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Interview

Shakil Butt
HROD Director , Islamic Relief

Nine/11 was an atrocity against humanity, regardless of race or religions. From those who perished, to those who were part of the rescue effort, to those who ran from the horror, to those in the shockwaves that pulsed across the globe. As the dust settled, Islamic Relief, like everyone, asked “what does this mean to us”? They also argued over whether they should change the organisation’s name. Courageously and appropriately, they didn’t.

Shakil, tell us an idea about your early life and how you got into HR.  

I was born prematurely and developed respiratory problems that lasted throughout my childhood. Back in the 70s if you had any developmental needs you all ended up together in a special needs school. My asthma meant I spent a lot of my pre-teen years in hospital so had plenty of time to indulge my passion – reading superhero comics, of which Spiderman was my favourite. Not surprisingly, I wanted to be a superhero when I grew up, to do amazing things and save the world. However my parents wanted me to be a doctor and whilst I did well in most subjects once I got to college, it was clear medical school was not my natural calling but neither was I going to be a superhero. Aged 18 I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life other than wanting to wear a suit and work in an office. Both my sisters were accountants and so I opted to follow them into accountancy. My first year was a shock as I realised that I had to actually work and these exams were really tough. After my first year studying ACCA my father passed away and I lost all interest in completing my exams so it took me an extra couple of years to pass them. I trained in an accountancy firm and what I enjoyed most was going into different types of businesses, seeing what they did and how they were run.

When I joined Islamic Relief, the first Gulf war had just ended, there was a lot of suffering and turmoil and this little organisation, I suppose was a natural calling for me. For the first four years, I was a volunteer and finally due to their dogged determination, I agreed to join the team as an employee leaving my accountancy career path joining on a very modest remuneration… and my sisters were mortified. Almost immediately, I was sent out to the field, the objective being so that I should see with my own eyes the work that the organisation was involved in. I went to Sudan, and it shocked and challenged every pre-conception I had about such places, where human struggle is a constant so when I returned to the UK I felt utterly compelled to stay longer and so here I am 22 years later.

Following a restructure in 2009, new divisions were created and the trustees asked me to lead on HROD also the Communications division temporarily. HROD at this time was really under developed and became the division for parts of the organisation that did not naturally fit elsewhere – so I inherited internal audit, evaluation, strategy, policy and process in addition to the usual HR & L&D responsibilities. I now had a seat at the board which gave me an essential insight into how boards work and I was quite vocal and emboldened thinking I was occupying a temporary seat, which I think worked in my favour, most of the time. The HRD role was advertised but we failed to attract the right calibre due to the salary package and location. After 18 months as an interim I made a bid for the HR Director role and was appointed on the proviso that I return to university to get qualified… I was 42 years of age, older than most of the lecturers, but secretly I was looking forward to my student discount!

There was lots of work to be done but where to start? There was nobody internally to guide me so I got in contact with some peer HRDs to accelerate my learning and understanding. Martin Kyndt at Christian Aid, Jacquie Heaney at CAFOD and Adrian Blair at World Vision all of whom couldn’t have been more helpful and they opened the door to a closed HRD networking group that has been invaluable to me ever since. Meanwhile, I went to university and enrolled and found my fellow students were in their early 20s, mostly white women so I really was the odd one out being male, Asian, bald and older but age brought the discipline of maturity so I worked hard from day one. I took all the learning back into the workplace, determined to use it to positive affect. The organisation was expanding fast and the HR department needed experienced professionals. I recruited in earnest and built my team around me, based on the Ulrich model.

Hard work paid off and I achieved a distinction for each of my three years at university which led to my course tutor putting me forward for and Overall Marks’ and, thereafter, I received a commendation for the Michael Kelly Outstanding Student Award which is about practical application of learning. At the ceremony I sat in the company of these amazing people and listened to the stories of the other nominees. It inspired me to come back a year later in 2015 where my team won the CIPD HR Team of the Year and a commendation for the CIPD Best ER initiative. It was the first time a charity from our sector had been represented at the awards. I joined the CIPD Board in April 2016 and will be taking over as the Honorary Treasurer chairing the Audit Committee and sitting on the Remuneration Committee. Finally, in September 2016, I was awarded the accolade of HR’s Most Influential for the Not for Profit sector.

Tell us about the background to Islamic Relief, how it started.  

