Chris Gilchrist

Big Interview | Chris Gilchrist 

In our latest Big Interview, Rosie sits down with Chris Gilchrist. Read on for insights into a career as Senior HR Executive

I’m Chris Gilchrist. I’m People and Development Director at The Ned City of London. We’re part of the Soho House & Co Group; one of three Neds currently around the world and more to come in the next few years, so it’s quite an exciting place to be. 

How did you get into HR?

Long story! I shall try and keep this brief. So, I was at university in Belfast. I went to Queens University studying politics, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I took on a summer job working as cabin crew with an airline that was called Air 2000, part of the First Choice group. I did six months working with them and had the time of life, it was great mixing with fantastic people, and I really enjoyed myself. I loved doing the job and that carried on for a few summers while I was at university, and then when I graduated, I thought “I really like what I’m doing, this is a quite a cool job”, so I carried on doing it and eventually moved to England. 

I did a few different placements and ended up in Gatwick, flying all over the world, and after working through all the ranks of the airline, I became an in-charge cabin crew member and that’s when I first started doing some of the people management side of stuff. 

First Choice was really focused on performance management and growing careers.  There was a strong performance culture, which I enjoyed being part of and developing my career. I also really enjoyed working with the team and helping develop their own careers, and that progressed into me taking a job in the Gatwick office as a performance manager, managing a team of cabin managers. That was heavily focused on employee relations management and also my first time working with trade unions, along with developing a new culture as part of the merger between First Choice and TUI. And that’s when I thought – I kind of like this. So, I made the decision to go back to university, completing my masters in HR management, qualifying with CIPD level 7. 

I did that over two years part time whilst I was still working and once I graduated, I got the opportunity to move to TUI head office and my first pure HR role, working alongside some of the airline and holiday experience managers as a HR advisor.

After 13 years, I wanted to do something a little bit different, and I moved into hospitality. I worked with Hilton, initially based at London Kensington, and then my role expanded to be HR Director for three properties, adding Wembley and Reading. It was a smaller workforce than what I’d worked with at TUI, but career-wise, it was my first chance to lead a HR team.

Then after a couple of years, the skies were calling back to me, so I went back to my airline roots – to British Airways for almost six years. People say that jet fuel is in your blood; I think it probably is in my case. I had a brilliant time at BA as a business partner working with mostly the operations teams. Initially, I worked with the engineering directorate and then airports. The HR roles at BA are very strategic and transformational, with a lot of change programmes and project management. Everything was very focused on the future and working for what’s coming next.

And obviously, part of my time at BA was dealing with the significant changes during covid and what we had to do in the airline, as most industries had to obviously go through some quite big transformational change. 

How did the pandemic change HR delivery particularly whilst you were there? 

BA is a very disciplined organisation in terms of projects and change programmes and everything I did was laid out quite a few months in advance because so much planning went into it.

In 2020, it went from a feeling in January that ‘oh there’s some stuff happening in China, we’re not sure what the impact will be, but we’ll keep an eye on it’, to, I think, around eight weeks later, basically having to ground the planes. It was terrifying in terms of the speed of what happened, but we had to adapt, and put all of that project methodology into a very expedited process. From a career perspective, it was emotionally very tough, but I also learned a lot about how to cope in a crisis.  

It was indeed a crisis that the airline had never faced before and made all the harder because most of the HR team was furloughed. Initially there were just three or four of us from the team of maybe 40 who weren’t furloughed. Those first few weeks were pretty intense and definitely something I’ve never done before. I don’t think anyone ever wants to go back to that, but from a learning experience, HR has probably changed in the perception that we don’t always have to be slow and steady, and that we can do stuff quickly and still do it right. My experience showed that HR can still do what it needs to in terms of policies, procedures, and processes – making sure that people are being treated fairly and kindly and equitably – but that we can move a lot quicker, and I think that’s perhaps been a bit of a change for some. 

So you like to make great places to work? 
I think that’s on your LinkedIn profile and on that note, I would love to so find out a little bit more about your passions in the HR field. I know a focus around culture, employer branding, high performance teams, but sort of specifically around that culture piece. 

I think this will probably stem back to where my career was when I first started, because culture was such a big part of working with a holiday company. One of the things that really stuck with me was that although HR is there to keep the business safe and risk free, it’s also there to make sure everyone has a great place to work. 

It’s that connection with the brand and the connection with what you actually deliver to the customers which is so important, and with TUI it was super clear – we take people on holiday. And what was great about that was that the culture was built around delivering happy holiday moments and that was replicated in how people worked in the company Quite simply, people are having a great time and that’s what we’re here to deliver. That feeling of connection to the customer experience has stuck with me through my career and I’m now working with the amazing team at The Ned to do the same.

I’ve got six people working in the people and development team here, and it’s been great because traditionally, hospitality has had a certain approach to how HR is viewed and what we’re here to do – perhaps not as much focussed on the employer brand as other industries.  I want everyone to remember that The Ned is a wonderful hotel and members’ club with a massive restaurant complex in the City of London. People come here to have a good time. People come here to really enjoy themselves. If you come here in a Thursday night, you can see what The Ned is all about. It’s intense, but brilliant. 

