Diary of a Misfit 1: Maverick for Hire

If you want to get ahead...go to Lock and Co.

If you want to get ahead…go to Lock and Co.

I am a misfit, a freak of nature, the result of a three-year HR experiment gone badly wrong.  

Either that or I am the future, a ground-breaking trailblazer to lead HR into a new era.
I’m not sure which – and this is why I need your help.
You see, after more than a decade as a commercial creative director for a leading UK publisher (and, yes, I wore a trilby and supported a drinks cabinet long before Don Draper came to the screen), one day –almost by accident – I crossed the line and found myself in the world of HR.
I said goodbye to shooting video shorts in the South of France and hello to staff engagement surveys.
The swimwear shoots in LA were replaced by standards of business conduct training, and the daily creative brainstorming sessions with clients, ad agencies, creatives and editors were swapped for a daily round of coaching, grievances, disciplinaries, restructures and wildly differing employee relations issues.
I kept the hat and hid the drinks cabinet.
When I accepted the role of HR operations director in late 2009, my excitement was matched in equal measure by the incredulity of my friends and colleagues. ‘WTF?’ became a regular Facebook refrain from friends.
But I took it as a golden opportunity and an inspired risk by the board.
A novel approach
The reality is that the two roles are more closely aligned that you might first think because my entire career has been based on branding, communication and engagement.
So, while I had previously helped to create a campaign in a bid to excite the public about, say, a niche brand of shampoo, my audience now was our employees, and the product, the company itself. I was, in effect, helping to ‘rebrand’ HR to meet the rapidly changing business and employee needs of the 21st century.
I like to think I gave a fresh perspective on the projects I worked on – flexible working, innovation, revenue generation, employee engagement, diversity and the like – and dealt with staff and senior management in a new and engaging way.
My move was certainly welcomed by the business as a novel approach at all levels and used as an example of exactly the sort of lateral move more employers should consider. It was heralded as a new and valuable sort of career development – an innovative model to replace the traditional vertical route.
At conferences, I could present first-hand our ground-breaking approach to HR, showing the value of taking pragmatism and commercial acumen from the line and using it to improve the way that HR does business.
I heard other HR directors, managers, HR recruitment specialists and chief executives all rave about the idea. In fact, they still do.
But in just a few months, my tenure as HR director is set to come to a close and with it, apparently, any hope of landing a new job. I took the role – a three-month secondment acting as maternity cover – to see where it might lead. Sadly, it seems it is about to lead me straight into unemployment.
This situation is partly down to timing and partly down to my CV. Although I have been fortunate enough never to have had to rely on one before, when I came to craft it, I found that it had something of a split personality.
As a manager, I have long experience with CVs and what makes them work. As a creative, I know all about branding. But when it comes to selling me in a CV, I am all at sea and everyone has a different piece of advice.
Too much of a maverick
“You haven’t spent long enough in HR to land another job at the level you are used to,” says one recruiter I spoke to. “And you’ve been out of creative for three years so that’s not a viable route either.”
It is a familiar refrain.
“I am afraid you are too much of a maverick to put in front of my client, who has very clear ideas of what he wants,” says another. He shows me the candidate brief, which is anything but.
It is a closely typed six-page description of the role and the required candidate that, to be fair, gives little space for any wiggle room when it comes to diversity or innovation.
My wife is equally tough. “You need to highlight your successes,” she says. “What are they?”
“I don’t have any. It’s a team effort,” I say. “Think of me as a facilitator.”
“I’ll think of you as unemployed,” she snaps.
A week later, I get feedback from a prospective employer: “He keeps saying ‘we’. We did this, we did that…there’s no mention of an ‘I’.
My wife glares at me when I relay this news. Clearly, I need to exist more.
Apparently I also need more numbers. “Get some numbers in there – people need numbers,” a recruiter tells me. Another one backs this call and urges me to produce a list of achievements under various HR headings and to bury the creative stuff from my past life.
Embracing both sides
Listing in detail seems at odds with everything I look for in a CV. Shouldn’t a CV be a tantalising flavour of someone rather that a detailed job description? Or is this the creative in me?
To be honest, my favourite part of any CV is the interests section. If someone says that they can do a job, I tend to believe them (and, anyway, if they can’t, that is what a probationary period is for).
In the past, I have hired people for their attitude, which you can do more easily in creative but perhaps less so in HR, where life is more regimented.
The upshot is that, after almost 100 applications for a variety of HR roles, I am having no luck. Nobody is interested. My USP – my commercial background – is not only not selling, but appears to be acting as a handicap.
I fear that I should never have crossed the line! Then I meet Mike Everett for coffee and everything changes.
Mike is that rare thing of being both a former CEO and HR director and, clearly, a man of great talent. He urges me to embrace my creative and HR sides and to be ashamed of neither. And then he gives me the most valuable piece of advice of all: “Ask for help – go to your network.”
Yes, I know, it’s obvious, right? Well, it is until you feel that by asking you are somehow a failure.
But I do it and feel empowered and suddenly within a day, two recruitment agencies, a seasoned senior recruiter and Network Rail rise as if from nowhere to answer the call. Please stand up Frazer Jones, Handle and Caroline Foote, founder of Career Moves, as well as Ian Iceton, a recent star signing for Network Rail.
They acknowledge that I am a freak but seem to relish the challenge and are excited about my background. They even fight to get me included on shortlists. Is there hope?

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