August 18, 2023

How to tackle seven career-defining moments

By: Peter Crush / August 18, 2023 /People Management/ — From stepping into a strategic role to overseeing mass layoffs, People Management quizzes people practitioners on the way they handled the turning points in their professional lives.

No one ever said being an HR professional was easy. Careers twist and turn and are often riddled with obstacles. But for some, hitting a particular crossroads – and successfully dealing with it – provides the gravitas they need, or the skills they have so far lacked, to take their career to the next level.

“With any event it’s usually up to people leaders to get everyone, including the leadership team and their peers, on board,” says executive search leader Terri Lecheva, who specifically places CHROs and senior HR leaders. “Typically, once they’ve been through a significant moment – such as joining the board or leading a transformation, which can be daunting – they are ready for their next challenge.”

Research by Wade Macdonald found 79 per cent of HR leaders feel their career has slowed at some point, but that they accept they need to take on more change management and business partnering. So what are the key transition points HR professionals should expect to encounter? And how should they tackle them to reach the next level?

People Management spoke to those who have hit tough HR crossroads (and lived to tell the tale)…

Being at the centre of a buyout

Nebel Crowhurst, Chief People Officer, Reward Gateway

“Generally, buyouts are planned and people know about them, but this was totally the opposite,” says Crowhurst of Edenred’s £1.15bn acquisition of Reward Gateway in May. “We’d only recently gone through our own investment cycle, but when the approach came it was too good an opportunity not to explore.”

But not only had Crowhurst never been through a buyout before, it had to be kept secret. “It was an intensive period,” she recalls. “Because it was confidential, there were few people I could ask for help. Up until then, all our growth plans had been shared with staff.” The demands on her were huge, with Edenred wanting to know “everything about HR, and all of our people data”, she says. “It was hard, as I’d only just joined the company myself.”

But Crowhurst says she got through it because she realised it was a time-limited intensive period: “You’re doing this and running the business at the same time, but you need to tell yourself it’s not forever. I’m not a legal expert, so you have to lean on and trust others. You just have to remember to focus on your area and get that done well.

“You must develop plenty of resilience – do stuff to break things up, whatever works for you. With so few people involved, I created trusted partnerships. You also need to understand the process doesn’t stop. Staff only knew on the day it became official, so we did – and continue to – have conversations with employees to explain what it all means. Do all this, though, and you get a sense that you’re the custodian of something special. That is a wonderful feeling.”

Major scale-ups

Melanie Hayes, Chief People Officer, Nash Squared

“I remember being told, in my first week as CPO, that we’d be acquiring US cloud and data solutions provider Knoldus – which was intimidating to say the least,” recalls Hayes. “It’s not the sort of thing you get to practice and there was an ‘imposter syndrome’ response in terms of questioning my capability. But for me, getting through it was about having structure and taking away nervousness by having a process to follow. My first instinct was to understand how staff would be impacted, and so my approach was to be as transparent as possible – creating Q&As and resources about what our joint journey was.”

Hayes believes that having a background in recruitment helped. “My approach is to always give clear and simple information,” she says. “I re-read When Cultures Collide because I was very aware of how my messages could be taken. Since then, we’ve acquired other businesses and divested, too, but the big learning is making sure people don’t feel like something odd is happening.”

Research is key. “I’ve made a point of understanding the history of acquired companies and their cultures,” she says. “In these career moments, though, HR has a responsibility to be more commercial. If you find that difficult, you’ve got to give yourself the best chance, by getting a mentor or accessing a network. As I’ve step changed, I’ve always reached out to others. If you take the approach that you are always learning and can reflect on your mistakes, this will go a long way to getting you through a career crossroad.”

Implementing a large-scale project

Mary Beighton, Director of People and Culture, Zuto

It takes two years for companies to gain B Corp Certification – a designation of an organisation’s social/environmental performance/transparency. For Beighton, the process was one of those projects that moves HR professionals up a step. “You almost have to do something like this, to rise up from the day-to-day stuff,” she says. “A step change like this requires you to validate the processes you have in your business, so I needed to take much more of an influencing, rather than operational, role – creating the business case, talking to consultants and laying things out in a logical way to the board.

“It’s a chastening process sometimes – bluntly revealing where we need to be changing, such as in wellbeing for us. It’s been a transition for me, but the real pivot has been learning how to listen and learning to take direction from the rest of the business. Since doing this, the HR function has morphed into a‘ people and culture’ function, and I feel I have more of a voice with the leadership team.”

She adds: “I’ve not typically been a data person, but now I live by it, and being more data friendly has definitely got me through this challenge. “The key is not to shy away from a stretch role like this, and go in both feetfirst. It’s been hugely advantageous to my development and added a new dimension to what was a traditional HR function.”

