How do you develop a career in HR?

Darren Campbell, VP of HR, Discovery Channel

It’s a question plenty of people ask themselves and as Darren Campbell, a former accountant and now Group VP of HR - Western Europe at Discovery Communications, explains, the path less trodden is sometimes the best. Interviewed by Darren Wentworth, Partner, Frazer Jones

What first attracted you to recruitment?

It always raises an eyebrow when I tell people I started off as a Chartered Accountant. I never deliberately thought of a career in HR, like many people I simply took advantage of the opportunities that arose and worked hard at the roles I held. What led me to HR was the realisation early in my career that very few companies were investing in people in a substantial way and whilst numbers on a company balance sheet are important, the people behind those numbers are the most important asset driving company growth. What attracted me to HR was the chance to influence people decisions across organisations and work across many functions and have my fingers in a number of different pies. Coming from an accounting background I was doing a lot of business turnover work and really enjoyed having a helicopter view of the organisation. I like to see where I can intervene, advise and coach in order to create a positive environment and outcome.

Did your previous career give you added credibility?

That was one of the reasons that I was able to make the transition so successfully. Businesses like to deal with people who have come from a business perspective. My background helped with building credibility and developing new relationships. I haven’t met many others who have made the transition from a finance background into HR, which is surprising given the number of graduates that go into finance and the importance of people decisions on the bottom line.

How to develop a career in HR

*What have you learned from working in more than one sector? *
(Darren has worked in FMCG, music and media in the past)

I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with a number of big brand companies. When starting out on your career, really try and get into the best organisation where you can learn. Don’t worry about salary or the commute or other factors, you’ve really got to make sure you are in the right role to succeed. 15 years ago when I came into HR, FMCG was recognised as a great learning curve for HR professionals and it has been the bedrock of my HR career. I also believe HR is a transferable skill regardless of sector challenges. Recruiters often think you need to have background industry knowledge in order to be successful, but the majority of people skills are completely transferable and industry specific skills can be learnt.

Is HR doing enough at the moment?

In short, no. When I go to external forums and networking events, I don’t see enough inspiration. There is not enough diversity of leadership and experience. There is too much talk of HR having to “earn its seat at the table”. Nowadays, we should not be talking about why HR is important, but why HR is critical for business success. I also think we are a little bit too accommodating of mediocrity in our own function. HR is the bastion of great performance and so we need to lead the way and inspire business leaders and business functions across organisations.

What one change do you think HR could benefit from?

We need to attract the best and brightest from other functions at all levels. You can come from different disciplines and be hugely successful and I think we should be encouraging this mobility. If you think about a modern, sophisticated HR function, it’s about having all of the levers at your disposal. If you have more than one specialisation in your toolkit, it’s very, very useful. We need to have much more diversified talent within the HR function.

Top tip?

Walk around the business, talk to people; immerse yourself in the culture, get to know the people you work with and understand their roles. Stop emailing people as a default communication method. The more we can talk to people face to face and understand what they do, the better for all of us. There’s an efficiency aspect too, having endless online conversations are not as comprehensive and efficient. It’s interesting to see companies in Germany stopping people from answering their emails after 5 o’clock and I think that’s an interesting response. The bottom line is that the skill of building relationships and talking doesn’t transmit online.

Have you any final thoughts?

In London we are hugely fortunate to be in a city with massive opportunities. The UK market values and recognises HR, so the conversation about justifying the need for HR doesn’t need to take place like it does in other international markets. People should leverage that open door and deliver on the opportunity it creates. Don’t be too timid when it comes to defining a HR role - it has a valuable role to play in every aspect of any business.