· Features

Interview with Helene Speight, group head of talent at Endava

If you put the name ‘Helene Speight’ into Google, you’ll be met with a barrage of news about Lord Alan Sugar’s television show, The Apprentice, where she came runner-up to the ‘reverse pterodactyl’ impersonator Lee McQueen.

Unlike many of her fellow contestants, Speight has never given an interview to the press about her experiences following her stint on the reality TV show, where would-be entrepreneurs set out to impress the business mogul in a bid to have him as their mentor. And she didn't invite me to lunch to discuss after-dinner speaking opportunities either.

"I want to be an advocate of the new face of HR," she tells me and, just like that, Sugar's prime-time TV slot - which attracted an average 6.7 million viewers during Speight's series 4 in 2008 - no longer seem relevant.

Speight joined IT services company Endava last April as its group head of talent management. This marked not just her first career move into full-time HR, but the first time the company had appointed a senior member of staff to run its people strategy. Although Endava employs almost 700 people across four countries (UK, US, Romania and Moldova), it still has no HR director.

"I don't want to work for a company that is näive enough not to hire someone 'from the other side [of business]' into HR," she explains. "I've a varied business background, I love developing people and I am lucky enough to know what my strengths are.

"There are HR directors out there that don't understand business… there are HR directors that don't like being around people. Some HR directors want to stay in an ivory tower. Well, that ain't me. I have prepared for this and I have done my homework."

Her calm, measured tone is a bit at odds with the feistiness of the ideas she puts forward. Speight is warm yet measured, friendly but focused.

"I have been that frustrated businessperson on the other side, when the HR systems have not worked well in another organisation," she adds. "I want our staff to be empowered and HR people need to understand how to do this. Businesses should have more HR people from other parts of business. I understand what finance means, I used to manage a marketing team - and I know the importance of communicating messages to staff from my time working in internal comms."

Her CV, with no mention whatsoever of 'Suralan' and The Apprentice, speaks for itself. The bulk of her career has been spent at utilities giant GE (General Electric), where roles included communications manager, IT project manager and global general manager for test, calibration and services.

Then a new day dawned: "In 2008, I started studying for an executive MBA at Henley Business School [after The Apprentice]. I flourished and loved the HR strands."

Endava has doubled in size over the past five years and employees are based in European development centres in Romania and Moldova, a London headquarters and offices in the US.

Formed in 2000, the firm offers onshore consultancy, project management and near shore IT service delivery.

Clients are mostly based in the banking, financial services, telecommunications, media, sports, entertainment and professional services sectors.

Speight's role is to implement a cross-culture talent-management environment, uniquely designed for Endava's UK, Romanian and Moldovan staff.

"I couldn't do this if I didn't understand the culture of the business," she laughs. "So, on day one, I was straight on a plane to Romania and now live there. I worked in Moscow in the past, so the company knew that I could deliver the training in a different country.

"I wrote all the training myself and I deliver it myself in English. The feedback has been honest, but positive so far."

The attitude of employees in Eastern Europe varies considerably from that of staff in the economically challenged UK, Speight explains.

"There is a great need for recruitment and talent management in Romania," she explains. "They have not felt the impact of the recession - in fact, the IT sector in Romania is known as a 'spoilt sector' because it doesn't pay tax. There is a really promising future in the region. Let's not take away from the fact Romania is a 'poor' country - but the people are resourceful. They are like sponges; they acknowledge their history and look forward to the future with optimism.

"The technical ability and drive of the people I work with there are unbelievable. Some have gone to the top universities and they are incredibly ambitious - this is how we get the best results.

"But there is a difference in what motivates staff in Romania and Moldova. They are much more family- orientated than work-orientated. The challenge is to develop HR there and embrace the change, without paying lip service. We are competing for staff with the likes of IBM and HP, so it is important we can prove a career path to staff when we recruit them. So we launched a mentoring scheme, which is unique in Romania - we want to invest in our people and this is how we plan to set ourselves apart."

Since the development of talent management at the company, it has launched the 'Endava University' in Transylvania, where staff attend a management training course, developing soft skills to help them move into management roles, in addition to the technical training staff receive. Speight and her team of four are moving on to launch further training master classes later this year.

The next hurdle for the business is global mobility, with plans underway to mobilise 10% of its workforce. Speight will be spearheading the operation.

"Staff in Romania recognise the powerful message in the fact that I moved out there to work. But in the context of a global mobility plan, I know how hard it is.

"We need to develop a US sales team and an MD there. And we believe in our people - we want to put the best of the best in those roles. But the technology is different across regions.

"It is difficult for people to leave their comfort zone and we want to be sure employees will want to move, but I think our USP is that we work with the best in each region. Our attrition rates are huge and we are preparing for the next boom."

Plans such as this put more onus on a robust and strategic HR department to take charge of the change agenda. "There is no HR director at the moment, so it will be exciting to see the evolution of what happens," says Speight.

"I have buy-in from the board on what happens and I have been invited to every monthly board meeting, including a full three-day conference. HR is not here to be a support function - I report directly to the managing director, Central and Eastern Europe. This company absolutely understands the importance of HR and succession planning.

"I am showing the benefit of a talent strategy. I'm working to put in place compliance in each region and am looking forward to contributing to employee benefits and recruitment going forward."

Thus ends the main part of the interview, but being nosy - and a closet fan of The Apprentice - I am interested to hear Speight's thoughts on the process.

Lord Sugar famously fired HR manager Paula Jones from the programme in 2009 for miscalculating the cost of ingredients in soap, saying: "You are a human resources manager - but you can't say you can't do numbers, you can't do this or you can't do that. You know how to work out a redundancy package on a calculator, don't you? You made a fatal mistake. You're fired."

Speight laughs knowingly when I tell her [she herself was fired in the final perfume task after her team made an expensive bottle unfeasibly cheap]. "What you see on TV isn't what you get as a contestant," she explains. "So I can't comment on Paula at all. But I know he [Lord Sugar] hates HR… I was happy to go back to GE after The Apprentice. But my USP is that I have done lots of things. I know what I want to achieve and I have a plan.

"I am delivering new ideas and new strategies and I think there's going to be an evolution in HR and this company sees there is real value of performance management and employee engagement.

"Then again, I can only speak for my business and my friends - but the human resources directors I know understand this."