A New Direction

So, having decided the oil industry wasn’t for me, what to do next? My professional skill, insofar as I have one, is a project engineer or manager, basically someone who can organise, communicate, and coordinate a bunch of specialists to get stuff done. Although doing this well brings considerable added value to any organisation, I was faced with two problems if I attempted to take these skills into another industry (or even stay in oil and gas):

1. Project management positions are to some degree prestigious, hence they are granted to the favoured sons of the upper management regardless of whether they have the necessary skills and competence. There are exceptions, but it would be hard for me to break into a new industry and convince someone to give me a decent project manager role.

2. Project engineers tend to have to report to incompetent project managers, and you end up doing menial admin work on behalf of the dolt above you who is good pals with someone in the higher echelons. Also, project engineers tend to be badly paid because few recognise the importance of the role; you’re basically a dogsbody to be blamed when things go wrong. Depending on where you are, this can also apply to project managers. I was once in an interview for a project management position which reported into a technical manager. I asked what the technical manager’s job was, and was told he was responsible for the project execution. In other words, it was some loafer in HQ who wanted to tell the project manager how to run the project. Micromanagement and non-accountability is absolutely rife everywhere these days.

What I needed to find was a job that:

1. Came with good working conditions, i.e. if the pay was not great you’re at least somewhere without green in the flag and you can drink the tapwater.

2. Was a role that was growing, i.e. there are plenty of them about and, even better, the numbers are increasing.

3. Was a role that sat near the top of any hierarchy so, unlike project engineers who lie near the bottom, you’d not be handed shit-burgers every day.

4. Was generally badly done and if anyone halfway competent showed up, they’d immediately stand out.

So what role encompasses all of that? Why, Human Resource Management, of course!

Has the laughter died down? Have you all quite finished? Right, allow me to continue. HR is something that does need to be done properly, but almost all of the time isn’t. The principle reasons for this is as follows. What used to fall under the responsibility of middle management has been handed off to an HR department. This suits the middle management because the last thing a modern manager wants is responsibility, and it gives them a handy excuse at to why “nothing can be done” because “it’s an HR decision”. In theory, a centralised HR department is supposed to handle those responsibilities more efficiently than middle managers, but in practice they often don’t get handled at all. HR departments have grown increasingly remote from the middle management and most would have little to no idea what an actual worker did or why. Often HR doesn’t even sit in the same continent, let alone country, as those who generate the value in a company, yet they are tasked with producing policies and procedures which govern the minutiae of their working lives.

Everywhere I’ve worked without exception there has been an unbridgeable gulf between the HR department and those who carry out the company operations. On the rare occasions they meet, they’re talking completely different languages. In many instances, the HR department works chiefly as the propaganda organ of the senior management. Whatever they think they’re doing, it isn’t human resource management. The reason for this is the sort of people who are good at projects and operations have no interest in HR, and almost nobody working in HR went there intentionally: they ended up there because they were too useless to do anything else, or they saw it as a way to occupy a comfy chair in an air-conditioned office having got a 2:2 in Modern Literature and Psychology from the University of Glamorgan. Perhaps two or three times in my career I’ve encountered a genuine HR professional who studied for it specifically, and it’s like coming across Christiano Ronaldo playing football for the local pub. There is a drastic shortage of these people, and they’re worth their weight in gold.

Now the advantage I have is I am genuinely interested in HR management, these  days far more so than the technical stuff. I am sure part of this is having seen so much of it done badly while realising it should really not be that difficult. I’ve seen travel policies where one section contradicts the other, career managers who didn’t know the person whose career they were supposedly managing, untrained managers stepping on legal landmines wherever they trod, and CVs of competent people filtered out by HR while completely unsuitable candidates get the nod. Across the four branches of HR – policy, legal, training, and recruitment – I’ve seen little but blithering incompetence. All are subjects I’ve somehow become interested in, particularly those elements which are to do with personalities and human behaviours. I also take a keen interest in administration being done well, and if I have any skill it’s probably that; get your admin right and everything else becomes much easier. It also helps that I can write clearly and accurately, especially when it comes to reports, procedures, and emails.

