The stained glass window of HR

Written by
Changeboard Team

26 Oct 2012

26 Oct 2012 • by Changeboard Team

How did your HR career begin?

I was always interested in what motivated people and how people worked together, but I had very little idea about what I wanted to do as a career. You could say HR found me rather than I sought out HR. In the early 1980s I was studying for a four-year degree in public administration at Nottingham Trent University. It included a third-year industry placement. I took the first offer I was made and found myself at the local county council’s personnel department.

Though I didn’t fully realise it at the time, I was working for a truly inspirational department leader, who was also immensely likeable and kind. He took a professional interest in me and the penny dropped that HR was what I really wanted to do. After that, I went to Aston University and gained an MSc in HR Management.

Where did that lead you?

To my first ‘proper’ job, designing, selling and delivering training programmes for a small, start-up organisation. For a time I was providing job search training to unemployed people in the north of England. It was a terrible time economically; the jobs just weren’t there. On one memorable occasion I found myself with the owner of the company having to deliver health and safety training to some ladies who ran a lunch club for pensioners in Tipton.

Unfortunately, my boss split his trousers moving a flip chart and had to leave. I had to deliver the session myself which, bearing in mind my rather sketchy knowledge of the subject, was absolutely terrifying. I wasn’t far off fainting at the prospect but somehow we pulled it off. Now that I look back, it was a fantastic role to teach self-confidence and autonomy, plus it gave me a life-long admiration for people in commercial roles – carrying a bag is a hard way to make a living. I met my future wife at this point and so, when she was posted to a new role in the south-east England, I decided to relocate and look for something new.

You moved from a very small company to a division of Racal, a FTSE100 firm at the time. How did you manage that and what was it like to make the jump?

I applied the job search skills I’d been teaching unemployed people and I picked a company that looked interesting and wrote to them, selling myself and the skills I had. Racal hired me as an assistant personnel officer and gave me lots of responsibility as soon as they realised I was not going to make too many mistakes. I was able to acquire substantial generalist HR experience in a demanding and dynamic environment very quickly.

In 1990, I joined US company Inmac as UK HR manager. Inmac was started by two Stanford Business School graduates in 1975 with their own money and was the first company to sell computer-related products and accessories via direct-mail. When I joined, it was publishing 35m catalogues in eight different languages. I reported to the UK managing director with functional reporting to the European HRD. I was the only HR person in the UK business and was told to ‘just get on with it’ by the MD, who had the great gift of bestowing trust in people just enough to stretch them, but not enough to drown them. Once again, lots of responsibility and this time, lots of autonomy too. It gave me a taste for stamping my own mark. Even with the arrogance of youth I realised that in many ways the defining point for me had been managers who trusted me.

From Inmac you joined Nortel in 1992, another very large company in its day. This time you stayed in the same company for 14 years. How did they manage to retain you?

By giving me new and incrementally bigger opportunities every couple of years! Before its demise, Nortel was a hugely innovative business with thousands of technology patents to its credit. At its height, the businessemployed more than 100,000 people, and was one of the key technology innovators behind what we now know as broadband internet and the high-speed voice and data networks we all routinely use today. My last role, up until 2006, was as HR V-P for EMEA, a region at its peak with about 30,000 staff and 600 HR professionals. I held that role for four and a half years, but by 2006 Nortel’s star was fading and the company was in terminal decline. The challenges in my role were becoming repetitive and the business was contracting so I started looking around for other opportunities.

So you jumped at the chance to join Airbus?

Not exactly! I was certainly looking at a group HR position as that was a logical next step. I was interested when the Airbus role came up, but from the outside, the politics looked insurmountable. The head-hunter was someone I trusted and he told me I should at least go and meet the (then) chief executive to voice my concerns. It was only after this that I felt reassured enough to accept the role.

What attracted me was the big opportunity at Airbus – the complexity of organising 56,000 multi-cultural staff to produce something unique and new: the A300 aircraft. When you’re passionate about your job, you jump at the chance to take a bigger role; to have a go, stamp your own ideas and hopefully leave a lasting, positive legacy. It’s also a personal test: you ask yourself: “Can I really do this? Can I deliver?”

What was that first group HRD role like?

When I was reporting to a group HRD, I had a certain perception of what the role entails. Before I made the move I thought that a group role, in order to have proper perspective, was by necessity disjointed from the business. At Nortel, I worked for a group HRD who I talked to every week but only saw in person about 6 - 8 times a year; there was an air of mystery about some of his tasks, especially around the board – he seemed to be involved in opaque activities with people I didn’t know.

I now realise he was a real HR visionary. He was responsible for both the HR vision and the implementation plan, but I couldn’t see the huge effort he’d made at the time to connect all the disparate elements together. When you take on a group role, the rhythm changes; it slows in some ways but its impact is much more amplified. You realise everything now depends on you and there’s no hiding place. You take on a profound sense of responsibility, which at times weighs heavily. It’s often mistaken for loneliness.

What career advice would you offer others?

Try to work for organisations where you’re interested in the product or service provided; it’s much easier to learn the vital fundamentals of how the organisation ticks if you are genuinely curious about what it does and how it works. That’s something that has always stood me in good stead.

I’d also say try to choose your boss with care. If you can work for people you really admire and aspire to be like, people willing to invest time and who take a personal interest in you, you’ll go far. This mentoring characteristic is a trait of all truly great managers. As I look back over the years, it’s been a defining part of every job I’ve had. It’s also a priceless legacy those former colleagues passed on to me and one I take seriously in my current role.

Tell us about that current role

I joined Serco plc four years ago and I’ve witnessed a transformation in the business during that time. When I arrived, the company employed about 40,000, its client base was mostly public sector and 90% of business was in the UK. Now, Serco employs almost three times as many people and is truly an international business, with half of our income generated outside the UK. For a FTSE100 firm, we have a relatively young executive team; they’re very ambitious and they move quickly when opportunities arise – whether that’s organic growth opportunities or acquisitions.

Serco has a devolved, highly empowering management style – we don’t command and control from the centre. To make this work effectively takes very clearly defined values, led from the top. Every company talks about values, but Serco actually lives by them, our managers buy into them and we hire and fire by them. This is vital in a people-based service business; we have more than 700 service contracts to run a very diverse range of high-profile services, ranging from defence to transport, government, science and the private sector. We couldn’t operate successfully without those values and a high degree of employee engagement.

Engagement is one of my three focus areas. Our most recent survey of this had a 78% participation level and we mandate that every manager addresses the survey findings. The other two focus areas are leadership and tools. I spend a lot of my time with the executive team working on the ‘what’ but also the ‘how’. In terms of tools, in such a fast-growth business, we want managers to be equipped with the best set of tools to help them do their job as effectively as possible.

What interests do you have outside of work?

I travel a fair bit and have two young children, so when I’m home I prefer to spend quality time with my family. Over the years I’ve developed interests in wine and stained glass. You might think that’s an odd combination but what I find intriguing about both is that each tells a story if you are curious enough to look for it. The interest in stained glass arose from a former boss who had worked for Pilkington and was a member of the Worshipful Company of Glaziers, one of London’s ancient City Guilds. He invited me to join and I found their events enjoyable, although I don’t have as much time to participate as I’d like. I’ve actually commissioned some stained glass windows for my house. There’s always an underlying narrative with stained glass windows – a bit like human resources, in fact.

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About Geoff Lloyd

Geoff Lloyd smallGeoff has been group HRD at Serco since 2008. Before that he spent two years as executive VP for human resources at Airbus.