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As organisations become more complex and jobs bigger, it’s no surprise forward-thinking HR directors are expanding their portfolios internally

“Increasingly important is that HR as a function is truly part of the overall business. So being able to keep up with the management and understand the objectives of the business is becoming much more of a focus.” So says Amanda Johnston, head of HR practice at Alium Partners, echoing the many entreaties made over the years for HR practitioners to become much more embedded within all facets of their organisations.

In fact many have taken this a step further, taking on responsibility for another function – whether operations, customer service or marketing – which has an important synergy with their organisation’s HR remit. As the following examples demonstrate, this can have hugely positive results…

Kath Austin, chief people and marketing officer, Pizza Hut Restaurants UK

Walk into Pizza Hut on London’s The Strand these days and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d got the wrong place. Trendy decor… people supping cocktails… this is certainly a far cry from the all-you-can-eat buffet and ice-cream factory vibe of old.

In fact it’s just one example of the quite remarkable transformation that’s occurred within this well-known chain over the last few years. Indeed walk into any Pizza Hut now and – whether it’s one of the special cocktail and craft beer variety – you’re likely to have a much more personal, friendly experience. All this is in no small part down, reports chief people and marketing officer Kath Austin, to the merging of the HR and marketing functions.

The merge occurred in 2012, alongside a change of ownership and as part of an overall business transformation agenda. It was triggered by the realisation that the product being sold in any service industry is largely about those people serving it, so it makes sense to plan and invest in both functions as one.

“In a service and experience-based business, basically your widget is your experience, and your experience comes from your people. That means you need a DNA that’s people-led. You need to make your people brand ambassadors to actually make and communciate the experience you offer,” says Austin. “The marketing is the cherry and the icing, and the people are the cake. It’s really important you bake the cake so you have a firm foundation to put your icing on.”

So Austin has spearheaded a strategy to invest that marketing budget previously being spent on discount vouchers for example, into ensuring the service customers receive is top notch. “Five years ago, we would have been spending £30 million on advertising and discounting, basically buying sales. We’ve now invested that in developing our teams,” she says.

“We’ve done a whole big piece on commercial mindset. That empowers our restaurant general managers to become business owners,” she adds. “Whenever we launch a new marketing programme or a new product, our programme to launch it is as much around how we make sure our top performers share their best practice.”

Austin reports that an HR team also skilled in marketing really benefits the function in other ways too, including recognising the value of employees creating communications content for other employees, in the same way customers are encouraged to create marketing content.

Such skills can also help HR practitioners really sell the function’s value, and the need to invest in HR, to key stakeholders, she adds.

All service businesses could benefit from a similar combined functions approach, believes Austin. “If you’re a different type of business you might decide to merge a different set of functions,” she says. “Merging a function with HR is very powerful.”

Amanda Johnston, head of HR practice, Alium Partners

Anyone seeking consultancy advice likes to feel they’re in a safe pair hands. Those relying on Amanda Johnston’s advice on interim HR professionals get an extra seal of approval.

This is because Johnston is both head of practice, HR at interim management solution providers Alium Partners, but also heads up the company’s internal HR function – a duality which is fairly unique, Johnston believes. “Overseeing HR keeps me in touch with the challenges my clients face,” says Johnston. “And it keeps me fresh and relevant for the clients I’m working with.”

Johnston joined Alium as an interim herself in September last year. It was the chance to keep up to date with the world of hands-on HR that in fact attracted her to the role.

“I first came to the company with a view to being a HR interim myself. I’d had the corporate career, I’d also been a recruiter, but I decided I wanted to be an interim to use HR skills in a range of companies,” reports Johnston, whose CV includes stints in senior HR at RM Education and as HR director at retail group H Young Holdings.

“When the managing partner at the time asked me to join the business to head up the HR practice he asked me about ownership of HR in the business, and I was delighted,” she recalls. “That’s why I took the job, because I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to use my profession and experience.”

It’s her background in a range of other roles that equips Johnston for the client-facing side of things however. “One of the reasons I’ve gotten to this point in my career is because I started in a commercial role. I didn’t start in HR but did four years as a retail manager, running a team at Harvey Nichols,” she says.

Johnston manages her dual role through leading on high level HR decisions, but delegating to and empowering others on more day-to-day tasks. “The juggling challenge is it’s always possible to spend a lot of time on our own business,” says Johnston. “So the contribution I make is working with the managing partner and the finance director pulling together the overall strategy, and then the HR team do the day-to-day activity.”

She adds: “In the past when I’ve looked after internal HR I’ve worked in small teams so being hands-on, being a doer has been a key strength. Now it’s about stepping back. I have to say to myself: ‘Is this really something you should be doing yourself Amanda?’”

Check back on Monday for more HRD case studies

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