In 1984, Band Aid highlighted the suffering in the Horn of Africa and many in the West got involved in some shape or form. At that time, UK Muslims were great at supporting their extended families and loved ones back home in their countries of origin, but not in the wider world. Our founder, Dr Hany El Banna, was moved by his nephew who said he wanted to help the people in Africa by offering his pocket money which was the equivalent of 20p, our first donation. Dr Hany El Banna along with his friends, and with support from the community, went on to raise £30,000 and then travelled to Sudan to implement a small project. He was a medical doctor and already had a career path with no intention to set up this organisation that now works in over 40 countries but disaster after disaster – some man made, some natural led us to where we are today. During the early 1990s we started professionalising and since have grown to £180M with over 3000 staff globally, in response to the many crisis arising throughout the world, working in partnership with many different faiths and cultures.

When 9/11 happened, it put the spotlight on Islam in a negative way even though it was an atrocity against all humanity including Muslims. At the time we debated whether we should change the name of the organisation in the wake of that tragedy because we knew we had to carry on with our essential work but were concerned about possible negative perceptions. Many organisations and their activities in the charitable sector were scrutinised. We get our funds from so many different sources; individual donations, other charities, businesses and governments so we are used to being audited. We were confident that our systems, policies and procedures were sufficiently robust and we wanted to be completely transparent about the money we raise and where the money is spent. We kept the name and I think that was a great decision, and today, we are a positive Muslim role model in the UK, in fact the largest Islamic faith organisation in the western world. We have experienced qualified professionals across the organisation from every faith and culture which helps us to reach people across the world regardless of race, faith and background.

When I joined in 1991, the first Gulf war had just ended, and there was a lot of suffering and turmoil in the world and this relatively small organisation I suppose was a natural calling for me, being hard wired as a superhero, to save the world… or at least help out. Initially I volunteered my spare time but finally after being asked repeatedly for many years I joined as an employee leaving the accountancy practice where I had honed my financial skills for five years. Shortly after joining I visited Palestine and Sudan which shocked me and challenged every preconception I had about such places, where human struggle is a daily reality. I returned a changed person, determined to put my whole self to use for this organisation that was in its infancy but was absolutely trying to do its best so between 1995 to 2000 I was focused on re-structuring and professionalising the accounts department, hardly the stuff of legend, but totally essential. The systems weren’t mature and the processes were woefully under-developed, and there was a lot of confusion that I had to get to grips with to bring ‘kicking and screaming’ the accounts function into the light to make necessary changes and improvements. I was given a lot of scope and autonomy to develop the department and its systems. After 2007 until 2009 I was in my comfort zone and apart for incremental changes the challenges of having a blank page were not there. At the time I thought I would be in that role forever until I retired.

There aren’t many of your peers that have been the architect of their organisation as you have been.  

Most will have inherited some form of legacy. When I joined there was a small number of people who collectively imagined and worked hard to make the founder’s dream a reality. Everything was new. Everything was an unknown. We were mavericks and pioneers in every way. Back then then we were learning from our sector whereas now we lead our sector on numerous fronts. I really believe my financial background has been an advantage for me with its discipline and structure. But finance is very black and white, it’s either correct or not, whereas HR is more shades of grey. People are complex so HR needs to be agile and flexible but also have the facts – the quantative and qualitative data – to hand. To gain support in the boardroom I used benchmarking information and started to analyse the business in a more methodical way to drive business decisions. I’ve been here 22 years now, have worked under five different CEOs and there’s still so much to do. The speed and scale of our growth and development has been astounding but to operate at this level we have to ensure that we are on our ‘best game’, compliant and ready for action. Advances in technology, communications and logistics are fundamental to everything we do, but at our heart and core are the people we employ to reach the people we serve.

You have people posted in the most hostile, dangerous and chaotic places in the world - that puts HR responsibilities, like health & safety, into sharp relief.  

The way that we respond to the initial stages of a disaster is in a swirl of chaos, even getting access to these places is fraught with obstacles and obviously safeguarding people is a massive concern for us. Over the years, our staff have faced kidnapping, being arrested and even killed. The stark truth is, this is part and parcel of being an aid worker. Just a couple of examples; during the last Iraq war, we had a member of staff in Iraq who was arrested by Saddam Hussain’s forces, tortured in the infamous Abu Ghraib, prison accused of being a Western spy. He was only released when American forces entered Baghdad. Previously we have had someone in Yemen kidnapped and currently we have a situation in which we sadly lost two members of staff in Kenya and we are now trying to support their families. There used to be a time in the developing world, that as an aid worker you were afforded some protection due to your reputation on the ground but that line is becoming increasingly blurred with charity workers being targeted. As the world becomes more fragile it gets a lot harder with more uncertainty. Some of our expats are located in secure compounds to ensure their safety but that pushes the cost of deployment up.

