Marcus Powell, group organisation development and HR director at Nuffield Health, knew what he wanted to do very early on – and it was wasn’t HR.
Powell was fixed on the idea of working for Marks & Spencer and that’s exactly what he did, staying for a total of 16 years. The retail giant sponsored him at university and after graduation, in 1988, he joined them as a buyer – a great experience which took him round the world.
But after 12 years as a buyer, he did a career “180” as he describes it, which set in motion his shift into HR. Powell had become interested in how organisational change, particularly as M&S at the time going through a period of massive change. Inspired by what he saw happening around him, Powell studied for a Masters in organisational change at the Ashridge Business School. As a result, he left buying behind and became head of learning and development instead.
But then a call from his alma mater lead him to break away from M&S. Ashridge trained him up as a consultant and he spent the next six years working with a prestigious roll call of companies, such as the BBC, Jaguar Land Rover and Unilever, helping them with change programmes. “It was an intense immersion in the HR function in different sectors and companies,” he remembers.
The fact that he had no direct HR experience was no handicap, in fact it proved just the opposite. “I had a Masters in organisational change and a lot of experience in M&S in organisational change, which was relevant. And one thing I found was because I worked in a commercial operation before moving to HR ,I really understood how commercial operations work and that’s very powerful to organisations. What they were not interested in was people who had only been in an HR function and nothing else,” he notes.
After six years, however, Powell joined Nuffield Health. The decision, he says, was not based on a desire to leave Ashridge, but that the opportunity at Nuffield was too good to miss. “I joined number one because of David Mobbs, the chief executive. He has tremendous vision and I have a mantra round work life: I want to work for someone I can learn from,” says Powell.
He was also attracted by the fact that as a charity, Nuffield Health put great store in being a values-led organisation, observing: “You want to work for an organisation that’s got some heart and soul to it.”
Powell initially joined in 2008 as group organisation director to help the chief executive with the integration of an acquisition, but it quickly became clear that combining that role with HR responsibility made great sense.
“It became clear to me that I wanted to transform things,” he says, “but to do that I had to make sure the levers had to work wouldn’t be blocked by HR.”
He found his years as a consultant served him well at Nuffield. “Being a consultant equips you to ask probing questions of organisations and to step back from an organisation and notice what’s going on. Consulting skills are so important to be a good HR professional,” he says.
When HR talks about partnering the business, Powell believes that this is very much like being a consultant. In the same way that you have to demonstrate the value you add as a consultant, as an HR director, you need to demonstrate the value you create for the business. In effect, he says, he’s selling his services to the client, in the same way he did to big businesses at Ashridge. His job, he says, is to “consult the business on people issues”.
When he first joined, his priority was to tackle leadership. “The most important thing in an organisation is the quality and capability of leaders, it so permeates the essence of any company – if you don’t have great leaders you have nothing,” he says.
Building great leadership was a skill he’d honed during his Ashridge days. Once he joined Nuffield Health, Powell spent weeks and weeks with leaders across the company, immersing them in good leadership practice. The benefits were twofold: first, it helped raise the level of leadership skills across the business; second, it enabled him to quickly gain a profound understanding of the business. It was also important for the credibility of the HR department and a boost for the leaders’ morale that a director was prepared to spend two or three days of their time to help them. “From that, it gave me the foundation to have credibility in the organisation. People know and trust me – I hope,” he laughs.
Tackling leadership early on was also key because Nuffield had acquired a fitness centre business in 2007, a very different kind of operations to the hospitals it had been running for 60 years.
The fitness business was a far more sales and aggressive business environment. Powell wanted to try and bring across some of the values present in the hospitals to the fitness sector and try and make it less about sales and more about benefitting the customer. This involved doing things like having contracts that people could terminate without penalties, but also a different approach to leadership. “Our values are never to put commercial gain above clinical need,” says Powell, and this fairness needed to extend into the more commercial fitness centre culture too.
Since he joined, Powell has added muscle to the HR department with big hitters from big companies such as HSBC, Dixons and M&S.
In 2010, Powell took over responsibility for corporate and community wellbeing. Wellbeing is something that the company takes seriously both internally and externally as corporate wellbeing is the third prong to its business units. It’s an organisation that advocates wellbeing to clients so needs to practice what it preaches. “If you want to sell that concept to clients you must demonstrate that internally,” points out Powell.
Wellbeing, Powell explains, is not just about stopping staff becoming ill, it’s about whether your leader respects you, whether you associate with the values of the organisation, whether the company respects your work-life balance. “For us, it is really important we get the wellbeing culture right because we are selling it to clients,” says Powell.
Despite economic hardship, simple demographics mean that Wellbeing is rising up the corporate agenda. As the number of young people entering the workforce diminishes, this will create a buyer’s market and employees will look for greener pastures if they are not looked after. There’s also the more immediate recognition that stressed people coming to work ill do not perform at their highest level.
Nuffield has always seen wellbeing as important, but this has been more formalised in the last two years or so, through initiatives such as free gym memberships and cycle to work schemes as well as thinking carefully about the organisation’s contribution to society.
2013 is going to be a busy year. The company is ploughing an extra £1 million into training this year and plans to set up the Nuffield academy to deliver internal training. More investment is planned to building the wellbeing culture and making sure benefits align. Finally, there will be a big push into setting up apprenticeships, with the aim of encouraging both disabled and homeless people into employment.
Who do you admire most and why?
My mum. Obviously my values are her values to a large extent. She’s an enormously principled, Yorkshire woman with enormous tenacity. She’s hugely compassionate but in a matter of fact, sometimes blunt way.
What’s your most hated buzzword?
“Best practice”. Because I actually believe that shows a real lack of understanding. It assumes that someone knows best how to run your business. It doesn’t matter what someone else thinks is best practice for them, it needs to work for your company.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I was told that one thing you need to do every single day is put yourself in a situation where you feel really nervous or uncomfortable. If you ever find things to easy, you’ll stop pushing yourself and stop growing.
How do you relax?
I go to the gym and I have a cat.