CIPD People Management Awards champion Tim Pointer on what it takes to reach the top

Tim Pointer has had a year to remember. Almost 12 months ago, he was on stage as HR director of Pentland Brands to collect the overall prize at the CIPD People Management Awards, in recognition for the astonishing employee engagement efforts he had overseen at the highly diversified business. Today, he is leading his own consultancy, Starboard Thinking, and is coaching and advising a range of diverse clients. As he prepares to hand over his PMAs crown to a new champion, People Management asked him to reflect on what his varied career has taught him about being a great HR leader.

Be clear about your values

“There will be times when HR directors are called on to do things that make them feel uncomfortable. While great HR directors won’t shirk this, they’ll know who they are and when to walk away because they’ve made the contract between them and their CEO extremely clear. Great leaders know where their personal lines are drawn. They’ll do everything up to this to the best of their ability, but won’t cross it.”

Engineer access to the rest of the business

“The best thing about HR is that it gives those who work in it access to all areas of the business. The best make sure they take advantage of this to gain real, deep operational experience. These are the HR directors who know the guts of a business – what’s there, and how it all works. You can’t know how to improve organisational effectiveness without knowing these basics first.”

Bring the outside in

“Those that rise to the top have a hunger for knowledge. They’ve established how other firms in their sector operate (and how this impacts them), or have decided what the next stage of their own company’s development should be, one, two or three years down the line. Business today is about the extent to which external situations are changing, and who is best prepared to take advantage of it.”

Have great executive relationships

“Personal relationships are critical. HR directors need to hold a mirror up to the CEO and be brave enough to say ‘no’. They must have the courage to ask the executive team what they think the impact of their actions is. It means these HR directors are very comfortable delivering both good and bad news as it happens. They don’t pull their punches.”

Be passionate

“It may sound obvious, but the cream of this profession show demonstrable passion for what they do compared to the rest. Being an HR director is sometimes just as lonely as being a CEO, so passion is required to get you through. This means sticking to the areas you’re strong in and getting other strength around you. Top HR directors only exude credibility because they’ve seen where their deficiencies lie. No employee wants to listen to corporate culture, and high performance behaviours, if they haven’t been paid that month.”

Know when it’s time to go

“Harsh as it may sound, the very best know that their expertise is only right in their organisation for a specific period of time. They know their approach won’t be appropriate forever. These top performers are self critical enough to either reshape themselves and their skillsets, or move on. They either move to where the market is going or get a new person in who knows what’s happening.”

Tickets are still available for the 2015 CIPD People Management Awards, held at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel on September 29. Visit for further information.