Are you a highly successful HR director looking for an interesting and challenging role to fit around other commitments? We spoke to Shaun O’Hara, HR director at People Puzzles, about his flexible role.
People Puzzles is the fastest-growing provider of part-time HR directors in the UK, specialising in providing embedded, on-site HR support. The company seeks experienced, commercially-minded and energetic HR directors looking for a challenging and varied portfolio career.
As part of People Management Jobs’ Wonderful Workplaces campaign, Jennifer Jackson, careers content editor, spoke to Shaun O’Hara at People Puzzles, to find out more about what the role entails, why he chose to work for People Puzzles and how working flexibly enables him to grow both personally and professionally.
Shaun O’Hara, HR director, People Puzzles
Tell me about People Puzzles and the work that you do
I’m four months into my role here now and I’m really delighted to be working with five clients, giving me a fantastic portfolio with a diversity of company sizes, sectors and cultures.
As a passionate snowboarder it was an unbelievable start – my first client is the UK’s leading mountain sports UK retailer and online business! It’s interesting that the work with each client has started with the same conversation with the MD or CEO: What’s the future direction / strategy? What leadership will it take to get there? What cultural shifts are required to enable the strategy?
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When and why did you decide to join People Puzzles?
I left my corporate / FTSE career in May 2017. I spent most of the summer completing due diligence on the purchase of a small retail business, which would have seen me being a general manager. I was really inspired by the opportunity but five months into my due diligence I realised the risk to reward ratio was against me as the only investor in the purchase and with online business threatening the high street.
"The selection process happened with pace and informality and it became very clear very quickly that People Puzzles had a great offer."
- Shaun O'Hara, HR director, People Puzzles
However, really getting underneath how a small business worked, the deconstruction and reconstruction of the P&L and writing a five-year business plan, gave me an appetite for being a really commercial HRD working closely with business leaders. Then I saw the People Puzzles ad offering the opportunity to work flexibly with mid-tier ambitious businesses in Essex and London, and I was inspired. The selection process happened with pace and informality and it became very clear very quickly that People Puzzles had a great offer.
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What were you doing before?
I was director of talent and resourcing at Britvic Soft Drinks where I was proud to be part of a leadership team which doubled revenue and profit over a decade, plus I led the engagement programme which resulted in us achieving Great Place To Work rankings in GB, France and Ireland. I was previously a performance manager at Sainsbury’s and before that at Tesco, and I was also a director of a recruitment business.
"I wanted a different lifestyle to the one I had in corporate life, whilst still enjoying doing work that I’m passionate about."
- Shaun O'Hara, HR director, People Puzzles
What were your professional and personal motives for the move?
For the final few years at Britvic I stopped enjoying myself so I knew I needed a change from the FTSE / corporate environment where I’d spent over 20 years. I also have two young sons whose happiness is my number one priority, so being around for school runs and school activities became a struggle in a corporate career.
I also have some time consuming hobbies; I compete in amateur road racing on my racing bike which takes some serious training to keep up with the 20 and 30 year-olds in the peleton! The bottom line was I wanted a different lifestyle to the one I had in corporate life, whilst still enjoying doing work that I'm passionate about.
Why did you choose to work for People Puzzles?
When I realised I could work part-time, enjoy a portfolio HRD career, plus benefit from the fantastic team and knowledge that’s core to the People Puzzles offering, it was a no brainer. There is a professional, relaxed and client focused feel which was very compelling for me.
What does your typical week look like?
I’m enjoying a very structured week at the moment, with client work all or part of the day on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. On Wednesday I focus on my fitness and collect my boys from school early and have some kind of after school adventure! Then at the weekend I can catch up on desk-based client preparation work which suits me perfectly and means when I’m with clients, it’s action and conversation oriented.
"I go to each client refreshed and energised, with the flexible working week giving me space to reflect and prioritise my next client engagement.
"And it was so refreshing to have Helen (the MD) call me early on when I was getting close to capacity to remind me of my original work life balance objectives and not to take on too many clients!"
- Shaun O'Hara, HR director, People Puzzles
Tell me about your experiences of working at People Puzzles, is it all you expected it to be?
It is everything I wanted it to be which is incredible so early on. The learning curve is steep as you effectively induct into five organisations with five unique commercial and cultural contexts all at once, but the ability to get early quick wins and build relationships very quickly has enabled early progress.
I go to each client refreshed and energised, with the flexible working week giving me space to reflect and prioritise my next client engagement. And it was so refreshing to have Helen (the MD) call me early on when I was getting close to capacity to remind me of my original work life balance objectives and not to take on too many clients!
From a commercial perspective, how does working at People Puzzles and servicing SME clients differ from a corporate?
It’s faster and easier to get things done. I have huge respect for modest entrepreneurial business leaders / owners that achieve amazing things, building up multi-million revenue companies themselves from little or nothing. I find it truly inspiring and that’s why I’m passionate about the work I do now.
How have you handled the transition?
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, but a timely two-day induction (where the CEO and MD both committed most of their entire work day to be with three of us) really helped an accelerated immersion into People Puzzles and the bigger resources available as part of the Liberti Group. That makes you feel like you're part of something much bigger (Liberti Group sales were c. £40m in 2017) and I’m already building relationships with MaxAd (Recruitment) and the Marketing Centre (who provide marketing directors for SMEs in the same way People Puzzles provide HRDs).
What is the team culture like?
It’s informal and highly professional at the same time, with lots of professional support either through the team of 50+ HRDs, the regional directors or the online resources, including work/client methodologies. Whilst there is a strong sense of client focus, everyday requests for help are prioritised by the HRDs via a simple and effective email exchange process. Although in these early stages I feel like I’m taking more than giving to the team so I hope my turn will come to give soon!
How has working flexibly benefitted your career?
Although I’m only four months in, the benefits to me are already significant. I’ve been an organisation development / effectiveness and talent specialist for most of my career, with a number of generalist roles within that experience, so I feel like I’m now broadening back out to have a strategic HRD perspective.
I’m enjoying providing a holistic HRD service to the CEO / MD / leadership team of each of my clients, although ironically it’s my OD / OE skills that I’ve used the most with my clients in these early stages – it seems to be what the mid-tier companies are really lacking in their leadership and HR support.
What’s your secret to a successful portfolio career?
I’ll tell you in a year! At the moment it’s building quality relationships with the MD/CEO of each business I’m in and balancing quick wins with a quality long term strategy.
Find out more about the skills and experience required for the HRD role.
Sum up what it’s like to work at People Puzzles
Dynamic, flexible and enjoyable.
Apply for a flexible HR director role at People Puzzles
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