Few people have had a career as illustrious as Gareth Bennett’s. The 2012 recipient of the Australian HR Awards accolade for Lifetime Achievement, Gareth talked to Iain Hopkins about the transition to consultancy work, why change should be relished, and why boards need more HR practitioners
Human Capital: What drew you to an HR role initially?
Gareth Bennett: The thing that drew me was the fact that if you get into the right kind of HR role you can work across every facet of a business. It’s integral to the business and it’s dealing with the elements of business which are the most complicated: the people. I chose very carefully – Ford Motor Company was my training ground, and it was superb.
HC: You’ve worked in many industries, in many well-known companies, and in many different countries. Which of your HR roles has stood out for you in terms of challenges, and also in terms of the satisfaction you got from the role?
GB: It’s hard to pick any particular role because what I’ve always done is sought out blue-chip companies in challenging environments where the industry was going through a huge change. I went into the motoring industry when there were huge amalgamations and mergers going on. That was fantastic. The excitement for me is in change, whether that’s geography, culture, or sector. I can’t imagine being in a steady-state organisation.
HC: What tip would you pass on to other HR professionals involved in significant change initiatives?
GB: The mergers and acquisitions side of things is an area that can be hugely stimulating and you can make a huge contribution, but only if you push the boundaries of what is defined as HR. Really it’s getting involved, or putting yourself forward to get involved, at the early stage – for example, during an acquisition, being involved in the legal side, the due diligence side, the financials. All those things will grow you as a person, and it demonstrates you can make a true business contribution. If I look back on the AGL days, for example, with the merger, demerger and so forth with Alinta, with all the legal battles that went on and work with the ACCC, that was an incredible learning process.
HC: Do you think HR professionals have the skills to navigate those legally complex areas?
GB: It’s important to realise what you don’t know. Going in blindly can be very dangerous. Entered into with eyes open and as part of an overall business team it can be a great growth experience, but you can’t go in making legal or financial decisions without the right kind of advice.
HC: You’ve recently started your own HR consultancy company, R&R Consulting. What do you miss about working ‘in-house’, and also what do you enjoy most about consulting work?
GB: In-house has a lot going for it in terms of working with great business and HR teams – that stimulation from colleagues is something you can miss if you’re not careful. Also, if you like continuity then probably you’ll miss that too. But on the flipside it’s the ability to explore new businesses, understand what makes the people in those businesses tick, and understand new models. It’s the freedom to work with the people I want to work with.
HC: What would your top tip be for other HR professionals considering making that switch?
GB: The first thing I’d ask is what is my motivation for doing this? The second is to develop a business plan. Third would be to market test that with some people who you know well and aren’t just going to say “Yes, great idea – go for it”. Have an advisory board in place so you can test your ideas, and give them permission to say it’s not a good idea. Without that, it’s easy to get carried away with your own rhetoric. Having the right kind of network is essential ... both to tell you what not to do and to encourage you as well.
HC: What do you consider to be your biggest career achievement to date?
GB: There are so many things I’ve enjoyed. Overall, it would be demonstrating I can adapt and succeed across geographies and cultures.
HC: What do you think it takes to succeed in HR?
GB: You have to be a business person first and an HR person second. I don’t mean HR isn’t important – what I mean is you must understand you are a business person. If you are purely interested in people, then probably social work is the right place to go. There’s nothing further from social work than a business role in HR. You have to make some very tough calls on very tough issues. You also need a strong sense of integrity, of organisational courage. That’s essential if you’re going to give the right advice to business leaders. You have to understand the business; be able to analyse and cut through incisively. Have empathy, be calm under pressure, and be a good listener with a sense of humour!
HC: Have you seen that ‘business person first’ skillset evolve in HR practitioners?
GB: I think they are evolving because there isn’t time these days for business people to translate things into HR speak, for them to go away and come back with a solution. If you want a seat at the table you have to speak the language of business. So yes, I am seeing adaption among the best HR people, and it’s increasingly a demand from business.
HC: What advice would you give to graduates considering a career in HR?
GB: Development of business acumen is all-important. Networking is important. And if you look at the way businesses are moving, with a strong sense of values underpinning them, it comes down to the ethical debate around what is morally right as opposed to legally right.
HC: Perhaps this is to help balance other conflicting areas of business interest?
GB: That’s where the HR skillset can come into its own. I’m not saying you’re the moral guardian, but it’s asking those difficult questions. I’ve posed the question to CEOs and leadership teams: Ok, we know that’s legally correct, but how would you feel if that appeared in the newspapers? It’s being able to challenge in a way that’s still team-oriented.
HC: Maybe that’s what CEOs expect of their HRDs? To bring that perspective to the table?
GB: I’d like to think so. Certainly that’s the sort of CEO I’d like to work with and those are the sort of business leaders I like to help develop.
HC: You’ve also had extensive experience on boards. Do you think more HR professionals should aspire to be on boards? What might need to change to make this more prevalent?
GB: Yes, I do think there’s a role for HR. Boards know they must increase their gene pool so questions of diversity are becoming more important, both to shareholders and the boards themselves. There are different demands on boards, and we’re moving towards the HR skillset being more appreciated at that level. If you look at current issues – CSR, diversity, remuneration, succession issues, organisational strategy, cultural issues – all these are now big topics for boards, ones by which they’re measured. For the right HR people, that role on boards can be very stimulating, providing they’ve done their homework in terms of understanding corporate governance and risk mitigation, compliance and ethics. It’s a world which is not for the faint-hearted. There are huge responsibilities and liabilities that go with it – but it can be very stimulating and I’d encourage people to head that way.
HC: Where do you see HR as a profession heading in the future?
GB: I’ve alluded to the speed of change ever increasing. For HR it can’t be a purely technical standalone area. I believe in the business first, HR second mantra. There has to be more stimulation from that business team for top-line growth rather than cost-cutting. There will be more focus on truly embracing diversity and inclusiveness. It’s going to call for more organisational courage, especially given that people aspiring to HR roles these days want to do something which does something in society beyond just making money. How do you truly unlock people’s commitment, get that engagement? That’s all about the culture of the organisation, and where we can make a really big impact. You can’t command engagement in this world. When you look at the demands of CSR, ethics, diversity, risk, all of these areas are where HR can make integral contributions to the business and push the boundaries of HR at the same time.