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Managing professional development and role transition in HR

James Ryan, COO of Ammeon joins us for our first Q&A session of the Robert Walters HR Insights Series. This session focuses on professional development and James discusses how his previous experience as Head of HR has had a crucial impact on his role today as Chief Operating Officer. See what James had to say:

Could you describe Ammeon’s business to those who may not be familiar with what you do?

Ammeon is an IT services organisation helping companies with their digital transformation. Ammeon specialises in Agile, DevOps tooling, Cloud and modern Software development. By embedding an agile mindset with the right tools and right people we help companies deliver better software faster.

What do you see to be the usual challenges a senior HR professional faces in any business when it's ‘Business as Usual’?

For anyone who has spent time working in HR, Business as Usual scenarios don’t exist in fast moving businesses. It’s one of the attractions and challenges of HR - every day is different. Experience allows you to make better decisions on what priorities are most important, but I have always found trying to push forward projects while ensuring the smooth day to day running of a department is always a precarious balancing act. Addressing organisational debt, automating processes, putting in place robust SaaS systems and processes and creating HR agility requires time effort.

In many organisations a total change of mindset at C level about what the function of HR actually is needs energy and attention. In recent years employee attraction and engagement have been to the fore particularly in software companies where employees value novelty of technology and project variety over role security.

What do you see to be the very particular challenges facing HR professionals now in this time of global crisis?

In times of change organisations often look to HR for leadership. At the moment there are many new challenges to face. There are obvious issues such as having to deal with new emergency legislation across multiple jurisdictions as layoffs, furloughs and other measures are brought into place to ensure business continuity. But on a more human level, there are growing levels of stress and uncertainty among employees who are not only worrying about their health but also about job security.

HR and recruitment are working on brand new ways to attract employees and crucially, onboarding them remotely. This comes with a range of new issues such as challenges with supply chain for employee laptops with increasing lead times, to online security and home ergonomics. 

Engaging with existing employees and finding ways to maintain productivity while ensuring we are flexible enough to appreciate the personal challenges people face such as working at home with kids or caring for elders.

Many of my colleagues in HR are struggling with technical debt in back office technology stacks having to make difficult decisions about sending employees in to work because they don’t have Saas HR systems

From your own career development point of view, can you describe how you transitioned from working in the role Head of HR and Organisational Development in Ammeon to that of Chief Operating Officer?

I’d like to say that it was a carefully planned career move but it wasn’t! Before I moved into HR I worked as a technologist. I wasn’t particularly gifted, but I love technology, so I have always taken in an interest in how businesses operate and how technology enables companies to work better. I was fortunate to join a management team in Ammeon who genuinely care about their people and were open to fresh ideas. I had some success creating an AgileHR environment with the help and buy in of my team.

Together we transformed the way HR operates and drove initiatives across the whole organisation in a relatively short period of time we updated our internal communication systems and ways of working and transformed our HR systems to be fully SaaS. We created a more open and transparent culture which people have bought into.

When the new CEO was promoted from another part of the business he asked me to join him to help transform the broader company using the same approach. I gave him at least 10 reasons why I was a bad choice for the role, but he offered me the job in any case. Little can prepare you for a role like COO - it’s intense but also intensely enjoyable.

What aspects from your previous experience do you most readily leverage off in your position as Chief Operating Officer?

I think HR provides a very good springboard into the role of Chief Operating Officer. I worked for many years as a HR Business Partner which gave me exposure to a huge variety of issues: everything from compliance, legal and health and safety to IT security and audits and dealing with difficult conversation.

In HR, you are responsible for everyone in the company all the time so the number of staff you have to look after is not a shock. HR roles prepare you for a heavy and varied workload and working under pressure. The biggest challenge is moving from a role of influence to one of authority. Learning to make good decision in ambiguous situations when everyone is looking at you is hard.

What advice would you give to those who may want to follow a similar career trajectory to yourself?

Be excellent at your current job but don’t limit yourself to learning about HR and simply moving in HR circles. Really get to know how the business you work for operatesIf you are not passionate about what the company does move to an organisation where you genuinely believe in what the company is trying to do. Learn about other parts of the business: marketing, IT, finance. And Read. Read about management, leadership. Read about your area of business.

Ask loads of questions of managers and employees and get stuck into steering groups or hackathons or other areas where you collaborate with a broad cross section of the company. If you can find yourself a mentor who may have gone on this journey before you and can relate to the day-to-day pressures.

Find out what is important to senior management and help management become aware of the problems and help them solve those issues. Not only will your day-to-day become more interesting but you will prepare yourself for the step up.


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