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Power to the people directors

hr directors

The rising popularity of the role of people director in fashion reflects a wider shift in approach towards well-being at work.

As Brexit uncertainty, a shift in the retail landscape and intense competition in the fashion industry bring high levels of job insecurity, it is more important than ever to shape a strong working culture that ensure the right people are recruited and retained – and their productivity is maximised. As a result, well-being in the workplace is rising up the business agenda.


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Research by the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) and consultancy firm Lane Clark & Peacock, published in November, suggests that employers are increasingly prioritising professional development and well-being benefits for staff, despite wider budgetary pressures.

The people director develops careers, but also values the individual

Fran Minogue, Clarity Search

Its Reward Management report found that nearly all employers (97%) are planning to maintain or increase their spending on employee benefits over the next two years. The research also shows that one in six employers (17%) expect to invest in a formal work-life balance policy within the next year, which could include flexible working and shared parental leave arrangements.

“Well-being has become a much bigger issue, and companies are investing in nurturing their people – they care about their mental health,” confirms Fran Minogue, managing partner of executive search firm Clarity.

New recruits

To support the new emphasis on nurturing staff, more fashion companies are recruiting people directors or chief people officers. One of the latest to do this is US sportswear brand Under Armour, which last month appointed Tchernavia Rocker to the newly created role of chief people and culture officer. She joined from motorcycle maker Harley Davidson, where she was responsible for ”crafting the strategic direction” of its workforce strategy. 

At Under Armour, Rocker replaces Kerry Chandler, who departed from her role as chief HR officer last October. At the time of her appointment, the brand’s chairman and CEO Kevin Plank said Rocker would bring ”deep industry experience in building best in class HR operations while developing strong workplace culture rooted in brand, values and transparency”. 

CEOs are seeking business-savvy internal ambassadors who can drive a positively engaged and highly performing community

Orlando Martins, founder and managing director of executive search consultancy Oresa

Some organisations use the titles HR director and people director interchangeably. However, Minogue says the former is traditionally more focused on firing, hiring and remuneration, while the latter has evolved to reflect the growing emphasis on culture and promoting the well-being of staff – treating them as individuals, as “people”.

“The change of emphasis has brought the change of title,” she explains. “We’ve moved from personnel directors, to HR directors to people directors. Personnel was about payroll and hiring, HR was more about training and development, and the people director develops careers, but also values the individual.

“It’s been happening over the past few years, and now it’s becoming more mainstream.”

Bridging the gap

People directors are better able to bridge the gap between employer and employee, and can be a motivational force, argues Orlando Martins, founder and managing director of executive search consultancy Oresa.

“CEOs are seeking business-savvy internal ambassadors who can drive a positively engaged and highly performing community – the people director can make this happen, provided it isn’t just a title,” he adds. “Progressive HR directors want the title because it allows them to effect the change they want to see.”

Minogue points out that the people director can act as the eyes and ears for the CEO, picking up any groundswells of opinion or changes of mood among staff, as well as disseminating information down through the organisation, and helping to shape the culture.

The chief people officer is a human architect, helping businesses to build the right culture and operational shape for the organisation

Alyson Fadil, chief people officer, N Brown Group

The emergence of the chief people officer over the past few years shows the evolution of HR within fashion – it is no longer seen as a secondary, support role, but rather a C-suite position that is crucial to the effective running of a business. The chief people officer tends to report directly into the CEO.

N Brown Group’s 2018 annual report is entitled Powered by People and emphasises that people are its “single most important asset”. Last February, the group appointed Alyson Fadil, former group people director at Missguided, to the role of chief people officer.

Fadil tells Drapers she thinks of the role as a “human architect, helping businesses to build the right culture and operational shape for the organisation”: “As the ‘critical conscience’ of the senior leaders, the role should set the tone of the organisation. The service delivery of the people team affects every part of a colleague’s journey, and this experience will determine how colleagues feel about the organisation. A good people director should challenge the norm, champion change and be authentic in their delivery.”

