The power of networking for HR

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Chris Heron

Thursday, August 6, 2020

This week I am with Oliver Sturgeon. Oliver has spent his whole career working in the L&D function for various well known hotel, leisure, luxury and lifestyle organisations including Yotel, The Berkley, Dorchester Collection and Whitbread. I recently came across Oliver on Linkedin, where I learnt that he had just been made redundant from his current role, but what struck me were the 100’s of personal messages he had received from well wishers. So I thought to myself, this person seems to be doing something right. In this episode we will of course be talking about L&D, but also broaden it out to talent, performance, engagement, diversity and culture. We’ll also give Oliver an opportunity to talk about what kind of employer he is looking to work for next.

Below are some excerpts from the episode.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you found your way into HR and particularly the L&D function?

Firstly, it’s great to be having this conversation with you Chris, I am a firm believer in the power of networking and this does just prove why it is critical in today’s world. My story with HR and learning really started at the age of 16, it was whilst studying for my A-Levels I was taking part in the Gold Duke of Edinburgh programme. Part of this programme included a period of time – I believe 6 months – where I was required to volunteer my time to support others. I decided to support the English Literature lessons in my local Junior School, where I had been a pupil. Little did I know this would be the start of a career in Learning, even if in a corporate setting rather than educational, however, it was the ability to connect, educate and support those students that really stuck with me – but at this time I still “umming” and “arring” over what to do come graduation.


Then of course as I will be completing my bachelors and subsequently my masters I still was undecided, was I best suited in marketing, sales, HR or even going into something completely new and unknown. I knew I was never going to be a finance director, nor was I destined to become a sales director either. HR was an area I found interesting, and an area I knew would be needed now and in the future.  So I undertook a Masters in International HR Management, whilst also working in the bar at the local golf and country club, Wentworth. It was here I found myself starting to put the pieces together, I was studying the theory and models as to why HR and internal Talent was so crucial to competitive advantage and achieving business objectives, and at the same time interacting and delivering a luxury level of customer / guest service.


Having applied for many HR graduate schemes I finally found the one that combined both hospitality and HR at Whitbread. Again, at this stage in my career, L&D was not hugely known to me, I knew of it as a HR specialism, but still had had very little exposure to the discipline. However, on day 1 of my career, now a HR Graduate at Whitbread, the then HR Director of Premier Inn told me that I was going to for my first placement role provide MAT cover for a Learning & Skills Trainer overlooking Central Operations and Contact Centre for Premier Inn. A real sink or swim moment, it was a risk, they knew it and I knew it. But it was here, through being placed in that MAT cover role I found the addictive charm of L&D; from there i’ve been able to learn on the job, at times having to run much before I could walk, but at every stage developing skills and really understanding just how crucial L&D is to a business. Luckily, in my career L&D has been good to me, and so too have the opportunities that followed. So actually pursuing an L&D career you can say choose me, but i’ve certainly never looked back!


Can you describe some of the roles and responsibilities you have had in your career to date?


Throughout my L&D career the roles I have fulfilled have touched many aspects, from highly hands on facilitation based roles to strategic global roles. One thing that has always amazed me about L&D is for its ability as a specialism to either constrict itself or conversely to be too broad in its scope. I can recall many many hours in the training room delivering everything and anything from new starter inductions, customer service training, systems training, management and leadership development, food safety and health and safety. Facilitation is really the bread and butter of an L&D role – and one I am sure most L&D professionals will acknowledge is one of the best aspects of the role.

As my roles have progressed so too have the responsibilities, whether this be from going to market and dealing with vendors to implement a new LMS, sifting through invoices and excel spreadsheets when it is a budget session, or managing and supporting senior stakeholders to ensure effective L&D business partnering.


L&D now, and one of the key shifts I have seen in my career, is the emphasis on using systems, whether that is designing e-learning modules, implementing LMS’ or conducting org wide performance reviews and analysing the fields of data. A great mentor of mind once said “when you get to a certain level in L&D you will realise your job becomes much more about vendor management, a spreadsheet expert and a stakeholder fire fighter”. Give or take they were very right.


One of the most exciting responsibilities I have has most recently at YOTEL, as Group L&D Manager was actually being brought into the business to build the L&D function from the ground up, starting with a L&D philosophy, mission, brand and subsequent learning interventions, tools, resources, identifying stakeholders, going to market whilst at the same time supporting the People function with initiatives such as Employee Engagement Surveys, Early Years Recruitment, Diversity & Inclusion, supporting New Hotel Openings, Performance Management, the list goes on and on.

