· Features

HRD to... private sector MD: Esther O'Halloran

We asked former HRDs how and why they moved into roles at the top

"The reason I was asked to step into the MD role from HRD at Paul UK was because of my business background and having that sort of deeper insight into how businesses work from a logistics, operational and marketing perspective.

The year I made that step up it was the Olympics. It was multiple challenges – the whole distribution and logistics of people, access and stock movement, and planning to have business as usual while we had to follow huge restrictions on transport, for example.

It was getting my head around it. I used to get asked some bizarre questions I was expected to know the answers to. For example: what was the cubic capacity of our vans with regards to frozen, ambient and chilled?!

If you look for a common thread between HRDs who’ve become CEOs, I bet all of us didn’t start in HR. I started off in retail fashion in general management; I was manager of H&M in Oxford Circus. Then I moved into a business role as an area operator for Whitbread. So I had multi-site P&L accountability.

For me an HRD leading an organisation closes the loop in terms of what makes the business successful. There’s so much evidence around engagement and productivity. If they’re happy your employees can make your business a success. If you cheese them off, manage them in a poor way, or demand too much they can literally destroy your brand in seconds.

I think HR professionals understand that better than an FD. You might have the best product in the world but it’s not going to make any difference if your staff can’t be bothered to sell it.

We have a built-in relationship piece that belongs to us as a profession, and that ability to challenge an organisation. So I think far more HR professionals should be making that step across.

In some of the work I do now I’m talking to HR professionals who are more business astute and commercial. I see more with project management qualifications. So I think it’s happening.

With some of the leaders that hit the press like Philip Green... where was HR in that? Or Sports Direct. That would never happen if Mike Ashley was a former HRD. That’s why we need this [move] to happen more."

Esther O’Halloran is MD and founder of consultancy EOH Business Solutions

Further reading

Your organisation needs you: HRD to CEO

HRD to... third sector CEO: Jon Sparkes

Check back over the next few days for more examples of those who've made the switch