“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but when you do, learn from them and make sure they don’t happen again. A lot of HR is learning from experience, so dust yourself off and keep going.” – Michael Smyth, HR Director at GRAHAM, 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 Michael Smyth at GRAHAM Construction, who began his career as a Training Manager at GRAHAM Training before ascending to the role of General Manager. In 2004, Michael moved over to GRAHAM Construction, serving as Training and Recruitment Manager, HR Manager, and Head of Human Resources, before assuming his current role in 2016.
Can you tell us how you got into HR and why?
I originally started out as a psychologist—I studied for an MSc in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. After graduating, I joined GRAHAM Training, where I worked in training, recruitment, and apprenticeships, as well as engaging with Government programmes designed to help unemployed people find work.
I moved up to a management position in 1996, and oversaw four different sites across Ireland—GRAHAM were very much an Ireland-based business with occasional UK dealings, and we only had a workforce of 300 back then.
After eight-and-a-half years in that role, I was approached by the business owner, who asked if I could come over and help out with the construction business, which didn’t have a training department. I ended up serving as the Training Manager for about 18 months, and then took on the Recruitment side as well.
Shortly after, the HR Manager started the move to retire, and when he did, we were left with just three people in the team, and nobody knew much about HR. Although I’d come in from a training aspect, I now had responsibility for doing other things alongside it, and in retrospect, that might have been a good thing.
We had carte blanche; all we knew was that HR needed to recruit people the right way and listen to what employees had to say. HR is pretty much common sense, so all we had to do was provide a service that made people say, ‘Wow!’ and show them that we could do the basics really well. That built our credibility, and from there we made sure that managers had efficient processes in place and all the information they needed at their fingertips. When we’d make changes, we’d always tell them about the benefits to employees first, and then roll them out gradually, getting feedback at every stage to ensure we were delivering what the business needed.
I’ve carried that through to the rest of my career; I always cover the basics first, then think about how to make them better, identifying what works and what doesn’t by listening to managers and employees. For example, we had 70-80% positive feedback about our onboarding process, but that wasn’t enough for me, so I carried out a survey with managers and recent recruits. As a result, we’re introducing more technology into our onboarding process. It’s always better to improve when you’re doing well than when things start to lag.
I’d say that HR stuck because I saw what an HR Manager needed to do, started doing it when the HR Manager retired, and found that I was quite good at it. I’ve always been interested in what motivates people and makes them want to be successful, so working closely with them and really learning about them while doing HR has been perfect for me. I like the fact that it’s never boring, and every day is different—of course, there are some more difficult aspects of the job, such as redundancies, but even they can be carried out with dignity if you treat people well.
I’ve also been fortunate to have always had a team I can have robust conversations with and be challenged by. Being able to debate things within the team builds trust, so you can ensure that what you think is the right thing to do genuinely delivers quality and excellence to the business.
People may not always like the HR department, but as long as they respect you, that’s fine.
Can you tell me about the prevalent themes and challenges that you’re seeing across the HR sector?
A major one is definitely wellbeing, and GRAHAM have been trying to lead the industry in that regard. We have won an Investors in People award for our work around different types of wellbeing, and at the moment we’re training managers in how to deal with mental health issues, and providing Mental Health First Aiders and other interventions for staff.
Recruitment is a big challenge for our industry. We’re having a number of conversations around what might be stopping us from attracting people, and one of the challenges is definitely flexible working. Its an issue for our industry but we hope that as new technology and construction methods are developed that effective people processes will grow alongside them.
Flexibility is also part of what young people want from their jobs nowadays, and because we have an aging workforce, we need to work out how to bring the younger generation in. Our skilled older employees also need to stay in work, but face the challenge of embracing new technology and the younger employees have these skills but sometimes lack the technical know how of more experienced workers. To ensure we harness everyone’s value, GRAHAM have introduced a mentoring scheme between employees aged 20-35 and our more experienced employees.
By doing so, we’ve ensured skills and knowledge are retained within the company, and the older employees pass on their fundamental understanding of working in the industry, while the younger generation teach them about more recent advancements like digital construction. Similar changes have also taken place in the HR department, where those with senior experience have been exchanging knowledge with the current crop of Advisors and Business Partners.
What career advice would you offer to someone either working towards a career like yours, or someone just getting started in their HR career?
To succeed in HR, you’ve got to have an interest in people first and foremost. You’ve got to be empathetic, and know the basics of your job. Theories are grand, but you need to have knowledge of practical systems to deliver what your business needs. Get to know the managers and the ethos, and translate what you’re doing into what works for them.
Once you’re doing that, you have to trust yourself. You might go to events and hear a lot of ideas that sound fantastic, but ultimately, no one understands your organisation better than you.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but when you do, learn from them and make sure they don’t happen again. A lot of HR is learning from experience, so dust yourself off and keep going. It’s also useful to have someone you can talk things over with, as that will keep you from making rash decisions. If managers pressure you for an answer there and then, whatever you’re about to tell them usually isn’t the best option. Listen, but then buy yourself some time and thinking space to come up with the best solution rather than just the most immediate one.
Michael has been working as HR Director since 2016, and oversees the HR function for GRAHAM across the UK.
If you are interested in having a confidential conversation about your career or would like support growing your team, please get in touch today.