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John Hardman

HSS Hire

HR Director

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HRD Insight: HSS’ John Hardman on moving beyond HR theory


What’s important if you want to succeed in an HR context? 

The first thing is not to get too caught up in text book approaches to people management or too bogged down by the theory.
What is far more important is being able to understand the business and your people and, to some extent, going with your gut instinct.
I started off as a trainee at NatWest, leaving school at 16 and getting myself onto the bank’s management development programme. I’d had offers from five different banks, but was inspired by the NatWest guy who interviewed me.
I liked him, I trusted him and I bought into him. I guess even then I was impressed by the simple power of an individual – and it’s something that’s stayed with me ever since.
I ended up undertaking – and suiting – a stint in HR and went on to do a CIPD qualification, gaining my Postgrad Diploma in Human Resource Management from Salford University. This process helped to underpin my understanding and knowledge of the theory behind the day job.
By the book
But really it’s been by acting, listening and observing that I’ve learnt how to truly ‘do HR’. It’s been the experience that I’ve gained from working with lots of different people across a variety of industries and circumstances as well as the breadth of knowledge that can only come from working in different functions that has made me into the HR practitioner that I am today.
At Pfizer, I found myself on the company’s HR leadership team and, while I may not have physically opened a textbook during my time there, I certainly learnt how to do things by the book, working with a talented group of people and for a company that was very measured, very considered and very process-driven.
In comparison, at Phones4U, the pace was much quicker, the time pressures much greater and the culture completely different. And I learnt to adapt my textbook approach to fit this way of working – doing the right thing by people, but also being able to support the constantly changing commercial needs of the business.
But these extremes have proved invaluable in giving me a well-rounded view of both the theory and practice behind what HR practitioners need to achieve in a variety of circumstances – and it’s this best of both worlds approach that I’ve been able to put into practice at HSS. We move quickly, but we also plan well.
Of course, you have to do things by the book – HR is a profession governed by employment law and the ACAS Code of Practice and they’re both very clear in spelling out the things that have to be considered and acted upon. It’s all there in black and white, but it’s also the right thing to do – you need people to know that they’re getting a fair deal.
As well as the legal stuff though, I also value the concepts behind some of the theories out there – David Ulrich, for example, has to be one of the most prolific figures in HR. He introduced and inspired the HR business partner model and that of HR shared services and his research changed what HR does and how it’s perceived. HR teams are now a much more integral part of the wider business as a result.
What HR is about
And then you’ve got things like Kotter’s eight-stage model for change. When you’re faced with a big strategic change programme, this covers all the logical steps required and provides insights into a useful process.
Do I actively scope out what needs doing against the theory model? No – it’s more about taking into account the best interests of the business and our people, although I’m sure Kotter’s steps are stowed away somewhere in my subconscious. But in my opinion, it’s the theory behind the theory that’s important.
Something else that is essential is being able to react and adapt to the needs of the business. HR is no longer just about operating an old-school personnel department, processing employment contracts or being the ‘people police’.
Yes, of course we do some of that, but HR really comes into its own in terms of looking at a business from both the top down and bottom up in order to support existing people resources and plan future requirements based on corporate requirements and the wider economic environment. And you can’t learn that from a textbook.
Most important of all, however, is remembering what HR is all about – people. It’s vital to acknowledge that you’re dealing with real people – individuals that need to be inspired, encouraged, engaged, reassured and supported.
Each one has their own personality, needs and concerns and you can be sure that they won’t respond in a textbook fashion to whatever you’re trying to do so there’s no point in trying to go down that route. That’s where gut feeling comes in to help you do the right thing.
People-based approach
But it also helps if you can be clear about the kinds of people that you want to work for the business. We recruit, train and reward individuals against our ‘HSSness values’, which means that we’ve got a great team of individuals who are all different but who share some important core attitudes.
And investing in them is crucial. Don’t be tempted to cut back on training or rewards just because budgets are a bit tight. People want to feel valued and that they have the necessary skills and the opportunities to progress. To this end, we’ve really increased the budget for our training and reward and benefits programme over the last few years.
Has it worked? Well, in the time I’ve been at HSS, we’ve more than halved staff turnover rates, which I’d say is a pretty good indicator that we’re getting it right. We’re also attracting some high calibre candidates from all sorts of backgrounds. I like to think that we’ve been pioneers in making the equipment hire industry a more attractive career proposition.
As for you making a successful career in HR too, it depends on the kind of personality you are. While you don’t have to be a rocket scientist – I don’t even have any A levels – it is important to demonstrate the right abilities. You have to be able to engage and interact with people, communicate with them and know how to be honest. You’ve got to listen and lead at the same time and you’ve got to be prepared to understand the business.
I think that this people-based approach will become increasingly key into the future too. These are uncertain times, which means that it’s important to be prepared and be able to deal with both a changing environment and the challenges that brings.

But again, you can’t learn all of this from a textbook – such a work hasn’t even been written yet and, if you wait to be told what to do and how to do it now, you’ll miss the boat.

John Hardman is HR director at tool and equipment rental firm, HSS Hire.

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John Hardman

HR Director

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