Role-holder interview: Bob Price

Q: Thanks for doing this interview, Bob. Can you start by giving your current job title?

BP: I am Director of Human Resources

Q: And how long have you been at Brookes?

BP: Nearly 10 years now.

Q: Thinking about your current role, can you say what your day to day duties are and what type of team you have – and maybe say something about a typical day if it helps to structure your thoughts.

BP: The HR Directorate is divided into four separate sections: the human resources management section, which deals with standard personnel management issues, recruitment and departures, pensions, maternity leave, disciplinary issues, sickness absence and other day to day employment issues that arise in the faculties and directorates; OCSLD, which provides the University’s staff and educational development programmes; the nursery, based on the Clive Booth Hall site, which provides nursery places for the children of 60 staff and students and for some non-university  parents, and finally we have an occupational health and health and safety team, which is a very important part of our general health and wellbeing function for the university.

On a day to day basis, I deal with policy and strategy issues that arise in each of those four areas, and occasionally delve down into more detailed questions, though each section is well managed by a department head who takes responsibility for most of the day to day business in those areas. I spend a lot of my time dealing with Trade Union relationships with UNISON and the UCU, and also on university strategy issues. I have been involved in a wide range of cross-university policy questions, such as, risk management, the Major Incident Recovery Programme, project assurance work on the new Gipsy Lane building and so on. Of course, in the recent period there’s been a lot of focus on the restructure and the complex issues arising from that.

Q: When you think about this current role, what do you say are the special skills or skillsets that comprise it?

BP: I think that every HR role requires a capacity for effectively dealing with people in ways which achieve the objectives of the organisation. So a standard skill is that you’ve actually got to like dealing with people, even if the situations in which they find themselves are difficult, and you must be prepared to tackle the kinds of issues that arise in work place relationships. The second important skill is that of drafting procedures, letters and so on are important in terms of both tone and content and the drafting of those can be very significant. I think thirdly that it’s important  to be able to organise and prioritise your time because there are so many pressures which come in from different parts of the job and from different angles. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by detail and you’ve got to keep a very clear head about what the priorities are and make enough time to deal with those.

Q: Is there any particular experience or qualification that it’s been critical to get, in order to do the job you do? Anything that you really need to have in your personal portfolio?

BP:  Yes, I think there are two or three which are quite important. The first is, if you are going to spend time within the HR area, it’s really important to have a good understanding of employment law because over the last forty years the body of employment law has expanded dramatically – such that it’s almost impossible to deal in quite large areas of HR without understanding the legal background. You don’t have to be a lawyer and you don’t have to be someone who is trained in law but you have to be able to grasp the essence of labour law and understand how it applies to particular cases.

Another qualification that I think is very important is the ability to grasp the interaction between training and the ability of people to be able to perform certain roles: to be able to see the connection between education and training and personal development because - if you can do that - you are much more able, I think, to link talent management and succession-planning to the needs of the business; the needs of the university in this case.

Q: Are there any skills that you think you still need to get?

BP: I would personally really like to try to understand how to use IT more successfully. I’m of an age where I’ve adapted to it, and have got a good basic knowledge – but it is really basic and, obviously the potential of it is so much greater. It would be really advantageous to be able to use it better. Another area that I would ideally like to have a better grasp of  is pensions.  I do have a good working knowledge and I can talk proficiently about it, but the detail of pensions legislation is not something that I’ve spent a huge amount of time on acquiring over the last ten years or so, and that would be very useful.

Q: Thinking back now over your working life, can you determine and describe the “steps” in your career – as you see them?

BP: Well, I started my career as an academic researcher. I did a 3-year research assistant role at the University of Warwick in the Industrial Relations research unit, which was extraordinarily valuable because it gave me experience of teaching, writing, conducting fieldwork and library-based research, international comparative work, and brought me into contact with some very interesting people. I also did a lot of consultancy work at that time, and worked on contract for a variety of government departments in the industrial and employment relations area, and for some trade unions ,which meant that I got access to some very practical aspects of IR as well.

I then went to work for one of the Civil Service Trade Unions as a negotiations officer and I worked there for 3 years. That experience of course gave me a practical understanding and knowledge of dealing with individual cases, with negotiations, drafting negotiating documents, interpreting material on the wider economic picture of the business, and  also of strategy issues. Also, I did quite a lot of work on pay systems and structures. I then went back to Warwick as a lecturer in Industrial relations, and spent twelve years there as an academic – teaching, research and writing, like academics do, but also quite a lot of consultancy. So, in that period, I was developing  a range of skills in writing and academic teaching  but also extending my skills and knowledge of the industrial relations world practically via the consultancy work I did for unions like the Rail Union and the General and Municipal Workers Union.

