As part of our commitment to supporting candidates to develop fulfilling careers, we’ve invited some HR Leaders to share the secrets of their success.
This week, we had a great conversation with Alison O’Connor. Alison began her career in the Retail sector as a Management Trainee before progressing into a variety of HR and Change Management roles within Boots. Alison is now responsible for Human Resources, Communications, Safety, Environment, CSR and Transport Policy within the Arriva Group, one of the largest European passenger transport providers; a business with a £5bn turnover and over 50,000 colleagues.
Can you tell us how you got into HR and why?
I did a degree in sociology. In the 80s when you did sociology, everybody thought you were going to be a social worker. I knew social work wouldn’t give me the commercial decision making I was interested in. My Dad had lots of contacts, so he sent me off going to talk to lots of people; captains of industry. And that’s when I started to understand my career path.
I graduated at the height of the recession in the 80s. So graduate places were at an all time low, particularly graduate places in HR. I realised I had two choices. One to join a company and try to work my way into HR that way or go and do my IPD qualification and then apply for jobs. But I recognised that then I would have more qualifications than experience and that might make things difficult. I decided to do my IPD and then went out into the world of work and I was offered two jobs in the same week. One was with a local authority the other was with Fine Fare, a food retailer. I felt the retailing world would be better for me than local authority. So, I took the job and I’ve never looked back.
Can you tell me about the challenges that you’re seeing across the HR sector?
The biggest challenge of public transport is getting people out of private cars. How do we make our offer strong enough that it’s compelling enough for people to choose to use the bus or train rather than drive themselves?
And it’s a tough market for talent, not everybody gets out of bed to work in public transport. So, although our brand is very strong in the market, we’re in an increasingly competitive market for talent. Diversity is a big challenge for us. How do we recruit from the widest pools? How do we change the image of the industry, which is traditionally male, to an industry that attracts the widest range of talent?
We face a situation of relatively high employment across Europe. As of today more people are employed than ever before across Europe, so there’s labour shortages. For us in terms of employment that’s probably manifesting itself more right now in central and eastern Europe.
Finally, there’s a real focus on diversity, particularly older workers and women. Research shows they hold the greatest scope for increased participation in the employment market. And so we must be able to adapt our employment offer to the needs of different employee groups.
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 think for anybody at any stage of their career in HR or any other, I’d say two things. Firstly, don’t wait for someone to ask you. My mantra is to seek forgiveness, not permission. Look for those opportunities and seize them. Don’t be precious about whether you should be doing it. Whether it befits your status. One of my other mantras is the day you stop learning, you’re dead. So, seize opportunities where you learn and do new things that stretch and develop you. People will very rarely stop you. I fully recognize that the organisation has a role to play in providing development, career paths and the like. But at the end of the day we each have a responsibility to develop ourselves and our career if that’s what we want.
The other valuable insight that has served me well is to start with the needs of the business and work back from there. HR isn’t about following an HR textbook. It’s about what’s good for the business. Understanding the needs of the business and developing people solutions that meet those needs and contribute to the bottom line. I have yet to meet a manager who doesn’t want that support! Just do it and see what impact it has, for me, more doors have opened than have ever closed.
Alison joined Arriva in 2001 as Director for HR Change and is now Director Corporate Affairs.
If you are interested in having a confidential conversation about your career or would like support growing your team, please get in touch today.