HR from the grassroots up

by 19 Mar 2012

It may just be the ultimate dream of any professional, let alone any HR professional: to start a function afresh, without the burden of past mistakes or legacies or set-in-stone structures. Starting an HR department from scratch is an opportunity that only comes up so often, but it’s an experience that Hilary Lamb, director of human resources, people and culture at CROSSMARK, recalls with relish.

Rewinding the clock back to August 2000, and following roles as a field manager, key account manager and national sales training manager in the FMCG industry, Lamb decided on a career change. She explains: “At that time I accepted a role with retail marketing company, The Marketing Department [TMD]. Initially, it was intended to be a training role, but it quickly became apparent that there was a real need in the expanding business for a HR – and I was it!” 

Fortunately, Lamb had undertaken training, development and recruitment tasks in previous roles, so she felt she “wasn’t completely out of my depth”. However, she recognised she had the responsibility to provide much more than that, so commenced the process by interviewing the key stakeholders of the business to determine the most pressing needs and priorities, while undergoing some targeted study to enhance her own skills.

“My ace in the hole was that the managing directors within the company fully supported the development of the HR department and were encouraging of the initiatives I wanted to implement,” she explains. “However, some of our associates didn’t immediately recognise the benefit of structured policies and procedures and regular performance reviews.”

She adds that the rewards came over time, particularly after TMD had initiated company-wide training programs, which led to changed behaviours in the business and an eagerness for more learning. After a year or so, Lamb was able to employ a HR executive, and from those beginnings the team now consists of four people in Australia, and one in New Zealand. 

“It has been an extraordinary journey, building a company from 80 to 1,000 staff over just eight years. The successful growth of the department brought me immense pleasure and satisfaction,” Lamb says.

And the upwards progress is continuing. Following the acquisition of TMD by CROSSMARK, the company now has over 2,000 staff working in stores across Australia and New Zealand.

 Path to HR

Although Lamb concedes her move from marketing to sales, and finally to HR “certainly wasn’t the traditional route”, she adds that “people take different routes to reach the same destination”. She also feels her path has provided amazing insights into the challenges of client-facing roles and an understanding of what they need from HR in order to be successful. 

“What has worked for me may not suit everyone, but my experience leads me to recommend that HR practitioners seek the opportunity to gain experience in other business areas – whether that be finance, sales, marketing, field operations, logistics or general management. 

“Embrace the challenges and learn to speak the language of your internal clients. While HR is a specialist function in its own right, walking in their shoes will give you greater credibility and understanding.” 


In her current role, Lamb’s broad responsibilities are to contribute to the development and delivery of business growth strategies. Her functional responsibilities encompass all of the elements at CROSSMARK that affect its associates – this includes recruitment, performance management, training and development, WHS, ER/IR, “as well as cultural custodian, company conscience and general pressure valve!” Lamb adds. 

Lamb also manages a hosting service for CROSSMARK clients whereby the company recruits and payrolls associates on behalf of clients as required. “It’s a flexible service that is readily embraced and is growing steadily,” she explains. “I changed my job title last year to be more reflective of my responsibilities, to include the words 'people' and 'culture'. It’s a role I absolutely love and I look forward to coming to work every day.” 

Her experience at CROSSMARK has also proven that in order to be truly effective, HR needs to be seamlessly integrated with all of the other departments within the company. “Standing alone, ignorant or separated from business strategies and operations, creates unnecessary barriers and diminishes our ability to support the broader business, talking their language and understanding their issues.” 

As a result, many of the company’s HR strategies are designed and delivered through collaboration with other departments; cross-functional project teams are common-place and Lamb notes that “participation is never lacking”. 

The key to that participation, she adds, is respecting the views of others and collaborating on many levels – often through healthy debate – to ensure buy-in from the outset and to address business concerns during the development phase, which speeds up the implementation of initiatives. 

“As a support function, we are able to align closely with business and client strategies to tailor our recruitment, design performance management processes, consult on structure, develop incentive and bonus initiatives, refine policies and procedures, and generally deliver as a strategic partner within CROSSMARK,” Lamb says.  

To align with the business’ and clients’ needs requires a strong and clearly articulated focus on what people want from working with HR, and of course what HR needs from them. 

“Learning and development is consistently at the top of both lists, and is a crucial element for our success – both as an employer and as a supplier. One of my greatest pleasures is seeing junior recruits fulfilling their career aspirations, and growing into senior roles within CROSSMARK or with our clients,” Lamb says. 

Core challenges

This HR partnership will stand the function in good stead for the future. Lamb says the biggest HR challenges will always lie within the core of HR work, which is people management – attracting, recruiting and retaining the right talent within the business. At present her team is challenging itself to find innovative and practical ways to employ new technology that will enable staff to fulfil their roles to the best of their ability.

“HR has evolved from being purely focused on staff and personnel to being more strategic, considering how staff can contribute to the business and its future. In my view HR in large and successful service companies will always have a seat at the executive table,” she concludes.