“I felt like I’d really found my niche working with people, seeing them learn, grow and develop, and making a difference.” Sonia Robertson, Head of Recruitment at Cox Automotive, 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 Sonia Robertson at Cox Automotive, who began her career in HR delivering L&D at Marks and Spencer before moving onto Resourcing roles at O2, The Co-Operative Group, Shop Direct and a Resourcing Manager at the BBC before settling into her current role at Cox Automotive UK in 2016.
How and why did you get into HR?
I was living in West Yorkshire and was bored, I needed a challenge, so moved to London! I stayed with some family friends, but didn’t have a job and didn’t know anyone. I look back on it now and it horrifies me, but when you’re young, you just take those leaps of faith into the unknown! I think that throughout my career, being brave and taking steps that challenge you is what has allowed me to get where I am today. It’s daunting and scary, but you’ve just got to do it. I don’t regret any of the bold and brave decisions I’ve taken throughout my career, I think they’re quite inspiring and motivating and help you focus on the future.
I spent a day visiting recruitment agencies, and practically all of them said “Oh, come and work for us!”, but I didn’t want to work in recruitment‚ which I now find really amusing!
One agency asked me if I could use email and I had never even heard of it. They told me what it was and I thought it sounded easy enough, so went for it! The role was with Marks and Spencer working as an Executive Secretary for one of the Directors in the Food Group. I thought, “Oh my God, I can’t do that!” That’s my next little gem; just because you think you can’t do something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. That’s been a big learn for me throughout my career, thinking I can’t do something, but going for it anyway.
So even though I thought I couldn’t do it and I didn’t have the right experience, I just went for it! I worked for one of the toughest executives in the Food group at Marks and Spencer. It was the summer so I covered all of the holidays for the exec secretaries andworked for quite a few of them. What an experienced! I loved it! Before I was due to leave a permanent role came up in the Wine and Soft Drinks department, and HR asked me if I wanted it, and I said yes.
I joined the Wine department in an Office Manager type role, supporting the management team and organising extensive travel itineraries. I was also involved in wine tastings, a dream come true! I moved on from that role into Marketing, producing the M&S Magazine, their home catalogue and their Christmas Gift Guide. I used to sit near HR, and one of the HR ladies told me about an opportunity in Training. She said that my personality and people skills would be areally good fit for it. It was something that I’d never thought of, but I decided to go for it. It was working for Marks & Spencer Financial Services, so I had to go up to Chester for my interview and deliver a presentation. I was the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life, but I got the job.
That was my first step into HR. I became a Trainer for the Marks & Spencer & More credit card when they first launched it, and my role was to go to stores and deliver customer service training. I absolutely loved it! I felt like I’d finally found something I was good at and that I really enjoyed. I loved delivering the training, seeing those lightbulb moments and seeing people learn, grow and develop.
I’ve been at Cox Automotive for three and a half years now and every day has been a school day, as they say! I really love being in an environment where I can learn and develop. I had a blank sheet of paper when I joined CA and created the Resourcing function from scratch. I’ve had some of the biggest challenges in my career in this business,and also some of the biggest achievements. I’m part of the HR SLT and my role involves delivering HR projects and also learning and development. When the Government changed the Apprenticeship Programme 2 years ago I took ownership for it, having never worked with Apprentices before! Another big challenge.
I love working in HR so much. When I first went into training, I felt like I’d come home, and the thing that I adore about recruitment is that I can share my passionate belief in every business I work with, and get them to believe in it too. I love finding people and saying to them “I genuinely think this role would be great for you,” and I love seeing them flourish in that role. It’s amazing.
What key themes or challenges are prevalent for you at the moment?
Engagement and Talent are key for us. We’re trying to focus on those, both in terms of what that looks like now and what we need to do to ensure success in the future. We do regular employee satisfaction surveys to find out how people feel about their roles, their managers, the business etc. It’s so important we understand how our team members are feeling and what we can do differently to ensure they are feeling engaged and that they are part of something special.
The business is incredibly diverse—we have auction centres, yard operatives, drivers, and office people, and the other part of the business is Technology and software. So we have the fast paced every changing business of Technology and the more traditional world of Auction Centres. Both very different in terms of roles and team member requirements. Creating an effective Resourcing plan to deliver the different needs of the business is a challenge, but one I love and very much enjoy!
