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 Alan Taylor, Director of HR Transformation and former interim Group HR Director at DS Smith. Alan also worked at DENSO for over 10 years as HR Manager and Head of HR and Information Systems for their UK site in Telford and held the role of Senior Manager for Internal Communications and Employee Engagement for their European operations.
Can you tell us how you got into HR and why?
“After I left university, I got a job as a temp in an HR Admin role within an engineering company in my local town. My first assignment was to process 350 appraisals. The company didn’t know how to attack the processing and visualisation of training needs within its workforce. Ultimately, the team there liked what I had done for them and offered me the role of Human Resources Development Officer. From there, they supported me in acquiring my CIPD and my career progressed from here”.
Prior to getting in to HR, Alan completed a degree in Marine Biology – which could be argued to be as far removed from HR as it can be. Alan explained how he’d applied the skills he learnt at university to his new career in HR. “The science-based skills I developed at university gave me a strong background in data and pattern analysis, which are key elements of some HR dimensions. At the time, I was working for a company that was focused on powder metallurgy, which is the production of metal components from powders instead of machining it from bars and chunks of metal. Having studied science, it was immediately interesting to me. In fact, it was that scientific orientation that led me into a lifetime career in manufacturing”.
Can you tell me about the challenges that you’re seeing across the HR sector?
“We see the same challenges as any other global company. We’re rapidly growing. We’ve just completed a number of acquisitions over the past few years, and our organic growth is significant. Therefore, it is important to satisfy our customer in terms of demand. As a result, we see consequences for resourcing, organisation design, and judging when to add the fixed costs you need to support your growth. You don’t want to put it in ahead of the curve, but you also don’t want to be behind. So, growth is a significant challenge”.
“The increasing confidence in digital technology is also a generational issue for everybody across the industry. We’re always looking to leverage technology, enhance people’s digital skills, and drive efficiencies in the administrative back office environment. These are key priorities given our history as a decentralised organisation, which has now grown to a point where we can no longer work like that.”
“Another challenge for many in the industry is mobility and working and developing successful international teams. Currently my boss is in Chicago and my management colleagues are located across the globe. I’ve got plants from San Francisco to New Zealand, and everywhere in between.”
How do you drive performance across borders?
“It’s all about getting the best out of your business, and the only way you can do that is getting the best out of your people. None of it is rocket science, but none of it is easy because people are independently minded and need to be taken on a journey. Creating culture and change doesn’t happen overnight. Ultimately, creating an environment with a team in Thailand or in Kent requires consistent and sustainable engagement.”
“So, the key to creating a self-sustaining culture is time. Over the course of my career, I’ve learnt you don’t always get there. The ultimate challenge of working with people is you’re never finished, it’s never good enough, but you can have a lot of fun along the way. You can also have a lot of success. But there are no quick fixes when you’re working with teams, whether they’re sat with you or located across the globe”.
What career advice would you offer to someone either working towards a career like yours, or someone just getting started in their HR career?
“I’m fortunate enough to mentor a number of people within the HR community, both inside and outside of work. People go into HR for very different reasons, but I think centrally it is important to be clear on why you are in HR”.
“HR done well can have a huge influence on the business. You can have a highly diverse role where every day is different and you’re working in a strategic, as well as operational capacity. If you want to have a people-centred role, then HR is a great career path”.
“It can also be quite a difficult career path because you’re servicing so many different stakeholders. You’re supporting employees and you are potentially responsible for responding to the entire workforce. From the CEO to colleagues working on the shop floor, you are responding to them as the ‘company’. You’ve got management colleagues who look to you for support. You’ve got the communities in which you operate who look to you as the company. They want to understand what you and the company are doing to improve green spaces and employment levels in their communities. And you’ve got the Board and shareholders who look to you as a function to add shareholder value by driving business performance”.
“For me, HR is multi-dimensional. Therefore, as you go into the function you need to start thinking about which parts of it you’re interested in. Do you want to be a specialist? Do you want to be a generalist? And what bits of it do you like doing? Where do you find job satisfaction? It is about playing to your strengths. There’s a role for those people that are focused on people and their development. There are roles for those who relish the challenge of organisational restructuring. And then there are those people who are deeply technical and as a result, they are exemplary in share schemes, share plans, designing RemCo papers through to reward analysts.
“It is important to be clear on what you want to get out of the profession. It is everything to everyone. And that’s a big part of the upside, but it’s also part of the challenge of working in HR”.
Alan joined DS Smith in 2013 as a Divisional HR Business Partner and is now the Group’s Director of HR Transformation whilst maintaining a concurrent responsibility as the Divisional HR & Safety Director for the global Plastics Division.
If you are interested in having a confidential conversation about your career or would like support growing your team, please get in touch today.