HR Most Influential 2012 Top 30 Practitioners


The most noticeable difference in people’s comments this year is the difficult trading environment in which HR practitioners are operating – mentioned by both private and public sector respondents. The result is that bravery is one admired quality making an HR director influential in the eyes of the sector in 2012, defined in this case as being willing to tackle ‘tough’ topics, challenge conventional HR thinking and having the skills to lead change issues – in particular speaking out to challenge the business, when necessary. 

Deborah Baker, group director for people at BskyB (8), Valerie Hughes- D’Aeth, group HR director at Amey (10), Sandy Begbie, group operations officer at Standard Life (14), Geoff Lloyd, group HR director at Serco (16), Steve Connock, group HR director at National Express (24) and Claire Balmforth, group HR director, Carpetright UK (28), are all mentioned for this influence at the top in businesses playing in challenging sectors, many of which are regularly in the news. 

Another consistent theme is strategic awareness, one of the skills marking out ‘great’ HR practitioners from those who are simply ‘good and competent’. Often this is the ability to move HR from a support, backroom function into a strategic role, becoming a business partner. “It can however be challenging to create such change, as it may require an image makeover for HR and altering long-established stereotypes,” says Ashridge Business School research director, Vicki Culpin. “A model of HR at the heart of the organisation, working closely with the senior team, is something that individuals who are nominated, as well as those making the final ranking, often achieve.” 

HR knowledge and expertise are important, but it is also about what Gillian Hibberd, strategic director (resources and business transformation) at Buckinghamshire County Council and ranked number 11 in the HR practitioner list, describes as the value of “thinking ahead long-term, and making sure HR is more pro-active” (The Ashridge Management Index 2010 by Carina Paine Schofield, Fiona Dent and Viki Holton, 2010). In other words, it is all too easy in HR to do short-term thinking, but this should not be at the expense of longer term planning. 

This is certainly the case with 2012’s top ranked practitioner, Dean Royles, director of NHS Employers. His leadership, integrity and insight are all commented upon, particularly important in the highly complex and turbulent world of the NHS. As one respondent who ranked him first says: “The NHS is going through a major period of transition following the Health and Social Care Act, and is facing challenges outside of this with regards to a wide range of HR issues.” He continued: “Royles has provided leadership in taking forward negotiations on national issues on behalf of NHS HR, which has a potential impact on many thousands of staff and the future funding and budgetary capacity of the NHS. He has tenacity and drive, and always enthuses and motivates.” Another adds: “Royles has led the HR community through choppy waters at a time of unprecedented change” while yet another said: “He has given fresh energy to tackling the enormous workforce challenges in the NHS at a time of transformation.” Royles combines the qualities of being both a strategic thinker and pragmatic practitioner and his role modelling best-in-class business partnering is highlighted by those who voted for him. 

In his role at NHS Employers, Royles works with England’s NHS Trust to ensure the voice of employers is heard in the health reform agenda, as well as keeping employers up to date with latest workforce thinking and practice. According to those who voted for him, he has made a big impact in the role “both in terms of supporting the fundamental changes facing the NHS and wider engagement across the public sector”, as well as “creating insight into the productivity challenges in the NHS” and playing a crucial role in national negotiations on terms and conditions. 

Communication is key to this and it is clear the sector thinks Royles has it in spades. “He does the difficult and complex and explains the trade-offs while remaining a human being,” says one respondent, while another notes his visibility and availability. Many respondents pick up on his “excellent communications”, which he conducts both in person and through social media. 

“The leading HR professionals invariably are good presenters and have great communication skills – both of which matter a good deal for ‘influence’ and personal reputation,” explains Culpin. “However, many are aware of the danger of using too much jargon when they talk about HR. It is a criticism levelled against other professions as well, but one that is made frequently about HR people (and within organisations about HR initiatives). The key issue for HR should always be about simplicity and clarity, something the highly ranked practitioners all display.” 

With 1.4 million employees and about 70% of the £110 billion annual budget spent on the pay bill, the NHS is a big beast. From our survey results, it is clear there is admiration for people such as Royles who have the big jobs in the field. Wendy Cartwright, director of HR, Olympic Delivery Authority, is straight in at fourth place in our practitioner list. As one person says, the proof of an HR director’s effectiveness is the performance of the organisation they support and “this year’s Olympics is testimony to Cartwright”. Another mentions her “amazing delivery of such a large and unique project”. 

Those responsible for HR in global, multinational environments, such as Tracy Clarke, group head HR and communications, Standard Chartered Bank (12), Gareth Williams, HR director, Diageo (9), Hugh Mitchell, chief HR and corporate officer, Royal Dutch Shell (6) and Claire Thomas, senior vice president, HR, GlaxoSmithKline (5), are recognised for their influence in complex, challenging environments. The importance of this aspect of influence in the eyes of the HR community has risen this year, with all the above either putting in their first appearance, or jumping greatly up the HR Most Influential Practitioner ranking. 

While GlaxoSmithKline’s Thomas has a lower profile outside the 1,250-employee global business than some on the list, her strategic thinking, inspirational approach and – importantly – delivery to business are widely recognised. One respondent talks of GSK always being head of the curve on HR issues, while another mentions Thomas’s huge influence within the business, with a strong influence over strategy: “At the GSK senior leadership table, Thomas is ranked in the top three in terms of influence and capability”. She is regarded as a driving force behind the transformation of both HR and the business as a whole, achieving cost and headcount reduction a year ahead of target, while retaining a 73% employee satisfaction rating. 

Although not one of the most visible in the HR community, Thomas’s influence is recognised externally, with her appointment as a non-executive director for the Department of Energy and Climate Change in November last year adding to her honour as Outstanding European Woman of Achievement back in 2007. 