In 1988 I was invited by the Economic and Social Research Council, who were moving from London to Swindon and had lost all their senior staff, to take a secondment for a couple of years as Head of Policy. It was an attractive offer and it was an interesting time in the ESRC’s history (Professor Howard Newby had just taken over as the Chairman and Chief Exec), and Swindon was closer to Oxford than Warwick, so I thought that for two years I might give it a try.  I did that job for a couple of years and enjoyed it very much. I was lucky enough to work directly to Howard Newby  and through him got very heavily involved in research policy for the ESRC and also for other research councils and for government. I also did a lot international work, because of the ESRC’s international links with the European Union and the European Research Framework programme. I was pleased to be able to put my language skills to practical use and I was doing a lot of work  with the EU Commission in in Brussels and research councils in France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands.

Then the Agriculture and Food Research Council’s  Head of Policy asked me if I was interested in moving across to the AFRC from the ESRC to handle all their international work. The attractions of working more generally across Europe were such that I thought I’d take the job, and I didn’t go back to Warwick at the end of my secondment. I spent about 18 months as International Director for AFRC working across Europe in a number of international consortia of agricultural and food related projects and initiatives. This also  gave me lots of insight into negotiations, and drawing up policy documents and partnership agreements with all the inevitable financial aspects.

Q. A skills theme of negotiating and policy production is definitely developing

BP: Then the Personnel Director of the AFRC took early retirement rather unexpectedly, and the personnel officer who was responsible for recruitment said I should apply for the post, because I had a background in HR related issues, and I had lectured to her CIPD class at Swindon College!! The Director post was a significant promotion in both grade and salary, so I applied and was appointed. So I became Director of Personnel for AFRC, which was an interesting move because, of course, I’d never been in a management job in personnel or HR before - I’d been in academic and union jobs. It was  a very interesting post since  AFRC was a de-centralised body with a number of separate research institutes dotted all over the country with their own Directors and personnel departments. They were not line-managed by the centre but my job was to establish and manage the policy framework. In the mid nineties the AFRC was transformed as part of a general reorganisation of the research councils into the BBSRC - The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council - and became a much bigger body. At that time I was given additional responsibilities for what were termed ‘corporate resources’ which in practice involved the studentships, fellowships, and  public understanding of science programmes of the BBSRC, the communications and PR operations, and also work on ethics and intellectual property rights. So it was a big department; my title was Director of Human and Corporate Resources. I was still heavily involved in HR issues, especially as the government devolved pay bargaining to bodies like the Research Councils and I led for BBSRC in negotiations every year on pay; we also established a new integrated and job evaluated salary structure. I also did the pay negotiations for the Scottish Agricultural Research Institute which were managed by the Scottish Office - this was pre-devolution - but we took responsibility for their HR.

I did that job for about 10 years and in 2002 I got my current post at Brookes. I had become a bit bored with the BBSRC job ; after ten years it had become more routinised than I was happy with  and as I’d never worked in Oxford despite living here since the mid-1970s, I thought I would make an application. As soon as I had accepted the post, the then DVC told me that  the HR department was moving to Wheatley, so my prospects of being able to walk to work evaporated at as troke!.

That’s how I got here. Although the BBRSC job was very interesting and I could have remained there until I retired at 60, I like change and  that prospect t didn’t really attract me. So I took the challenge of moving back into a university environment.

Q: In what way HAS it been different and has it fulfilled that prediction of being different?

BP: Well, with BBRSC and AFRC before it  the head office was responsible for devising and implementing corporate strategy: pay negotiations, negotiating HR policies, dealing  with the Institutes’ problems when things went wrong, redundancy exercises and restructurings, TUPE transfers, equal opportunities policies, and women’s role in science, but it was quite a way distant from everyday personnel work. The HR role at Brookes does, of course, very much combine the day to day work linked to peoples’ individual jobs, with the wider policy issues. And the really nice thing about working here is that through the Executive Board the Deans and Directors are closely involved in the wider policy questions about university strategy. So it’s an attractive combination of everyday human resource work with a much wider involvement in policy. It has been a  very interesting time for the university over the last 10 years, in a period of growth for the  university and very successful academic development, and the growth of the university sector. The future is less encouraging in some senses but there are lots of opportunities as well as the obvious elephant traps!

I think the important aspect of HR jobs generally is that  you have to see HR in the context of the business. HR is not a set of abstract functions or roles, the HR processes serve the business purposes of the University. The same is true of training and development. Training people involves fitting people with the skills and competencies needed for a successful  business  it isn’t something in the abstract. You can’t train managers just as managers – you have to train them for a particular context, set  of management roles and specific corporate management objectives. I certainly have found  working here more exciting than the research councils, where we were very heavily constrained by government policy, and where government announcements had a great impact on what you could do. I was much less free to take an independent approach to policy and regulation.

