In 2013 he released Humane, Resourced, a book of blogs collected from HR and OD professionals. David blogs on HR and business at 101 Half Connected Things covering topics ranging from the future of the HR profession to practical implications for business of behavioral economics.
1. Most job postings cite “X” years of relevant work experience and specific education criteria as requirements to be considered for the position. With this in mind, what prior work experiences and degrees/certifications/training helped prepare you for your current role?
I studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at University and I think that gave me a good grounding in some key areas, but understanding how markets and people worked were already passions for me. I think the key to professional development is to treat every day like a learning experience and to value the views of people around you – especially when you don’t agree with them. Every time I have an interaction I try and learn from it, every time I have a failure I try and learn from it and I try and seek out new experiences and try new things. If you can add this to learning from the experience of others then you keep yourself relevant. Even when I was in my most junior role in HR I spent as much time as I could watching and learning from the leadership team – not just the HR leadership team but across different disciplines.
I think the fact that I have always seen myself as solving business issues (that normally centre on people) rather than as a solver of HR issues has helped me find myself in a position where I can confidently talk about a breadth of experiences and approaches to support clients. It also helps that I’ve had stints doing actual jobs and actually having to manage people – working in McDonald’s, stacking shelves in Marks & Spencer and working in a contact centre. I can still remember what it is like to actually meet a customer.
My recent role as Head of People Development for Metro Bank, the first new UK High Street bank in 100 years, was a lesson in customer service, working for a start up and organisational focus. Conversely, the end of my time at CPP (which was struggling financially) was a lesson in how people react differently to pressure, failure and the requirements that places on you as a leader. I can draw on rich experiences from both to support my learning. I’m also lucky to have a strong network and I’ve learnt that will beat having a good CV 9 times out of 10.
1B. What (if any) additional knowledge or skills that you don’t currently have would make you even better at your job?
I’m always on the hunt for knowledge, but increasingly I think the challenge HR faces is not becoming distracted by new things and embedding what we already have effectively. I’m all for progress – but some of that should be driven through delivering on issues we understood a decade ago or just trying new things informally. Ideas that work in practice have to be our currency.
I often speak to people I respect about the value of me gaining further qualifications, but until someone strongly recommends I do then I’m likely to continue with my informal learning cycle of trying, failing, learning, succeeding. If I return to managing people then that is one area where I always feel there is progress to be made – I learn something every single time that I don’t help a member of my team as much as I would like. I’ve always been indifferent to being CIPD qualified (the professional body in the UK) but I might do an experienced based assessment at some point in the future.
2. Some jobs require the incumbent to be very analytical. Others require one to be a strong communicator, and others still require traits like patience, the ability to multitask, self-directedness, comfort with ambiguity, and exceptional attention to detail. Are there any behaviors and/or attributes that you would say are essential to performing the work that you do?
Since my forays into consultancy are relatively new I’m still learning. There are principles I want to run my business upon which require me to have certain essential traits. I’ve committed to never taking on work where I feel I can’t provide value for money or my heart won’t be in it. Last year I turned down a very lucrative offer because I knew I didn’t like the company; that requires the attribute of bloody-mindedness (and a very patient wife), especially when you have bills to pay.
In terms of enduring traits: I’m very comfortable with numbers, I’m brutally honest, I’m comfortable with technology, I admit to mistakes, I’ve worked in most areas of HR and I understand how people work and businesses make money. That is a rarer combination in HR professionals than it should be – and currently allows me to differentiate myself sufficiently enough to have a steady stream of work.
3. Jobs guru Lou Adler says there are only 4 job types of jobs in the world (producers, improvers, builders, and thinkers). Which type of job are you in?
I’ll happily concede that I get bored very easily. I enjoy thinking about change, designing change and making change happen. I get impatient if there isn’t change happening. So I’d have to rule out being a producer, but commit to being ‘a thinker that turns those thoughts into building or improving things’. The difference in the work I’m doing for clients currently (building some things from scratch, reviewing others) would suggest that is the best compromise. The hardest part about moving to consultancy is not getting to see how things develop over time. I like seeing the full arc of a project and you lose that visibility in consultancy. I like seeing people develop and you lose that too.
4. Does your job involve either directly or indirectly supervising or managing people? If so, how many direct (or indirect) reports do you have?
Last year was my first year in a long time without annual reviews, as I started my career as a freelancer. I love managing people and it has been by far the hardest thing to give up. I had 40 reports when I started my career in retail (welcome to retail!), when I left Metro Bank I had been managing a team of 15. I genuinely miss having people who I could help directly on a day to day basis. I have other things I enjoy now, but there is something special about being in a team and being the key source of support for others. I still get emails asking advice addressed to ‘Boss’ – I hope that is out of affection rather than fear!
5. How does what you do impact the business? Think complexity (different types of impacts) and scale (degree of impact). Put another way: Who and what would be impacted if your job wasn’t being done well, and why would it matter that they were impacted?
I try and avoid work that doesn’t make the business better directly or better equip other people to make the business better. That means I operate in confidence/hope that what I do will make an impact. That impact might be someone saying that a conversation with me was what stopped them leaving (or helped them decide to leave) or it might be that something completely different happens organisationally in terms of customer interaction. I’ve been lucky enough to sit on Product Development Committees and Commercial Committees as well as working in the more traditional HR areas.
HR are given influence (if not control) over some of the most important organisational levers – pay, welfare, incentives, hiring. If we don’t believe they are better for our work then we should stop claiming a salary. I have been in positions in the past where I’ve admitted I’m not the right person for the job – at that point – and moved on. I like to make a difference or go somewhere else.
6. Is your job safe? Rate its safety on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being “seated all day in an air conditioned vault” and 10 being “I’m an astronaut going into space”. If your job isn’t safe, what working conditions (specifically) make it hazardous?
I do a lot of travel on the Underground rail system in the UK which must be one of the most dangerous and unhygienic places on earth! I don’t think many astronauts would fancy a regular commute in the UK.
Usually I’m working from home, working from a coffee shop or working with a client. That means it is probably only slightly less safe than the vault – maybe a 3? The only caveat is that – because I like new projects and don’t manage time overly well – I think it is easy to get lost in the job. My wife told me last night that she thinks I have worked every day for the last 2 months. I hadn’t noticed.
7. Is there anything I missed that people should know about your job? Is there anything else you want to say about what you do?
In addition to my ‘job’ I’m passionate about collaborative working and that resulted in me creating a book last year consisting of contributions from different HR bloggers. All of the proceeds went to charity. The book did really well and we are looking for authors for the sequel – particularly if they are US based.
There is an opportunity for people to buy the book or to find out more about getting involved here.
As always, please share your thoughts in the comments section below.