Now I know I’d not last five minutes in an HR department of a major corporation, but I reckon I could bring considerable value to a small company. Consider a startup of 4-5 people, managed by the founders, who now need to expand to 20 people and assign someone to Bulgaria for 6 months where the factory for their prototype is being made. They’re going to need HR policies, but who writes them? Who’s going to set the housing policy in Bulgaria, and manage any visitors? They also need a finance manager; how do they recruit him? These are things the founders will have little interest in, and will either wing it or get some outside help. There are plenty of HR consultancies to whom you can outsource things like travel and accommodation policies, and the resulting documents are useful if the people to whom they supposedly apply want a good laugh. This is because HR consultancies are staffed with the sort of people who end up in HR, not people who know what an engineer or technician’s job involves. The company could also hire someone, perhaps a nice young lady with a few years experience working in the HR department of another company somewhere and she could ensure all employees are fully briefed on the diversity policy and the importance of ensuring all eleven managers sign off their expenses before they can be processed.

So here’s where I come in. I’m that rare beast who has an engineering degree, a lot of operations and project experience, and an interest in getting HR done properly and willing to do it myself. The trouble is, no company would hire me in an HR role: I have no experience outside winging it in various positions, and me waving my hands around saying “It’s common sense, innit?” isn’t going to convince anyone. What I need if I want to land an HR job in a small tech company is a course which will provide me with the complete and structured knowledge to do the job.

To that end I started looking for Masters or MBA courses in Human Resource Management. I dismissed the US business schools out of hand on the grounds I didn’t want to pay a king’s ransom to listen to Marxist harridans tell me I’m a rapist. I considered the UK but thought London would be expensive to live in and perhaps also filled with demented leftists, and it took under two minutes to write off Manchester Business School. So I looked at Geneva, for two reasons. The first is the Swiss tend to be quite sensible folk, serious about business, and their schools good (although very expensive). The second is I have an apartment in Annecy just 45 minutes away by car, meaning I don’t need to fork out for accommodation.

So I applied to an MBA in Human Resources Management at the EU Business School in Geneva and got accepted (the essay I submitted with my application was this one). The course begins in October and lasts a year, with lectures taking place between 6pm and 9pm each weekday evening. This is obviously to allow people to work while studying, but helps me in two ways. Firstly the commute will be much easier, going against the traffic, and secondly it leaves the day free for blogging and writing books.

At the end of the course I’ll probably look for a position in a company in Geneva; I am hoping my industry experience will make up for my lack of direct experience in an HR role. A small company might not need anyone full-time, but that’s okay; I can either work part time or in a dual role, running projects or operations as well. Having proper HR capability should also open the door to general management roles too; previous companies I’ve worked for would have paid handsomely for a general manager who could manage the HR himself. Long-term, I might even go into freelance HR consultancy, but that’s a way off yet.

So that’s the plan, folks. I’ll be in Paris until end August when my gardening leave finishes, in September I’ll move to Annecy, and in October it’s back to school.


57 thoughts on “A New Direction

  1. Do HR monkeys get paid as much as oil engineers? Always assumed you boys are on some fat salary… at least compared to us shoe monkeys. Why not just go direct for a general manager or executive position in another industry? At least I’m my industry you’d walk right into a very senior position I’m sure. What you gonna do for the two years it takes to do the MBA? Brave move. Best of luck!

    Don’t comment here often but love reading this blog.

  2. Best o’ luck!

    Actually in my current office, we have a competent HR manager. The issue is that he’s the only one for 4 sites and 300 engineers… Competence in that arena is as rare as hens teeth, that’s for sure. And as you’ve mentioned, the role changes from actually enabling employees to protecting the C-Suite from them as the company gets bigger.

  3. Why not just go direct for a general manager or executive position in another industry?

    Ah, I explained that here. The problem wasn’t my industry, it was big companies. I’d find the same problem in any industry.

    Don’t comment here often but love reading this blog.


  4. Crumbs! Good luck. I should never have guessed that a free spirit who has a talent for antagonising superiors (always assuming I’ve read you correctly in the past) would chose an avenue governed by inflexibility and pettifogging.

  5. Your blog never fails to inform & entertain.

    Wish you the very best in your change of career path.