Every HRD has to address health and wellbeing but in this volatile arena, dealing with safety on a regular basis, becomes a real challenge. But we cannot shy away from our charitable objectives and responsibility to help people in need with every crisis being different, bringing its own sharp learning curve. With this backdrop, trying to recruit people can be difficult. Initially when we respond to a disaster there is often turmoil and your workforce usually comes from those in the local community, often led by expatriates. Trying to find the right HR skilled staff in a developing country can be tough and when I first came into this role, we had to parachute in, try to understand a situation usually in a chaotic environment and get to grips with local employment practices and legislation. We now have regional HR Managers localised in key areas working with national counterparts resulting in a better understanding, and therefore improved delivery.

You are operating in extraordinary situations that will be quite alien for most of our readership.  

There’s a case for saying that the more mundane, workaday HR cannot be brushed under the carpet. That’s exactly right, our workforce are people no different to those employed on the shop floor or in retail. Like every organisation we have fantastic employees but we also have bad employees and usually in my experience behind every bad employee is an equally bad manager. Case in point, whilst you’re working hard in the field trying to save lives, it’s all too easy to overlook the HR fundamentals, and you do that at your peril. If you let performance management slip it shows quickly. Having people managed by others lacking management training and support can only lead to one outcome. In fact poor performance can even mean the difference between saving and losing lives. With our rapid growth we had technically brilliant staff but many lacked people/management skills. We had not adequately trained and supported our managers so we put over 100 managers through a development programme to challenge their thinking and understanding of what it means to be a good manager. This contributed to winning the CIPD HR Team of the Year Award.

And an organisation with volunteers, has this compelling environment, where there is deep association with the objectives.  

Yes, saving lives, making a difference and connecting with people across the globe is compelling and rewarding. There is real engagement in what we do being purpose driven and is a significant driver against the often bleak world that we live in.

What Band Aid achieved was, as you say a catalyst. But there is always criticism that even something on that scale is merely a sticking plaster.  

There is that criticism for sure, but if anything, such detractors just make you want to double your efforts. You have to ask the question, what would have happened if Band Aid hadn’t happened? If the world did not respond? A few years ago, ex-Dragon, James Caan came to a fund raising dinner, he said and I’m paraphrasing; “people in Pakistan are still in trouble, where has all this money gone”? We took him with us to Pakistan and he saw first-hand the magnitude of the problems and what we and other organisations are up against. The scale is overwhelming! Immediately after a major disaster, prices increase overnight due to the increased demand for basic necessities. There’s usually a massive exodus to cities resulting in a refugee problem; families often have nothing and are utterly destitute. Typically, aid responses range widely from water purification, slow energy release biscuits, drought resistant crops and earthquake resistant homes. James came back realising that affective aid is scientific and very complex. Aid agency response to disasters is a short-term solution but they have an added responsibility to be a voice for the voiceless, by sharing information and challenging governments to behave differently. Diseases can bring widespread devastation that aid agencies respond to but sometimes it can be addressed by tackling poverty differently like changing a cultural ceremony or tradition that is exacerbating an issue. For example Ebola spread like wildfire across Sierra Leone because of the centuries old tradition of washing dead bodies before burial which was helping pass on the water borne infection. Through our policy work in partnership with Christian Aid, CAFOD and Tearfund working in tandem with the government and faith leaders we managed to convince the local community to bury the dead without washing which stopped Ebola abruptly. We know there will always be floods in Bangladesh because the forest that was the natural protection against flooding is being lost due to deforestation so our response is to supply crops that can grow in flooded environments. That’s a very good example of how aid is changing, and how we as an organisation have to be prepared to change and adapt to new ways of working and advances in technology. This is beautifully illustrated by a wonderful project in China, a rainwater harvesting programme that is solar powered collecting rainfall for agriculture. Of course, corruption is an ever-present menace and we have to constantly be aware that deprivation can lead people to take desperate measures.

What would you say are the key challenges for the future?  

Professionalisation has been a doubleedged sword. We have had people come into our organisation from the corporate world and they bring the focus on outcomes and measuring performance, but can be disconnected from that sense of mission. We are seeing some loss of volunteerism as we attract different kinds of people from those who joined when we were a smaller, younger organisation. Our role in HR is to mobilise them all. Since 9/11 and now with a rise in the far right having the courage to maintain the name of the organisation is a continuous issue for us. Recent events have seen societies across the world shift direction. For me Brexit was a shock and the aftermath even moreso. During my adult life so much had improved, but the mood of the world is very concerning now. Sometimes political correctness gets skewed so I think we are seeing a reaction. Recently, I had a DNA test, and it turns out I am one percent Polynesian, two percent Melanesian, four percent Russian and 93 percent Pakistani. I would love everyone to do a DNA test to realise there is no pure superior race, just the human race and we are all connected.