“Get out of your comfort zone—that’s the best way to learn and develop. If you want to stay comfortable in a risk-free world, you have to accept that you’re happy to stay where you are.” – George Kollias, HR Lead for Europe and APAC at Donnelley Financial Solutions (DFIN), 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 George Kollias at DFIN, who began his HR Leadership career as an HR Manager at BT before moving to the Financial Services Authority to act as HR Business Partner for Regulatory Services, followed by a role as Internal HR Consultant. In November 2008, George joined the team at Bristol-Myers Squibb, where he started out as a UK HR Business Partner before becoming HR Director for Greece, Reward Lead for the European Markets region, and finally Talent Partner for the Europe Markets, Australia & Canada region. From January 2018 George led the European HR team at Asurion before taking up his current role in October 2019.
Can you tell us how you got into HR and why?
When I was studying for my degree in Economics at the University of Athens, one of my professors suggested that a postgraduate degree in Personnel/HR, as I had an interest in those elements of my degree.So I decided to come to the UK to pursue a Masters in Organisational Analysis and Behaviour at Lancaster, followed by a Masters in Industrial Relations and HR at the LSE, which gave me a more practical, business-focused perspective on the subject of people in organisations.
During my time, at the LSE a classmate and I did our dissertation as part of a real-life research project with BT,investigating perceptions of organisational justice and fairness in performance reviews for remote workers. When it came time to apply for a job, I knew BT well, so I decided to apply for the graduate scheme and got in. There was a lot of opportunity to learn and progress there, and I undertook a number of roles, moving from a Junior HRBP to supporting a team of 40-50 people. When BT decided to merge their divisional call centres into a central contact centre organisation, I joined the HR team that worked on the organisation design and people-related aspects of the project, andlater became the HRBP for the functions I had helped establish, namely Contact Centre Support Operations.
BT was a very advanced organization HR-wise; their operating model was incredibly sophisticated for the time, there were a lot of resources to tap into, and I learnt a lot about many aspects of HR, including industrial relations, during my time there. It was a great place for a new HR professional to be.
Eventually, I joined the then Financial Services Authority, which wasa lot smaller than BT, and had a completely different culture and ways of working. I got to experience HR from a different perspective there, because of their smaller size and the fact that their HR operating model was at an earlier maturity level than BT’s, so I got involved in work and projects that I didn’t have the opportunity to do at BT.
I was also much closer with the central HR team at the FSA—the fact that everybody was in the same building made my job easier, but also highlighted the importance of having good personal relationships and networks to get things done more effectively.
Bristol-Myers Squibb was also avery different organisation; much more global than both the FSA and BT, with some kind of presence in almost every country. The challenge for me there was to learn to build relationships with colleagues in the US and other countries and to learn to navigate a complex matrix organisation.
Asurion is another US-based, international company of a similar size to Bristol-Myers Squibb, but has a different history and operatesin very different industry with its own challenges and opportunities.
I’ve been fortunate to have had a very diverse career in terms of cultures and business sectors so far and I am looking forward to writing the next chapter of my career at DFIN
Can you tell me about the prevalent themes and challenges that you’re seeing across the HR sector?
I’ve seen a few common themes come up in every industry I’ve worked in, and a big one at the moment isincorporating digital into our work, both in terms of how the business operates, and in terms of increasing the effectiveness and customer-friendliness of the HR function.
The challenge for HR is twofold. The first part is about working out how to actually support the business to go through a digital transformation and the pace that that should happen in. The second is working out how to choose and use the right tools we have available in HR to automate as much of the transactional work as we can and make things easier for employees.
There is a big hype at the moment about artificial intelligence, especially when it comes to Recruitment, and I think the challenge is to help each organisation determine to what extent things like that are relevant for the company and will indeed result in high return on investment.
Linked to that is the challenge of creating an exemplary, attractive employee experience that will attract people to join the organisation and make them want to stay. Companies often invest a lot of time and money in giving customers a good experience and holding onto them, but they don’t always invest the same energy and resourcesto understand what their employees really need in order to be engaged at work.
Offering that amazing employee experience needs to start with engaging people to come to work for you and onboarding them in a way that gives them a good foundation for success.Then, we need to make more of an effort to listen to your employees the same way we listen to customers. It’s about enabling a change in an organisation’s mentality to create a more employee-centric environment at all stages of the employee life cycle.
I think many HR functions also face a challenge in partnering well with the business. HRBPs are there to help the business succeed, so they need to get out there, work with the business to understand its objectives and the challenges it faces, and engage with business leaders both on a personal and business level.
A good HR Business Partner is curious about the business they support and how they can facilitate and enable its success. As HR technology becomes more sophisticated and investment in good technology increases, the demand for business-focused HR professionals with the ability to apply their technical knowledge to help diagnose and solve critical business problems is increasing. People with these skills will be in high demand.
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 have a few pieces of advice that I think are applicable to anybody wanting to grow in their career, not just HR people. One is to always ask yourself what you are doing for your own career as well as what you’re doing for your company. You need to be in control of your career development and know what prospects you have in the company you’re working for. At the same time, build and nurture a wide internal and external network. You have to show that you’re hungry to learn and grow. Then, it’s a question of taking risks. Sometimes, you can’t always see how the risks might pay off, but they’re always going to at least be learning experiences.
Get out of your comfort zone—that’s the best way to learn and develop. If you want to stay comfortable in a risk-free world, you have to accept that you’re happy to stay where you are.
For HRBPs who want to become more senior in the HR generalist world, consider getting some experience as a specialist in an area like Recruitment, Talent Management, or Reward. Spending some time outside HR in another function is also something that I recommend. Both of these experiences will only help make one a more rounded HR leader with a much broader perspective and first-hand experience of what it’s like being in the shows of the people you work closely with.
Likewise, for those wanting to become more successful HR specialists, I’d recommend taking on an HRBP role for a while and coming back into your specialism having seen what it’s like on the other side of the table. I’ve seen many people accelerate their learning and careers that way.
George has been working as HR Lead for Europe and Asia at DFIN since the beginning of October, and leads a team of HR professionals to develop and execute HR strategy in order to facilitate and enable the success of the company across the region.
If you are interested in having a confidential conversation about your career or would like support growing your team, please get in touch today.