With more than 25 years’ experience in human resources behind her, Paula Jordan shares her journey to Group HR Director for McCarthy & Stone and advice for those considering a career in the sector.
How did you first get into HR?
Like many people, my first career thoughts were not about HR. I did a languages degree and had ambitions to be a conference interpreter for the United Nations or UNESCO. I decided to earn some money rather than continue to rely on the ‘bank of Mum and Dad’ and accepted a role working as Executive Assistant to the MD of a small Swiss private bank in the City of London, where I could use my languages. I was quickly hooked because the person I worked for gave me projects to run and increasing levels of responsibility, which included running HR.
I found HR so varied and intellectually challenging that I decided to make it my long-term career. With hindsight I would probably not have enjoyed interpreting because it’s not about people.
How has you career progressed?
For many years, I worked in London in financial services – investment banking and asset management. Initially I chose roles where I could use my languages alongside HR. For example, at Banque Paribas Capital Markets, I spoke more French than English (and got to travel the world)! As I became more senior, I realised that I was sacrificing opportunities by insisting on using my languages, so focused instead on broadening my HR skills.
My first Director role was at Barclays, where I was HR Director for the Global Capital Markets Division, working closely with Bob Diamond. I was then HR Director of Barclays Private Banking, another global role. My final role at Barclays was working with the Board and Executive Committee to create greater diversity at senior levels, then dominated by ‘establishment’ candidates. During this time we’d relocated several times. After a move to Winchester and with two young children, I decided to work closer to home. I joined Cable & Wireless as HR Director of the newly created Mid-Market Division. It was a very exciting time, working for an inspirational boss, recruiting some fantastic people and winning major contracts. Sadly, the role only lasted 18 months because the parent company decided to close a number of divisions.
After managing the closure, I joined Portman Building Society, which brought my career down to Bournemouth. Portman combined all the agility and drive of a small organisation with the professionalism and structure of a larger organisation. In a mutual, the customers are also the owners of the business, which was interesting to experience. Portman was contemplating a merger with a near-equal and my role was to run HR on a day-to-day basis while the Group HR Director concentrated on the merger. That merger did not come off but Portman later merged with Nationwide and I left the business.
I was then approached to take on the role of Group HR Director at McCarthy & Stone, and the rest is history!
Describe your role with McCarthy & Stone.
It’s been a fascinating journey. I’ve worked with four CEOs, three CFOs and several ownership structures – privately owned, equity capital owned and publicly quoted. When I first joined the business, it was expanding rapidly. However, like most construction companies, we had to halve the size of the business during the recession. That was sad but there’s a satisfaction in managing a major downsizing well, so that people are well supported through the changes.
Since then, the fortunes of the business have improved. We’ve developed new products and services and expanded geographically. We now employ more than 1,000 people across our seven UK offices and a further 1,500 in our Management Services division. We employ a diverse range of people, but what unites us it is putting the customer at the heart of everything we do, whether that is the design of an apartment or the care services we offer.
As Group HR Director, I am responsible for the people strategy and HR operations across the whole business and serve as a member of the Executive Committee. In September last year, we launched an exciting new strategy to change from a ‘simple housebuilder’ to becoming more of a lifestyle provider by offering greater flexibility choice and affordability to our customers.
No one day is ever the same and that is something that I thrive upon. I particularly enjoy working with the senior team, providing expert guidance and coaching across a wide range of strategic and operational topics that go far beyond a ‘standard’ HR remit.
What do you enjoy most about working in HR?
Over the years, I have worked in a number of disciplines, but I my twin passions are reward and talent management. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than finding the right people at the right time with the right skills and cultural fit and seeing them develop through the whole employee life cycle.
It’s a hugely varied and exciting role, but also challenging. The McCarthy & Stone brand, and what we do, is very special. I love the fact that the role is so interesting, but that there is a real social purpose too, because we do genuinely ‘enrich peoples’ lives’ as our strapline says.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
I was delighted to be recognised as one of the most influential HR Directors in the construction industry by HR Magazine for the past four years. Tucked away in Bournemouth and a long way from London, that is quite something!
However, my proudest moments are really when I see people succeed and achieve greatness – for example someone who I recruited at a junior level, going all the way to the top.
What are the challenges being faced by the HR sector at the moment?
The biggest challenge for HR professionals is to keep up with change. It’s a very fast-paced environment to work in, both economically and politically.
It is always a challenge to find and retain great people. Going forward, people will need to be much more agile and reinvent themselves as AI changes the way we work. HR will need to help people to change if they can, and to support them in an appropriate manner, if they cannot. There’s also a tsunami of new regulation and legislation which all HRDs are wrestling with. The root of all the new reporting and corporate governance requirements is sensible and necessary, but it puts a lot of pressure on senior teams.
In your opinion, what are the key characteristics of a great HR professional?
I would definitely encourage anyone pursuing a career in HR to do their CIPD. I would also encourage them then to spend their early career in a large organisation where they can get a good technical grounding in all areas of HR before deciding in which area to specialise.
From a skills point of view you must be flexible, agile and open-minded because every day is different. A high degree of resilience and good sense of humour are also indispensable, as people matters don’t always go according to plan!
For me, the distinguishing factor is having the right attitude – going the extra mile, being intellectually curious and energetic. Someone who wants to be the best version of themselves and help others will always be a winner.
Finally, make sure you really relate to what your employer does. It makes me proud every day that McCarthy & Stone enriches its customers’ and their families’ lives. To know you are making a difference to others makes everything worthwhile.