    Kind regards

  6. Put your CV out there. You could do your MBA while working and getting experience in a general manager/technical manager position in a (ahem, such like mine) less technically advanced industry. Then quit that for big bucks in a proper industry. Get some ok money without a hole in your CV. General managers in textile and footwear are earning £100k plus with what I gather from reading your blog a lot less experience.

    You probably have a plan anyway because you’re clearly a very smart chap so this is just my 50c from the peanut gallery.

    I’m a technical manager at a shoe firm and I have only A levels, you could do a lot better than that.

  7. “It also helps that I can write clearly and accurately”

    “I was face with two problems”

    Oops! Mind you, by today’s standards, that’s nothing.

  8. “I was face with two problems”

    Drat! In my defence I’m writing this on the Eurostar.

  9. “1. Came with good working conditions, i.e. if the pay was not great you’re at least somewhere without green in the flag and you can drink the tapwater.”

    Oooh, is Eire that bad?

  10. >1. Project management positions are to some degree prestigious, hence they are granted to the favoured sons of the upper management regardless of whether they have the necessary skills and competence.
    >2. Project engineers tend to have to report to incompetent project managers

    True in big companies. But is it true in the sort of small companies you’re talking about?

  11. But is it true in the sort of small companies you’re talking about?

    I’ve certainly seen it.

  12. “Has the laughter died down? Have you all quite finished?”

    Not quite, one more joke before we get serious.

    So you are going back to school to learn how to download Linkedin applications, develop training courses on filling in a timesheet, ensuring that performance appraisal results match management expectations, stopping people blogging during the bosses time, chucking a sickie when the union standover men visit the workplace, worshiping HSE officers, specialising in accusing workers of breaking unwritten rules, firing people on Friday afternoons, early booking of HR networking events online……….

    It certainly is different, a year will fly by and I would suggest as other have that you get a job while you are studying.

    All the best and I look forward to reading over the years of the rolling out of the new paradigm in human relations strategy!

    Suggest that you take the Toblerone challenge to get in the groove.


  13. Best of luck!
    Does this mean there’s going to be a HR and diversity policy for the comments section on this blog?

    Will there be some extra mandatory boxes we have to fill in to declare our gender and sexuality before we can post?!?

    On a separate note – how many languages do you speak? I’ve only been here a few months (a great blog btw).
    I’ve read you can speak Russian and I think you’ve just about mastered English and hope you’ve forgetton Cymraeg (as it’s a pointless language and reminds me of my sister-in-law) but are there any others?
    Do you go to the country first and then learn the language or have you always been good at learning?

  14. Good luck on the study path and future work plans.

    I wonder whether you might not do well finding and working with a start up of some kind that is looking to automate large chunks of the HR drudgery (travel policies, expenses etc.). In particular the parts of HR that relate to compliance i.e. government mandated form-filling and box-ticking. I haven’t looked into the space at all but it seems to me it is ripe for revolution, at least in the SME area where HR is not a department so much as a single person.

  15. Enoy the blog but do not generally comment, however wanted to say: good luck!

    One thing you might consider is building your VC connections during the year you are going to school. Surely there are Swiss/French/Italian startups who need this help and who might not have much money, but working in your chosen field is a huge accelerator to the first job.


  16. Interestingly at Schlumberger the mark that you were going to be a high flyer or at least thought you might have the potential to be one is you will do a secondment to HR for 6-12-18 months. For many of the reasons that you listed and to try and ensure some sense in the madness that comes from HQ. While probably it is only somewhat effective at least the damage that HR can do is not overlooked there and there is some attempt to keep it on board.

    Just try and avoid the fate of what happened to John Flexman at BG Group, he won in the end like he should have. Arguably one of the more talented and effective HR managers (ex-army infantry officer) at that company who was hung out to dry by them.

  17. Good luck, Tim!

    That said, a few of the examples you quoted sounded a bit discordant.

    “Consider a startup of 4-5 people, managed by the founders, who now need to expand to 20 people and assign someone to Bulgaria for 6 months where the factory for their prototype is being made. They’re going to need HR policies, but who writes them? Who’s going to set the housing policy in Bulgaria, and manage any visitors?”

