· 3 min read · Features

Richard Smelt: My 25 years in HR

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Richard Smelt talks through the lessons he has learnt over the past 25 years working in HR

When HR magazine met Richard Smelt ahead of his presentation to members of The Leaders Club on his 25 years in HR, it quickly became clear there haven’t been many dull moments.

The McCain Foods HRD talks us through sticky situations faced over the years, all demonstrating how varied and challenging a career in senior HR should be – and how influential the function has become.

“HR’s role is massively enhanced in terms of its influence on the business,” says Smelt. “We should always remember that we’ve got to look after the people, but getting HR to the table as a player not just a partner has significantly increased our influence and contribution to the business.”

It’s an evolution Smelt has been at the heart of since he started out as a graduate trainee in the personnel department of Prudential. Subsequent positions have included HR director at Nomura, Comet, Carphone Warehouse, and Northern Rock.

Here are some of the most important lessons learnt over his 25 years…

Have courage

“Whether you’re at the board table with a CEO or out visiting sites, you’ve got to have courage,” says Smelt. “There’s still an apologetic theme within HR. We’ve got to throw that away and be courageous.”

He adds this applies when HR is making a case for investment: “HR sometimes apologises for wanting to invest in a system that will help with career development or better analytics, and we shouldn’t apologise. In the same way we invest in sales infrastructure we should invest in HR infrastructure.”

Not being afraid to straight talk is an important part of this. Smelt cites his interview for the job at Nomura, where 15 minutes in he stopped and said ‘You’re bored, I’m talking rubbish. We can either finish now or start again.’ “That sentence got me the job,” he reveals.

Don’t neglect the technical

“You’ve got to be technically very good. You can’t blag your way through,” Smelt says. “You really are expected to be the absolute expert in your field. That still applies when you’re HRD.”

Smelt cites a situation at Carphone Warehouse. “We missed bonus and overtime payments three months running and [chairman] Charles Dunstone said to me ‘You’ve got a problem’. Whether or not it was ‘my problem’, it really was, because if you’re not paying people you can forget all the other stuff you’re doing.”

It’s about survival

“There are a series of moments that have a massive impact on your career, out of all proportion to the time those moments take,” explains Smelt. “It’s getting through those in a way that enables you to carry on.

“When you’re new to a business it’s making sure you’re not the kid in the corner with a bloody nose when you have your first battle. Make sure it’s one you can win…”

Understand, but don’t play, politics

“I’ve seen HR people that try and manipulate the political agenda and they always fall foul of it,” says Smelt. “The HR role should be agenda-free. However, politics is a fundamental part of the world we live in and we need to be acutely aware of what’s going on. Manage it in a way that exposes the futility of playing political games.”

Most great leaders are dysfunctional

Smelt is an advocate of embracing life’s mavericks and not shying away from the challenging situations this can throw up. “If all selection processes do is get average people they’re not working,” he says. “The people that make a difference in business are edgy and see the world in a different way, and if we filter all of those out we’ll have an average organisation. Risk taking is important.”

He adds that HR should not be scared of the ‘messiness’ of business. “HR people can be afraid of ambiguity and commerciality. That’s what lets people down.”

Principles are hugely important

But acceptance of ambiguity must not mean compromising standards. “You need to be the moral compass of the organisation. Somebody has to make sure the line between pragmatism and principle is drawn in the right place,” says Smelt.

It’s crucial HR builds integrity by ensuring its own practices are a beacon of best practice. “It’s a bit like being a vicar – people judge you with a different set of rules,” says Smelt. “There are some simple things: what you do with expenses and how open you are. If you claim to advertise every vacancy you should advertise all HR vacancies, for example. Because once you’ve lost your integrity you’ve lost everything.”