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Find out how former cruise ship bartender, Jo Michael, became Group Human Resources Director, responsible for the wellbeing of over 450 employees across 10 sites.

What were you doing before you got into HR?

Having lived most of my life in a seaside town in Essex, I’d always thought I’d work in the hospitality industry. I studied for an HND in Hotel Catering and Institutional Management and following that took a year out and went to sea as a cocktail waitress for Princess Cruises. A decade later, I was still there and during that time had become the first female bar manager for Princess Cruises. Promotion to Assistant Food and Beverage Director followed, with responsibility for all of the bars and restaurants on board.

How did you make the move into HR?

During my time at sea cruise liners did not have HR Managers on-board, although I believe they do now. Department heads were responsible for their own personnel. I had a large team of people and in addition to the day to day operational management I was also responsible for ER, staff welfare and training.  As a result, when I left the ships in 1998 I decided I would like to pursue a career in Personnel and Training as its was then known.

Having moved to Poole I was fortunate enough to get a job almost immediately as Personnel Assistant at the then 5* De Vere Royal Bath Hotel. I had hoped the Personnel Manager could become a mentor however, when I arrived I discovered the they’d recently departed so I was on my own! A baptism of fire followed but I found my way through with support from Head Office. I was appointed Personnel and Training Manager within six months. I remained with De Vere Hotels for six years until I took maternity leave in 2004. My next career move was to Bezier, a print management company, as HR Manager based in Poole. The print industry is heavily unionised and I gained valuable experience working with the Trade Union reps and shop stewards. In 2010, I joined Jacksons Mercedes as Group HR Manager. The Company became Sandown Mercedes in 2014 and I was asked to join the Board and promoted to Group HR Director.

Do you have any HR qualifications?

I studied for my CIPD via distance learning with BUSEC whilst working for Bezier and bringing up my young son. It was a bit of a challenge at times but I am really proud of that achievement. I was delighted to be invited to apply for Chartered Fellowship status a few years ago and pass the assessment.

What would you say are your key strengths?

I have always been hands on and I am closely involved with my HR team. My key strengths are probably employee relations, change management and strategic management. The Sandown group has evolved over the past five years and this has involved bringing together two culturally very different companies and an overhaul of most of our business processes. We began as a company with three Mercedes Benz retail sites with 140 employees and are today a company with 10 locations and over 450 employees who are hungry for further acquisition and growth. Sandown has evolved with a strong identity and a unified culture.

How has the HR sector changed and what are the current challenges?

The world of HR has undoubtedly changed significantly from the days of personnel management, driven mainly by technology and new legislation. HR professionals now have a far higher profile, have needed to become more strategic and to illustrate added value to a business. As such, HR professionals now need to have a far greater understanding of the business and industry they are working in than ever before. HR is expected to be far more commercially-minded and ensure that the HR strategy remains aligned with the business strategy.

Our priorities now are developing the talent from within and attracting great talent for the future while preparing the team to be able to cope with vast changes in technology and more specifically for us, the immense changes in the retail sector and the shift towards online purchases. To compete, we ensure that we are an agile organisation with agile leadership teams that can respond to the challenges of online retailing.

Recruitment can be challenging too. Recruiting traditional skills such as technicians is hard and therefore we invest heavily in technical apprenticeships across all our sites. We also now have a far more diverse workforce and people are working for longer. As a business we need to make sure that our employer offering is interesting to all employees across a depth of range.

Describe a typical day

Every day is different. Clearing my inbox is always on my to do list. I’m quite often out at our sites for meetings. Our furthest site is in Guildford where our MD is based and our nearest is Mercedes Benz of Poole. When I am at the offices in Poole I like to ensure I have a morning meeting with my team. Under my wing I have HR, Payroll, Health and Safety and Training and I work closely with my amazing team. I will speak with most of the Heads of Business on a daily basis. I can also be involved with interviewing for senior appointments, board meetings, strategy meetings, manpower planning, policy and procedure reviews and dealing with ER issues. I need to ensure we stay true to our HR strategy and guarantee that we have a sustainable culture and business which will put us in a good position to expand and grow.

I am fortunate to work within a progressive, forward thinking company who truly know the value of the HR function. I have an incredibly supportive MD and a talented and loyal HR team who enable us to achieve great results. We are valued and respected within the company and have contributed to the success that the Sandown group has achieved.

What advice would you give to people considering a career in HR?

Someone considering a career in HR should research in depth what it entails – the CIPD website is a good first port of call. If possible, try to get a placement or work experience within an HR department and speak to as many HR professionals as possible. Ask the right questions at an interview – delve into culture and people values. Personally, I think it’s really good to have a solid grounding in all the HR disciplines. Be prepared to coach, tell people when things aren’t working and provide honest feedback and build good relationships across all levels of the business.

Finally, you need to believe in the business you are working in, be an optimist, aim high and strive to help the business achieve its objectives. You need to love what you do. If you are working in an HR environment, it will be very apparent to the wider team if you don’t!

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