Q: Any really significant moments or turning points that you could mention: where your direction crystallised or you received training or an intervention that was really meaningful?

BP: There were two, I think. One was when I left Warwick for the secondment, because I had just had my 40th birthday and I’d just been promoted. I had this vision  of myself just carrying on at Warwick, till I was 65, teaching the same kind of students and the same kind of syllabus for the next 25 years! I thought, that that wasn’t quite what I wanted to be able to say about my career when I got to that age. Then the secondment opportunity from the ESRC  came up out of the blue, and it seemed like a sign!. That was a big turning point. The other thing was the decision of the personnel director of the AFRC to retire early, because that gave me an opportunity to get back into HR from a period in policy and international work. I don’t think that I would have  dreamt of going into personnel as a manager. My personal career perspective after 3 or 4 years at the Research councils was that I would  carry on in policy and international work. HR wouldn’t have been a career direction I would have chosen at that stage. But it seemed like worthwhile taking the opportunity when it presented itself!

Q: Anything that you would like to mention about other dimensions of your life. You have talked about employment but clearly there always is more to a life than employment.  Anything that you’ve drawn on from outside work to help you inside work, or vice versa?

BP: Well, I’ve been a city councillor for nearly 30 years and that gives a set of other experiences and skills which complement the work of HR. To a large extent city councillors in Oxford get very involved in personal casework on things like housing, antisocial behaviour, the inevitable traffic and car parking problems and so on. So that body of personal casework brings you into contact with a very wide range of different types of people, and you have to learn  how to meet them on their terms. I certainly think that complements HR skills.

City council work involves a lot of committee work, and that is also a skill set that is worth having. Knowing how to handle committees and presentations, and knowing when to intervene and how to intervene, and how to chair meetings is all very useful in any organisation. Also, over that time I have chaired most of the Council’s major committees dealing with Housing  and Finance Committee and now, the City Executive Board. This means that you get very  involved  particularly since I have been Leader of the Council, in policy development at city and county level. These have major impacts on our community and people’s lives, so it is a serious responsibility. The core skills of being a good councillor - knowing how to achieve the outcomes that you want by using the  appropriate mechanisms and systems - are also directly relevant to an administrative role like in HR.

I have also been involved in a very wide range of voluntary organisations  over the years. I was Secretary of the Oxford Athletics Club for a number of years. I have been Chair of Governors in a primary school, and chair of the local adventure playground group. All those, I think, give experience of shaping an organisation and developing policies that actually achieve the objectives you are setting for those organisations. In the case of the athletics club for example, there was a very clear need for an all weather tartan track, so I saw my role as secretary of the club to achieve that. It  took three years but we did it and it’s there at Horspath!. All voluntary organisations give you skills in terms of understanding people, and organisations, and how human beings interact productively or unproductively..

Q: Have you any words of wisdom for colleagues who may be checking in on your career story?

BP: I think the thing about career management is that it is important to not get completely locked in to a pre determined career path. I say that not because people shouldn’t have ambitions to do certain things, but it’s always important to have the flexibility to react to certain circumstances in which you find yourself and to take opportunities within those situations. It is wise to keep yourself open to new opportunities that open up in our very rapidly changing world.  My first wife, for example, was in Personnel at Harwell and decided to leave what seemed to be a very safe career with the Atomic Energy Authority to come to Brookes in a temporary lecturer role. She is now a Professor at another university.  Had she not taken that leap of faith she might  never have had the  career that she has had. I think being flexible enough and adaptable enough to take good opportunities when they come up is important. It is also very important to talk things through with a range of people, to discuss options and discuss your skills and so on. In both the cases that I  mentioned earlier - the decision to leave Warwick and to take the ESRC secondment, and to apply for the Brookes job, I benefited from having people to talk to and who could give me advice and guidance.

Q: So, leverage your personal relationships.  Lastly then – your ideal career. What will it look like when you get there?

BP: Well,  shortly after I came to Brookes, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor role came up and I applied for it even though I had only been here for six months. The Governors, very wisely, appointed. Rex Knight, although I did make the final shortlists. It would have been satisfying to have been able to take that extra step in my career, but I would not have been as effective in the role as Rex was, and taking the DVC role would have meant that I wouldn’t have been able to carry on as a city councillor, and then would not have had the chance to become the Council Leader. One door closes and others open; the key thing is to keep looking for the ones that are opening!

Q: Thank you very much indeed, Bob.

Last update Nov 2011