The Big Interview with Jonathan Whitworth

The HR Heads Career Profiling Series | We speak with HR Leaders to find out what 'a typical day in the office' looks like, what they consider their greatest career success to be, the advice they'd give their 20 year old self and much more... This edition features Jonathan Whitworth, HR Director at Babcock International Group, Marine and Technology Division.

Tell us about your Journey into HR…

I studied Management Science at university and one of the modules was something called ‘Human Resources Management’ which apparently at the time was a big change from something called ‘Personnel’. I found it really interesting, and went on to study Behaviour in Organisations, then on to Industrial Relations which was all to do with Trade Unions in the 1970’s – the whole thing just fascinated me.

I never really knew what I wanted to do and finding Human Resources so interesting was a huge turning point for me. Following my degree, I completed a full time postgraduate Diploma in Personnel Management and started looking for my first proper role. I got pretty close to some big companies like British Aerospace, GEC, Ford and Rover Group, but I kept coming in second place behind the chosen candidate- and the reason was the same every time – I was a strong candidate, but I didn’t have any business experience. So, I changed tack completely and instead of applying for HR roles, I applied for a commercial graduate trainee role within the construction industry. I was there for a couple of years before applying to Sainsbury’s as a Personnel Manager and I got the job! Part of the feedback from Sainsbury’s was, “We like you because you’ve done something else rather than just come straight into HR.”

What does a typical day in the office look like for you?

Well, it doesn’t! I live in Hampshire and work across a variety of sites including Rosyth Dockyard near Edinburgh, the Naval base at Faslane near Glasgow, a site in Bristol, Devonport Royal Dockyard in Plymouth and a naval establishment near Portsmouth. We have a Head Office in London, and a multitude of other smaller sites all over the country. We’ve also got people in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Oman and South Korea – 14,000 in total! So, as you can imagine, there is no typical day.

One consistent element is my weekly call with my PA where we review the upcoming weeks, my appointments and my travel. She works flexibly from home, which I encourage. I try and do the same wherever possible as I am away from home 2-3 nights a week.

Who are your key customers as a Global HR Director?

Two groups of people. First is the Divisional Chief Exec who I report into, the divisional Board of Managing Directors and functional leads. Secondly, the HR Function that I lead– they’re all stakeholders in some way shape or form.

What do you love about your role?

The best part of my role is developing people. I like to think that as a team, we’re successfully developing all of our 14,000 employees, but the real buzz I get is from the people in my direct team. Seeing them progress, have different experiences, be stretched and challenged but come out the other side promoting internal talent within the function – that’s the biggest buzz I get, helping those guys be the best they can be.

So when they leave, your legacy is there from your development perspective, because they’ve gone on to bigger and better things?

Absolutely, and the word ‘legacy’ is spot on. Somebody once said it to me that you should always aim to leave a legacy – and I’d never thought about it till then, but I really like it as a concept. The business, team or function is better – because you were there.

And if people do leave, they get a firm handshake and a heartfelt ‘thank you’. I genuinely wish them well, fully intending to keep in touch, because you never know when your paths will cross again and you want people to leave on a positive note and act as ambassadors for your organisation.

In the next 12 months, what lies ahead for you in HR?

In my role, I am constantly looking ahead, 3-5 years is the time horizon I work by. It’s important to always look where we’re headed as a business in line with our strategy, and then making sure that the HR function both now and in the future is enabling, supporting and driving that.

Sometimes, HR people are guilty of having a little bag of solutions that they walk around with looking for problems to solve. It has to be the other way around – you have to look at the business and then be agile enough to deliver what the business needs.

From an HR perspective, what are the broad headlines on your agenda?

Resourcing of Engineers. UK PLC doesn’t have enough engineers, we’re not seeing enough coming through and STEM subjects are trailing off in schools and universities. It’s not uncommon now for professional services firms to hire engineers as well because of their logical mindsets – so we’re really having to work hard to find engineering graduates, as well as engineers further on in their careers. We do a lot with graduates and apprentices, to ensure we continue to be an attractive employer within the market.

As a subset of that, finding senior talent. Be it Managing Directors, Finance or HR Directors, Business Winning People and so on. On top of all of the aforementioned struggles, in our industry we’re always looking for people with nuclear experience too. So nothing too challenging!

What has been your proudest career moment todate?

