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Interview

From its humble beginnings in a one car garage on the eve of World War II, Hewlett-Packard has become one of those truly omnipresent brands and, by any comparison, a global giant and the bluest of blue chip organisations. But throughout its incredible growth and diversification, none of its achievements would have been possible without people and human innovation. Jason Spiller interviews Sharon Ellerker, HR Director of Hewlett-Packard (UK & Ireland).

Sharon give us an idea of your early career and what it was about HR that caught your interest?  

I actually came into HR a little bit by the backdoor. I had a keen interest in people, and I knew I wanted to be in management in some capacity, but it took some time for me to make that connection. I studied languages at A-level, went on to study French and German at university and graduated in 1992. I took full advantage of the university milkrounds and what was then quite a wide array of graduate positions, before accepting a position on a graduate management training scheme with the TSB Bank, that comprised of four, six month rotations. I started the scheme in a generic management position and then engineered my remaining rotations within different areas of HR, gaining experience in recruitment, management development and a variety of different HR disciplines. From this I knew that HR was where I wanted to focus my career. I was fortunate that the bank also supported me with my desire to specialise in HR and sponsored me to pursue my professional HR training and gain my CIPD qualification.

My time on the graduate training scheme was a very exciting one for me; I was building up a portfolio of HR experience very rapidly. As part of the recruitment team, I was involved in setting up the first telephone banking centre in the UK, which was very revolutionary, as up to this point, banks had traditionally only offered a face-to-face service to customers. So a big part of the project was about managing that cultural change, and from an HR perspective, it was fast-moving and high volume activity for HR; hiring and training a brand new workforce and delivering a 24 hour/seven day phone banking service to customers. In addition, the profile of the roles was very different from your traditional ‘branch’ profile; the focus was on hiring people who possessed a strong customer service ethic and then training them to not only understand the bank’s products and services, but to be able to interact seamlessly with the call centre technology. At this time (1993), call centres were still quite few and far between, so there was not a lot of benchmark data available, not to mention call centre expertise, so much of what we were doing was cutting-edge and focused on how we could leverage technology to take banking to the next level.

When you consider that this was new territory and the general public was yet to experience telephone banking to this more sophisticated level, this really was quite a revolutionary programme. Hiring and training the right people was key, so from recruiting candidates to developing a fully-qualified call centre team member, we had to develop many new HR processes, and this was my first experience of large scale recruitment and using psychometric tests as part of a recruitment process. It was important that we hired the right people to deliver a positive customer experience, and with the centre being operational 24/7, we also needed to hire a large number of employees in a relatively short time frame, so establishing robust and repeatable recruitment processes was key to be able to hire the right profile of employees. Another thing I recall distinctly was how an employee’s work environment can impact the way they do their jobs. We actually introduced a dress code in our call centre as studies proved that, whilst you might assume how an employee dresses might be immaterial to a customer when their only interactions are over the phone, if the employee is dressed too casually, then this could encourage a casual attitude with the customer. With telephone banking being such a new concept, we had to really think about making sure that our call centre employees were as professional and customer- focused over the phone as they would be if they were in a high street branch. Attitudes to dress code continue to evolve, but I sense a move back towards a culture of smart business wear and/or uniforms, particularly in customer-facing roles, as this is clearly the norm now in most, if not all high street banks. I was at the bank for three years in total and was a Personnel Officer in the bank’s head office for a year after I completed the graduate training programme. I really think that my graduate training programme experience was a brilliant foundation for me – it gave me the opportunity to work in a structured environment with well-established HR processes, and was a perfect platform on which to study for my CIPD qualification.

You then moved sectors, as well as jobs.  

Yes, my husband was moving jobs and was relocating to London, and while I had a fantastic job at the bank, it gave me the impetus to think about my next career move too. I applied and was offered an HR Generalist role at Nortel, a global telecommunications company, and moved into a fascinating and furiously fast-paced environment, which was a world of difference to the well- organised and steady surety that I had experienced at the bank. Nortel was an exact reflection of the marketplace in which it was competing; rapid and expanding and, unlike retail banking, it took me a while to really understand the products and services we offered to our customers and the overall business model and dynamics – suddenly my world was seven stack protocols and software codes! Fortunately, my husband is an engineer and he helped me to fill in the blanks, but it was a sharp learning curve. So I had done what most career experts say you should do, and that’s move outside your comfort zone, and thankfully, the bedrock of experience I had gained at the bank, and could bring to the table, really stood me in good stead, and I was given full scope and flexibility to put my knowledge into practice.

Give us an idea of what it was like in the telecoms sector at this time.  

