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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Michael Doolin, HR director at DHL’s Tradeteam


“I swore blind I wouldn’t end up doing what my father did and, 34 years later, I am,” laughs Michael Doolin, HR director at DHL’s Tradeteam.

His father had been a shop steward before moving into industrial relations, which meant that there had been lots of very dull-looking manuals hanging around at home that had put him right off anything to do with HR.

Instead, influenced by the likes of Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird and the somewhat less lofty 1970s US legal drama Petrocelli, the young, idealistic Doolin was convinced that the best way to make his mark was as a lawyer.
But while he was studying business law, one of his lecturers inspired him to take another look at industrial relations. He was hooked. So, by the age of 21, Doolin already knew what he wanted to do and became very focused on achieving it.
A Masters degree in industrial relations followed and he joined Ford as a graduate trainee on the US car manufacturer’s UK-based industrial relations scheme. “I had four fantastic years, two in the shop floor environment and two in head office,” he remembers.

The contrast between the two environments could not have been more stark, however. Doolin’s first two years were spent tackling issues such as drink, drugs, violence and race relations, while the second two were focused on organisational development and design.

But getting that shop floor know-how alongside more strategic experience was extremely useful, he remembers. “I was very lucky and recommend anyone starting a career to get as much ‘real’ experience as they can,” Doolin advises.
Gaining experience
From there, he became HR manager at big UK brand, the RAC. Although both organisations had cars as their main focus, their cultures were vastly different.
“I got experience for the first time of the softer side of HR and engagement. This is a real passion of mine, working out which buttons to press for people to go above and beyond the call of duty,” Doolin explains.

While he enjoyed his time at the organisation, personal circumstances subsequently lured him from Bristol to London. “She told me she just wanted to be good friends, but we got married!” he laughs.

Doolin had always been fascinated by the City and high finance and so moving to London gave him the opportunity to work in the Square Mile. Reality didn’t meet expectations, however, and he found large City bonuses a fairly crude way to incentivise and engage people.

“I was fascinated, but I didn’t see HR adding value in investment banking,” he says.

So when an opportunity came up to work for parcel delivery service, Parceline (now owned by GeoPost), he jumped at the chance. It was a growing business and, more importantly: “It was the first opportunity I’d had to have a fair degree of autonomy,” Doolin says.

He is proud that the company managed to join the Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For list, even if it did take a long time to get there. “That involved a huge cultural shift, from being a hire-and-fire company,” he remembers.

New challenges
But after nearly 10 years with the company, Doolin was keen to look for a new challenge. “I couldn’t see what value-add I could bring in the next 10 years. I didn’t want to do ‘comfortable’,” he explains.

So he made the move to PricewaterhouseCoopers in Dublin, his home town. “I joined PwC just as the Celtic Tiger left town,” he notes wryly, which meant that a tremendous amount of organisational change needed to be introduced.

It was a great job but, with his family back in the UK and racking up 197 Ryanair flights a year, he decided it was time to return.

As a result, Doolin joined Tradeteam, a drinks distributor owned by logistics company DHL, in 2011, with the aim of helping it continue to grow. “My main role is supporting the business in managing change and we have big organisational change issues,” he says.

Although he believes that his role is to support the business, Doolin is frustrated by the obsession among HR professionals to question their place in the business world.

“Being a business partner has been part of the role for 40 years. One of the frustrations of HR as a function is that we constantly navel-gaze about what our role is and I’m frustrated we’re still doing that,” he says.

Rather than ‘navel gazing’, Doolin’s key focus is instead ‘doing’ which, in his book, means helping to create a productive work environment in which employees can thrive.

And finally….
Who do you admire most?
My father.

What’s your most hated buzzword?

What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received?
Count to ten.

How do you relax?
Squash and reading. And I have been given a box set of The Sopranos by Santa Claus.


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