    If a startup of 20 people sends one person to Bulgaria, that fellow has been 2 years with the company or is a school buddy of one of the founders, and is trusted to make reasonable decisions and not to waste money. In any case, he’s not going to pay much attention to a piece of paper produced by a 1-man HR department. When you’ve got 6 different people in different locations, then #5 starts using the company credit card to pay for an escort service because he heard a rumor that #3 used it to hire a limo to impress a girl… and that’s when you need the HR policy. So I would expect the company size to be larger than 20 (not that I’m an expert).

    “Whatever they think they’re doing, it isn’t human resource management.”

    My opinion (for what it’s worth) is that there’s no such thing as good Human Resources Management, simply because as soon as you start thinking about people as “Human Resources”, you become exactly what you hope to avoid.

  18. HR? Tim Newman? Next thing you know you’ll be dabbling in polly.

    Best of luck!

  19. Crikey, good luck with all that Tim. Never would have guessed that you’d end up in Human Remains, but as clem mentioned hopefully you’ll still have a sane comments policy!

    Also, does this mean you’ll be a student-discount ski bum this winter? 🙂

  20. Can’t see it happening, you are far too much of a maverick to even want to work in Human Resources. Having said that, the women in our HR Dept. are really fit but given the politics of HR, I wouldn’t even say “Good Morning” for fear of triggering some offence or other. Like that Australian sparkling wine “Perth Pink”, best laying down and avoiding.

    Best of luck with your endeavours.

  21. I didn’t see that coming!

    Eventual freelance business personnel troubleshooter and cutter of bullshit. Yeah. Sounds plausible.

    Best of luck!

  22. You gave us a clue some time back with the Manc thingy.

    Your reasoning could, IMHO, work. You could well find a small (not 4 or 5 more 25 to 80/100 person outfit, with an actual product, growing fast, maybe hitec/internetty-type crack) looking for a specialised HR person with extra skills (engineer, even if not an internetty one is far better than a languages graduate he said humbly), languages and international experience and a no-nonsense attitude to channel fast growth/scale-up to medium-sized over a brief period. Somebody they can trust to get on with it from day 2.

    You’ll find somewhere and if not the third novel will take you to a Nobel prize. If Al Gore or or the Kenyan tribal chief O’bama can get one…..

    You’ll need to be up-to-date on all the on-line organisational and training stuff that is becoming available to allow delivery on a one-to-one basis anywhere…
    and learn how to forget the equity pink stuff.

    You may find that after 5 years experience a major is looking to lose the happy-crappy safe space side and you get the chance to do the real thing in a bigger company, although the first scenario would be much more fun.

    Enjoy in any case.

    And good luck!

  23. Like you I have a B.Sc (hons) in mech eng but from down the road at Salford, albeit 50 years ago. I did a few years of automotive design and development at BLMC before moving into auto retail. I did this for similar reasons to your proposed change of direction after gardening leave. Plus I wasn’t a particularly good engineer and retail offered vastly better pay.
    After 10 years I moved on to training and consultancy in auto retail, eventually leading to market research. Here I found my niche and started my own company. I never looked back. It was great having no boss, employees to lighten the load – and it was lucrative.
    So my tuppence worth is self employment or better still a small company. You don’t need much money – I started with 10K – just a niche.

  24. Oh dear.

    Okay, all sarcasm and cheap shots aside, I fear this isn’t going to work out the way you’re hoping.

    First of all and most importantly, HR has been a massive productivity sink in any corporation larger than (legal liability cutoff size, usually 50 employees) for so long it’s a cliche. Everyone working in a large company knows it and more importantly so do the people at the top. They know the HR department is a metastasized cancer and they’re finally starting to do something about it.

    I work in the web software engineering field, and my most recent contract was with a firm that was building a web app suite that would allow benefits brokers and employees to self-manage their benefits and insurance elections, which is 90% of the HR busywork. The remaining 10% is the legal liability dodge of “harassment training”, and even there large corporations are increasingly making the Ford Pinto calculation and taking the risk of a costly lawsuit over paying their HR departments.