I’m working on an onboarding project that encompasses Day One, minus 90 days and plus 90 days. We are looking at engagement from when a role has been posted through to the team members first three months. We have moved to monthly check-ins, so from an HR perspective we’re trying to make our 121’s and performance reviews more in the moment rather than sitting down and doing your half-year or full-year review and never having a conversation in between, because that doesn’t work. We’ve got a new performance management system, and so far so good!
The apprenticeship programme has really helped support our team members with their learning and development. About 90% of our apprentices are our internal team members. I love that—again, that’s all about growing and developing our people. We’re seeing our first cohort of team members graduate from their apprenticeship programmes and It’s great. It’s about keeping our people motivated and supported in their career and journey so that they know that we do really care about them and want the best for them.
Apart from taking brave steps and not letting your perception of your abilities get in the way of your opportunities, what other career advice would you offer to someone either working towards a career in Recruitment, or someone just getting started in their HR career?
I’ve mentored a lot of people in my career, including at the BBC and Cox Automotive, and I also love helping people who can’t quite see what they need to do or where they need to go, or are a bit stuck and don’t quite have that clarity of vision that I’m lucky to have always had. I’m very open and honest, and I always give people genuine advice. For me, it is about having dreams and following those dreams—I’ve always been really motivated to drive my career, even though I’ve never really known what that looked like.
I didn’t go to University and I never had a clear vision of what I wanted to do or achieve. I genuinely don’t think it matters! I tried my hand at many different types of jobs and found my niche in HR. Follow your heart, do what you love. Work out what you like and understand what you don’t like. If you don’t like what you’re doing, do something else!!!
Just be brave—look at me, I’ve never thought I could do any of the jobs that I’ve gone for, and I honestly don’t think I’ve ever failed to get a job! If you look at a job description and think you can do 75% of a job, then go for it, and be quite open about what you can’t do but you’re prepared to learn. The key for me is to be genuine, talk about your strengths and understand the areas you’re not so great at, but articulate how you manage it. I’ve never embellished the truth on a CV or in an interview, I’ve always been really honest about what I can and can’t do.
Admitting that and demonstrating self awareness is how you’ll win! Just go for it. If you don’t get it, get some feedback, work on that feedback, and then go for it again. You’re never going to get anywhere unless you take chances; nothing ever lands in your lap. You’ve got to take risks, you’ve got to take chances, you’ve got to put yourself out there.
I think having a positive attitude and frame of mind and being open to opportunities and possibilities is best place to be. Having a strong network is also a great idea, I use my network on Linkedin regularly. I genuinely love my job and love working with people. I’ve got such an interest in people and always have had. I think things come your way through people, and if you close yourself off to people, you close yourself off to so many opportunities.
You need to work out what really motivates you and what you want from your career. Does your current role and business offer you what you want/need? If not, you need to be prepared to move on and find somewhere that does. I’ve been lucky enough to keep in touch with friends from all my jobs, I’ve genuinely loved all the people that I’ve worked with. Leaving O2 was heart-breaking because they were like my family, but I needed to move on to progress my career. Wherever you work there will be great people. I hear so many say that they can’t leave a job because of all their friends! Make new friends 😊 You can’t stay somewhere that isn’t right for you just for that reason.
I now know, confidently, what I like, what works for me, and what motivates me. Learning and Development and Recruitment are where my real passions lie. I still don’t think I’m the bog-standard HR type of person, and I’ve never let that stop me. I’ve got a massive personality, I’m quite loud and boisterous, but I’m ridiculously passionate and genuinely care about people. Know your strengths and celebrate them, and try to surround yourself with people who have different strengths. Never apologise for yourself!
If I could talk to my 20-year-old self, I’d tell her to be brave, just do it, and not to care what other people think.
Sonia has been working in her current capacity as Head of Recruitment at Cox Automotive UK since 2016, and provides recruitment, training, engagement, and career development opportunities across the company.
If you are interested in having a confidential conversation about your career or would like support growing your team, please get in touch today.