I’ve worked as an x-pat twice and it was landing both of those jobs. When I was 24 years old, I got a job with British Aerospace in Saudi Arabia. It was pre-internet in the mid 90’s, so the only thing people really knew about Saudi Arabia was that if you broke the law you ran the risk of having various parts of your anatomy chopped off! I remember going to the local library and trying to research Saudi Arabia – and I couldn’t find a single thing. Landing that job so young, moving to Riyadh and working on a massive defence contract was both a career and personally defining moment. It really opened my eyes to the fact that there’s a big wide world out there.

That’s quite a cultural overlay on top of a newjob too!

Absolutely! It was just mind-blowing. You either embraced it or you had such a huge culture shock that you went home. So, I chose to embrace it. The money was good and the sun shone every day – but it was a very different culture and environment.

My second proudest moment was similar, going to work in Malaysia with G4S, but this time my wife and children moved to the South East Asia with me. The ex-pat lifestyle is just brilliant. I’d really recommend it as a HR Professional – people talk about culture change and different behaviours, and when you’ve seen such extremes indifferent parts of the world first hand, you really get it, on a major scale.

What advice would you give your 20 year old self?

I would talk about the importance of being business focused first. You have to understand how the business works to be successful, to display commercial acumen and be credible. If you understand all elements of business, you can offer effective solutions. It’s about demonstrating ROI in a quantifiable way. I often call it being able to address the ‘so what?’ question. You might have the very best HR strategy in place, but you need to articulate and explain how what you’re doing impacts the bottom line in business terms.

Is there anything you’re particularly passionate about championing in HR?

The Diversity & Inclusion Agenda. As a father to three teenage girls, it would make me pretty angry if I thought someone was discriminating against them because they were women. I think that creating opportunities for girls and women in the workplace, particularly in old school engineering organisations, is absolutely crucial both from a moral perspective but also a commercial perspective. For me, it’s so important to create an inclusive environment in the workplace where everyone can be their best and give their best.

What skill would you consider essential for an HR Leader?

There is one simple but underrated skill – delivery. People can talk theoretically, academically and conceptually but if you can’t make things happen and deliver projects (in terms of time, cost, quality or schedule) and outcomes then it doesn’t really matter.

Do you have a role model?

That’s a really good question. I have taken various things from various people throughout my career, but if there was one person I’d single out as a role model I’d have to say my Dad. From a commitment and work ethic perspective, he just worked really, really, hard his whole life. He was the first of his family to go to university and gave 100% to his job all the way through his career.  

Get to know Jonathan Whitworth

What do you like to do in your spare time?

There are three things that take up my spare time. Firstly, a significant amount of it is spent being Dad’s Taxi! Secondly is our dogs, Dave and Rodney, who require two long walks a day –although that’s a nice pastime. Thirdly, homework – I do get quite involved in that! By the time I’ve squeezed in a bit of sleep in, there’s not a lot of time left!

Do you have a favourite book?

I recently read a brilliant book, called ‘The Spy and the Traitor’. It’s the true story of a KGB officer, Oleg Gordievsky, who started spying for the West during the cold war and eventually defected to the UK.  His story is just incredible.

Favourite Destination?  

I’ve worked, lived in and travelled to many countries in my time but I’d say my favourite is Singapore. I lived just a bit further up the peninsular in Malaysia but travelled there regularly with my job. I found it had a strange sense of home. They have red London buses and the streets are called things like Robinson Road or Commonwealth Lane. It’s such a juxtaposition, and a fabulous place. They call it ‘Asia for beginners’! When you land at Changi Airport in Singapore,there’s a huge sign referring to how they have transformed from being a little fishing village to a global financial powerhouse – and it’s absolutely true!

So, is Asian cuisine one of your favourites?

Yes, it’s brilliant. I was lucky because I moved around so many countries – Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, The Philippines, Brunei, Guam – they all have their own local dishes and I really enjoyed trying  them.

Is work / life balance important to you?

On a personal level, it is. That’s why I try and work from home most Fridays. I’ll take a break during the day to walk the dog with my wife, or when the kids come home from school, I’ll ignore the laptop for a bit and spend time with them. If I don’t need to be somewhere else in the country then I won’t go, so there are odd days here and there that I don’t go anywhere and just work from home. It’s quite random.

In terms of work / life balance as an organisation we are certainly on a journey. I’m trying to act as a role model and as a consequence some of the people in my team work very flexibly. For example, I have an HR Director who works a full-time contract in 4 days (Monday to Thursday) and is based at home. I really don’t mind about the hours she does, I’m interested in output not input. It does work very well for a lot of people, so as a business we are broadening our approaches to flexible working across the wider organisation.