Obviously COVID-19 has changed the entire employee experience. Many employees are using this time to self learn, and some organisations are investing heavily in upskilling their people whilst the tools are down.


What’s your take on the climate and what advice would you give to organisations?


That’s a really interesting question. A lot comes to mind having seen and heard so many different ways that employees and employers have dealt with this COVID-19 situation, some are real success stories and others, well not so much.

I do think now is the time for employees to really ask employers or future employers “what did you do?”, what did you do for your employees, your customers, your local community, the NHS, for example.


I think COVID-19 will and for some time, shape the HR agenda, whether that’s from working environments, to recruitment and selection, whether that be conducting the entire recruitment process virtually and embedding different approaches into that for example SJTs, behavioural assessments, 1-way interviews …. I think, talking about recruitment we might start to see a re-emphasis on technical skills over “fit” especially if offices are a thing of the past. I think my advice for organisations would be to be brave. The world has changed, the way we live our lives has changed, our habits, the way we even go down to the shops, its key, wallet, food AND MASK now. So be bold, be brave, for HR professionals I really think we can challenge the status quo, ask those “why” questions, “why do we have to continue doing it this way” for example.


I also think this period will force organisations to take a more holistic approach, and certainly for L&D I believe that L&D needs to change in order to prioritise it, digitise it, socialise learning and finally humanise it. No one has lived through COVID-19 before, and the majority a pandemic, so therefore, why can’t we use this an an opportunity to almost restart and reimagine the way we deliver HR and L&D, how we think about the employee experience, how we think about the employee relationship even.


What trends will shape Human Resource departments over the next five years?

  • Increased focus on Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging – if i have noticed one thing throughout the past few months is the sheer amount of organisations recruiting D&I experts. Why, because I think organisations have understood the importance of D&I in the workplace, the value D&I brings to the employee experience and also the customer experience, and also the way that D&I is critical to long term sustainable success, and not as a tick box exercise.
  • The Advent of Power Skills – and by power skills I mean the blended triad of “Soft Skills”, “Thinking Skills” and “Digital Skills” – especially given the way of the world of work is changing, long gone is long term planning and certainty, and it is replaced by the ability to think strategically, proactively and ultimately using digitally centric means.
  • Increased Personalisation – I certainly think that the employee experience will become much more personalised, especially given the rise in AI and technology being used as part of the employee journey, whether this be from recruitment and selection through to L&D and reward and recognition. I think we will begin to see technology allow for HR functions to personalise more aspects of the employee experience whilst allowing HR functions to better understand their workforce, much more than a traditional EES, for example.
  • Increased emphasis on coaching and feedback – as working habits change, and as we move into a much more fluid and flexible working environment I am almost certain that coaching and feedback will become commonplace skills with line managers across all departments. Yes major up-skilling and development will be needed in these areas, but I do believe that we will also see in conjunction the annual performance review evermore being replaced by continuous and on-going developmental conversations.
  • Budgets – I think, sadly, due to COVID-19 especially in the short term whilst we still come to terms with local shutdowns, self isolation and quarantine that we will be expected to deliver more with less, so I think creative thinking, innovation, up-cycling, remodelling will all shape HR in the next months and years to come, stretching and flexing in more ways than it has ever done.

What do you like and dislike about HR?

This is a good question ….. Obviously I wouldn’t work in HR if I didn’t like it, but then again, there are two sides to every coin. For me it’s the perceived perception that HR is the ‘fluffy’ department, they are the ones filling paper all day, or just organising the next staff party. For HR is just as much as corporate or commercial function like Sales, marketing, IT, Finance etc. Yes HRs direct impact on the bottom line is harder to identify, without looking at the obvious data, but it has an impact nonetheless. So for me, that is the main dislike about being in HR, at times you aren’t around the table, and when you are, there are times perceptions that you are to be “seen and not heard”.

I think coming out of the COVID-19 crisis era we will see that HR is not only given a seat and a voice, but it will actually become a key voice around that table, not only driving the People agenda but stirring leaders through this unchartered time.


That was Oliver Sturgeon from Yotel. If you want to connect with Oliver you can find him on Linkedin

If you enjoyed the show then please leave us a review on this podcast, or if you have any ideas or questions about today’s episode please reach me directly on

Thanks for listening and remember to go to for everything people and culture related.


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