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Cath Everett

Sift Media

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

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Talent Spot: Darren Hockaday, HR director at London Overground


“I’ve made it my business to get as close to the business and operations as possible. As an HR director, it’s not desirable, it’s essential that I know every role in the organisation and that I’m out there speaking to people and knowing how things are done,” says Darren Hockaday, HR director at London Overground Rail Operations.

Without such insight, it is simply not possible to sit around the executive table to discuss and challenge people-related matters, views and assumptions, he believes.
“My role is to understand the strengths and vulnerabilities of the organisation, its people practices, processes, management structures and style. Having a really good feel for what it all means, means that I can contribute more effectively,” explains Hockaday.
And this hands-on approach has proven vital in an industry with a history of fraught industrial relations. When London Overground won the bid to operate the capital’s rail concession on behalf of Transport for London in November 2007, it inherited operations blighted by volatile employee relations, inadequate customer service and poorly performing train services.
Hockaday had joined the company as an interim HRD before it won a seven-year-long franchise (which includes an option to extend for two years) and took over management of the route from the Department for Transport. But very quickly, the managing director offered him a permanent job as he “valued my commercial background and saw the difference I could make to the bottom line”.
“The size of the challenge was colossal. We were going through a fast transition to operations so the mobilisation of people was key,” Hockaday explains. “Some of it was simple such as what uniform staff were going to wear, consulting with the unions over it and distributing it. But we also had to recruit 200 drivers and we probably assessed about 5,000 people as part of that so the logistics and planning side was huge.”
The organisation has now doubled in size from when it first opened its doors and employs about 1,200 personnel, some eight of which work in HR. But because the sector is so highly unionised, Hockaday finds that he spend as much as 50% of his time simply on handling industrial relations.
But such activity is vital in such a people-based business. A key issue is that workers expect a meaningful and productive relationship to exist with the unions, not least because their terms and conditions are subject to collective bargaining.
The importance of trust
“It would impair employee engagement if we were seen to have antagonistic relations that could break down into dispute and ultimately strike action. Good relations clearly benefit what we’re trying to do at Lorol – they’re key to business success,” Hockaday explains.
The secret behind getting it right, however, is in “nurturing and maintaining trustworthy relations with the unions”, he believes. “While you have to be good and negotiating, the bottom line is do they understand what you want to do? It’s an influencing partnership approach and it’s based on trust and building sustainable relations,” Hockaday says.
As to how this elusive concept of trust is actually created, his view is that, while it may require a leap of faith initially, ultimately it boils down to an ongoing process of negotiating, consulting, honouring commitments, following through and holding each other to account.
But another priority for Hockaday – and the rest of the management team – has been to make sure they get out and about in order to have a dialogue with workers. “One of the key things the management team has tried to do is to be visible. The MD leads by example and gets out there more than anyone else from our base in Swiss Cottage,” he says.
The perception of the previous regime had been that, while bosses were happy to listen to ideas about how improvements could be made, nothing changed. But London Overground’s senior management team have been careful to ensure that pertinent ideas from the shop floor are taken up and followed through.
Management team meetings are held fortnightly and safety tours held monthly at different locations on the rail network to ensure that productive talking and listening can take place. “It keeps us honest and ensures that we’re able to support people doing their jobs based on what’s actually happening. Being visible, taking an interest and following up on feedback – it’s all helped,” Hockaday says.
And his approach does appear to have produced results. He has managed to negotiate such change as ensuring employees are present at stations before the first train arrives and after the last one has left as well as linking staff terms and conditions to performance.
These moves have contributed to the fact that 96% of trains now appear within five minutes of their scheduled arrival time, which has in turn, resulted in a 60% increase in passenger numbers on some routes.
“It’s a good example of how HR can have an impact on the bottom line through people engagement. It’s about delivering the right people resources at the right time and to the right place under tight timescales,” Hockaday explains.
But despite his current high profile role, in the early days, he had no aspirations around having a career in HR. In fact, on leaving school, Hockaday had no real clue about what he would like to do at all.
His first job saw him heading into the City from Surrey to manage the confirmation team at Hong Kong Bank’s foreign exchange department, which bought and sold currency. “It was a great experience looking back. I can’t have been the best manager, but I learned a lot and found that everyone is motivated by very different things,” Hockaday says.
