Becoming a bobby on the beat may not be the most obvious first step on the career ladder to becoming an HR director, but for Dean Hunter, it was all part of the master plan.
After university, he joined the police with the specific aim of specialising in HR and recruitment for the force. Full of the exuberance of youth, he wanted to fix things, but quickly realised that the reality wasn’t quite as straightforward as the dream.
So, two years into his training, Hunter left the police and, although at the time he felt he’d made a false-start, he now thinks it was the best HR training he could ever have had.
“When I came out of it, I thought it was a waste of career time, but I don’t think I’d have got up the ladder as quick without it,” Hunter says. “It’s a great opportunity to develop interpersonal skills. One minute you’re talking to someone who’s assaulted an old lady and the next, you’re talking to someone who has been assaulted. And you have to be able to relate to both.”
From here, Hunter got a job as a £5-an-hour trainee recruiter at an oil and gas company in 1998. Within six years, he was global HR manager and, by 2006, had joined a management buy-out team, before becoming HR director of the new venture, PSN
But the buy-out presented Hunter with some major challenges. One of the reasons behind PSN’s decision to break away from its parent company was that some of the staff benefits such as flexible working and healthcare had been reduced. Not surprisingly, these measures had not gone down well with workers.
“We had a horrendous staff turnover in 2005,” Hunter recalls. “With the changes to healthcare and holidays, we lost a few hundred staff literally overnight and staff turnover was 40% to 50% that year.”
Although many employees were unhappy with the changes, it was also a big thing to ask to them to move from the security of a big company to what was effectively a start-up. As a result, Hunter and his managing director’s first move was to try and reclaim some of those lost benefits. Out of 6,500 staff, only one decided to stay, however.
But restoring some of these benefits was just one of the things that Hunter did to try and create the kind of company that people would want to work for. He also networked like fury with other HR people from large successful companies, picking their brains for ideas on how to motivate staff and create a great corporate culture.
The hard work paid off. Within 18 months, staff churn had dropped from a head-spinning 40% to 50% to a gently nodding 7% – which included contractors.
“We did that by recognising people are individuals: so we gave them flexible working and benefits and put in a career path for them – it sounds cliched, but we put it on paper and mapped it out, so people could see where they could get to in the company,” Hunter explains.
The organisation also strove to create an open culture. For example, the managing director would sit next to someone different in the canteen each time he had a meal there. The idea was to try and make the 8,500 staff feel like they were working for a small family business rather than a big, impersonal firm.
In April this year, however, PSN was sold to multinational oil and gas services company, the Wood Group
. Hunter initially stayed on as HR director, running a team of 320. “I did it for a couple of months, but it felt like I was doing the same stuff over again, so my role changed and I concentrated on integrating and merging the staff,” he says.
In parallel however, Hunter also started working towards fulfilling a long-held dream and, in June, started up his own HR consultancy, Hunter Adams. He found it a daunting task to go solo after being cushioned by the corporate world for so long, however.
Challenges ranged for the big – taking on the risk of investing in and launching his own business – to the small – wondering what on earth to do when the printer packs up and there’s no IT department to call for help.
But having won four clients in only four months of trading, Hunter is off to a good start and is already recruiting staff. What he has discovered so far, however, is that the challenges faced by HR professionals, no matter which sector they are in, are pretty universal.
“I’ve found that charities have exactly the same issues as other companies. They do have some sector-specific issues, particularly on funding, but basically the challenges are the same and the solutions to fix them are the same,” Hunter says.
While he stepped down as an employee of the Wood Group to concentrate on his consultancy business earlier this month, he is still very much involved with his former employer and is still advising it on HR strategy.
And this area of HR strategy is one that Hunter feels strongly about, but one that he believes is often overlooked, even by large companies. Therefore, as a consultant, he is keen to help organisations view HR from a strategic viewpoint and coach HR professionals on how to set a strategic agenda.
“Most big companies, even multi-national FTSE firms, don’t have an HR strategy in place. They might have improvement plans but not a strategy and, typically, HR people are not strategic,” Hunter says. “The managing director at a large company will have an HR manager but he or she will not sit on the board.”
This means that when HR professionals are thrust into the strategy driving seat, they are often unprepared for the shift in gear. “They are just expected to be able to do strategy with no training for it, which is ironic as they often have to arrange leadership training for other managers,” Hunter explains.
The danger is, however, that without confidence in their own strategic ability, HR people will end up being too hidebound by policy and procedure to make decisions swiftly enough to suit business requirements.
“Too often HR is very risk-averse and liability-focused. We’re all chartered members and have to work by that code, but that doesn’t justify people not making decisions,” Hunter says.
He also believes that HR people need to become more commercially aware. All too often, their response is simply to throw money at a problem and hire (or fire) people. But a closer eye needs to be kept on costs.
“To get a 7% turnover, we got creative. We introduced a nine-day fortnight, which costs nothing and, at another time, we also introduced a salary sacrifice. HR people typically want to spend money, finance wants to cut costs. HR and finance are opposites,” Hunter says.
But he believes that having a broad perspective is key if HR personnel want to sit on the board. He also believes that people from all backgrounds – ex-policemen included – can make excellent HR professionals.
“People with that bit of life experience make good HR people rather than those who are too narrowly focused on pushing policies and procedures. Don’t throw policies at people. Policies aren’t going to drive the business,” Hunter concludes.
Who do you admire most and why?
Bob Keiller, my former chief executive, who managed to get a few hundred million dollars from a major bank to buy our company by telling them a story about walking through a forest – don’t ask!! He did this so we could change the culture for our people for the better – and it worked.
What’s your most hated buzzword?
Oh, can I only have one! How about ‘push the envelope’? That has to be up there somewhere.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
That you are only as good as the team around you – hence why I am now hiring staff into my own business.
How do you relax?
I am not too good a relaxing, to be honest. I spend any free time at the gym or out on my mountain bike….although, if it’s been a really hard day, a nice glass of wine normally works…