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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Nikki Hall, chief HR officer at SHL Group

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An HR professional at an HR supplier is a pretty useful person to have around when a customer perspective is required on strategy and products.

But they are likely to prove even more valuable if sitting both at the top table and at the heart of the business is par for the course.
 
So it’s not surprising that Nikki Hall, chief HR officer at talent management software and services provider, SHL, is happy in her job and has stayed with the company for 12 years.
 
Or sort of with the company…Hall originally joined Qwiz, a small US firm with a UK presence that employed 100 staff, in January 2002. But Qwiz merged with PreVisor in 2006 while, last year, PreVisor also became part of UK-owned SHL Group.
 
Because such major change has kept Hall busy, it is just as well she subscribes to the view that: “Big challenges are what make your life exciting and interesting every day.”
 
But she thinks herself lucky to have ‘discovered’ HR early on in her career, while studying for a business degree at the University of Iowa’s Henry B Tippie College of Business.
 
Dual role
 
Hall briefly worked in HR at her alma mater, but subsequently left to work in technical recruitment for a communications equipment manufacturer, Glenayre. “This was in a very small town in central Illinois so we had to be creative with our recruitment,” she remembers.
 
From there, Hall joined used-car retailer, CarMax, before moving on to Qwiz, where she took up a position as vice president of HR. The fact that the Atlanta, Georgia-based firm specialised in pre-employment assessments suited her dual ambitions to learn and grow in an HR role as well as develop her interest in statistics and maths.
 
So she saw herself and the company as a natural fit. When she joined Qwiz, however, it had a staff turnover rate of a huge 97% because the business was in transition. It was, in fact, changing its model to try and take advantage of the dot.com revolution.
 
”That was our jumping off point. Our CEO said: ‘We can see the impact of this change – how can we solve this problem?’ Before he’d hired HR admin people but, as a result, it was getting out of control,” Hall points out. “So I came in at the right time with a list of things we could do. Within three years, we were named best employer in Atlanta with less than 100 employees. We stayed true to strategy and linked it to our people.”
 
But although she has always been in HR, Hall has not always undertaken a pure HR role. For instance, at PreVisor, she acted as both a product manager and chief HR officer.
 
“The idea of giving product management to HR was that, because I’m used to using the products as a user, I should have a good understanding of what we can bring to the market,” she explains.
 
Her knowledge enabled her to introduce a number of product enhancements and she learned a lot in the process. “I realised in doing that role that a lot of product management is about getting customer feedback and asking them what they want, as well as making a profit,” Hall says.
 
Big challenges
 
Although she enjoyed undertaking both roles, in the end the job simply became too big for one person to handle, and she realised that she wanted to stick on her home turf of HR. “I love to see faces light up when they get a promotion or see their careers develop,” Hall says.
 
When PreVisor and SHL joined forces last year, however, she was able to use her experience of the previous Qwiz/PreVisor merger to advantage again.
 
“When we sat down together, we found from a market and product perspective and from a strategy perspective, that we were not that far apart and the things we needed to focus on were similar to the previous merger,” she explains.
 
But the other major challenge of the last few years has been how best to weather the economic storm.
 
“One of the biggest things as an organisation in the last year that we’ve had to deal with, is obviously the economic downturn where a lot of roles took on more responsibility.” Hall says. “So we had to develop opportunities to think in different ways and look at how we can expand our portfolio of services.”
 
While in 2011 the focus was on helping to create the new company, Hall expects that 2012 will be about building on those foundations in order to grow the business – an activity of which she plans to be right at the heart.
 
And finally…
 
Who do you admire most and why?
Early on in my career, the chief people officer for Southwest Airlines spoke about people and HR and how important it is to balance people with strategy. Her name is Libby Sartain. I’ve followed her career, and listened to her many times, and seen how her philosophies have evolved over time.

What’s your most hated buzzword?
‘How does HR earn that seat at the table?’

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

The first HR manager I ever had said to me: “You always have to balance what the employees want and what the employers want.”

How do you relax?
I have two kids of four and three so being with them and heading for the beach is how I relax.

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