As part of our commitment to supporting candidates in developing fulfilling careers, we’ve invited some HR Leaders to share the secrets of their success.
This week, we had a great conversation with Colin Haswell, former Regional HR Director for EMEA at Rolls Royce. Colin assumed many different HR directorship roles at Rolls Royce over the span of 18 years. He also worked at Rover Group for over 15 years and in his final role was HR Director at BMW’s Oxford Mini Plant.
How did you get into HR?
“I went straight into it from University. I was in my second year in the middle of a degree in history and politics. I certainly didn’t want to be a teacher, which was the classic thing, and I didn’t want to continue studying into an advanced Master’s etc. So, I went into the university’s career service and I read up on everything they had to offer in the non-technical sphere and concluded that HR most closely matched what I was most interested in”.
“I suspect it was because I was studying politics at the time and I was very interested in the way that power and organisations worked to produce results. I thought that’s what HR was – sitting in the middle of the organisation trying to work its way through various stakeholders to produce the best solutions for the business. I felt like I had a good analytical mind. I felt I could relate to different levels of people within organisations. I had strong analytical skills and breadth of thought, which would enable me to look at things and come up with ideas and approaches that perhaps others couldn’t. I saw HR as a way of doing that”.
What kept you engaged with HR throughout your career?
“It was the variety of what I was doing. I did a whole range of things working with very clever and able people mainly in supply chain and engineering. Rover was always in the news at the time. You felt you were really at the heart, the forefront of what was going on in the business”.
“The car industry is a bit like a bug. It bites you. You really get wound up in it and it becomes part of you. The factories are buzzing. The engineering stuff is amazing. I used to look after the styling studio and to see those concepts becoming reality was so fascinating. I know it sounds a bit corny. You sort of fall in love with it really”.
“I get very attached to what I’m doing and what the business is looking to achieve. What Rolls Royce does is phenomenal from a purely technical perspective. And I don’t just mean in terms of aerospace, but also the marine, energy, and nuclear stuff they are doing. They are operating at the leading edge of what’s possible in terms of engineering, manufacturing, etc. So, I was pulled into what we were doing like a magnet, and you do get into all of that”.
“With Rolls Royce I started doing something akin to what I did in Rover/BMW. I then worked in organisational development and talent. I led an HR transformation programme. I’ve did a lot of UK centric work before I joined Rolls Royce and have grown my international experience since then. Through the various businesses and activities that I was involved with, I gained a good global overview of what works for HR in different situations, in different businesses and in different cultures. And that’s what kept me there for that length of time”.
What kind of key skills do you think are important in a successful HR leadership role?
“I think you have to split it into two. One bit of it is doing the actual doing the HR stuff with the business. And I think the number one the thing for me is you’ve got to have credibility, and business savvy, and accessibility to senior leaders within an organization. If you haven’t got that, you’re lost, you can’t progress any further. And that’s why people tend not to succeed not because they haven’t got the technical ability, it’s because they haven’t got the credibility and they haven’t built the relationships that they need with senior leaders in the business. For me that’s the number one thing”.
“The business knowledge and so on, it’s linked to the first bit and it helps the credibility. But you’ve got to be interested in what’s going on in your part of the business and have knowledge at a level that you can understand what it all means, so you can contribute more broadly on top of just the HR remit”.
“I think what has evolved is the focus on analytics and it will continue to evolve even more in my career. I think that’s become a real big thing within HR. So, the ability to look at situations and be clever about the key pieces of information, data, and other things that are going on, and being able to stand back and put the whole thing together into a cohesive story or approach is vital”.
“Part of that is the pure analytical metrics. But that’s not the whole story. You’ve got to be able to use that within what’s going on the softer side of business. You need to have the ability to think systemically and put the two things together to start to come up with solutions or ways of supporting what the business needs to do”.
“I think being able to act as an advisor or coach around change is also quite critical now. It took me a while to realize, but the work I used to do in my early career in employee relations was a form of classically applied change management. And therefore, supporting the business and having the skills to nudge things forwards from a business point of view is vital. Linked to that is having the right people on the talent side, because they’re going to be the people that drive the change”.
“The second piece of the puzzle is actually running an HR department. If you’re an HR Leader and you’re running an HR function or department, then it’s about your own personal leadership. The old style of ‘command and control’ is long gone, and it’s about your ability to be authentic, and have faith in your people, and support them as need be, and be a servant leader. I really do believe in the effectiveness of that”.
“I think HR often neglects itself. It’s the old cobbler’s children analogy, isn’t it? You’re so busy helping the business that you forget that the people that are in your team are going to make you succeed or fail. And therefore, a lot of your energy has got to be facilitating them to give their best to the organisation. I’ve seen HR people tend to take that for granted and if you’re not a good leader yourself then how on earth can you be credible with the rest of the business in advising them on leadership”.
What key themes and challenges are really impacting HR at the moment?
“I think for me what’s really important are skills and capabilities, and developing those for the business you’re in, whatever the requirements are. We spend a lot of time thinking about process, the methodology, and talking about concepts. But you’ve got to have the right people in the organisation and then you’ve got to develop them. I don’t think we spend enough time thinking about that”.
“Getting the right people at the top is obviously absolutely critical to any organisation because they’re leading the organisation. But for me there’s a bit of an imbalance, because we all want to concentrate on the sexy stuff about senior level talent and succession, which is important, but it’s vital this doesn’t happen at the expense of losing focus on the people underneath who at the end of the day are going to make the organisation a success”.
“We don’t spend enough time thinking, “How do we get the people we need? How do we keep them? And how do we develop them?” And for me, the balance needs to go a little bit more in that direction”.
“I think organisations need to put a lot more thought into how they find the right people in the first place and be very careful about outsourcing this stuff because it’s quite fundamental. You’ve got to get that right. How do we utilise our people in the best way so they develop, and the organisation develops. I think that’s where I put a lot of emphasis in terms of where the focus would be. Because I think labour markets are going to tighten even more. Certain types of skills are going to be at an absolute premium as the Digital Economy develops”.
“What I’ve seen this quite a lot is that HR people have great ideas about what they want to, for instance, being good at strategic workforce planning or wanting to digitalise the organisation. These are things that organisations need to do, but we can tend to leave it at that very high level and forget about how it going to get done. What’s the plan? What are the realistic goals over the next three or four years in order to advance that strategy forward?”.
“It’s almost as if we think the job’s done after doing the thinking about the ‘What’. I don’t think that’s necessarily so difficult to be honest. What makes the difference is excellence in delivering the ‘How’. And that’s what I think we need to focus as function in supporting the business over the next year or two”.
If you are interested in having a confidential conversation about your career or would like support growing your team, please get in touch today.