HR Leadership with Frances Lees, HR Director at Melia Hotels International. “As the person on the HR side you must keep bringing it back to the people”.

As part of our commitment to supporting candidates to develop fulfilling careers, we’ve invited several HR Leaders to share the secrets of their success.

This week, we had a great conversation with Frances Lees, UK Talent and Projects Manager for Meliá Hotels International. Frances got her start in HR at Meliá and served as HR Manager for her first two years there, and then moved up to HR Director. Frances was Deputy General Manager at Firmdale Hotels for three years before moving to Meliá.

Your career started in PR. How do you go from PR to HR? Was that a conscious decision or was it an organic process?

‘It was definitely an organic process. I got into PR straight out of university. I literally graduated one day and walked into my first job a PR agency the next day. I’d done a Photography degree and I was looking for something where I would be working with people. I realised by the end of my degree that I wasn’t really the type of person that wanted to work on my own. And being a photographer, I think there’s a fair amount of working alone. I was also looking for the stability of being in an organisation rather than working freelance.’

‘At the bottom rung of the ladder in a PR agency, you are like a sales person. You’re selling stories to journalists and some of them are stories that they’re just not interested in. I didn’t get enough exposure to the creative side of PR to override the sales nature of it which definitely didn’t suit me!’

‘It was at that point that I thought of doing something else. It was really obvious to me even at university that I was good at team leading. I always ended up as the team leader of things even without asking. Even in the PR agency I became the mentor of all of the interns without anybody formally suggesting to do so. I knew it was about leading people and I enjoyed the training side of things. So that was how I ended in the hotel industry, because hotels seemed like a really obvious choice if you wanted something that involved people management, being hands on, and always being busy with lots to do.’

‘I was lucky to get into a fantastic company that really supported me and helped me progress into a senior management position. That was how I discovered HR, because in small hotels, there isn’t an HR department onsite. In more senior management roles, you take on more and more HR responsibility without really realising that’s what you’re doing. And when I realised I didn’t want to be a General Manager anymore, it was in conjunction with realising that I wasn’t really enjoying my job because of the customers. I was enjoying it because I was managing the team. I loved the people and it was important for me to keep them motivated. That was how I discovered HR.’

Did you set your sights on HR Leadership from that point?

‘Most of these things just happened organically. I’m quite open minded about my future and where I go. You can see from what I’ve done so far that I want to try lots of things. I like learning, and I like developing my knowledge and my skills. So I’ll take most opportunities that are presented to me.’

‘I took a pretty significant pay cut to go in as HR manager, although, I was prepared to take an even bigger one. I thought at the time I was probably going to have to go to HR Advisor level. And I think I was probably being a bit unfair on myself, luckily Meliá thought so as well. Because, I had a lot of leadership skills and I’ve been part of the senior leadership team. Going in as HR Manager was still quite a big step back for me, and I had an HR director above me at the time. So when I became HR director that was just after her departure from the business and I took over the position from her.’

Are there any key themes and challenges that you are facing in your role, or you see your peers dealing with?  

‘I would say one big thing at the moment is well-being. I think hospitality is probably a long way behind. And obviously, hospitality is one of those industries that comes with a lot of challenges in terms of well-being. Even more so if you’re operating in central London because of the nature of living in London is so expensive, and doing the very basic hospitality jobs really makes it very hard for you to live reasonably comfortably in London. You’re often working very long hours, or very extreme hours, and I think that combination can damage well-being.’

‘We also attract a lot of people from abroad. The majority of our workforce is mostly European. They come to London, which seems like a city of opportunity and it seems really exciting, and then you live in a room in a shared house sharing a bathroom with eight strangers, and you don’t know anybody. London can be an incredibly isolating place to live. People don’t talk to one another – you sit on the tube and nobody talks to you and people just ignore you. I think that that comes as a bit of a shock, particularly for our Spanish employees (our Head office is in Palma), it’s just so different from their own culture.’

What career advice can you offer someone who wants to build a career in HR?

‘There are two things that I would say that I live by. One is, don’t keep your mouth shut. If you don’t agree with something, and if you have a different perspective, then you have to say so. And learn to say it in a way that is assertive, but it’s not going to make people feel uncomfortable, and don’t lose your temper. But be able to be assertive and put your point of view forward.’

‘I find that my point of view is often in contrast with others, because I think in HR often it will be. The priority in organisations is making the money, the profit, the cost savings, and sometimes meetings can get a little bit carried away in that direction. And as the person on the HR side you must keep bringing them back to the people, the morals, and the ethics. And I think if you feel passionately about people being treated fairly, then HR is a really good place to be.’

‘The other side of it is to be open minded. I think we make a lot of assumptions and we jump to conclusions a lot. A really simple example is an employee that disappears, which happens a lot in hospitality. An employee doesn’t show up to work one day and doesn’t contact you, and the assumption is always, “Well, they’ve gone. They’ve got another job and they’re not coming back.” That might be how the line manager sees it and they’re probably right 90% of the time, but there are also times when that employee has been in an accident or has a terrible crisis at home.’

‘I think we in HR are the ones that must keep that open mind and must try not to jump to conclusions about why people do things the way they do. If you can do that, I really believe that HR can build a relationship with the wider organisation and build trust with the employees, so they feel like they can rely on you as an HR department. And for me, that’s one of the most important things you can do in HR.

Frances has been UK HR Director at Melia since 2017 and Talent and Projects Manager at Meliá since the start of 2019.

If you would like to have a confidential conversation about your career or would like to understand how Human can support you in growing your team, please get in touch today.

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HR Leadership with Frances Lees, HR Director at Melia Hotels International. “As the person on the HR side you must keep bringing it back to the people”.