fulfilled within my place of work.

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

I admired Alan McClay of Almac a large pharmaceutical company headquartered in Portadown, I have read about him and his values and I believe his ethos was a perfect cocktail for success in business. He put his people at the centre of everything that he did and consequently he enjoyed huge success.

Although this will sound cheesy, I also have huge admiration for our own CEO Tina McKenzie, her tenacity, her enthusiasm and her passion to succeed are commendable, and her successes speak for themselves.

How do you unwind after a tough week?

I have a great circle of friends and family and I like to unwind in good company over a large glass of my favourite New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. I also enjoy all kinds of sport and with Sky Sports at my fingertips, unwinding is a priority for me and I think I am good at it.

What’s your top office/business bugbear?

I like people to be accountable and responsible for their own actions – when people blame others for their own failings I am always disappointed. I encourage people to put their hand up when they make a mistake and accept responsibility.

What are the key characteristics of your top performing employees?

Resilience, enthusiasm, commitment and a ‘can do’ attitude.

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

The ability to communicate, arbitrate, facilitate, mediate and negate litigation - these will always be required not just in 5 years time.

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

I have always taken an interest in organisation development and have played significant roles in mergers, and change programmes. These experiences have equipped me to step up to some of the strategic roles I have undertaken. Every day is a school day so I am always gaining new knowledge and experiences which get me abreast of strategic developments in the HR discipline.

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

I was advised by my father at an early stage in my career ‘be true to yourself and others as that is how you are assessed as a person’.

Looking back at your career to date, what were the key elements in your jump from Admin Assistant – NI Water to Director of People & Culture, Grafton Recruitment?

Determination, ambition and resilience and a huge will to succeed. My involvement in sport has given me a very competitive spirit and succeeding is very important.

How should employers here deal with skills shortages in certain sectors, particularly IT?

I believe the Higher Level Apprentice route should be encouraged to fill all IT roles, experience is only gained in the workplace and the sooner we get students into work, the more productive they become and the skills shortage can be addressed.

Thinking of your experience to date in the world of HR, what changes would you say have affected your role most?

Legislation is the obvious answer to this question.

What has been your biggest working challenge so far?

Trying to please all of the people all of the time – I know that is not possible but there is still a demand for it…

What would be the key piece of advice you would give to people considering a career in human resources?

Don’t go into HR because you think you are a people person, HR is about policy, procedure and productivity.

What is your proudest career achievement to date?

Achieving my MSc in HRM – this was based on a workplace project and helped me to change the culture of the business I worked in at that time.

What benefits do staff value most in your organisation?

Flexibility in terms of the working environment, location and hours of work. We are very proactive about supporting employees who have additional caring responsibilities.

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

Put their employees at the centre of everything that they do – treat their employees as their most valuable resource.

Grafton Recruitment is sponsoring the Northern Ireland Equality and Diversity Awards & Gala on Friday 5th April 2019.


This article is correct at 04/04/2019

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.

Legal Island
Legal Island

The main content of this article was provided by Legal Island. Contact telephone number is 028 9446 3888 / 01 401 3874 or email

View all articles by Legal Island