Like Thomas, Royal Dutch Shell’s Mitchell is hugely respected globally and is seen as providing consistent, thoughtful HR leadership, ensuring there are HR people on every business leadership team within the 101,000-strong company. “He is one of the most strategic HR directors in Europe” and “an international HR director respected across continents” note two respondents, while others pick up on his influence in changing a cultural and corporate mind-set and management of employee engagement issues.

 Diageo’s Williams is noted in particular for his role in introducing fresh talent into both the drinks brand (“he is setting a standard for beverages in the industry attracting people to the brand”) and into the HR profession as a whole. He “runs a very sophisticated international HR function”, says one who voted for him, while another mentions his “far-thinking focus on ‘purpose’ as a key element of employee engagement”. 

Meanwhile, Standard Chartered Bank’s Clarke is regarded as an “admirable ambassador for HR in financial services”, managing a complex portfolio of people and business issues. She is “resilient”, a “real people strategist, placing people at the heart of the business as a key differentiator” and “always looking for added-value contributions from people management – great use of business and HR data to inform decision-making”. 

Making a contribution to the HR profession is seen by those who voted as an important indicator of influence, a quality displayed by Anne Gibson, head of HR and organisational development, Norfolk County Council (15) in her work as president of the Public Sector People Managers’ Association (PPMA). The willingness to share ideas with others in the profession is something that impresses others; it is mentioned about a number of those ranked this year, including seventh placed Helen Giles, director of HR, Broadway and managing director, Real People, who has “introduced a successful consultancy to support the charity work done by Broadway”. It is also a frequent comment about four-times number one ranked HR practitioner and HR director winner of our HR Lifetime Achievement Award 2012, David Fairhurst, chief people officer Europe, McDonald’s, who “readily shares with the profession”. 

Last year’s interviews with chief executives helped to identify what ‘good HR’ looks like. One aspect they highlighted was energy and enthusiasm, a positive approach to solving issues. Another was being “good at looking at things from a business perspective”, something third-ranked Caroline Waters, director of people and policy, BT, excels at. “A great ambassador for the function, she combines an ethical approach with business know-how”, was one comment, while displaying “evidence of long commitment to better working practices, enthusiasm for work life balance, diversity, flexible working – against a backdrop of difficult economy and industrial relations.” Another said: “BT has one of the most amazing inter-generational management policies that I have seen in the UK. This is an area in which UK companies in general are rather unprepared. I congratulate her for taking this approach. Bravo!” Waters is seen as a “stalwart of the industry, totally secure and assured in her handling and always understated” and an “outstanding original thinker, a great representative of HR”. 

Standing out from other companies can also make a difference. For instance, Gwyn Burr, customer service and colleague director at Sainsbury’s (13), won the firm a Gold status in the Investors in People awards, the first time a food retailer has won this accolade. External roles and winning awards clearly help build the reputation of the individuals concerned, although this has to be solid achievements, rather than a reputation built only on ‘conference circuit slots’. 

Second-ranked practitioner, Tanith Dodge, HR director at Marks and Spencer, is noted for her contribution both to the Business in the Community staff engagement project (Workwell) and to the MacLeod working group on engagement – both solid achievements. She is regarded as “dynamic and wholly pragmatic, delivering the things she promised” and “a board-level heavy hitter” with “a strong contribution to employee engagement”. A number of HR practitioners on the list are involved in various roles and topics – working with the CIPD, other professional and management associations, as well as governmental and EU working groups.

HR Most Influential 2012 Top 30 Practitioners
2012 2011 Name, title and organisation
1 New Dean Royles, director, NHS Employers
2 6 Tanith Dodge, HR director, Marks and Spencer
3 3 Caroline Waters, director of people and policy, BT
4 New Wendy Cartwright, director of HR, Olympic Delivery Authority
5 25 Claire Thomas, senior vice president, HR, GlaxoSmithKline
6 22 Hugh Mitchell, chief HR and corporate officer, Royal Dutch Shell
7 13 Helen Giles, director of HR, Broadway and MD, Real People
8 New Deborah Baker, group director for people, BskyB
9 23 Gareth Williams, HR director, Diageo
10 New Valerie Hughes D’Aeth, group HR director, Amey
11 7 Gillian Hibberd, strategic director (resources and business transformation), Buckinghamshire County Council
12 New Tracy Clarke, group head HR and communications, Standard Chartered Bank
13 23 Gwyn Burr, customer service and colleague director, Sainsbury’s
14 11 Sandy Begbie, group operations officer, Standard Life
15 17 Anne Gibson, head of HR and organisational development, Norfolk County Council
16 16 Geoff Lloyd, group HR director, Serco
17 27 Sara Edwards, vice president, HR, Orient Express
18 New Mike Cooke, chief executive, London Borough of Camden
19 New Tracy Robbins, EVP global HR and group operations support, IHG
20 New Martin Rayson, divisional director of HR and organisational development, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham
21 New Natalie Bickford, HR director, Sodexho on-site service solutions Europe
22 21 Ronald Schellekens, group HR director, Vodafone
23 New Catherine Brown, executive director, HR, Bank of England
24 New Steve Connock, group HR director, National Express
25 New Terry Nolan, group HR director, Smiths Industries
26 New Karen Geary, group HR director, Sage Group
27 New Daniel Kasmir, group head of HR, FNZ
28 New Claire Balmforth, operations director - UK, Carpetright
29 New Althea Loderick, director of HR and transformation, London Borough of Waltham Forest
30 New Matt Huckin, group HR director, IMI