    That last contract? We had multinational insurance companies lining up to throw money at us because their large corporate clients were panting for it. The company I worked for before that contract was a 200,000+ multinational that decimated their HR department in favour of outsourcing it all and chucking the harassment training. Those cushy paper-pushing jobs are gone or will be shortly.

    Now, where you might have some value is with a recruiting firm for high-priced talent; that’s a lot about who you know and a recruiter that can speak to highly technical prospects in their own terms and knows people well can make a lot of money off of those placement commissions. But it’s a lot of work and it’s like high pressure sales.

  25. Blimey……..HR, didn’t see that one coming!

    Right enough, didn’t you mention something about looking at an HR course a few weeks back in one of your posts?

    You may be onto something, when I think back to the best HR guys I worked with, they had 10 – 20 years experience in a real job & used that experience to make common sense decisions & put in place simple policies suited to the business rather than HR “best practice”.

    Just my 2 cents, I would have thought your skill set would have been perfectly suited to being a PM / GM in a much smaller contractor, one where the emphasis is on getting the job done without the overwhelming paperwork, approval gates, controls & general BS that arrives in companies over a certain size.

    Anyway, going to be interesting to see how this HR lark goes & wish you the best of luck.

  26. HR has been the coming thing for 20+ years. Still very few make it to the boardroom. I guess the pay isn’t great either.

    With your background I’d look at project finance. Seems to me an anomaly that everything else gets specialised and subcontracted but the money and the expertise are supposed to be in the same firm.

  27. Very brave of you, luckily with no family,school ties etc you are young enough and situated well enough to make a go of it……be lucky as those southerners say.

  28. I suspect you will find the games played at school to be more intolerable than the worst of administrative bureaucracy, but best of luck.

    Maybe the Swiss really are different.

  29. Well, you’ve nailed your colours to the mast, right enough.

    I have doubts about the wisdom of your decision but, to quote the immortal Del Boy Trotter “he who dares, Rodders, he who dares …”.

    I think your challenge will be finding a company that will offer you a job and allow you free reign.

    But I agree with you and the other commentators, HR is something that desperately needs revamping and, done to even a halfway decent standard, would be a 200% improvement on what exists already.

    Hals und beinbruch!

  30. Long-time reader, first-time poster.

    I fear your experience of leaving Projectlandia in favour of HR will be similar to my leaving the Army (Infantry officer) for the public service. I wasn’t especially unhappy in the Army — although most of your comments about bureaucracy applied in spades — but I certainly felt (in 1989) that promotions and opportunities were about to dry up. And I had achieved what I set out to do. So I left.

    In comparison, the public service was a complete lunatic asylum. There was no fixing it and no rising above it. I eventually made my way into the top 10%, managed to find a quiet corner doing essential work, got some contemporary skills, had them pay me to go back to school, cemented a pension and left. But it took me 25 years to do it. For ten of those years, I’d have gladly been back in uniform, but of course that bridge was burned behind me.

    I cannot imagine HR, anywhere, being better than the public service, or you’ve been doing. It’s essentially dysfunctional, chockers with womyn, and seems to be dedicated to eliminating chaps like you. After all, they aren’t really about recruitment; they’re about shielding senior management from pain. I call them The Plumbers: HR’s job is to make sure that all the sewage flows from higher to lower, and doesn’t come back up.

    As you’ve said, HR in large organisations is out. I sense that you overestimate the opportunities at smaller organisations. And, as someone here wrote, HR is presently being downsized / outsourced / automated everywhere you look. Sure, there’ll always be HR, but it could go the way of publishing — a career option available mainly for (an increasingly-tiny number of) stupid rich kids, supported by underpaid admin types and permanent juniors.

    So long as a person’s employed by others, there’s simply no escaping various forms of idiocy and ineptitude. It sounds like you’re still going to be playing that game — if so, better to be making serious money at it.

    I’d hold fast to the project management skills — don’t let them lapse — and make an extra effort to stay in touch with former colleagues. If you’re dead-set on studying HR, I hope you can find a way to link it to your existing experience, so you don’t close off that avenue.

    Maybe there’s a living to be made as a contemporary C. Northcote Parkinson. You can certainly write.

