Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Fiona Irvine, HR director
Article Type: Practitioner profile From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 7, Issue 4
HR executives share their experience in human resources
Tackling tough environments from an early stage
A strong work ethic, keen interest in business and passion for mentorship are cited by Fiona Irvine as key success factors during her 16-year career in HR. Her career started when she was in university, as having chosen a sandwich degree in Business Economics she was able to work in industry for a year.
Her first HR position was as a training and development assistant for a large builders’ merchant. She was made redundant after a year and, for someone with her commitment, it was an incredible shock. She says: “I really felt let down but the experience stood me in good stead for making similar, difficult decisions about the future of others and it ensured I fully think through how best to manage any redundancy situation. It is important to have the people in mind as well as the end result required for the business.”
A year in retail followed before Irvine moved to a Royal Bank of Scotland start-up operation. She led a new HR team that supported Direct Line’s expansion into financial services by phone, which, in 1995, was a new and innovative concept. She comments: “Working in a start-up is one of the most exciting and challenging things I have ever done. I was able to design policies and processes from scratch for a regulated organization where dealing by phone was totally innovative.”
Taking on a strategic position
Nine years later, Fiona moved to a new HR role at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and worked in a challenging environment supporting 26 partners within the tax consultancy. She was the key facilitator in developing business strategies and the cascade process to the whole team. She says: “I realized at PwC the important role HR could play in facilitating a properly aligned business strategy – from the top down through to driving business performance.”
Irvine then moved to Lloyds TSB as head of HR for the UK’s six telephone centers and was responsible for over 5,000 staff. She developed and delivered an effective HR strategy that reduced absence and staff turnover. A Newcastle center closed with 1,000 job losses and crucial lessons were learned – most importantly the need to work closely with unions and ensure affected staff receive the highest levels of support. She was later seconded as head of Reward for Lloyds TSB. With no prior experience in this area, she rose to the challenge and delivered a new incentive plan for over 33,000 staff that led to increased profitability.
She also designed an award-winning recognition event for 1,000 staff. “To be successful in HR you must never be afraid to try new things,” she says. “I have found that HR professionals tend to be resourceful and are able to utilize their networks effectively to ensure they deliver.”
Leading ScotRail through a transformation
In March 2006, Irvine joined First ScotRail and has since transformed the HR provision for the 4,000 staff. She comments: “I took this role to work with an organization that was truly transforming itself and to have the opportunity to work with Mary Dickson, our MD, who has an extremely impressive track record in business delivery. In all my roles, mentorship has been very important, particularly in ensuring that I have an in-depth understanding of the business, which is now a key requisite for any credible HR professional.”
Irvine has developed an end-to-end HR strategy for First ScotRail, achieved through extensive consultation with staff, managers and rail unions. It is aligned to the company’s franchise commitments and business vision to “deliver the best service for Scotland every day.” Successes include:
creating a recruitment strategy that has resulted in over 80,000 applications;
launching a diversity campaign, resulting in a 10 percent increase in females applying to be train drivers;
increasing staff survey responses; and
introducing an employee benefits scheme that provides extensive savings for staff and the organization.
She says: “Working for a public service organization, which is strongly unionized and has very stretching business performance targets, has been challenging. However, I am very fortunate to have a supportive team of directors and an organization that truly believes that people are the most important driver of business success.”
Irvine believes HR can be viewed as a valuable function, but only if HR professionals develop a deep business and commercial understanding. She explains: “It’s important to understand your management information and to get the basics right. That includes effective manpower planning and people administration, along with strong internal communications and HR solutions that fit your business, and not just those that are “flavor of the month.”
Fiona IrvineFiona Irvine is HR director and a board member at First ScotRail.
About the author
Fiona Irvine is HR director and a board member at First ScotRail, part of FirstGroup, the world’s leading transport operator. Her HR career started at university, having chosen a sandwich degree in Business Economics, which included work in industry for a year. She has 16 years’ experience of working in HR. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org