HR Director Profile: Helen Murley, Global HR Director, British Council

Written by: Annie Hayes
Published on: 5 Sep 2016

HR Director British Council

Helen Murley is a qualified teacher, surveyor and MBA graduate. HR was not on her early career plan, so it might come as somewhat of a surprise to her older self that she is now the Global HR Director for the British Council - the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. Murley, looks back at her career, the experiences she has had and her natural affinity to settle in a variety of sectors and organisations and feel right at home in many of them. Would she have done it any differently? Here’s her story.

  • Early career:

In 1982, Helen Murley graduated from Durham University with a degree in Botany and Zoology and, following a PGCE at Cambridge University, began her working career as a primary school teacher. “I taught in Surrey and whilst my degree wasn’t directly applicable, I had lots of experience of teaching children from my hobbies and felt passionately that it was essential to give them a good start in their education – hence the decision to specialise at primary level,” says Murley.  Having found teaching very depressing, she switched to her other major interest of land use.  "What I really wanted to do was to be a planning barrister but the funding was really difficult so I decided to join a surveying firm, Wetherall, Green and Smith,” adds Murley.

The timing wasn’t to work in Murley’s favour. It was 1990 and the country was in the grips of a recession. “For four years, I did investment work and worked with City institutions sorting out their lending portfolios.  It didn’t really suit me because it wasn’t very values driven. I was lucky, however, that they sponsored me to do an MBA.” It was a huge opportunity for Murley who gained the certification in 1995 from the Cranfield University School of Management and could now add another qualification to an already accomplished CV.

“Wetheralls offered me my job back once I had completed the qualification but I decided I wanted to use the MBA and looked for consultancy work in the area of business change.  This is when I applied and got the job at the Hay Group,” says Murley. It was purely accidental that the consultancy was HR orientated and with no background in HR, it gave her a huge exposure to a range of challenges: “I worked for eighteen months in the Bristol office doing general HR consultancy before moving back to London. I worked on some major change projects for multi-national organisations there, including a year on secondment in South Africa. It was 1998 and post-apartheid so it was a hugely fascinating time to be working in the country and there was a great sense of optimism for South Africa and Africa as a whole.  It was a privilege to be involved.”

On her return to the UK, the consulting market was changing and a lot of organisations were moving their work in-house so it was then that Murley decided she ‘needed a proper job.’

  • The mid-years:

In December 2002, that change of direction came in the form of the Head of OD&D for airports operator, BAA. Murley, who by now had some great experience leading change programmes from her time at Hay, was charged with leading a team contributing OD&D expertise to a range of transformation projects including the re-structure of the engineering function across all the airports and, designing and implementing new rostering for security staff. After three and a half years, a role as the Corporate Responsibility and Environment Director at the business came up and Murley felt it was an ideal position which would allow her to bring all the elements of her career together.

“I put myself forward for it and they appointed me. It was a time when the position of aviation within the climate change debate was very high profile so I was tasked with some fascinating projects including working to assess the impact of new runway planning on both airport communities and the environment. After just a year the business was taken over by the Spanish company, Ferrovial. It became a very different company with the Spanish running the business and, as they sold airports, my job was getting a bit smaller,” admits Murley.

It was a bit of a blow not only to Murley but to others working at BAA at the time and having spent a lot of time, energy and passion in positioning BAA at the forefront of the aviation debate on climate change, the support internally for this stance fell away significantly.  At the same time, the Government announced a new enquiry into the position of the new runway so it was ‘back to the drawing board’.

“It was difficult to see all that work not go anywhere but I learnt a lot and I found the whole debate on the position of aviation in climate change very interesting,” says Murley.

It was time to move on and Murley left the business. A bout of ill-health rendered her unable to work for a short period but true to form it wasn’t long before she was fit enough to take on a new challenge. This time it was in the shape of setting up her own consultancy and she took on a part-time assignment at the University of Cambridge.

