After a disappointing start to his career, Gareth took a job as a telesales executive at a modest start-up firm. 15 years on, that start-up has been featured in the UK’s Top 100 Companies to work for, and Gareth is its Chief HR Officer.
By transferring his passion for people from the leisure industry to HR, Gareth has proven that failure (in his own words) really isn’t the opposite of success, but very much part of it.
Tell us a bit about how you got into your current role
When I was 16, I wanted to be a PE teacher, so everything in my early academic life was directed towards that. My degree was in Sport and Human Movement Studies, but I got rejected from a PGCE interview on the grounds that I was too relaxed! It was the first time my life had gone ‘off script’, but I re-evaluated and took a graduate management traineeship with Peacocks. I quickly found out that retail wasn’t for me! 4 months later I joined a health club chain and stayed in the leisure industry until 2002 when I decided I needed a complete change.
I took a gamble and joined Creditsafe. There were only 30-40 staff at the time, but it turned out to be the single best decision I’ve ever made!
9 months after joining the HR department, the HR training manager left and Cato Syversen (now CEO) moved me into her role! I was incredibly lucky that he took a chance on me – it’s thanks to him that my career has grown, along with the company.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I love the variety in HR – you can be a coach one minute and an analyst the next. It’s impossible to get bored. I’m immeasurably lucky to have been able to travel across our global offices, experience different cultures and learn about HR intricacies and legislation around the globe.
What has been the key to your success?
The bottom line is that I like people – I’m amazed at how many HR people I’ve met who evidently don’t. That has helped me to build a great network.
Also, I think the disappointment I felt over not get into the teaching Post Grad helped – a role in HR presented me with an opportunity to help people develop the careers they wanted.
Which achievement are you most proud of and why?
When I look at what we’ve achieved with Creditsafe and the difference the company has made to people’s lives it makes me very proud. We’ve had people move abroad into sales and management roles, and knowing that you’ve played a part in that is awesome.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?
That you need to accept that things will go wrong. The experience of failure is a really important one, because if you can be resilient and find a solution, you’ve mastered a key skill for work and life in general.
Also, you need to place the right focus on work-life balance. It’s great to be committed and engaged with your role and company, but if you take it to the extreme you risk mental or physical burnout.
Which 3 qualities do you think are most important for aspiring HR leaders?
Studying people – making sure that you understand their values and motivations. I’ve seen people ‘blanket manage’ and treat everyone the same – but it doesn’t work. Really knowing the people that you work with is so important.
Being able to apply a coaching mentality – listening first, and acknowledging someone’s opinions without judgement. You can always challenge and add your own opinions later.
Being accepting of other’s styles and approaches – if you want an easy life, you’ll hire people like you who agree with everything you do, but you’ll be missing the point of having other people on board. You should be able to disagree, challenge and negotiate.
And an extra one, being prepared to be wrong – if someone provides a balanced argument and you find yourself realising that you’re wrong, it’s better to be able to stop and admit it.
What advice would you give to those with ambitions to reach a management or leadership level in HR?
Work as closely as you can with the operational units within your business and don’t fall into the trap of thinking of HR as an extra – HR is a facilitator of business.
Develop your internal and external network. You never know where your next opportunity is going to come from and someone you meet could have an answer to a problem you have in work.
Ensure that you deliver quality work. Be mindful of the quality / deadline achievement trade off and know when it’s more important to get it done, than to get it done perfectly.
Approach every situation positively – don’t be seen as the sort of person that can find a problem for every solution! Use the resources available to you and be a person who makes things happen.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for HR in the workplace?
They are very company specific. That said, the HR role is 100% impacted by the quality of people you have in. If you find people who fit your company culture, then everything else slots into place. If you have the wrong people, that’s when the difficulties surface! Making sure everyone has the right manager is a challenge, but if a company can acknowledge where there’s a disconnection and assign a new manager, they might find that employee’s performance improves dramatically.
Which employees can benefit the most from mentoring?
I think there’s a place for mentoring where the mentor has been in a role that is similar to, or the same as, the mentee and they can transfer knowledge from that experience. Realistically, any role can benefit from it, but it’s most beneficial when mentees are relatively new to a role.
As the career develops, I think there’s a real value in coaching as it can help people to challenge their self-limiting beliefs and come up with their own solutions and ideas.
In your experience, what are the best ways to engage employees?
People don’t leave companies, they leave managers. So, for me, engagement really starts with that relationship. If it’s good, the employee will understand the job they’re doing, what’s expected of them and will know that they’re supported and celebrated when they achieve. As a result, they offer discretionary effort over and above the contractual obligation.
At Creditsafe, we monitor employee engagement through surveys to make sure our employees have the tools, support and understanding of the company they need to do their job.
AI: hindrance or help for HR?
Will AI mean that millions of people will end up on metaphorical rubbish heap? Will AI improve the level of work achieved by humans as opposed to replacing them? I don’t know the answer, but one thing is true: technology will continue to evolve. I find that quite exciting and think HR practitioners should be open to the possibilities AI provides.
What impact do you think GDPR will have?
As long as HR departments have good people, data management practices and policies, and follow legislation, GDPR should have very little impact on their roles. On the other hand, if the advent of GDPR is the first time that a department has really considered how it maintains and manages that people data, they’re going to have a lot of work to do!
When and how can a recruitment partner be of most help to an HR department?
Personally, I’ve always found that recruitment partners are invaluable when you are filling senior vacancies. With talent so often geographically dispersed, good quality recruitment partners have a network that can be leveraged to attract talent swiftly.
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