Leadership in HR Q & A
Rob Baker - Director of HR, University of South Wales
‘A man who puts the ‘human’ into human resources’, is how a colleague once described him. Rob Baker is a bona fide people person, a committed public servant and an exceptionally modest leader.
We were privileged to speak to Rob about the route his career has taken, his take on involving, rather than imposing change on, people, and his concerns about the loss of face-to-face contact in recruitment.
Your background and career
Tell us a bit about how you got into your current role
Back in 1980, I had an offer to study Economics at Swansea University, but I decided not to take it, much to my mum’s disappointment! Instead, I got a management services job at the local authority, then Taff Ely Borough Council. I am very grateful to them as they put me through two sets of professional exams including one with the CIPD. I was still working in local government with Rhondda Cynon Taff after a large restructure in 1996, but in 2000 my post was made redundant. I wanted to stay in HR, so I got a job with what was then the University of Glamorgan as a temporary HR Officer. It was a scary and very insecure time, but things went well. I’m now their Director of HR.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
It’s a bit of a cliché, but it really is the people. In the modern world of HR, I think on times that I might be a little bit old-fashioned, not in terms of systems and processes, but in the way I strive to always keep people at the heart of what I do.
My bias is towards the development side of HR, as opposed to the more hard-nosed employee relations side, so that’s usually a positive experience. I also enjoy recruitment and bringing in new people. I believe it’s as important for us to promote the University to candidates as it is for them to promote themselves to us, and I work at making that happen.
What has been the key to your success?
I like to think I have the ability to engage and influence people at all levels. I’ve generated a certain amount of respect from the people I’ve worked with over the years, both within HR and managers/stakeholders generally.
I’ve also worked hard, and whilst I believe you make your own luck, I have been in the right places on the right occasions.
Which achievement are you most proud of and why?
There are two. In 1996, following the local government reorganisation, I became head of a new Personnel Business Unit and led them to achieve the Investors in People Accreditation within two years. I was quite proud of that.
Then last year, the University of South Wales carried out a streamlining exercise that was well-publicised. The whole process took up a lot of our 2017 agenda. It was difficult, but we got the anticipated redundancies down from 140 down to under 30 – still sad times, but a much improved result. I even got an unexpected but much appreciated formal thanks from the Deputy Vice Chancellor!
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?
You can’t impose things on people; you have to involve them and take them with you to get the best results. I think we’re still short-sighted in that respect. Sometimes you have no choice but to make changes, but you can still do it by involving people in the ‘how’ even if not the ‘what’. Buy-in from the top is important too.
Which 3 qualities do you think are most important for aspiring HR leaders?
Number one, without any doubt, is integrity. If you haven’t got integrity, you’ve had it. You’ve got to be honest with people – they appreciate it, even when it’s bad news. People usually prefer a straight message than no message at all.
Strategic vision is also important: not being content with the way things are, always looking to try and improve, constantly pushing for something better.
Thirdly and unsurprisingly, communication: a huge number of things that go wrong are because the communication isn’t there.
What advice would you give to those with ambitions to reach a management or leadership level in HR?
Make sure you get the chartered CIPD Membership as soon as you can. It’s the golden ticket to any career development within HR, particularly if you’re looking to get into any kind of leadership role. I believe there is a slight disconnect between its high value and what it actually provides, but its status is beyond question. Beyond that, it’s about stretching yourself and having the right attitude. A prospective employer or same employer will be looking to see you have pushed the boundaries of your current role and pursued/embraced development opportunities.
Current issues in HR
What do you think is the biggest challenge for HR in the workplace?
Within Higher Education, I would say it’s the uncertainty. Since the introduction of student fees, there’s been a direct correlation between student numbers and income. 92% of USW’s income comes directly from student fees, but we’re in a demographic downturn and our market is expected to keep shrinking until 2020 and then not recover to its 2016 rates until 2026. Add to that Brexit and tighter immigration restrictions for international students, and it certainly is a challenging time. The need to do more with less is pretty constant.
Which employees can benefit the most from mentoring?
I’m a big fan of mentoring. Mentoring schemes work really well for those who take them up and can benefit anyone with the right attitude! You have got to want to engage, otherwise it’s doomed to fail.
At the University of South Wales, we look at providing mentors to new starters, but also for those seeking personal development.
In your experience, what are the best ways to engage employees?
The most essential thing is to talk to them. Find a way to communicate with everyone – there is a way to get through to most people. We try and do a lot through focus groups and we also talk to our trade unions informally, as well as formally. It’s also about being realistic, managing expectations and keeping promises. And if you can’t deliver on something, be honest about it.
I like methods which involve team building, participation and – let’s not be afraid to say it - fun.
AI: hindrance or help for HR?
Until recently, it wasn’t really on our radar. But I’d say some of our systems are quite intuitive now. We’ve got an e-recruitment system which could be developed for pre-assessment in administrative level roles – particularly those with a high volume of applicants. But my worry about AI is the loss of face-to-face contact – which is absolutely critical to recruitment. I think AI has its place, and in the competitive market we’ve got to try and embrace it - but cautiously.
What impact do you think GDPR will have on your role?
I’m leading the HR project within the University, so huge! I think GDPR is a case of ‘a massive sledgehammer to crack a nut’. Other than bureaucracy, it hasn’t added much to existing data protection regulations, but it has reenergised the efforts to safeguard people’s data, which is a good thing.
When and how can a recruitment partner be of most help to an HR department?
Operationally, there are two ways; providing us with an interim solution to an issue we have, but also introducing us to people for longer term and permanent engagements. If we didn’t want to go down the traditional recruitment path, we’d need to be reassured a recruitment partner had done their screening and that the people they were putting in front of us were capable and appropriate for the role.
Strategically, a recruitment partner can help us understand the market better and provide intelligence that we probably wouldn’t have internally.