The telecoms market was about to explode due to deregulation, and I was in at the deep end, supporting sales teams and trying to help them keep up with demand. I clearly recall the late 1990’s, from an HR perspective, being a succession of challenges, most notably in the area of recruiting and retaining talent, which was in high demand and in some niche areas, thin on the ground. Attraction and retention were key priorities for us, but unquestionably the core challenge – it was an applicant’s market and, from an HR perspective, we really had to think more creatively about how we constructed our offers, to ensure we could attract the best people, as well as how we then retained them and kept them motivated.

It sounds like a highly pressured environment, not everybody does their best work in these circumstances.  

Certainly there was pressure, but in a positive way… it was definitely never tedious and run-of-the-mill! The pressure was more about the need to respond quickly in order to catch the tidal wave of growth. The industry was exploding and share prices were spiking through the roof, so the focus in HR was about trying to find a fine balance between keeping up with the speed of growth on one side, whilst managing the day-to-day operations on the other; being concerned about resourcing levels and retention/burn out, as well as making sure that our policies and procedures were fit for purpose, but still enable us to be agile and responsive to change. From a sales point-of- view, it was all about fast reaction, because if we didn’t take the order, a hungry pack of competitors would. The energy and the motivation were palpable and I will always remember the buzz of working in such a high growth, fast paced environment.

What happened when the technology bubble burst?  

Things pretty much stopped, and in some cases, went into reverse at what felt like an equally rapid pace. When you are in growth mode, of course employee morale and confidence is high, however when the bubble burst, the absolute opposite applied and the big challenge became one of trying to keep people motivated, whilst ensuring you take action to respond to the rapid decline in business. From a surge of ongoing demand, customers almost stopped buying overnight when they realised that the revenue predictions of the market had essentially been overstated and would not materialise. At this point, the market was saturated with providers, and without the predicted demand for their services, their expansion plans came to an abrupt halt, with some providers finding themselves in a position where they were unlikely to achieve a return on the significant investment they had already made in licenses and building their networks.

From an HR point of view, how did you react?  

In HR, no matter what is happening in the organisation you work in, or the markets in which your organisation operates, you have to be able to operate at all ends of the spectrum and essentially manage the rough and the smooth. That said, it was a difficult and challenging time. Whilst a bit of a cliché, most people go into HR because they enjoy working with people, and people are easier to work with when all is well and confidences are high. The opposite of that, of course, is people react in unpredictable ways, especially under pressure and when times are tough. As an HR professional, you have to have both a business and a people head; that’s to say you need to understand and support the business whilst ensuring that you manage the impact on people in a professional and ethical way. Sometimes doing what is right for the business at a macro level might have a negative consequence at the individual employee level and this is when you need to leverage all of your HR skills to ensure that you provide the right solution and support to the business whilst ensuring you continue to think about the employees. Workforce reductions and restructuring is never easy but are critical to ensure that organisations can get through the difficult times and, whilst we cannot always guarantee that employees will always like some of the activities we have to deliver in HR, I believe we have a professional obligation to ensure we always treat employees with dignity and respect.

HR goes from being everyone's friend, to public enemy number one.  

Yes… and I think one of the big lessons which struck me very quickly is that HR can occupy a lonely place when you are trying to support both employees and the business. The biggest learning I drew from such experience is that regardless of the activities you are being asked to deliver, you should never lose sight that there are always people in the mix, and whilst we in HR need to ensure we are facilitating business success, we also have an obligation to ensure that employees are treated with care and dignity. Restructuring exercises are never easy but in this case, through the actions we took, we were able to respond to the changing market conditions and help the business back on track. During my 13 years at Nortel, I experienced all the various stages of the business cycle, and also had the opportunity to work abroad in France and the US. At the end of my time there, I had reached the position of Vice-President of HR for EMEA, and when I heard about the position at HP, and what was required from the successful candidate, I didn’t hesitate. Really I felt that the career skills and experiences I had gained would be a good fit. During the interview process I was also attracted by the pace and ambition of the business, not to mention the opportunity to work for such an iconic brand.

Give me an idea of what HP's ambitions were and what they wanted HR to achieve?  

My first role at HP was in employee relations, which was slightly new territory for me – whilst there had been ER content in my previous roles, I would not describe myself as an ER specialist, so this move not only took me to a new company but also slightly out of my comfort zone, which was also part of the attraction. Whilst I had had prior experience of works councils and trade unions in both of my previous companies, HP had a significant workforce in EMEA, across a multitude of different countries. In addition, I was joining HP just as it was integrating EDS, so much of my first year was focused on supporting that integration. I had been in HP for nine months, when I was offered the opportunity to take the role of HR Director for the UK and Ireland and I didn’t hesitate, as not only did this present me with an opportunity to further leverage my broader HR skill set, it also gave me the opportunity to partner more specifically with the business. I have been lucky enough to do lots of different roles in my HR career, but I always gravitate towards business-facing roles, and in this job, I had the opportunity to partner directly with the country MD, Nick Wilson and the Management Team, which was a massive attraction. Nick Wilson was also relatively new to HP, so we were both well placed to support the integration of HP and EDS in an objective way.

