Annie Hayes speaks to Carol Lath, who first cut her HR teeth at the age of 34, when she was thrown the keys to the accountancy practice she worked for and told “to get on with it”, following the shocking dismissal of a senior partner.
Lath was a natural choice for the accountancy outfit, Deloitte Haskins & Sells in the Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). As an English speaker with French skills to boot she was able to liaise effectively with clients. As HR and office manager she was involved in all aspects of managing staff and dealing with the administration but when the senior partner had to leave without warning she was confronted with her greatest challenge:
“I was just handed the keys and told to get on with it,” she recalls. “There was no local management. I was close to the senior partner in terms of what he did so I was a natural choice. I didn’t feel out of my depth but it was challenging.”
The seven-year itch soon kicked in, however, and in 1989 Lath decided that a transfer was needed.
“It was either Washington or London. It was Christmas and I have four children and the family wanted to go for England. The Deloitte Haskins & Sells office in London, which latterly became Pricewaterhouse Coopers, found me a role. I actually started off there in the secretarial unit.”
Recognising that her experience in the Ivory Coast had been mixed and very administrative in nature she decided that she should take the CIPD qualification.
“I went off to study for the CIPD qualification. It was very challenging, balancing family life with work and study but I’m a firm believer that if you want it bad enough you get it.”
Carol Lath, HR director, Kingsley Napley
In 1992 Lath, as good as her word, gained the CIPD qualification from Southbank University. Her thesis impressed tutors so much it has been preserved at the University’s library.
With the qualification helping to give her credibility she quickly worked her way up the HR tree.
“I became an HR administrator, then an HR officer and an HR manager. At the same time, the company was subjected to a series of mergers. I was lucky that I had a very good mentor who I picked many skills up from; he was down to earth and had a lot of experience,” explains Lath.
Moving to law
Leaving as an HR manager in 2002, she joined Howard Kennedy. This time she’d make it to HR director within a year.
“I wanted to work for a law firm. It was a smaller firm. Sometimes smaller businesses believe you can’t think on your feet if you’re used to working for larger outfits but I loved it. I learned how lawyers operate. Every partner you come into contact with is an owner of the business. I worked there until 2005 when I moved to where I am now, Kingsley Napley,” she says.
Lath has worked hard with the new employer to establish credibility with the internal clients. “My HR team offers a ‘can do’ attitude. One of the biggest challenges here is recruitment; this is the firm’s assets so it’s important we get this absolutely right.”
Looking for like-minded people is Lath’s challenge and she says the employee referral scheme that she set up has helped the firm to find bright, well-adjusted people: “We’re going through a period of planned growth; it’s not because of turnover that we are hiring a lot of new staff. Primarily we are looking for people that fit with our culture. We are very hard-working but at the same time we treat people with respect and as adults.”
Hiring staff is just one aspect of Lath’s role, and outside this there are many more strings to her bow. Of her own admission, Lath says she practises an old-fashioned type of HR where these other areas are concerned: “There is a move in HR to push the responsibility of people-management onto line managers but in my view they are there to earn fees. I’m of the ‘old school’ – I want to free up their time. There is a balance to be struck in terms of providing advice and supporting the business by taking some of the pressures off the fee earners, who, after all, earn the fees. HR shouldn’t just work as an advisory, sitting in its ivory tower.”
Carol Lath, HR director, Kingsley Napley
Lath, who operates an open door policy, says part of the job is learning to deal with interruptions. “People must be dealt with graciously. Time management is thinking on your feet.”
It helps of course if, like Lath, you get a buzz out of helping someone or helping a situation. “No two days or two hours are the same in my job. I sit in on the management team meeting, which is a slot that I enjoy. I get the opportunity to put forward pro-active ideas. At the moment we are reviewing our benefits with the idea of introducing flex.”
Adding value is the job, says Lath, who is adopting a commercial approach in leading the HR team forward. The challenge, she says, is making sure everything she does links into the firms strategy.
For a lady that has juggled bringing up a large family on her own, studying for the CIPD qualification whilst working, and making it to HR director level in a relatively quick timeframe, this latest hurdle is just one in a long list. For Lath has used skills she has naturally, and in abundance, including listening, empathy and an amazing ability to juggle, in establishing herself as a credible HR professional that adds value at every turn.