    Anyway, best of luck.

  31. Organisation design and occupational analysis would seem to have a similar skill set and approach to engineering (says a complete non-engineer!). A fairly marketable skill set in my experience. As an HR consultant in a large organisation, I’m currently in the midst of full-on internecine warfare between two divisions with HR as the meat in the sandwich. Not sure you’d enjoy stuff like that.

  32. I wish you the best, but I’m not optimistic. You can do things that require technical and mathematical skills, things that most people can’t do. Stick with it. HR doesn’t require much if any skill, and a degree in it is just another (worthless) credential. You will be a white male competing for a position which companies use as great place to dump ‘diversity’ hires where they can’t do too much damage.

  33. Good luck Tim.

    A word to the wise, the moment anyone, anywhere, mentions Six Sigma, run a mile (or three) in the opposite direction.

  34. Fay, on Six Sigma; many years ago I attended a meeting at some company or other where the twonk heading up the meeting introduced himself as a Six Sigma black belt. To which my colleague replied “Interesting. I have a blue belt in origami”. We were hastily shown the door. Didn’t stop laughing on the train ride home.

  35. One of our department heads is a lovely young woman who has spent 5 years in HR but due to a corporate requirement to promote women into meaningful jobs, she was moved to head up an engineering and manufacturing group. After a little while doing a job for which she was completely unqualified, she quietly complained to me that having now seen things from the other side she had concluded that the HR department was basically useless in providing the support they were supposed to provide and she ended up doing all those task herself now. Which is just as well as she had a lot of hours to fill while avoiding the genuine demands of her role.

  36. Thanks for the feedback, folks.

    Although my belief in my ability to explain myself clearly in writing has taken a further knock when I see how many of you think I aim to take an HR position in a sprawling bureaucracy in a large company.

  37. It’s because only sprawling bureaucracies in large companies have any kind of HR department. SMEs do theirs entirely haphazardly, to the extent you can be roped in to interview a candidate at 5 minutes’ notice and then not asked your impression after the interview is over. Admin does the form filling, payroll, and expenses, disciplinary is done by the head honchos, and I look after the cases with pastoral/psycho needs. That’s it for HR, in a no longer “small” company.

    If and when the message gets through to the final decision makers that this is one thing we really need an SOP for, we will write it ourselves.

  38. Slightly confused about something here.

    Why are you on gardening leave?

    There’s nothing in this plan to suggest it’s necessary from the point of view of your previous (current) employer.

  39. It’s because only sprawling bureaucracies in large companies have any kind of HR department.

    Correct, but most have someone who calls themselves an HR Manager.

    SMEs do theirs entirely haphazardly, to the extent you can be roped in to interview a candidate at 5 minutes’ notice and then not asked your impression after the interview is over.

    Yes, because the HR Manager is useless or the management have decided they’re going to wing it themselves. Hence my belief there is ample opportunity for someone who can competently manage HR issues.

  40. Why are you on gardening leave?

    There are reasons which I’m unable to disclose here.

  41. HR has been the coming thing for 20+ years. Still very few make it to the boardroom. I guess the pay isn’t great either.

    In my experience, HR has mushroomed in the past 20 years and in many instances now seems to run the whole organization. Every major corporation has an HR rep on the board nowadays, this is standard.

    But you’re missing the point: I don’t want to get anywhere near a boardroom, I want to be left alone to do a job nobody else wants to do in a small company. If I wanted great pay, I’d do another assignment in Africa with a major oil company.

  42. There are reasons which I’m unable to disclose here.

    Did you tell someone to eff off?

  43. What is gardening leave?

    When you’re still employed by the company but not required to go into work.

  44. “There are reasons which I’m unable to discuss here”

    He obviously isn’t going to tell us so let’s speculate:

    1. He told his boss a few home truths as he handed in his notice.
    2. He explained to the HR manager why she was $hit at her job.
    3. He threatened to reveal some dodgy deals his company was involved in Nigeria unless they gave him a paid 3 month holiday.
    4. He got caught balls deep in the office junior in the photocopy room.

  45. Here it’s called “admin[istrative] leave,” and is generally a prelude to being fired,

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