His next somewhat tangential move was to become a development trainer with the Outward Bound Trust in Wales and the Lake District, where he designed and delivered his own programmes for corporate customers, youth and at-risk young offenders. He had been involved in the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, with which the Trust is linked, and had received training from Surrey County Council to make the shift, but ended up staying there for seven years.
“It taught me a lot about ensuring development meets your initial aims,” Hockaday says. “When you design a programme, you have to link it to the key objectives of the business, but it’s also important to have that follow-up piece and get feedback on how it was – that doesn’t always happen as well or as much as it needs to in my experience though.”
The other thing that the experience taught him, however, was resilience as some of the groups he worked with were quite “challenging”.
“Sometimes it was one step forward and two steps back,” he explains. “It tested your mettle to try and make a difference and potentially give people some hope when trust in others may have broken down in their own life and communities. You can’t turn something around in a two-week programme, but you can give them a bit of belief to start the process.”
Next on the list, however, was a move to Durham to work as an area manager at the Aldi discount supermarket chain. After leaving Outward Bound, Hockaday had completed a degree in sports science and geography feeling it was a good fit with his interests, but backed away from teacher training after not being “convinced that teaching was my destiny”.
So he took up a position on a graduate trainee scheme with Aldi instead, which involved working in every role that he would have responsibility for as an area manager.
People performance
“As an area manager, I had maybe half an hour in each store to somehow make an impact. I thought staff development is where I want to be as I saw what worked and what didn’t and I thought I could make a difference in the organisation around what good performance management looks like – so a coaching versus telling style,” Hockaday explains.
As a result, after a year he left there too and joined a small HR team at Airbus in Bristol in 1999. Although his role was to act as a learning and development specialist, he also undertook more generalist HR work too.
The highlight of his four year tenure here was to set up the aircraft manufacturer’s ‘World Class Leaders’ scheme with the help of Lancaster University’s management school. The programme, which is still going, was intended to create future general managers and department heads by helping them to deliver important projects by learning on an experiential basis.
By 2003, however, it was back to London for Hockaday, where he took up his first rail job as head of learning and development for Tube Lines, which maintained and upgraded assets for London Underground. The key issue here was to encourage workers to think differently in order to encourage them to undertake tasks more quickly and become more efficient.
“A lot of it was down to motivation. But it was also about how to challenge traditional ways of doing things and taking people with you,” Hockaday explains. “Work patterns become part of their lives so changing them will always be a challenge. So it’s about helping people understand and buy into why change has to happen.”
He was also the beneficiary of “an accelerated learning curve” himself, however, as he was lucky enough to work with very experienced facilitators who “flexed their style to work with different people”.
But four years later, Hockaday decided it was time to move on again, this time to take up a career as an interim HR director, working for companies such as Burger King and transport operator, First Group. “I liked the pace of interim work because you have to hit the ground running,” he says.
But he also believes that working in as many sectors as he has gave him a “really good grounding in getting to the heart of the business, which is the role of HR”.
“I see myself as an executive member who has responsibility for the business and a team of people that help deliver on business objectives and good people processes. In essence, what HR does is drive productivity through people performance – it’s this that you have to do to deliver,” Hockaday concludes.
And finally…
Who do you admire most and why?
There are a number of people in HR that I admire and who have a similar philosophy to me in that they understand the link between successful HR and the business and the need for HR to drive the business agenda – so people like David Fairhurst at McDonalds, Therese Procter at Tesco and Vance Kearney at Oracle.
What’s your most hated buzzword?
Strategy – I often hear myself asking ‘what do you mean by strategy?’ as it’s too often associated with navel-gazing. Strategy is great as long as it remains realistic and practical, but that isn’t always the case.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Dick Fearn, chairman of Irish Railways said ‘always leave a little bit in the tank’. For all professionals working long hours in demanding roles, it’s a very good bit of advice – and my aim is to heed it. You can end up just taking on an ever-increasing workload so it’s about pacing yourself and planning and organising and being pretty ruthless about time management.
How do you relax?
Weekends are my key time to relax. I enjoy walking and I find running is a good way to de-stress. Spending time with my family also gives me a lot of pleasure and there’s no better way to bring you down to earth. Young children are hard work, but they get you out of yourself.
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Cath Everett

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

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