Moving to a strategic role

Harshvendra Soin, Global Chief People Officer, Tech Mahindra

“I started my career as a chartered accountant and could have easily gone into finance. Thankfully, I stumbled upon an MBA related to HR and I’ve since held a number of senior HR positions at Tech Mahindra, including senior global leadership acquisition and development, and head of business HR for APAC and IMEA (telecom and enterprise),” explains Soin, now global chief people officer at the IT services and consultancy business. “Tech Mahindra’s training and support in every role I have held has made moving up into senior and strategic roles more exciting and rewarding. The process of transitioning to a strategic thinking role can be complex, but I would say it involves understanding the intricate relationship between the organisation and its environment and taking action that is consistent with its strategic direction.”

He adds: “We, as HRDs, need a strong commitment to the firm’s goals to take the right actions. This is achieved by involving others in the process, forming successful relationships within and outside the company and implementing its culture and influencing processes.”

A big downsizing

Julie-Ann Keeble, HR Director, LHH UK & Ireland

Honda’s 2019 decision to close its Swindon plant was a body blow for its3,500 highly skilled staff – many of whom had been there since it opened in1985. The two-year countdown to its closure transformed the job of Keeble, head of HR at Honda (UK Manufacturing), from a leadership and strategic development role into one supporting colleagues leaving the business –including running everything from career transition programmes to outreach initiatives with the local council, and working to understand the local labour market. Oh, and yes, her own job would ultimately cease, too.

“It was my first time doing something like this but, when you face it, a real reflex reaction kicks in,” she says. “I became extremely focused trying to execute what I, as an HR professional, knew I needed to do, which was to be as caring and compassionate as one could. There was little to compare to, so there was a strong element of learning along the way; however, that’s not to say things weren’t planned or muddled. We were clear and grounded by the absolute desire to get things right.

“I definitely needed resilience – and sought support and advice where I could, including the career transition consultancy we brought in, LHH, where I now work,” she says. Keeble argues that a process like this isn’t necessarily a rite of passage all HR professionals need to go through, though. “I know plenty of exceptional HRDs who haven’t been through something like this. A career crossroads like this isn’t something that has to define you,” she says. “There are challenges in HR everywhere, and all of the time. Small or big, they’ll all have elements that test. So what you need to do is just put your own oxygen mask on first – because people are coming to you. Then get support.”

That said, one outcome was clear for her: “By doing this, I certainly regained a sense of wanting purpose around what I was doing. Where I’ve found it in my career, I’ve enjoyed myself the most and grown the most. Without it, you feel like you’re just being paid to do a job.”

Dealing with a crisis

Craig McCoy, Interim HR Director

The pandemic. In a care home. It’s about as ‘crisis’ as things can get. “One home had high numbers of deaths; at one point 80 per cent of staff were absent either because of being infected themselves, having to isolate or not being able to transfer to another home,” recalls McCoy, who was interim HRD at Cornwall Care between November 2020 and September 2021. “We were also worried about being sued – a care home in Devon was being pursued for corporate manslaughter.”

There were times, he admits, when the 16 (locked-down) care homes – each requiring around 60-70 staff – were having to draft in volunteers for non-essential and non-regulated roles. “Lockdown rules were changing almost every day,” he says, “so my contribution as an HR leader was never more apparent and forced me into an operational role.
“In a crisis you don’t often have the time to think strategically – you just have to find solutions where you can. There’s always lots of pressure on HRDs to perform, but the CEO will always prefer it if you reach out for help. We relaxed cost controls and dropped preferred supplier lists – just to get things done.”

He adds: “In times like this things get strained. Tempers can be fraught, but I found a crisis mentality emerged that brought out the best in us. We harnessed this and the collective will of people certainly re-energised me. My tips? Pragmatism: you need to act in the moment and that leadership needs to happen beyond your normal HR boundary. You can’t ask for permission, and there’s no time to go through committee – you need to be decisive.”

Promotion into management

Fiona Armstrong, Chief People Officer, Moneypenny

“All of my growth moments have typically been linked to milestone projects –such as leading investors in people, which saw me get promoted to HR manager roles,” says Fiona Armstrong, former HRD and Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, now CPO at Moneypenny. “There were, of course, structural changes, which also led to global roles, but progress was through hard work and being adaptable and taking a helicopter approach.”

She adds: “I’ve since reflected that being hands-on is key – being able to zoom in, then zoom out and be strategic. I’ve also learned the importance of recognising different cultures and ensuring one size does not fit all. When we were opening stores in Japan at LVMH, a copy and paste model didn’t work. I made mistakes early on and my advice is to understand your audience and whether they are open to it. It is always important to have an empathetic approach. When I think about our US culture at Moneypenny, we are trying to achieve the same thing as we have in the UK, but we have to adapt it for our audience. Adaptability, listening carefully and understanding how people tick is key, as is working problem solving to get the best out of your people. The best advice I can give is to take advice from people who are in the function. They can help navigate you.”

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