“In HR, you’re the oil in the engine. Done well, we make the parts work better together; we reduce friction and we increase performance.” – Anthony Perkins, Managing Director of Anvil HR, speaks to us about developing a career in HR Leadership.
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 Anthony Perkins at Anvil HR, who began his career in HR as a personnel manager with Sainsbury’s before taking on a regional HR role at Scottish and Newcastle, and HR Manager roles at Bell and Howell and Fujitsu. He then served as HR Director at LOGiCOM, a management buy-out from Fujitsu of which he was one of the founders. Then followed roles as Vice President of HR at Proquest and Group Human Resources Director at Finlays, part of the Swire group. In 2016, he became Executive Director of People at Metropolitan, and set up Anvil HR in 2018.
Can you tell us how you got into HR and why?
After graduating in 1986, I undertook an 18-month stint in the civil service as I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Knowing I was never cut out to be a civil servant, I secured my first proper job in HR, which was with Sainsbury’s as store Personnel Manager in the East End. I really enjoyed the breath and variety and at that point I knew I didn’t want to specialise. I didn’t want to be a career recruiter or rewards person; I wanted to be a generalist, so after I got a good grounding in what was then called Personnel at Sainsbury’s, really getting my hands dirty and doing a bit of everything, the course was set. In HR, you’re the oil in the engine. You get to interact with every part of the organisational machine. HR, done well, is an organisational lubricant. We make the parts work better together; we reduce friction and we increase performance. That’s what I enjoy about it.
Can you tell me about the challenges and key themes that you’re seeing across the HR sector?
I think a common one is HR’s ability to lead and be resilient to change. For me, that’s been constant throughout the last 20 years on five continents, whether it’s mergers and acquisitions, divestments, acquisition integrations, senior team changes, cultural change, or functional transformation. That continual thread of change has been something that I’ve seen run through HR over many years in many countries. The perennial thing with HR is that there’s always a ‘big thing’. In the 90s, it was competencies, and now it’s AI. I think AI is currently substantially underutilized, and the opportunities are vast and exciting. I love the idea of taking away transactional stuff with AI—having a well-informed robot deal with your tier one and two queries is a great concept—but a robot is never going to understand the nuances of your organisation. And poor deployment of AI will backfire. AI will never lead when it comes to understanding your organisation’s operating challenges, cultural complexity, or your strategy. It’s just an enabler; one of those tools in your toolbox. What you need is HR Leaders who can enable change, lead change, and reduce the risk of change. That’s the big thing that the last 20 years has taught me. I’ve been rather shocked by the lack of effective HR in large organisations who you might presume have established, capable functions. In some parts of industry, against the run of progress of most HR, there still exists back office, transactional ‘personnel’ functions that are not embedded in the business, don’t add value and aren’t visible. Crucially, there isn’t a causal link between what they do and the business ends they serve. Little wonder then that there’s no ‘pull’ from their business for HR. The profession has come a long way and I’ve seen some great examples of HR professionals over the years, so finding ‘personnel’ functions 20+ years after Ulrich always takes me aback. Darwinian principle has ensured the steady demise of old style personnel, but it does still exist.
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 would say perhaps the obvious; be a business person first. That doesn’t mean you have to master the finite detail that the finance people have to know, but know the fundamental commercials of your business first. This is key because pretty much every HR CV says ‘commercial HR professional’ but the reality is often different. I interviewed a HR director who couldn’t explain the difference between a P&L and a balance sheet. Understand your business first and talk in that language. Understand the KPIs and the stress points of your internal customers. Find out what keeps them awake at night and only then talk about the HR stuff. This is almost too basic to mention, but it doesn’t happen in a lot of organisations. Succeeding in HR isn’t as much to do with the technical ability (though having that is presumed), as a mindset – particularly having a very clear understanding of the purpose of HR and why you are there. Once you see yourself as being that enabler, that oil in the engine for the business plan, it sends a very strong message about who you are and what you’re there for. If you get it right, you’re not just invited ‘to the table’ you’re invited back, because they see you as relevant and valuable and making a contribution. You are relevant and to use the hackneyed phrase you’re a business partner. It’s basic, but you need to do the right stuff right.
After over 30 years as a career permanent, Anthony has been Managing Director of Anvil HR since 2018, providing broad spectrum HR services with a specialism in organisational change, M&A, functional transformation, leadership development and pragmatic international HR. He has recently returned to a permanent role as VP HR EMEA for a listed US business.
If you are interested in having a confidential conversation about your career or would like support growing your team, please get in touch today.