Steve Johnson, interim group CEO of N Brown, adds that a successful people director will influence and create the environment so that the people are at the heart of the organisation: “They ensure that colleagues are taken on the journey with the organisation to create the change, rather than performing the functional role of the HR director.”

Happy staff

Other iterations of the people director have emerged, some with more of a focus on learning and development.

Kim wylie headshot (1)

Kim Wylie, Farfetch global director of people development 

Kim Wylie joined Farfetch as global director of people development in August 2018 after more than 11 years at Google, latterly as the Cloud team’s global practice lead for customer change and culture. Her core responsibilities include ensuring all employees have access to the development opportunities that are right for them, as well as onboarding and leadership development. She also heads up an initiative focused on measuring and improving employee happiness and retention.

“I think the most critical attribute is to have a genuine passion for helping people to grow their skills and perform at their best,” she tells Drapers.

“It is also important to have a commercial focus and understanding of the business and the markets that it operates in, so that the focus of the programmes you design are aligned to the overall business strategy and objectives.

”Because we operate in such a fast-paced ever-changing environment, it is very useful to have an understanding of neuroscience and psychology of change as this provides the insights into why people react the way they do in times of uncertainty, and means you can design programmes to support accordingly.

“Understanding a bit about neuroscience and adult learning theory also allows you to design development programmes in a ‘brain-friendly’ way so that learning is engaging.” 

Culture club

Chris Wilkinson joined social shopping marketplace Depop as director of people in May 2017. At the time it had 60 employees – it now has 150, and Wilkinson expects this to grow by about another 100 within the next year. He spends half of his time supporting the leaders of the business, and half growing and supporting the people team, which comprises HR operations, recruitment, learning and development, culture and facilities.

“As we scale, I need to ensure the people function is helping the organisation to reach its strategic goals, but it takes time to build that right set-up, test initiatives and ways of working, and ultimately add as much value as we aspire to,” he says of his fast-evolving role. “The people team also needs to try to ensure everyone’s taken care of, everyone has the chance to develop both in their role and as a person, and that we all have a positive experience in this exciting and somewhat hectic journey of building a company from the ground up.”

One criticism of the ‘people’ approach is being soft and just baking muffins for the team

Chris Wilkinson, director of people,  Depop 

Like many people directors, Wilkinson’s experience is diverse: his first junior roles in HR were in large NHS organisations, where he focused on operational processes and implementing change.

“I think this slightly different pathway was useful training,” he says. “Understanding pressures on the front line, seeing first-hand business decisions, and solutions that worked and didn’t work, and developing customer focus has all added to my abilities as an HR leader.

“I also took on an operations manager role in an ecommerce start-up for a year. Those types of experiences and the learnings you get from them help you build credibility with senior stakeholders who want to know you can understand and support the bigger picture, as opposed to just wearing HR blinkers.”

Business brain

Wilkinson argues that compassion is an important quality in an effective people director – he is a qualified therapist and a trained executive coach.

However, agrees with Wylie that a people director also needs to show a deep understanding of the business: “One criticism of the ‘people’ approach is being soft and just baking muffins for the team. A people director needs sufficient business acumen to be credible and add value to leaders and managers in the business – not just on HR issues, but on the wide range of challenges the company is facing.”

N Brown’s Johnson also notes the importance of strong commercial skills and the ability to “inspire colleagues and be the custodian of the values of the organisation”: “They are also a trusted and challenging confidant of the CEO and need to be someone who is disruptive and challenges the status quo.”

“The people director or chief people officer needs to be informed, proactive and as commercially astute as their peers,” says Fadil. “Gone are the days of a reactive employee relations function. HR has moved to a more proactive, customer-centric service that enables individuals to be the best they can be, both for the business, and themselves. The role is very much about driving strategy, shaping and influencing change, and ensuring we communicate and engage our colleagues to drive performance.”

As trading conditions get tougher, the role of the people director or chief people officer is becoming central to the modern fashion business. While many people teams still oversee the crucial HR functions, leaders in this area have the power to shape the organisational culture and, in turn, ensure the success of the business.

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