· 5 min read · Features

Interview with Neil Roden, ex HR director of Royal Bank of Scotland

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On 1 October Neil Roden ended his 10-year reign as group HRD at RBS. But he refuses to be the scapegoat for everything that went wrong at the bank.

Don't expect to read much more about the credit crunch, bonuses and bankers - not from Neil Roden, group outgoing HRD, Royal Bank of Scotland, anyway. At the end of last month HR magazine's number 12 Most Influential person in HR cleared his desk for good. And, the man now most noted for shunning the HR circuit he used to grace with such alacrity promises there will be precious little to add. "We've done our fair share of internal analysis of what happened," he says of the bank that in 2009 announced the largest annual loss in UK corporate history (£24.1 billion). "You have to draw a line under things eventually. I'm the sort of person that wants to look to the future. I'm not going to be talking about this much more."

This is his last exclusive interview as HRD, his final word on the matter. But it's a frank exchange too. Roden is not, it seems, satisfied to go quietly, not without defending his reputation: "When you're inside the organisation, dealing with it (the credit crunch) day by day, it's difficult to get a sense of how the outside world sees it," he confesses. "Only later do you gain a perspective." A mellowed attitude? Not a bit of it. Back in January 2010, HR magazine's snatched conversation with him revealed an unrepentant Roden, who refused to implicate HR. It generated a flurry of agog blogosphere responses, including: 'If he had no influence over bad decisions, just what did he stand for?' The matter needed pressing, but Roden has barely budged on the matter.

"I'm not absolving myself totally," he says, but then adds: "I can't see what HR could have done. Lack of money was not an HR issue, the portfolios our businesses kept was not an HR issue; none of them were. I wasn't running the bank," he adds. "The CEO makes decisions, not me. There's a debate here about what HR can reasonably be held accountable for. People think HR runs companies. I say, stop getting carried away; HR is a support function, no more or less important than sales or IT. HR critics are way ahead of themselves; they need to get back inside their box."

Roden has sagaciously rehearsed his defence. On occasion, he does lower his guard, enough to reveal he actually offered to quit when new CEO Stephen Hester took over from public enemy number one, Fred ('the shred') Goodwin. But always he defends the HR function. "He (Hester) said he didn't see HR as part of the problem," he says. "He had a view of all the issues, but HR wasn't one of them."

Some may doubt this. Hester is on record saying: "Shareholders have raised concerns about our ability to keep and motivate good people", describing staffing as his "single greatest problem". Roden confesses he will "not be leaving on a high", but he genuinely believes RBS is no longer what he once called "a problem" (two months ago it posted pre-tax profits of £1.14 billion). "We're not a burning platform anymore. I'd much rather leave on reasonable terms; I'd rather go before people ask 'when is he going to go?' If I stay longer, I'll limit my options," he adds - one small nod, perhaps, to the stubborn stain the RBS years may now leave on his CV. "Others can judge my currency," he adds.

Relentlessly, some may still judge him on his views - and they remain strident - on HR's responsibility for the culture a bank creates. Not so, says a steely Roden: "Culture issues were secondary issues, not primary ones," he counters. "HR isn't responsible for the culture of the business; the board and its customers are. It's the business environment that sets the culture. I'll take my fair share for some stuff; I'll take kicks when they're justified, but I don't think they're justified." Really? "I see all the facets other HRDs won't have seen," he argues. "I just think it's ludicrous putting RBS's problems down to HR."

Roden has said before (and repeats it here) that RBS would have remained profitable had it not been for its £20 billion acquisition of ABN Amro just months before the credit crunch. "Barclays was bidding too - it was no more clever than us, just luckier," he quips. He also defends the bonus culture (he'll pocket all of his when he goes, by the way), as just another aspect he did not, and could not, have had any influence over. "People say I should have reformed the pay structure, but it's a non-exec committee that decides. I attend, but cannot make proposals."

Opponents will maintain Roden could have done something if he felt strongly enough about it. "I've always thought pay in this sector is mad," he says, adopting the man-on-the-street view. "A lot of staff were angry with the leadership and their bonuses, and rightly so." But he returns to the excuse of forces beyond his control: "We already pay just below average for the sector, so we just cannot go against the trend. We've - regretfully - already lost good people because talent has moved banks."

High-profile casualties have included Steve Ashley, who was head of RBS's rates trading division, and senior salesman Chris Fleming. Both reportedly quit in February due to dissatisfaction with a scaling back of bonuses. A month earlier, Hester told the Treasury Select Committee how RBS is a "prisoner of the market". Roden adds: "We have to pay market rates. I'm glad regulators have at least made some change (From January 2011, EU law requires 60% of bonuses to be for future payment only, with at least 40% locked away for three years). We could not have done this."

Lack of leeway to do anything different might explain why RBS was still, in March 2010, paying more than £1 billion in bonuses, despite being £1 billion in the red. "It wasn't my decision," Roden asserts.

"Talent we lost also hated the way RBS was being vilified," he says, criticising the media witch-hunt. "They just wanted a quieter life."

For 27,000, life will be a lot quieter - that's the number of RBS jobs axed since Hester joined. This is one thing Roden is sanguine about regardless, he says, of whether it is 84% state-owned or not: "The last year has been about putting in place building blocks for the future - reorganisation - the HR team has been doing an average of one business reorganisation a week for the past 18 months - new talent management and executive development processes," he says. "The future depends on cutting. We have to get back to sustained profitability, to be fit for purpose. We will be smaller but the only way to give taxpayers a return on their bailout is by restoring our share price."

It is interesting that, when asked what he feels will be his lasting impact on his 10 years at RBS, it is that "HR is in a much better place than when I arrived," - not that its people or business is better off. Perhaps this truly does reflect his outlook that HR is "just the support function". In fact the most animated he gets is when he speaks about "exciting challenges" that lie in wait for his HR team. "We may not have wanted the experiences of the past few years, but we've learned a lot. We're a business on the verge of one of the greatest turnarounds in corporate history."

Goodwin once described the turmoil of RBS as a "chastening" one. Roden is enigmatic: "The financial sector is difficult to understand, so it's easy to vilify one person or group of people." But till the end he is certain of his role and his responsibilities. "If you make the wrong diagnosis, you end of with the wrong solution. Bonuses, yes, they were a problem, but they became a symbol of the issue, not the issue itself. Hester knows HR is not to blame."

And that's it. Roden is back off to Scotland, clearing up last bits and pieces. At the time of talking there were eight candidates vying to be RBS's next group HRD - all current or former HRDs in the banking sector. On the day of going to press, Elaine Arden, HR head for RBS Business Services, was confirmed in the role. Whether she shares Roden's vision of where HR 'belongs' is unknown. As for Roden himself, he's not disappearing yet. Prepare to see him re-launch himself again, somewhere big, but somewhere completely different. "I'm 53, not ready to retire," he declares. "I know I want a totally different challenge, though." Until then, he confirms one thing - "I'm doing a Spanish course in Malaga," he smiles. With that scoop, there's a shake of the hands, and an air of finality. Roden's RBS has finished. It's firmly in the past. Terminado.

CV

2000: Goup director, human resources, RBS, following acquisition of NatWest by The Royal Bank of Scotland

1997: Director, human resources, The Royal Bank of Scotland

pre 1997: Prior to joining RBS he was general manager, human resources, Europe, National Australia Group