HR magazine explains how to get from where you are to where you want to be.
From HRD to… consultant
What’s the opportunity?
It’s like journalists switching to PR – moving to the ‘dark side’. But as Niall Cluley, ex-HRD at Fitness First (who three months ago joined engagement consultancy Dragonfish) explains, moving to consultancy is not only a chance to give back, but reinvigorates an HRD’s personal development. “It’s an opportunity to apply my skills across a much wider range of sectors and distribute the experience I’ve gained to more people,” he says. “For me consultancy is a strategic three- to five-year ‘timeout’, to give me skills that will make me a better HRD for when I decide to go back in-house.”
Growth in HR niches means consultancies are crying out for former HRDs to give credibility to their offerings. But this comes with responsibility. “Being an ex-HRD helps get your foot in the door, but you have to be careful of giving the impression you know a client’s business – because no-one ever does,” says former global HRD at Pentland Brands Tim Pointer, now founder of Starboard Thinking. “You need to understand their problems and how you can help. Good HRDs-turned-consultants should know the right questions to ask.”
The right HR type
“When the CIPD analysed the sector it declared HR the least professionally agile, with members least willing to take on risk – but that’s exactly what a HRD moving to consultancy has to get to grips with,” says Alex Swarbrick, a senior consultant at Roffey Park who was formerly head of HR at The Work Foundation. “There’s lots of opportunity but there’s plenty of competition too, so you need to decide your USP quickly.” He adds: “Some consultants pitch themselves as an extra pair of hands, others as more strategic thinking partners.”
“A key requirement is enjoying networking, and being prepared for this to be how work comes,” says Pointer. “You need to be comfortable with the ebb and flow of work, and you have to work to other people’s deadlines. This means being low on ego. You have to realise you’re not in a senior role anymore.”
But the biggest personality trait needed, argues Cluley, is adaptability: “The worst consultants are those who come in and say it’s ‘their model’. Part of making a successful transition is listening and becoming part of the client’s team. This requires being curious and wanting to share.”
Making it happen
“It’s not a given a successful HRD will be a successful consultant,” says Jamie Homer, former international business development and HRD at Urban Outfitters, now partner of Princedale Partners. “Luckily I had a unique role – I mixed international with HR and business development so I already
had many of the consultancy skills I needed. Those wanting to switch must build their ‘consultancy’ skills up while they’re still an HRD – start by becoming an internal consultant, dealing with as many stakeholders as you can, and become the enlightened expert in the organisation.”
Cluley says all aspiring consultants should begin to promote their point of view externally – either via LinkedIn articles or at conferences – and aim to consult in the areas they’re passionate about, because it’s passion clients ultimately buy into. As Swarbrick argues, identify your strengths so you can play to these: “Having the knowledge/technical skills should be a given, so it’s more about developing your relationship-building skills, your best modus operandi and identifying what your personality is. After all, the key job of a consultant is making sure that what you offer is more appealing than what anyone else can offer.” Peter Crush
From HRD to… public sector leader
What’s the opportunity?
According to Mark Turner, joint managing partner and lead for the central government, regulation and not-for-profit practices at search firm GatenbySanderson, the path from HRD to COO or a strategic resourcing director role is “becoming easier” in the public sector. “In the last few years the impact of strategic HR in thinking about how the organisation is going to get more out of limited resources has come to the fore,” he says, adding this means there is “more openness” to someone from an HR background, whereas before this role would have automatically gone to a finance person.
Partly, adds Shokat Lal, assistant CEO at Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, that’s because as more jobs in the public sector disappear, roles are “amalgamating”. “In a period of austerity, when you know how much workforce issues really matter, it’s going to be fundamental having someone in leadership who can bring people along,” he adds.
Gillian Quinton, managing director (business enterprise & shared services) at Buckinghamshire County Council, adds that the need for transformation means “there’s a growing recognition of people and OD expertise” and that change skills are particularly welcome. “Predominately people with those skills go into broader roles because the organisation recognises they have the skills to transform things in the public sector,” she says. “You’ll see more of it with the integration of health and social care.”
The right HR type
For Quinton, “what makes an HRD stand out as ready for a broader role is a focus on asking the right questions”. “It’s about being inquisitive and having that intuition,” she says. Also critical is an interest in wider business outcomes, finance and corporate governance. “You need to be able to think on your feet, because you go from being an expert to a jack of all trades, getting questions about technical issues you don’t know the details on,” she adds.
Communication skills “at all levels” are critical, says Turner: “You need someone who can get messages to the frontline as effectively as to the top team. It’s about communication and influence, and engagement with people from all disciplines.”
To succeed HRDs will need to be well networked. “Networking is really important and gives you resilience,” says Quinton. “You need to have a wider network to draw upon [than just HR people].”
Making it happen
“Make sure that in promoting your experience you talk about the extent of your budget responsibility; have facts and figures to back up your experience and demonstrate expertise beyond professional boundaries,” advises Turner.
He also advises any budding public sector leaders to show “influence beyond the boundaries of HR”, perhaps via a NED position or doing an MBA. Lal agrees that volunteering and “never shying away” from additional responsibilities will help you step up. “I’ve seen too many people when they are given additional responsibility saying:
‘How much will I get paid for that?’ Or ‘it’s not in my job grade’,” he says. “Every time I’ve been given more responsibility I’ve taken it with pride as it means someone has confidence in me.”
“[Get] a coach or mentor and be prepared to develop yourself,” Quinton adds. And once you have moved up she cautions sensitivity around your HRD replacement. “People still come to me about HR,” she says. “But it’s hard on the HRD for people to defer to me, so I feign ignorance about HR now and say things have changed too much.” Katie Jacobs