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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Gill Crowther, HR director at Nominet

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By the time Gill Crowther, director of HR at Nominet, had finished university, she already knew that she wanted to work in HR.
 
She had studied engineering, but the fact that she seemed to be very good at getting people to help her with her studies gave her a “moment of revelation” that management might be a good career choice.
 
A summer placement in HR confirmed that this was the flavour of management that Crowther felt would most suit her. As a result, after graduation, she swapped her mortar board for a hard hat and worked in Ford Motor’s HR department, focusing on the personnel in its manufacturing plants.
 
Moving to Glaxo Welcome in 1997 to work in graduate recruitment proved a step-change, but both positions gave her a good grounding in different aspects of HR.
 
But during her time at the pharmaceutical giant, Crowther also stepped out of her comfort zone to spent a year as a sales manager. “It was a learning experience,” she says. “It was my first time managing a team and I’m not a sales person. It wasn’t for me, but it was a great experience.”
 
From Glaxo, Crowther jumped sector again, this time migrating to the IT industry and another household name: Microsoft. She spent more than three years in a variety of positions at the software giant, ending up as head of great managers, working in mainland Europe.
 
Engaging head and heart
 
“Microsoft was doing some great things in leadership, but it was not so great on the basics of management,” she remembers.
 
Crowther’s next move, however, was to set up her own leadership and management development consultancy, Great Managers, a venture that she ran for three years before joining Nominet in 2007. Nominet is a privately-owned, not-for-profit organisation that acts as the registry for all .uk internet domain names.
 
“IT is a great industry. I’d come out of Microsoft as a lover of technology, and Microsoft is not just an organisation that’s all about making money,” she says. “There’s a lot of heart that goes into that business, not just head.”
 
The importance of engaging both your heart and head in the workplace is a quality that she recognised within Nominet and has tried to build upon in her five years with the organisation.
 
“This isn’t about making as much money as we can, but about making a difference. We plough profits back into making it better,” Crowther points out.
 
For her, a key part of the job is to try and ensure that people love coming to work and are excited about the week ahead when the alarm clock goes off on a Monday morning. The way to do this, she believes, is to give them roles that play to their strengths, but are also challenging.
 
But her “love coming to work” strategy appears to be effective – employee engagement levels have jumped from 28.5% in 2007 to 34.7% in 2009. That same year, her efforts were also recognised when the organisation won the “Best Place to Work” in the Thames Valley Business Magazine Award.
 
Crowther’s aim of getting the most out of staff does not come from reading the latest management tome, however, but from a book by well-loved children’s author, Jez Alborough.
 
Motivated to succeed
 
“I have an inspirational book by Jez Alborough: ‘Some Dogs Do’. It’s about a dog called Sid,” she explains. “When he’s happy, Sid can fly, and if you allow people to do stuff that they love, as much as they can, they will fly.”
 
Great leaders inspire great managers, Crowther believes, and inspiring that middle management layer is very important at Nominet. “We’re really focused on our manager community and how to motivate them,” she says.
 
One of the key ways that the organisation does this is through coaching. “At the simplest level, it’s about helping managers to listen. Don’t just tell people what to do – you need to remind managers that a lot of answers are inside people themselves,” she points out.
 
But Crowther also tries to put this notion into action herself. “A lot of it is being interested and listening. If you don’t do that, you’ll find that you’re trying to squeeze round people into square holes,” she points out.
 
As a result, when recruiting for managerial roles, she looks for three qualities: technical ability, cultural fit and, key for her, people management capabilities, that is, candidates’ emotional intelligence.
 
And such qualities are becoming more important than ever – it is currently a time of great change for Nominet as the international community opens the industry up to issue new generic top-level domain names.
 
“The future is for us to grab,” Crowther says – and ensuring that the organisation has the right people on board who are motivated to succeed will be key to grabbing that future.
 
And finally…
 
Who do you admire most and why?
 
Claire Thomas, who is now senior vice president for HR at GlaxoSmithKline, but who I also knew at Ford. She instilled in me early on in my career that work can be fun and that HR is about relationships.
 
What’s your most hated buzzword?
 
When someone says: “I’m on a journey”.
 
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
 
I went surfing in Wales earlier this year – it was snowing. Our instructor said: “No surfer dies from drowning. They die from being knocked unconscious and then drowning.” From that, I take that it’s important to protect your most important assets.
 
How do you relax?
 
Spending time with the kids and I’m also an amateur thespian.
 

  

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