The largest of the Channel Islands has a fierce and independent identity. More than just tan cows and delicious dairy products, Jersey, or The Rock as it’s known to residents, has its own language, a unique species of toad (bigger than British ones), and a history entwined with pirates and the Norman conquest.
Vast, sandy beaches and a much fairer share of sunshine further set the island apart from the UK. In fact, on a good day, you’re much more likely to see the coast of France than anything north of the English Channel.
Jersey mingles aspects of French and British culture, resulting in a place unlike any other. Its uniqueness therefore is fiercely defended by some members of the 100,000 people that live there. Few know this fact better than its government’s group director for people and corporate services, Mark Grimley.
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A letter to the editor is rare these days. Even on Twitter and LinkedIn, a like or a reaction is more likely than a comment. Rarer still perhaps is a letter to the HR director – not from an employee but a member of the public.
“I’ve got so much breadth and so much connection to our community that I see, and I hear the impacts - not always for the better,” he says.
“I get members of the public writing to me with their concerns and their compliments. I’m very visible on the island which you don’t get as an HRD elsewhere.”
Grimley oversees all public service employees on the island, from police officers and doctors to teachers and the custodians of Jersey’s prized cows.
Rather than reporting to a board of executives, he is accountable to the States Employment Board, which is made up of ministers and calls for a whole other set of skills.
“Boards are selected for their specialisms, but politicians aren’t necessarily selected for that,” he explains.
“The proximity to some of the political debates is also quite interesting. Some of the work I am involved in is of intense political interest and debate. It’s a fine line. On occasions, the advice I give may end up being debated in the Assembly and subject to significant scrutiny.”
Rather than mutiny though, it is the power to positively improve the world around him that motivates Grimley.
Early on in his career this was cultivated by the sponsorship of Pam Parkes, executive director of HR and OD at Essex County Council, Angela O’Connor, CEO and founder of The HR Lounge and Hayley Lewis, founder of leadership consultancy HALO Psychology, who all gave him the opportunity to work his way into HR.
“I’ve got a strong public service ethos, I’m committed to giving back what I’ve benefited from, and I enjoy the fact that we can be socially responsible,” he says.
"If you are leading change, you've got to demonstrate to people that you know their business"
For the next two to four years at least, Grimley’s aim is to build trust in the Government of Jersey as an employer, so it can compete in the job market against the island’s eminent financial services sector. Vital to this will be his ability to forecast its future.
“It’s easy for organisations to focus on the here and now,” he says. “The public sector in particular is quite often focused on short-term political cycles, but I look forward to what is coming in five, 10 and 15 years.”
At Jersey, the future to him ultimately means creating a leaner operation. “I think we’ve got to be a smaller, better skilled, better paid organisation,” he says.
“Technology will play a big part, but if you look at the economics, our economy is not growing as fast as the cost of our workforce. So, our workforce has to start to be constrained. But then you’ve got to think, how do we continue to deliver all these services that we do on a day-to-day basis?”
Talent shortages, such as 2021’s drop in HGV drivers, should not be a surprise to HRDs he says.
“What happened was, there was a contraction in the available market, and that just pushed the price of those people up. If you
were an HRD and you had a well-paid, well skilled workforce, they would stay with you, and you wouldn’t be driven by market factors.
“If you fail to plan you will be driven by circumstance and events as opposed to be able to weather them.”
Jersey may be his most challenging role to date, but the creativity and complexity that comes with such an objective is what Grimley thrives on.
He says: “I don’t like process- and policy-driven HR approaches. I think that’s why the organisations I work for are often going through quite significant change, and the last thing they are is very slow, cumbersome processes.”
Earlier in his career Grimley worked at Plymouth City Council just as the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition came into power. A 30% cut to the council’s budget followed, landing him the unenviable task of reducing salaries and changing employee terms and conditions. His decision: to speak to each of the council’s 5,000 members of staff individually.
“I met with them all face to face because I wanted them to see that it wasn’t a faceless organisation saying: ‘we’re changing your terms and conditions.’ People were able to ask questions, and able to challenge,” he says. “I set out to them the extent of the financial problems that we had, and people understood it. We got ‘yes’ ballots.”
Five things I can’t live without:
Laughter - It solves a lot of situations.
Thunder and lightning storms - I love the energy and power of nature.
Cooking - I love creating and experimenting.
Sun - It immediately lifts the mood.
Chaos - According to my team I thrive on it! It drives my energy.
Though winning trust has been more difficult in some ways in Jersey, he says that is understandable. Becoming people director in 2019, he was one of several senior appointments to come from the UK rather than on-island.
“If you look at your own community for example – Lambeth [home of HR magazine] is a rich, diverse community. Can you imagine if the council just imported everybody from Manchester?” he explains.
“It doesn’t represent the community. If you are leading change, you’ve got to demonstrate to people that you know their business.”
On the profession itself Grimley is equally candid. The trend for taking on wider responsibility like HR and comms or, in Grimley’s case, people and corporate services, and newer titles, like people change manager or people analytics lead, he predicts will continue.
“I think the profession is splitting into different disciplines, but for lots of people I’d say don’t go too deep and specialise too soon,” he says.
The risk with specialisation, he adds, is that a HR leader might not understand the disciplines around them that complement their role, creating information silos.
"Don’t go too deep and specialise too soon"
To ward against it, he says: “I’ve set my departments up so that they work in a matrix way and resource gather from different areas depending on what they need to achieve.”
Now, upping sticks and moving to an island with its own idiosyncrasies and gaining a level of fame that frequently gets you featured in the Jersey Evening Post may not be for every HRD, but certainly with Grimley the Rock has found itself in very safe hands.
Though catching a flight to Soho and other more far-flung places helps with the unique challenges of his role, Grimley’s main driver is this: “Invest in relationships because you can’t do anything without bringing people with you.”
Letters to the HRD may be few and far between, but opinions are not. He adds: “You often find that the people with the solutions are those on the frontline.”
The full piece of the above appears in the March/April 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.
Government of Jersey won Best Crisis Management Strategy at last year's HR Excellence Awards. For details on how to enter 2022's awards, click here.