Susy Roberts is founder and managing director of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts. She talks career switching and being a butterfly mind with Hazel Davis.
I made a huge mistake straight out of uni at 21 by joining Lloyds bank. My first feedback said that all I was interested in was people and their problems and I appeared to have no interest at all in banking. I found this absolutely accurate and so I left after just 10 months.
I then got a place on the M&S people management scheme, found my fit and have never looked back. I saw my interviewer scrawl ‘butterfly mind’ on their notepad as I was talking and thought, “That’s it, I’ve blown it.” But it turned out my uncanny ability to rapidly jump from one thing to the next was a positive and was just what they were looking for.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A social worker. My best friend’s dad was a probation officer and would often tell us tales. I thought I could really see myself doing something similar. The idea of helping people back into education really appealed.
But I knew I wasn’t cut out for it when working in a probation centre drop-in as a student. Someone stole my coat – I knew who it was – but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything as I didn’t want them to get back in trouble when they were doing so well.
What do you like about helping organisations manage their people?
Lots of things. I love seeing the difference it makes in commercial results; watching people’s confidence improve through coaching is wonderful; seeing teams start to work together more effectively – and happily – is always incredibly rewarding.
My work is increasingly about enabling people to cope better with changing roles and relationships in the workplace. People need to be ready for change; it’s the only constant.
You’ve worked with some luxury brands. Any unbearably glamorous moments you can relate?
Attending some charity awards with the general manager of the Beverley Hills hotel in California. I sat next to Jim Carrey and opposite Leonardo DiCaprio (who won). The hotel’s PR manager entertained my children, then aged nine and 12, along with Sharon and Kelly Osbourne.
“HR is no longer about ‘just’ looking after people. It is about driving people at a commercial level.”
Another time, I was being entertained at the beachfront home of a regular guest of a top-end Malibu hotel. Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand wandered over. My son Nick greeted the Tootsie and Rainman star with, “I don’t know who you are, but I like your dog.” Dustin later sent him a signed copy of Meet the Fockers, with a jokey note saying, “This is me.”
How did Hunter Roberts come about?
I was working for someone else and on three separate occasions, clients suggested I set up on my own so they could come to me direct.
I was flattered – and nervous – but decided to give it a try. My employer was amazing about it and gave me the option to come back after a year if I decided it wasn’t working. That was 14 years ago.
Were there any struggles along the way?
When I set up Hunter Roberts in 2003, I had a business partner. Four years later, we went our separate ways due to irreconcilable differences. It was like a divorce and it hurt a lot. Our working relationship went back a long way. We still don’t speak.
Have any of these struggles been to do with being a woman?
I think age rather than gender was the cause of some early struggles. In my 30s, I sometimes found it challenging to make an impact with senior professional services personnel of a certain age.
I truly don’t believe it was a gender issue; I don’t think they would have given a 30-something man any easier a ride. In my 50s this is no longer an issue.
What’s the gender split like in your industry?
HR has been thought of as a female-dominated profession, but I am now seeing more and more men in HR director roles. HR is no longer about ‘just’ looking after people. It is about driving people at a commercial level.
What was the biggest lesson you learned when setting up the business?
Not to let people hang around who are not performing. In the early days of Hunter Roberts I was guilty of this. Now I deal with it straight away.
I enjoy helping companies – especially in luxury markets – discover their brand and then translating this into their service experience.
I help to ensure their brand values run right from senior management all the way through to the frontline customer service staff.
What’s been your biggest career highlight?
Winning the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel Development) People Management Award for Best Learning and Development Initiative in 2015.
You talk about encouraging managers to think like leaders. What does this look like and how can ordinary people like me think like leaders?
It looks like helping managers to move away from being operational and getting them to think more strategically. It’s bigger picture stuff: calculated risk-taking; creating empowered workplace cultures; inspiring people.
To start to think like a leader, you need to understand and have confidence in your personal brand. You need to be authentic at all times.
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Hazel Davis is a freelance writer from West Yorkshire. She has two tiny children but the majority of her hours are taken up with thinking about Alec Baldwin singing sea shanties and the time someone once called her "moreishly interesting".