This Much I Know: Karen Sinnott

15 June 2020

Story by
Sarah Rice, Editor and Director, The HR World

Karen Sinnott

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 edition we caught up with Karen Sinnott, passionate organisational development advocate and believer in the power of HR to support the UK’s recovery post-lockdown.

1) Asking ‘why’ will make you better at your job

Learning has been a lifelong passion for me. A big part of my drive comes from an innate curiosity but, also like a child trying to make sense of the world around them, I tend to enter into things on the presumption that I need to know as much as possible to help me do my job. At the beginning of my career, this was a very natural part of who I was. Asking people why they were doing things the way they were, why they thought the way they did. Some people may find asking questions challenging, but it’s helped me join dots and understand people’s behaviours – a fundamental part of HR.

2) Understanding organisational development is the key to HR’s success

Once I started to lead people and projects, I found a burning passion for organisational development (OD). I believe in rapidly changing and complex environments and HR and OD practitioners need to focus together to build and deliver lasting change with humanity – for me you can’t have one without the other. OD has many different definitions, dating back to the 1940s. My preference is a more recent insight, by Cheung-Judge which suggests it’s a field of applied behavioural science enabling organisations to increase performance and to ensure robust organisational health, which is vital for competitive advantage.

3) As Eleanor Roosevelt said: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do”

Organisations need to grow and adapt so change is built into the fabric of most modern businesses now and comes with many challenges and also opportunities. Maintaining belief that something better is coming if everything keeps changing is really important for HR. But it isn’t always a comfortable space and, at times I have doubted myself and had setbacks. But, essentially, HR has a privilege role across the business as a trusted connector, understanding what happens in every layer, to be able to lead, coach and guide in culture change. Not owning this opportunity despite being an uphill battle in moments would be careless.

4) Consider your intention and legacy before starting anything new

I moved to Florida with my husband and daughter when I just turned 30 and from interviewing to arriving in Miami it took two months. I’m still surprised at how much I took it in my stride. I’d been seconded for 12 months, to establish a regional office. I had to engage with the job as if I was going to stay there for a longer time otherwise the temporary nature could unintentionally impact my strategic thinking and decision making and we’d not get the traction needed. I wanted to ensure that when I left America, the business was improved and a culture was in the making – which it was. Turns out I stayed there three years, I made some great friends which have stood the test of time and means a lot to me. What I left behind was a team with self-belief and empowered to perform. This has been my greatest reward.

5) Pay it forward

Sink or swim is a commonly used phase and I feel proud to say I have felt overwhelming supported to swim throughout my career. The support that really resonated was candid performance feedback, learning, challenging and pushing my potential. I sought out moments to share my ideas, listen, adapt, reflect, learn, repeat! As an HRD I will always pay it forward, my drive and matched career highlights have instilled in me to give opportunities to others and watch them grow, but never without performance development – sinking isn’t an option.

6) The current uncertainty means HR is playing a bigger role than ever

HR people like a strategic plan and to be cool in a crisis. We love to draw up conclusions and strategies based on our insight and this is, of course, incredibly important. But we are also often the most adaptable people in the organisation. The C-19 pandemic is fundamentally teaching us that the future is unknown, and that people’s wellbeing and safety are paramount if any of our social and business structures are to develop healthily. We need to grab this chance as a catalyst to use our skills to build capabilities that create the business and people strategies needed to withstand similar future incidents.

7) You don’t always “click” straight away with everyone

Having a single boss is highly unlikely anymore. We work with many, across programmes, projects and partnerships. At one point in my career, I found myself reporting into a new leader to the organisation who was different to my previous one and I wasn’t sure we were going to click straight away. This bothered me and made me feel a little vulnerable. When she promoted to her righthand role People and Change Director, it made me reflect on how important it is to build a diverse team of strength and capability. Our relationship went on to be incredibly powerful and I learned a huge amount from her. It was a time when we really had to re-evaluate and reinvent the HR strategy and change the organisational development model to fit with changes in the business. A lesson learned about taking time to build relationships and valuing individuals points of difference.

8) Helping people be amazing makes amazing organisations

I knew when I left school that I wasn’t going to go to university because I learn best by getting stuck in and learning by experience.  I think, at a fundamental level, it’s shaped my view of what an HRD is meant to be. Our job is not just function and capabilities, it’s about supporting people into their highest potential, creating opportunities for individuals and teams to thrive. This, ultimately, makes the entire system and business fulfil its promise and ambition. Now, more than ever we need visionaries who will lead with compassion. I think in this setting HR has a real chance to change the world for the better.



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