For our latest CPO Spotlight, Samuel Lee caught up with Robert Halton, Chief People Officer at Burges Salmon, an independent UK law firm, about his career and advice for aspiring CPOs.
I’m pleased to welcome Robert Halton to the HR Heads CPO Spotlight.
Hi. Good to be here.
Robert, to anyone who’s not heard of Burges Salmon, how would you describe it to them?
Burges Salmon is one of the UK’s largest independent law firms. We are headquartered in Bristol; we have an office in Edinburgh and in Dublin as well as in Cardiff and a base in London. But most of our people are either in Bristol or Edinburgh and we work for commercial clients both here in the UK and abroad.
Could you tell me about your journey into Burges Salmon?
It’s a bit of a long one. I was in the Royal Navy after leaving university, and then I joined a firm called Edge & Ellison, a law firm in Birmingham where I was for several years before joining DLA.
I was there for about 12 years and helped it grow from being a national UK law firm to being at the time, the largest global law firm in the world. I joined as the HR Director and left as the Global Chief People Officer of the international law firm DLA Piper.
After that, I went to the University of Law, where I was on the board with the People brief. The university provided professional qualification courses for the legal profession together with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.
I joined Burges Salmon 10 years ago and though it is a much smaller law firm than DLA Piper, what they have in common is a clear focused strategy.
You’ve held senior roles at several prestigious organisations, what made you want to choose to join Burges Salmon?
The culture: we have a fantastic culture, we have a people-focused culture. In terms of scale we are just over 1000 people. That’s the sort of scale of organisation that you can get your arms around and see the impact of the things that you implement. That to me was what was really exciting. In addition, it was an opportunity for me to get back into a law firm environment having been in a university for five years.
You mentioned the size of the organisation, when developing the talent and retention how much of a challenge can it be?
Well, I think the most important thing is how you attract talent and how you keep it. How do you differentiate yourself when most law firms appear to be the same on the outside? Culture is the answer: a culture that allows people to be themselves and to thrive.
How do people behave with each other? In the 10 years I’ve been here, people have rated us as number 1 in the RollOnFriday Best Law Firm to Work survey, 5 times and we’ve been in the top 10 for all those ten years.
What defines us is a great set of people, people who support each other and really work hard together for our clients.
I assume social mobility can be an obstacle. Is it one you’ve seen and how have you dealt with it?
Yes, social mobility is an important topic and one that’s very close to my heart.
In fact, I’m a trustee on the Social Mobility Business Partnership, which is particularly focused on the professional service sector and it’s aimed to encourage people from lower socio-economic groups to try and get into a profession that is quite often seen as being quite elitist.
Now how did we do that? You do that by raising the profile of the organisation.
Targeting a diverse range of universities. You do that by encouraging students to come in when they’re in secondary school and get them to think about what they might want to do with their future.
We have a programme called Bright Sparks where we target schools and focus on students who traditionally might not go to university. To show them that you can have a future inside one of these bright shiny buildings.
We have implemented an apprenticeship scheme so students can join us straight from sixth form too and over a six-year period, take exams and qualify to become a solicitor.
So, there’s a huge amount you can do, but the most important thing is, it’s got to be on your radar, you’ve got to want to do it and you’ve got to put yourself out there and encourage people to come into the organisation, make them feel welcome and make them want to come and join you and stay.
Social mobility is clearly a passion of yours. Are there any other challenges out there when it comes to being at CPO?
Lots of challenges. Now we’ve got the challenge of the economic environment that we’re in.
It’s a pretty sluggish economy. Is it going to go into recession? Is it going to a flat line? Are we going to start seeing more growth, that’s a challenge.
Lots of people must deal with higher interest rates and other challenges, and clients are waiting to see what might happen.
So that brings lots of challenges for people in my area because individuals, during these times tend to batten the hatches down and don’t look to move. We wanted to attract the best talent, whatever the economic conditions.
Another challenge is the new ways of hybrid working. It has reset the clock in terms of how people work.
How do we encourage people to come back to the office for the things that really help in terms of being together? The socialisation, the learning, as well as giving people flexibility in terms of being able to work anywhere.
Diversity and inclusion is still very, very high on the agenda. How do we get a more diverse and inclusive workforce is a challenge for all of us.
Productivity too is on the agenda for most businesses and is certainly on the agenda for us. Productivity is about how you motivate people to do the very best that they can.
Looming on the horizon or bounding over the horizon towards us, is artificial intelligence. What impact does that have? What does that mean for professional service organisations? What does it mean for any organisation? What does it mean for the intellectual capital of an organisation?
When you’re talking about that, you’re talking about the people and the organisation and when you’re talking about the people in the organisation, you’re talking about the role of a Chief People Officer.
I suppose the golden question here is, how do you mitigate these? I’m assuming there’s no one answer for that.
No, I think you’ve got to listen. You’ve got to be on watch. You’ve got to engage with your people. You’ve got to be canny. You can’t just sit there and do nothing. You have to take informed action to navigate through choppy waters.
When I was in the military, they always used to talk about making sure you engaged the enemy at the right time. To do that, you need to do your research.
So with things like AI, we’ve got to look at it; you can’t ignore it. We’ve got to see what the implications are and be ready to take action. But we’re not alone on that one!
It’s important to have confidence in the ability of the organisation to navigate its way through an economic storm. We did that during Covid.
We got through COVID without breaching any of our values, 98% of the people who we surveyed after COVID said that we had done very well during the pandemic, and we had stuck to our values. Those are the sorts of things that you must be mindful of as a Chief People Officer and sometimes what you must do is talk truth to power.
When you’ve got to be able to stand up for the people in the organisation and say no, if that’s in the best interest of the long term future.
For aspiring CPOs who are reading, what advice would you give them directly?
The first thing I’d say, its a great role. It’s a fantastic role.
In most organisations, it’s the best role you can have, because it’s all about the people in the organisation. It’s a tough role, so you’ve got to be resilient and you’ve got to be able to be in the business.
You need to pick your organisation as well. I’ve been very lucky in my career; I’ve gone into organisations where they have seen the value of their people. If you’re in an organisation where they don’t, it’s a tough environment to be in.
Most importantly you need to believe in people. You need to have faith in people, and you’ve got to be really interested in people that, to my mind, is what makes a good CPO.
What is the most rewarding part about being a CPO?
The main one throughout my career has been seeing other people become successful; seeing people who joined at whatever level and at whatever role be good at what they do, grow through what they do and be successful.
I’ve only now reached the stage of my career where I’ve seen two of my trainees progress through to being managing partners of organisations. I get a big kick out of that, it’s important that you’re passionate about people developing and leaving a place better than when you joined it.
I couldn’t think of a better way to close than with that sentiment. Thank you for being a part of the CPO Spotlight series, Robert.
Thanks, Samuel, it’s been a pleasure.