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 Shakil Butt, HR Hero for Hire. Shakil began his career as an finance professional with an accounting practice before moving to IR Wolrdwide in 1995 as Head of Accounts. From there he fell into HR and hasn’t looked back.
Can you tell us how you got into HR and why?
I came into HR by accident, it wasn’t by design. I’d been in Finance for 20 years at that point. In 2009 the business had a role that needed babysitting while the business went out to market to find a new Director of HR and OD. They sold it to me as a short term interim assignment that would really stretch me in different directions and give me a new challenge. I hadn’t realised it at the time, but I’d become sort of complacent.
I was doing the same role year in, year out. So, I thought to myself, why not. You never know, I might learn something. I was a bit clueless at first, so I did probably the best thing I could’ve done, which was to reach out to my peer HR directors in my sector to understand how they’d achieved success in their roles. So, I met with the HR director of Christian aid, HR director of CAFOD, the Catholic relief agency and the HR director of World Vision.
So, one after the other, I went around and met them for coffee and I just picked their brains and asked questions to develop my understanding. This interim role went on for another three months which became six months and then nine months became 18. The organisation had gone to market about three times trying to recruit for this particular role. At the 18 month point they asked me if I wanted to take on the role permanently, they gave me a caveat that I had to go back to university to become qualified to be a credible HR professional. That was scary because I was roughly about the age of 40 and I hadn’t studied since 1996. It was an exciting challenge to re skill myself and was frightening at the time but also one of the best things I could have done.
It was enjoyable because I went to university with a different mindset than when I was studying for my professional qualification as a young 20 year old. Back then studying was a chore, to please my family, to make myself employable. It wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed and at that time in my life, in my twenties, studying the ACCA felt like pulling teeth!
Once I was in the classroom, I realised what I thought I knew about HR was actually very limited. I thought I understood HR because I’d been involved with recruitment, ER cases and transactional HR (attendance, contracts etc.) But once I got into the classroom, I realised I had a massive gap in my understanding, but I also had a big advantage over my fellow students. In my role as HRD I had the authority and the autonomy to actually take the classroom learning and actually implement in the workplace.
When I joined IR Worldwide in 1995 it was a 3 million pound organisation, by the time in 2017 I left at its peak it was a £180 million organisation. It grew rapidly. In 1998 I was thinking of leaving but they sent me to Sudan and Palestine. There I saw people literally on the cusp of life and death and saw the difference we were making. It was then I decided to stay on and continue helping them to make a difference to the world.
In 2017 after 22 years in the business my role was made redundant. I had got to a point where the HR team had achieved HR team of the year, received a commendation for Best ER initiative and been shortlisted for an employee engagement award. I had also been shortlisted for HRD of the year and been given the accolade of HR’s Most Influential for my sector. We’d hit a peak. At the time I was disappointed, but it was one of the best things that could have happened. The occasions I have learnt the most is when I’ve been pushed out of my comfort zone. I decided to become self-employed in 2017 and it turned out to be a great decision.
Can you tell me about the challenges that you’re seeing across the HR sector?
There is a lack of understanding in HR as to what HR is really capable of. When I was in finance, I believed that because finance saw the money coming in and the money going out, that made finance the most important department and that’s the ethos that is sold to us by our finance professional bodies.
As soon as I moved into HR, I realised just how important HR was and how blinkered I had been. HR needs to consider the impact HR can make to a business. To understand a business, you have to get your hands dirty. To really make a difference you need to understand what your organisation is struggling with. Doing a sickness absence or a well-being project is great in itself but it won’t necessarily put you at the heart of the organisation, get real results or gain you credibility if you’re not solving the pain points the business is facing.
I believe you need to look through both a finance and HR lens. If the HR strategies aren’t supporting commercial improvements across the business, what are you doing them for?
Every business decision has those two dimensions. It has a financial dimension and a people dimension and in many companies the recent focus has been purely on finance. If you think about the way the world is right now, with the number of organisations struggling and resources still being stretched and all this despite us having placed the focus on finance for the last 20 or 30 years. Finance has been what most people have been focusing on and that’s where it’s got us. Research tells us that organisations that take a long term view and behave ethically, are more sustainable and have steady growth rather than, the peaks and troughs and then knee jerk reactions that follow for companies behaving unethically and pursing short term gains.
The biggest challenge I see HR facing is that a lot of what we’ve been doing as HR professionals is quite broken. The reason I say that is the business models and practices haven’t really changed very much from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. The world of work has changed so much. Design thinking and agile working are a key focus for many now. The way forward is for HR to create new organisations that are breaking away from command and control hierarchies by recognising that people and culture is what drives innovation and takes the business forward.
We also need to remember that we have to be the ethical voice of organisations, we need to be the moral compass. I’ve seen so many cases of organisations that hit financial woes because they didn’t behave ethically. We have a great starting point as we are responsible for shaping, codifying and embedding the values if only we realised how powerful we actually are. If we can get the senior leadership team to sign off and champion the values. We have a powerful voice in the organisation once we realise our own value. We also need to be more outcomes focused answering the question; what does your HR work mean for the organisation? We need to rethink the models we’re churning out. There’s a great book by Karen Bevan, she defined what a good HR professional looks like stating that yes they do need to understand the nuts and bolts of HR and OD but they also need to understand their business and their sector i.e Not just the business you’re in but the sector your business is trying to compete in.
“What career advice would you offer to someone either working towards a career like yours, or someone just getting started in their HR career?
Keeping learning and pushing yourself to be better. For example, if you’re a Business Partner, that you do an entry level qualification in the business areas you support. So, if you’re supporting Marketing, do an entry level qualification in Marketing and so on. Once the team start inviting HRBP’s to their away days and strategy sessions, that’s when you’re integrated and that’s when you can start adding real value.
Do you think that more should be done within the school system to open students’ eyes to HR as a career or do you think it’s more valuable for them to gain some work experience and fall into HR because then like you say, they’ve got that context and that understanding?
Great question! Personally, I would love to see more professionals moving to HR early in their careers. Simply because I think there can be a real lag by the time somebody actually moves into HR.
In addition to my HR hat I also ‘wear my Mosaic hat’, which is part of the Prince’s Trust. We go into secondary schools supporting children who are at risk of falling out of the system, who are often from the most deprived communities and from a challenging family background or circumstances. When we look at their career aspirations, many are under pressure to be a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer or an accountant. And those are still regarded as the professions of choice. There’s a lot more that young people can do. As a community of HR professionals, I think we should be more comfortable celebrating our successes but also presenting ourselves off as a real career path for people of all ages and backgrounds. I think there’s still a big gap in terms of what we could be doing within that space. So maybe you’ve given me the idea for my next piece of work as a consultant championing HR and CIPD in schools.
Shakil has been working as an independent HR consultant since 2017 and provides consultancy support and solutions covering HR, Organisational Development, Executive Support and Public Speaking.
If you are interested in having a confidential conversation about your career or would like support growing your team, please get in touch today.