For this year’s International Women’s Day we are celebrating strong female leaders in Human Resources. We talked to Susie Ocana, who runs her own HR consultancy business and is also a former HR Director, about her HR career to date & asked her what advice she has for females looking to progress their careers to senior leadership positions…

Tell us about your career…

I started out working for MacDonald’s after graduating on their management training scheme, after which I moved into retail working for Asda as a department manager which included HR & recruitment responsibilities.

From there I moved into the automotive sector where I worked for 11 years, joining TDS Logistics as an HR Manager, responsible for a shift operation in a highly unionised environment supplier components to Jaguar Land Rover. It was this position that allowed me to acquire management and people skills, developing the ability to become customer-facing involved in making high-level decisions.

A move into Manufacturing

I got to the point where I knew if I wanted to progress further in HR then I would either need to move to the Midlands or leave the organisation. As a single parent at that time, the move didn’t suit me, but I really didn’t want to leave. Previously in an appraisal I had commented that I was quite interested in manufacturing. I did a manufacturing diploma in the evenings, so when the Manufacturing Manager retired my boss gave me the chance to step into the role, which I did for 3 years.

Followed by a move into Operations

Next came a move to become Operations Manager, a role I did for 5 years during which time we launched the Range Rover Evoque, and I was responsible for the whole operation, overseeing a 3 shift operation over 24 hours, employing 700 people covering production, logistics, quality, manufacturing, manufacturing engineering & maintenance. It was a really challenging time but great because I had a strong HR manager in place and with my background in HR we worked well together managing the challenging trade unions issues.

Stepping back into HR

During this time, I had another baby, and after returning to work the phone calls at all times of the day and night became too much with a young baby, so I planned to leave the organisation. Then an HR manager resigned so my boss suggested I do that instead, which I did for two years until I was promoted to HR director for all IAC UK plant (5 in total). As IAC is a company made up of many acquisitions my role was focused on harmonising the terms and conditions across the UK Plants.

Whilst in this role I completed my HR Masters, level 7 CIPD. I did this as I felt that gaining the academic qualification would support and complement my 20 years of experience.

Long term it has always been my goal to work for myself, so I left my role last year to work as an HR Consultant where I am currently building up a portfolio of my own personal clients. I also lecture at a couple of universities at both undergrad & postgrad level in Business & HR.

What’s your biggest achievement to date?

I am a problem solver & my biggest skill is solving problems while bringing teams together. From a development perspective, I’ve been able to set restructured teams back on track adding value, as well as finding solutions that have actually saved money for the company.

One thing I’m particularly proud of is an apprenticeship program I implemented at IAC; we went through a period of intense growth going from 2 shifts with 400 people to a 3-shift operation with 700 people over a 12-month period. Employees didn’t have the basic skills required so I wanted to give them those skills but there was no money for training, so with my team, we came up with a solution of an apprentice program that was essentially self-funded, taking on 20 apprentices each year, for 3 years.

Crucially this allowed us to release our own people to do ILM qualifications, covering basic skills and fundamental key manufacturing skills. Over 3 years we managed to put through over 250 people through this training, placing them back strategically in our business to transfer their knowledge & training to the rest of the workforce.

It was a very successful low-cost business solution, which provided huge benefits back to the company in terms of employee engagement and it was a massive win with trade unions who saw us investing back into our people.

What do companies need to do to increase numbers of female HRDs or senior leaders?

Make them more commercial. Too many of HR professionals are just HR professionals not commercially minded. To be of true value they need to look at what they can do to support the business’s strategic aims, they must work in partnership to help support the business strategy.

For example, in manufacturing, looking at the policies & procedures HR put in, they can give the managers too much to do, tying them in knots that’s not going to move the business forward.

“Make them more commercial”

If you want to sit at the top table you’ve got to be commercially focused, always looking at what HR as a partner in the business is going to do to improve the business? And I don’t think that HR professionals see that. It’s a different type of thinking that’s required. You must think what is this going to give us – is it a cost-saving? A performance improvement? An engagement hit? Is it going to touch the organisational culture issues we are facing? If it isn’t going to give us anything that the business strategy is focused on then you should walk away – why do you need to change it?

What can female HR professionals do to help themselves on their career path?

It’s tough, especially if you are going to have children because it does slow you down, but I’ve had 4 children and still reached the position I’m in.

“Increase your commercial awareness”

My advice would be to equip themselves with as much commercial awareness as they can & make sure you are ready to be assertive, aggressive in your beliefs if you want to be successful at a high level. Sometimes that means that you will have to make very difficult decisions both personally & professionally and at times one takes precedence over the other. For example, I employed a nanny to come into the house every morning to get the children up when I made the choice to go into operations, but that was a choice I made to give myself the platform to push on and it is those personal choices & having an aggressive plan for yourself that makes the difference.

“Get involved and find out everything you can”

Get involved in leadership team meetings, go to operational meetings, ask if you can sit in on them, learn about the business strategy, what is it? Even as an HRD, or a business partner or advisor: know what’s going on in your organisation, get yourself noticed, build your commercial awareness, then you and your HR team will start to be considered as strategic partners, not just another department.

“Start thinking about HR as a strategic partner, not just another department”

Attitudes are changing but you can still come up against subconscious assumptions sometimes. For example, I went to a supplier meeting at Jaguar Land Rover, I was an operations manager at the time, and I was waiting in an anti-room and someone turned to me & said “You alright love? What do you want?” I just replied I’m here to attend the meeting. He was just mortified, but he had no concept that I was part of that group of people attending when I was actually giving a speech at the event!

Will the gender pay gap reporting help?

It’s a start isn’t it? I don’t see how it can’t do something; it’s going to raise more awareness in different channels. In that regard how can it not help? Do I think it’s going to address the problem? No not at the level it needs to.

Any other advice?

I would advise you to get as much experience as you can, get involved in your Company’s operations, understand the strategic path. Knock on doors and ask questions, attend operational meetings, become a visible presence and push your HR teams to deliver strategies that deliver solid business improvements. Understand the business you are working for so you can add real value.

As a profession, we have often been seen as people that don’t get involved in the nitty-gritty, but you have to get your sleeves rolled up, to get yourself taken seriously. To sit at that top table you have to know your business inside out, you’ve got to know the strategy, you’ve got to know what HR can do to improve the business and to improve the bottom line.

Push yourself and commit to your own continued professional development which alongside your practical experience gives you a strong platform to question and challenge, making you a valuable strategic business partner in your organisation.