Here she was tasked with looking at the potential of shared services administration across the different elements of the organisation.  Having conducted the feasibility study, she joined another part of the University, the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability and Leadership as Director for Executive Programmes to cover a sabbatical. It was a project that she relished: “I was working with corporates and multi-national agencies like the Asian Development Bank, putting together programmes for them and sourcing contributors from around the world. It was a fantastic experience.”

Her next consulting post was for the Prudential, where she worked on employee engagement, followed by a six-month post at the Post Office where she helped to re-establish parts of the HR department.

“It was my intention to continue with my consulting business, I didn’t really mean to get a job but then I saw the post advertised at the British Council,” says Murley.

  • Today’s challenges:

The position appealed to Murley because it combined all her passions and experience and was an organisation with a strong mission with which she could identify. “It was everything I wanted. It is values driven, international, centred in education and occupies the same space as BAA, in that it ‘walks the line’ between public service and commercial  business. I love the complexity that it brings and the tensions that come with it.”

Yet despite her impressive credentials, qualifications and experience, Murley wasn’t convinced that she would even be asked for an interview: “I put my application in but because I hadn’t run a pure HR function before, I wasn’t sure if I’d even be short-listed.”

She need not have doubted herself as she was duly appointed and joined the British Council in May 2013. She is a member of both the Executive and Management boards and leads the British Council’s global network of HR professionals.

“The British Council has been on a journey in the last seven to eight years. It has seen enormous growth and doubled in numbers in the last six years. It is a very good time to be part of that but I must admit it was more different then even I’d expected. The breadth of the offer here is incredible. We operate in 110 countries and have three distinct strategic business units including teaching English, work in education and developing civil society and, building cultural relations through the arts,” says Murley.

She says that like others that have joined the British Council from other businesses, it takes a while to get used to what the operation offers and does, “I have spent some time visiting our country operations, speaking to the people we have and took some early visits to Spain, South Africa and Pakistan. We have immensely qualified people, creating real impact in building skills and cultural relations understanding and it is very uplifting.”

Murley says that she has been lucky to have followed an established HR operator at the British Council, Pippa Greenslade who had fixed some of the basics already, “She was ex-Cadburys and had good experience. I have quickly appointed an excellent Global Head of HR Operations and that has helped supplement the skills I don’t have.”

  • Top tips for HR candidates:

Looking back at her career, Murley suggests that the most important thing is to find a job doing something that you enjoy first. “I know it is heresy but I would say that it doesn’t really matter what that is.  You have to try things and find out what does and doesn’t appeal to you.  Sometimes that gets undersold when people talk about careers.”

Murley adds that sometimes routes into careers come about in surprising ways.  “My current Executive Assistant (EA) has been doing her CIPD qualification and, whilst aspects of her job are not that stimulating, she has used the opportunity to get involved in several HR projects and has now been offered a role as an HR Advisor in another part of the business. This EA job was a great platform for her to launch her career.”

Further up the HR ladder, Murley suggests that the more senior the HR role, the more important it is to have an in-depth understanding of the business and its drivers.  It doesn’t matter if you are in an HRBP role, a specialist role or running a shared service centre. “It really is crucial to get to grips with what a business does and how it works,” she advises.

  • The next chapter:

It’s a very challenging time at the British Council. Along with many other businesses, they are seeking to digest the implications of the Brexit decision at the same time as they are undergoing significant change to ensure they are positioned to use their increasing reach and funds well.  It’s another challenge that Murley looks forward to and ever one to seek variety, the British Council looks set to offer her just that. Even on her daily commute, which starts out as a bike ride to the station from her home in Cambridge, followed by a train journey and then a walk to the office, Murley is always on the look out to take all the options there are. As a Governor of a school and with a love of outdoors, Murley, who is single, spends a lot of time with her extended family and is never short of things to do. It’s a principle that has seen her climb the career ladder and, seen her succeed in HR, even if she took the scenic route along the way to get there.