· 5 min read · Features

Ceridian's Jeremy Campbell on the secrets of people power

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His might not be the usual HR career path: from frontline corporate sales to general management and finally chief people officer. But then Jeremy Campbell does know a thing or two about HR, having worked at one of the sector’s largest payroll services providers and HR Most Influential sponsor, Ceridian, for the past decade. And he thinks the best description for his role is chief linkage officer.

"One of the biggest value-adds to this business is not by being a chief people officer but by being a chief linkage officer," he says.

"Linkage is one of the fundamental reasons business doesn't work. You have so many parts of the business working in glorious isolation. There are few areas or people who can sit above it and make sure different parts of the business are working together."

Sitting in a glass-clad room at the firm's year-old purpose-built HR and payroll services centre in Glasgow, one of the largest in the UK and Ireland, Campbell has the clean-cut look of a successful commercial person (and yes, he does enjoy golf). But he is clearly relishing his HR role.

"The move from sales to HR may seem strange," he concedes, "but it is not as removed as one would think. When Doug [Sawers, Ceridian's UK MD] approached me about the role, my initial reaction was, 'what have I done wrong?' But after the shock, I realised I understood the fundamentals, as we have always believed the key to delivering real value to the business is people. I also understood the business inside out. I am a businessperson who just happens to look after the people area. And what I love about HR more than anything else is it gives you a chance to go across the whole business."

Bringing this business/sales nous into HR has many benefits for a company like Ceridian, whose UK and Ireland division pays the wages of more than 21% of staff at high-street chains, worth some £15 billion each year. Firstly, there is better internal stakeholder management, helped by refreshingly jargon-free communication.

"One of the sad things about HR is that it doesn't get recognition," Campbell says. "I found my team members were doing interesting things, but had not received the recognition. Because of this a lot of business people do not know the value they are getting from HR."

Secondly, Campbell can play a dual role, taking a customer-facing approach and building relationships for Ceridian within the HR community. This is thanks to his being able to see issues from an HR point of view as well as being able to articulate how the business can help HR directors. While at pains to stress he is not a salesperson, he is able to sponsor projects if they are HR-led.

But, perhaps more importantly than all of this, Campbell can give input on product development: "There is a really good link between me and the product and I spend a lot of time giving feedback on things that work or don't work, or which could be improved upon," he explains.

A good example is a new talent-management tool that uses dynamic organisation charting. The chart can be used to find anyone in the business through location and role but also through performance rating.

"So if I want to find someone with a top-end performance rating I get up the chart and within a couple of minutes I can find everyone that fits. I then click to find out about the individual and can map them by where they live through Google Maps. Much of this came out of conversations about what I need and what would be useful in my HR role," Campbell says.

This role is still fundamentally about talent, retention of talent and getting the right people in the right place, Campbell believes. Attracting talent is not a major problem for the UK and Ireland operation, which runs out of Reading, Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow and Limerick - and Mauritius.

"We give people opportunities at an earlier stage in their careers than they would probably find elsewhere. This is one of the major reasons they want to join us. We also have a good reputation in the marketplace and are perceived as one of the major players," Campbell explains.

The Glasgow location is also beneficial when it comes to technologists, with its rich vein of science-based universities running through it. The company is considering introducing a graduate programme, as well as an apprenticeship scheme.

Attraction may not be a challenge, but demonstrating the excellence and knowledge base of employees is. In a service company like Ceridian, the well-worn phrase that your people are your difference is true. But proving this is not as easy as saying it.

Cue KnowHow, Ceridian's way of demonstrating the knowledge of its people to its customers, which include Marks and Spencer, Samsung and Travis Perkins. Developed in chief commercial officer Nick Laird's division, the idea is that if people are the differentiator, then one needs to prove it.

To do this, every employee needs to understand the value they bring to the organisation. Campbell calls it the "lightbulb moment", when an employee realises he or she is adding value to the business by doing a certain thing.

"We have encouraged people to give examples of the value they bring to their day-to-day roles and to try to articulate this. It isn't easy to articulate; most people think it's just their job. But managers identify where KnowHow has been used to win a client or give good customer service and they feed it back as an example of what good KnowHow is. The crux is that it is going to make a difference in front of the customer," says Campbell.

Among the ways of getting KnowHow embedded in the company culture has been the development of an intranet-based hub on which people upload KnowHows. It contains a library of all KnowHows, plus profiles of different people explaining what they are good at. Staff can fill in a template with the KnowHow, an example of it and the value it added to the customer. There is also a knowledge manager in the seven-strong HR team, who leads KnowHow.

"We think it is important enough to have a person to manage this," Campbell says. "We also have 20 KnowHow champions who represent each of the areas. Their role, led by the knowledge manager, is to spot KnowHows and encourage people to give KnowHows."

Among HR's own KnowHows is to recruit and retain people who are dedicated to HR and customer service, to understand the customer's viewpoint and to take ownership of problems.

The KnowHow process has taken 14 months to roll out and is now also in the company's Mauritius office, as well as in the USA. Campbell firmly believes it has had a significant impact on the business. After a challenging start to 2012 the UK operation has announced double-digit growth in the first three-quarters of 2012 and completed the three biggest HR and payroll implementations in its history, in Marks and Spencer, Whitbread and GE.

New sales activity is up more than 100% versus 2011. "While it is wrong to say it is all down to KnowHow, this has definitely helped," says Campbell.

MD Sawers agrees: "We quickly refocused on customers and on the KnowHow our colleagues deliver, and have enjoyed double-digit growth this year. This is set to continue as our sales teams have been working on a three-fold increase in sales enquiries, with very strong interest in pension auto-enrolment, SaaS, workforce management and international payroll solutions."

With such potential growth, retention of staff will be one of the main challenges for Campbell, as for all organisations.

"We have been in the bubble of recession, and as we come out it will affect everyone. Retaining our key staff is the number-one business challenge, as Doug would agree. It is vital therefore that our leaders are visible and we keep our focus on engagement," he says.

The other critical issue for business in general is keeping a realistic cost base for the environment in which the company is working, while balancing this with enough of the right people to deliver their services.

"It's a big challenge, holding onto this cost base but not putting too many people back into your business," says Campbell. "The recession made organisations take a proper look at how they function and operate, and they are much leaner and more competitive than three years ago. We are no different.

"The easy thing to do is to hire another 30, 50 or 200 people, but we would then go back three years and be a less efficient and nimble organisation."

The great thing about HR, he adds, is that people are supportive, sharing and open, enabling businesses to learn the best way of tackling challenges like this from each other.

"It's such a healthy thing in business and I don't see other professions doing that. I cannot imagine sales people from different businesses getting together and sharing ideas."

He may have the sales background, but it seems Campbell definitely has HR know-how after all.

Click here to see the video of Jeremy Campbell talking about balancing costs with the need to retain top talent