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Jamie Lawrence

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“I don’t think HR is very complicated fundamentally.”

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This is an interview with trainline’s Chief People Officer Robin Hancock. Trainline operate a website where people can buy train tickets for UK trains. Robin was previously VP, Talent and Culture at Wonga, HR Director at eBay Europe and Global Head of Talent, HR Operations and  Reward at Skype.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: You’re Chief People Officer. How do you feel the role is different from previous HR Director roles, from both an organisational perspective and industry perspective?

Robin Hancock, Chief People Officer, thetrainline.com: If I’m honest not that much, I think probably the only thing it really does is signal the importance that the organisation places on people, I don’t think it actually changes the role very much.

In some respect it makes my role easier because I have a stronger mandate I think but I think I’m trying to do the same things as I always have.

I’ve never found that businesses keep HR at arm’s length.

[JL] And what are those things?

[RH] Well I don’t think HR is very complicated fundamentally. We try to understand exactly what the business is trying to do strategically and translate that into the capability that we need in the business i.e. the people skills, the knowledge experience, the structure, the culture and then create that so we can go and do what we need to get done.

What are we trying to do? What capabilities does that translate through to? And, finally, how do we build that or acquire that? I think that’s what we do in HR.

[JL] So do you feel you have a stronger mandate to be involved in the business as well, instead of HR being seen as a support function – so you’re seen more as a leader of the business?

[RH] It’s a more obvious statement of intent I suppose but actually no I don’t think it’s any different.

I’ve never found that businesses keep HR at arm’s length. I know there’s often a lot of narrative around that but it’s not something I’ve really experienced. The whole ‘seat at the table’ thing is not something I’ve ever really come across.

I think it’s nice to have the kind of formal statement but actually it doesn’t change very much about the way I operate or the way I think the team is received and ultimately the HR team is adding value and the business want to spend time working with them because they see what they’re bringing.

[JL] But what changes have you have seen in the profession, such as the types of people there or the way they approach the role? What changes do you think the HR profession/department has undergone in the past say five years?

[RH] The big shift is around the way people work and there’s so many digital aspects to the way we work that just didn’t exist when I started work. We didn’t have email, I didn’t have a mobile phone either so the channels are different, the way that we can work inside the business and externally are different.

In terms of the people I still see a very similar mix:

  • people that are very siloed within those specialist areas
  • people who understand strategy and how everything works together
  • people who are very passionate about engaging and understanding what the business is bringing, what the business needs
  • people that want to stay in their HR area and not get out in the world of business very much.

When you’re interviewing people or meeting people you have the full mix.

There’s so many digital aspects to the way we work that just didn’t exist when I started work.

The tools that are available to us are much better and I think it makes it much easier to build an infrastructure which deals with the transactional elements in a much more efficient way which gives you much more time whereas previously it was often labour intensive.

We’re still doing the same stuff: there’s the business needs that we need to understand and we need to translate that into people strategy and then there’s an engagement aspect either internally or externally.

Peoples’ desires are changing but the need to engage is the same. The core elements I think are still the same and fundamentally it’s just a case of listening to people, it’s treating employees as customers. You need to talk to them and understand them and then your answers will come from that.

[JL] Coming back to sort of the types of people in HR teams, when you’re recruiting, were you to recruit senior HR people to be under you what type of qualities, skills, attitudes do you look for now?

[RH] People who understand and are interested in business: ost of my early questioning is around things like knowing what our business does, how we make money, what great opportunities are facing the business, what risks. Commercially, can they get their head round our business?

If they can’t do that, they can’t talk intelligently to people in the business regardless of where the person’s going to work.

I want them to understand what activates our leaders that we have. We have a box of tools and we could roll out initiative after initiative for years and years and it’s all good HR stuff but actually people who understand the sequencing around how you build HR infrastructure and collateral and people understanding are crucial.

This is important because I would never, never ever want to have a team where there is conflict between different specialist areas of HR. I think the boundaries are much more blurred than they ever have been.

We’re quite a small business here so we try and set ourselves up as efficiently as possible but my business partners are also taking initiative roles in recruitment as well. I think when you start to separate out these functions it can create issues.

I would never, never ever want to have a team where there is conflict between different specialist areas of HR.

People must be strong influencers and strong coaches.

[JL] So that’s interesting what you say about the conflict and the blurring of boundaries within HR. Do you think that’s a skill set or a need that has become more prominent in the last three years, perhaps as technology has been able to link up different parts of the function and build a bigger picture?

People must be strong influencers and strong coaches.

[RH] Well I think technology has helped, from a business perspective people needs aren’t broke down into little boxes – all things are very linked.

If you look at a customer experience you wouldn’t break that up into little sections because conceptually that wouldn’t make sense. You need to look at the end-to-end customer experience and effectively we’ve just tried to do the same thing and make it as easy as possible for people.

There’s certainly an insight to be gained from collaborating between L&D and HR, for example, so if there isn’t collaboration and if you’re not communicating between these areas you simply cannot function.

I recognise where you’re getting very large businesses it’s difficult because of the size of teams and some of the geographical challenges that you might have. That’s why I prefer small or medium-sized businesses because they’re at the size where you don’t need to face these challenges as much.

[JL] You’re having a look at your recruitment proposition. How is your approach to talent changing?

[RH] We’re always looking to develop our talent internally but for an external perspective I think we’re at the beginning of a new period.

There’s certainly an insight to be gained from collaborating between L&D and HR.

We haven’t had a strong recruitment brand, I don’t think, which is why we’re investing in it at the moment. But when we do get into dialogue with perspective employees – with candidates at any level in the organisation – we’re finding we’ve got a very powerful proposition to share.

The business isn’t right for everybody but we have very good success in getting people interested and getting people wanting to come and work at Trainline.

What we need to do now is build our infrastructure out – you can’t have a one-on-one conversation with every perspective employee – so that’s around events and the new website and just getting out and talking about what’s going on at Trainline because we have got a really great story to tell.

[JL] Looking to the future – you’ve been there five months – what do you want to achieve over the next year and a half? What’s going to be a good couple of years for you when you get to the end of it?

[RH] I think it comes back to where I started. We’ve got some very ambitious strategic plans for the business and I think one of the key things that will enable us to achieve that vision or not will be our ability to get the right talent into the business.

So it’s a combination of external recruitment and development but ultimately if we’re going to new markets launching new products we need the people with the right ability in the business. It’s not that straightforward, of course, so having people not being a bottleneck or constraint on businesses growth is key: if I can achieve that I’ll be really happy.

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

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Thank you.