· Features

What got me here: HRDs on key career experiences

Yesterday we explored how to get to the top in HR. Here, eight HRDs reflect on what got them there

"I spent time in the finance function for a year, helping to review the impact of the HR function, looking at cost and what it delivered to the business. It didn’t make me very popular in HR. But I hang on to that experience. I’m still surprised so many HR people don’t think about what they deliver for what they cost."
Mandy Coalter, people director, United Learning

"Before moving into HR I spent a number of years in non-HR functions, primarily in retail. This gave me a great foundation to build on. I started my HR career by working for a couple of large organisations with well-established HR teams. I then moved into a different industry in a smaller team and then on to a small start-up in a standalone HR role. After the standalone role I took my first lead HR role in a mid-sized business before growing it to global HRD level and then moving on to a larger business again as HRD. I feel it is valuable to obtain international experience and the experience of international exposure throughout my career has been very beneficial. You also need a few ‘the buck stops here’ moments where you put your neck on the line and take personal accountability for something significant."
Karen Beaven, HR director, River Island

"The biggest thing that helped me was volunteering to do things outside of the traditional HR remit. I’ve led comms and marketing projects, business planning, and been part of a business unit management team, which means I had shared accountability for performance, quality and financials."
Stephen Moir, chief people officer, NHS England

"I’ve worked outside of HR and in continental European and US cultures. Both of these experiences really widened my perspective on things. Wider perspective helps when considering how to solve key problems."
John Stewart, HR director, SSE

"It’s three main areas for me: experience in different industry sectors, working in international roles, and working in the different specialist parts of HR. I’ve worked in retail, IT, support services and media. One of the great things about an HR career is being able to move across sectors. I’ve worked in a variety of European HR roles that opened my eyes to the complexity of different countries’ HR practices, travelled extensively to the US, and for many years spent a week every month in India. Working internationally has made a big difference to how I look at things now. Without [learning] in-depth specialisms I don’t think I would have the confidence or credibility needed in the boardroom."
Valerie Hughes-D’Aeth, HR director, BBC

"Learning the ropes in a great blue chip company. Multi-sector experience and regular role changes. Function lead in site senior teams. Leading organisational change. Programme office and project management. Secondment to business process review teams, for example working with McKinsey. Commercial sales and marketing experience. Hard employee relations. Working for tough people and complex personalities – and having some great bosses too."
Sarah Salter, group HR director, Northumbrian Water

"I started in the Civil Service where I gained a strong professional foundation in a variety of roles. I was then an HR manager in a small organisation, which gave me a good grip of the operations and allowed me to work closely with the CEO. I’ve had support, encouragement and recognition from a number of CEOs early in my career. What’s key is that ability to be pragmatic not dogmatic." Ronnie Clawson, group corporate services director, Riverside

"I moved from being a finance director to running the HR and OD division. It was challenging and out of my comfort zone – I had to go back to university and get my HR qualification – but it was the best thing that ever happened. The first thing I realised was that in the boardroom finance is a given and there’s no challenge. I wasn’t given the same platform at first in HR. It became obvious I needed to make the case on a numbers basis, but the advantage of a finance background is having those analytical skills. Even when it’s not about numbers, in an ER case for example, you can still drill down into the facts. HR is not as black and white as finance; it’s a little bit grey. There’s an education piece to get that level playing field for finance and HR. You still get pushback [from the business] on HR policies in a way you never would with a finance policy."
Shakil Butt, HROD director, Islamic Relief Worldwide

Further reading

How do you get to the top in HR?

How to improve the HR talent pool