So, how can we then take that culture that our members and our guests and our customers love about us, and then deliver that for our team as well?  And I mean, it doesn’t sound at all revolutionary; it’s like a really simple thing but focussing on encapsulating a team member experience that is as thriving as the guest experience is what we’re all about. Even just tone of voice and how we communicate to our people and our use of internal communications channels…why should these be any different to how we communicate to our guests?  It’s moving away from something that perhaps was a little bit formal in the past and creating a new team member experience.

And as a result of that, we should be seeing the people team as the guardians of the culture in The Ned – not just the policy, procedures, and welfare people. How do we create that culture we give to our guests and then give it to our team members as well?

So, you’ve also launched “Lift” at The Ned, which is the new graduate development programme. Could you tell me a little bit more about how that’s looking for 2024? 

One of our people pillars in the new people strategy is building careers, and introducing a new pipeline of talent was part of that. I’m not going to take a lot of the credit for this because James, who’s head of talent in my team has been instrumental in changing our approach to leadership development. James also joined last year not long after me. We want to look at Lift as a different approach; not a traditional just come and do a couple of modules and move on in your career, because The Ned is different, it’s not your traditional hotel. It’s not traditional hospitality and we want to make sure that our approach to our graduates is about them being part of a fairly unique place. And also, because it’s not a typical five-star hotel, people need to understand that when they come to work here, they’re going to work hard!

But the opportunities here as well are endless. Lift is starting in September, and we’ve already got two people signed up for it from the Shannon College of Hospitality Management in Ireland, and we’ve got more assessment centres coming in the next few months.  They’ll be a really fun day out, talking the graduates all around the building so that they truly understand the scale. We’ll also be running some activities and events to help them to know what we’re all about. The way I look at this is that it should be a chance for the graduates to interview us as well. We need to be doing as good a job of selling The Ned to our future team as they are of selling themselves to us.

If you’re studying hospitality management and you want to work in large global hotel companies that have got lots of properties around the world, and this is not disparaging towards them at all because they’re fantastic and they do a brilliant job, but The Ned is probably not for you. We want to make sure people know what we’re all about and actually understanding that we have to be right for them as well as them right for us. 

And I suppose because you are a smaller brand, there’s more opportunity for innovation and creative thoughts in terms of how things happen and on that note, I was keen to ask you about employer branding because I know that’s something that is close to your heart as well?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s a big project for this year, and we want to work on it because again it goes back to the point I made about culture. We’ve got a really great external customer facing brand, which I think anyone who’s a member of The Ned would testify to. They’re all super proud to be a member of The Ned and they love coming here; they’re so passionate about the brand and being able to say that they’re a member is a great feeling. On the flip side, our external employer brand hasn’t been that strong and hasn’t evolved much since we opened in 2017. We now need to push to evolve that and focus on why The Ned is different, why you should come work with us. I’ve told my team and my executive committee colleagues that I want to see people queuing out the door to come work here. 

So, a big project this year is to make that happen, and we’ve got quite a lot of elements in our plan to focus on. We’ve got development of the career website, and investments in the technology side of things – we introduced a new applicant tracking system in April. Our LinkedIn presence and social media will evolve too, with more storytelling and sharing of our amazing internal events which we don’t shout enough about!

But how do we get our team involved in that as well? How do we make sure that it’s not just me and the management or the executive committee deciding what The Ned stands for?  Actually, people who work here are best placed to tell us what The Ned is and what our culture is. Why are they advocates for The Ned? Advocacy is another one of the pillars of our people strategy and I’m on a mission to ensure that everyone here is an advocate of The Ned to their friends and family, sharing the love. It’s that virtuous circle of advocacy – again, a really simple idea – that the more people who work here talk about how great a place it is, the more our talent pool will grow – and our customer base too. Who wouldn’t want to come visit a place (and spend money at!) that their friend is talking so highly about? 

So, to me, the employer brand isn’t separate from the external customer facing brand. It should be all linked together, as after all, we’re all aiming for the same goal. The Ned is a great place to be, whether you’re a guest, a member, or a team member. 

What trends do you foresee HR facing in the next 12 months as we as we head from 24 to 25? 

I think from the hospitality side of things, we’ll always have those challenge of the pool of people who can – or want to – work in the industry.  It’s still perhaps perceived as a little bit undervalued, and that’s where we really need to get the employer branding right, not just The Ned, but for the industry in general. We should be focusing on why it’s a fantastic place to work and reaching out to people who may not see it that way. 

For HR in general, I think everybody’s going to say AI. On the one hand I’ve seen some of the stuff that it can do, and process-wise it can revolutionise HR and some of the opportunities coming there are wonderful. I think of the admin time we can get taken out of the process and how that can really change a candidate’s experience and the whole experience of the company. It’s fantastic, but the flip side scares me. 

What could AI do in the future? It can’t just replace people. With HR we’ve got such a key role to play in culture, and AI can be a fantastic tool to enable better communication and processes, but I don’t see a future where we have robots doing people’s jobs. There are endless opportunities, but I think it’s also a massive risk, because if we automate everything, we could very easily lose that approach to culture and employee experience that is so vital.