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The journey to HRD – reflections and suggestions

Gemma Dale

After spending the last three and a half years as a HR Director in the healthcare industry, theHRDIRECTOR magazine asked me to reflect on my journey to a senior position within Human Resources; what worked for me and what didn’t, the must-dos and the things to absolutely avoid to ensure success.

After nearly 20 years in HR working for others, I have now given up my (to use a hackneyed phrase) seat at the table to join the gig economy, so it seems like a good time for reflecting on my career so far. I didn’t set out to be a HR Director. In fact, I fell into a HR career after a brief and unremarkable stint as a recruitment consultant. What I have learned along the way isn’t all that revolutionary. It can be summed up in my over-arching philosophy on Human Resources: it is fundamentally about doing good people stuff. Never losing sight of how what we do makes people feel when they work for you. Finding balance between the needs of an organisation and the needs of its people. Simplistic perhaps. But it has worked for me so far.

What has been most fundamental to the development of my career was becoming a social HR professional. Through Twitter predominantly, I built a social network of other HR practitioners all over the UK and beyond. Through reading their blogs, reflections on their work and constant generous sharing of ideas and information, my own skills and practice improved immeasurably. These online connections led to real-life business relationships (and great personal friendships too!) along with professional opportunities that might never otherwise have been available to me. It has been more useful to me than some of my formal HR education. If there was ever a must-do recommendation, it is for HR colleagues to join in with the active, welcoming and engaged social HR community.

My other two career essentials for anyone wanting to be a HR Director are simply these:

1. Learn, continuously. A CIPD qualification is only the beginning. The world of work is changing. So too is technology, whilst our understanding of the human brain and behaviour is also deepening through subjects such as neuroscience. The most important thing that any HR professional can do is continue to learn and develop themselves and then take that learning back into their organisations. HR can take a pivotal role in bringing the outside in.

2. Focus on the human side of work and how people feel. This is what employee engagement is all about once we get beyond the surveys and percentages. In the drive to be a commercial function, implement policies and even the move toward automating our routine HR work, it is possible to lose sight of what is important: people. To modify a famous quote: people will forget what you wrote in a policy, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

And as to what should be avoided? It is all too easy working in HR to take what has been successful in one organisation and try to apply it to another. A mistake I have made more than once along the way! There isn’t any such thing best practice when it comes to people stuff; it is instead about understanding good practice and ensuring that what you propose and introduce is fit for purpose for the specific context of the organisation concerned.

I would also advocate not worrying all that much about what should or shouldn’t be HR’s job. During my career, I’ve been a pensions trustee and a safeguarding officer and held responsibility for everything from the reception desk to health and safety, managed CSR and even marketing. Oh, and organised the Christmas party. For me, there have been learning opportunities in each. Especially the Christmas parties. They also allowed me to build relationships and broaden my circle of influence. Finally, don’t sweat the small stuff. Not everyone is going to like HR. Not everything you try will be a success. HR is not always an easy career, but one in which we can make a real difference to work and working lives. So always be proud to work of the people stuff that you do!

Gemma is on theHRDIRECTOR Editorial panel and can be contacted on

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