Everyone has their own take on mergers and acquisition and what can go right and wrong, what was your experience?  

I think that everyone will agree that all mergers and acquisitions are challenging, but my experience is, the longer you wait before effecting integration, the more challenging the integration is likely to become. Also, integration has many different phases and is a long-term commitment; the first phase is a little like sorting out the plumbing, in-so-much as the focus is on ensuring employees are mapped into the company’s HR programmes and processes, and plugged into company tools and systems. The next phase is by far the hardest phase, and one that is more of a marathon than a sprint, and that is about integrating at a cultural level and winning the hearts and minds of the employees. This is an ongoing journey and one that requires regular and high levels of employee engagement – we invest a great deal of our time engaging directly with employees across all of our sites, to help them understand company strategy and performance to better understand how they fit within the broader organisation and how what they do contributes to business success.

How can you be sure that the work you are carrying out when integrating employees is actually getting traction?  

It’s part intuition, but of course nothing beats feedback, either real-time or via our annual employee satisfaction (Voice of the Workforce) survey. You need to continually review and refine what you are doing based on the feedback and data you are able to collate. And, like most large companies, we analyse the feedback collated via our annual employee satisfaction survey to identify improvement opportunities and build action plans accordingly.

Increasingly, businesses are being challenged on CSR and increasingly the loudest voice is employees.  

I agree, and we also have a keen focus on CSR, as not only does this align very naturally to HP’s corporate culture, it also supports employee engagement, and allows employees to get involved in activities that take them outside the normal boundaries of their work. We also have a Global Wellness programme for all employees and have been able to offer a variety of wellness-related programmes in the UK and Ireland, including free cancer screening for employees and partners. In the UK, we have run four different cancer screening campaigns over the last two years, which have been very positively received and attended by employees, and in some case have had a profound impact on the life and wellbeing of employees. CSR and our focus on employee wellness not only align to our corporate culture, but also actively support employee engagement by demonstrating to employees that we live up to our brand promise, both internally and externally.

The ethical agenda is something I’ve been working with for some time, and there is a lot of analysis available that shows how the ethical practices of a company is increasingly a key consideration when buying decisions are made. I think whether you’re a customer or an employee, people are very aware about what’s going on around them, and I believe that a strong ethical agenda is also a magnet in talent retention. and attraction. I believe that most employees want to feel a connection with the companies they work for, and are looking more and more for evidence to demonstrate an alignment between corporate ethics and their own personal ethics. People spend a lot of time at work and it is important for them to feel a real connection with the company who employs them.

Do you think people’s motivations have changed?  

I am not sure that motivations have changed per se, as they will always be personal by definition, but I think that expectations have changed and employees are looking for more from employers than just a market competitive package, so how you differentiate yourself as an employer and creating an environment where the company demonstrates a genuine interest in its employees, does make a difference.

What are the next challenges in the business?  

It goes without saying that ensuring we have the right talent in the right place at the right time will always be a key priority for us, especially as the IT industry continues to move at such a pace. HP has a reputation for innovation, but in order to stay ahead of the curve and to spot and address emerging trends, you need to have the right skills and talent. where HR has had a seat at the business table. At HP, we are very much seen as a trusted partner to the business, and that is very compelling and motivational in itself.

Looking back on your career, has HR frustrated you or do you think it has served you, and the organisations you have worked for?  

Well, I don’t ever feel frustrated with the things I get involved with, I think if I ever am frustrated it would be because there are always opportunities to do more, however there are not always enough hours in the day! My role is a fine balance of ensuring that, as an HR team, we respond to the needs of the business today, whilst also thinking about our future needs and ensuring that our HR policies and practices are best in class. It is a wonderfully diverse role and my personal challenge is to ensure that I try and find the right balance between the reactive and the proactive. I love what I do and I am a very expressive person – so if the day were ever to come where I don’t have a spring in my step, that is probably the day I should stop working! Being such an activist, I’m not one that reflects very often, but on the occasions I do, I feel very proud and fortunate to have had such fantastic career opportunities. I tend not to over-analyse things, and this has proven to be a good thing for me career-wise as the best jobs I’ve ever done have proven to be the ones that on paper, were the most daunting. If I had thought about them too much, I might never have taken them, but they are the roles that have really stretched me and forced me out of my comfort zone.

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