The HR World speaks to industry leaders about their careers and life – what advice would they pass on and what wisdom brought them to where they are now. In this latest edition we caught up with Kim Clarke, trouble shooting HRD and specialist in financial sector human resource leadership.
1) Great HR teams are agile and forward thinking agents of change.
Today the title of HR professional spans a range of requirements and we might readily be titled "change agent", "project manager" and "value creator". As we see the world of business changing and digital technologies transforming work, so the HR partner role and capabilities have moved on. HR is in prime position to help businesses develop and provide an environment where the workforce community can thrive by ensuring people capital is an asset delivering great service to customers and central to business growth. This creates value for the organisation, the business and all of its shareholders, which in turn is good for everyone.
2) Curiosity must be encouraged if we want people to learn.
My mum and dad were first generation immigrants, part of the Windrush Generation, and my mother is a big influence in my life. She would talk to me and my two sisters about the importance of keeping your mind open, trying new things, having new experiences. My parents gave me a true passion for being curious. Life is a whole learning process of being engaged and wondering how things work and why. This can never really, or at least shouldn’t, be put in a box, as kids become teens and then adults. I was the first child in my family to go to university but, while academia was what they wanted for me, they were also very clear that it wasn’t just about what we did at school, it was about everything in our lives. So, we danced (I was a mean tap dancer!), we skated, we were Guides and Rangers, we visited museums and were encouraged to play, explore and be inventive. It’s something that has stayed with me.
3) The “milk round” should be fully re-energised.
When I was at Southampton University it was the peak time of the “milk round” graduate selection, when big companies would look to attract and select the best and seek out the talent of the future. There are still graduate schemes and placements, but not as many. It was a great way of finding out what career options were out there and is one of the talent mechanisms that needs re-energising. I remain passionate about opportunity and sponsorship of young people and working with the University of the West of England as a mentor means I can help students look to develop their careers and understand what’s possible when they leave. Having access to role models can be an incredibly useful thing for our Generation Y and Z folk.
4) Starting off in the public sector provided great HR technical knowledge.
My own milk round experience resulted in a job offer from British Rail and the scheme offered a robust grounding in HR. I experienced roles across a number of disciplines and was fortunate to have my CIPD training and membership paid. It was the first time I came face-to-face with a union and learnt the skills of consultation and negotiation – definitely the “sharp end” of industrial relations, plus pretty much every HR job. In my subsequent positions I recruited all the customer facing roles, managed a personnel services operation and several large-scale HR transformations. A great grounding in technical skills as well as “human” HR and it was pretty epic.
5) Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
HR is increasingly fundamental to the delivery of businesses facing huge change headwinds. My first boss was a major influence and told me to “get out of your comfort zone – and get used to it”. I was guided to get to know the business and push through barriers. At British Rail I’d find myself sitting in signal rooms and all sorts of other unpredictable situations. As part of the denationalisation programme, I was appointed to an HR role in Gatwick Express and given the opportunity to work through setting up the potential IPO before joining Forte Hotels Group as a senior HR business partner. It was amazing to experience the contrast between the public and private sector and a huge learning curve. These kinds of experiences have defined my career and led me to believe that a mindset of managing uncertainty, talent and change management, are essential HR skills. It is also the reason the value of HR is being increasingly recognised at C-suite level.
6) Implementing real L&D can be truly transformational.
I left Forte after four years to work in Dubai as regional HR business partner supporting the MEARO region for TNT. Global talent pipelines and expatriate mobility and reward became core parts of my remit, as well as the opportunity to work for a truly global business developing new markets and customers across the region. We were encouraged to “think global and act local”, taking into account the different cultures and operations in country. Also responsible for Learning and Development, I implemented the Investors in People standards, supporting and driving sales and service across our operations. It was hugely rewarding seeing the impact this made on the business. Benchmarking all of our development training, creating evaluation mechanisms and evidencing acquisition of new skills required a huge transformation and lots of communications to our employees. This ultimately led to far higher performance and productivity and was a fantastic programme to be involved with.
7) Never underestimate the benefits of a great network.
With mental health high on the agenda, I’ve been reminded of how important my own network has been, both professionally and personally, in changing times. I remember getting to Dubai for the first time and sitting in the apartment on my own for 24 hours in what I think was “culture shock”, knowing that this would be my home for the next two years. I recall thinking: “Well I can sit here and wait for the world to come to me or I can get out there and meet people!” I was bowled over by people’s kindness and how open and generous they were with their networks and friendships – some of these relationships have lasted for the past 20 years.
8) Technology has changed HR, but leadership will be delivered by humans.
At a big consultancy tech demo a couple of years ago I saw an amazing robotics programme for onboarding new employees to eradicate increasing levels of human error. They wanted to create a high functioning set of processes to ensure on a new joiner’s first day the experience was a positive one. These are genuinely areas where you can see the benefit of tech and automating processes to remove inefficiencies, limit errors and manage repetitive work. But in terms of what you need to lead, the thought leadership of an organisation, this cannot be replaced. Humans lead other human beings and we know the power of leadership at all of levels of an organisation can create enormous growth or conversely, blockers and barriers. HR is in pole position making sure the tech fits with how humans need it to function, not the other way around.
9) As Martin Luther King said: “The time is always right to do what is right”.
HR occupies a unique role in understanding the organisation as a system and how things can be done the right way for both the business and the people within it. When being asked to make difficult decisions, for example, shutting down sites or reducing the employee headcount, it is possible to find a right way of doing things. Foremost in my mind is the fact that people go on to other jobs and organisations and you have to ask, “what did they experience?”. To enable you to do this “the right way” you have to get involved in the planning and thinking ahead of time, as it’s essential to how everyone achieves the right end result. I’ve definitely been criticised for adhering to this at points in my career but have remained steadfast in these beliefs.
10) HR has many unique roles to play in times of uncertainty or change – remaining calm and containing the organisation’s stress is one of these.
The last 15 years of my career have been spent in financial services as an HR Director and CPO. Like many industries, the insurance and banking sector has experienced a high degree of change and uncertainty from regulation, competitive pressures, technological change, environmental and political ups and downs. Some outstanding leaders have said to me there is nothing worse for people to see than the captain of the ship running about as if their hair’s on fire. Organisations are looking to the HR function to help contain the stress caused by the ever-present uncertainty and to navigate through it. With the right mindset, tools and team HR can certainly lead the way.
Kim Clarke can be reached via LinkedIn.