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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Liz Reynolds, HR director at Trustmarque Solutions

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The wonderful if daunting thing about dealing with people for a living is their unpredictability, which can pose problems for even the most seasoned of HR professionals.

Liz Reynolds, HR director at technology reseller, Trustmarque Solutions, learned this lesson early on in her career.
 
Looking through an office window, she glimpsed a very senior manager cleaning his nails with a hunting knife while having a meeting with a senior member of his team. Suffice to say, the manager’s future with the company was not as long as it might have been.

The issues that Reynolds now deals with at Trustmarque are thankfully less controversial but no less tricky: coping with high growth levels, trying to ensure a culture of innovation and working to motivate and inspire staff.

 
But after coming 66th in the ‘Sunday Times Top 100 Best Small Companies to Work For’ list earlier this year, the company appears to be getting there. It is an accolade that Reynolds is rightfully proud of, but her aim is also to improve on the current ranking.

She first become interested in HR, however, while studying French and management at university. But because she was also interested in the fields of marketing and advertising and wasn’t sure which path to take, she applied for jobs in all three areas.

 
Reynolds was lucky enough to receive three job offers, including one as a marketing executive for Leeds United. “For someone, it was a dream job, but I realised it wasn’t for me,” she admits, not least because she is not a big footie fan.
 
The next step
 
Instead she took a maternity cover role in recruitment for an IT firm. When it came to an end, Reynolds joined the core HR team and spent the next three or four years soaking up as much knowledge as she could.
 
As a result, on being headhunted by TrigoldCrystal, which sold mortgage sourcing software for brokers, she was ready to take the next step. But it proved to be quite a giant one as the company needed somebody to set up an HR department from scratch and help steer it through a period of rapid growth.
 
The vendor mushroomed in size from 30 to 200 employees in just a few years – or, as Reynolds describes it: “From crazy start-up to second stage growth.” But the job hit a natural end point when TriGoldCrystal decided to scale down its Leeds-based development operation and build up its London office.
 
As a result, Reynolds decided that working as an interim would help broaden out her HR experience. She spent the next couple of years working at greetings card retailer, Hallmark Cards, which sparked an enduring interest in staff engagement, as well as customer contact firm, Ventura, and a number of smaller recruitment agencies.

“From doing that, I learned the kind of culture I most enjoy. I found that I enjoyed working for smaller companies rather than being a cog in a big business – which is fine, but you don’t have the opportunity to influence things so much,” she notes.

From there, Reynolds returned to the IT fold once more, joining Trustmarque in 2004. “I quite like the mindset in IT,” Reynolds explains. “Generally the people are very, very bright and technical and have a quirky sense of humour, which I like.”

Yet again, it was a company that didn’t have an established HR structure though and so her first job was to establish clear HR practices and procedures.

 
Big change
 
For the first four or five years, she combined family with working flexibly, but three years ago, a change of management led to the introduction of an aggressive growth strategy, which meant that her role grew at the same time.
 
Luckily, her children had just started school and so the timing was perfect for her to get stuck into an extensive change programme.

The new management team was keen to reorganise and develop the solutions side of the business. This meant that the first six months of the project involved understanding the business change requirements and drawing up communications and organisational plans.

 
It was a case of new contracts, new communications, new systems – a complete overhaul. As Reynolds points out: “There weren’t many aspects that HR didn’t touch.”

That was in 2009, but since then the reseller has continued to grow quickly. Rather than rely on outside providers for recruitment purposes, however, Reynolds made the case for keeping as much in-house as possible, and today 60% of new hires are recruited directly. “It gives us much more control over what we do,” she explains.

A key challenge is where to find people, however. A big issue is that the company may be located in York but its workforce is based all over the country. This means that another of Reynolds’ main aims is to maintain effective contact with remote workers.

 
Because she believes that “there’s no substitute for face-to-face time,” the HR team makes sure that it visits all of the staff in offices outside of the firm’s headquarters. “One of the reasons is that we’ve got a good culture and want to spread that round the company,” Reynolds says.
 
Open and frank feedback
 
For an organisation that provides customers with bespoke services rather than make things itself, she feels that it is vital to create and maintain a vibrant, happy corporate culture.
 
“You have to keep people engaged in the business. These are bright people, so you have to give them freedom as well as offering professional development,” Reynolds points out.

Following its ‘Best Companies’ experience, however, the reseller has also worked on improving its internal communications and ensuring that individual employee’s achievements are recognised by others.

 
To this end, Reynolds has focused on getting out and about in order to obtain open and frank feedback. Director lunches, in which personnel are invited to discuss and debate particular work issues, have also been introduced.
 
Such activity has encouraged her to make changes to the firm’s benefits package and to the way in which it undertakes learning and development.

But for Reynolds, the worry is not so much being too divorced from the business, but that her high levels of involvement mean she needs to find sufficient time and space to ponder on feedback and how best to implement it.

“HR is seen as trusted business partner,” she points out. “If this were the Wild West, HR would be the one running ahead, scouring the land and helping bring people with them.”

 
And finally……
 
Who do you admire most and why?
 
I admire people who communicate beautifully – people like Dorothy Parker and Stephen Fry. I really admire their playful use of language.

What’s your most hated buzzword?

As I admire the playful use of language, I hate clichés. But the one phrase that I really dislike is “to be honest”.

What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?

I was told: “Sometimes you have to stop trying to swim upstream. Go with the flow and regroup.”

How do you relax?

I did taekwando for many years and competed, but now I enjoy swimming. I find swimming is great because I focus on my stroke and not on other things – it clears my mind.
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