Image of HR Director Oliver Gant

The Big Interview with Oliver Gant

The Big Interview, HR Heads’ career profile series, launched in 2017 and features insight from senior HR professionals.

In the latest Big Interview, Jennifer Gaster met up with Oliver Gant, HR Director at Arriva Rail London, to hear about his career and thoughts on HR.

Can you give us an insight into your journey into HR and your role today?

My first role was in training as a Personal Safety and Physical Trainer for Suffolk Police.

That was a great job and gave me a fantastic grounding, teaching communications and conflict management skills to Police Officers, which stood me in good stead for where I am today.

I then found a role as an HR Officer for a local branch of the charity Mind. It was a great learning experience with a focus on disciplinary and grievance, which gave me the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of employment law. 

It also taught me to be resourceful which is so important because we don’t have all the answers and the most important thing is to learn how to find out.

I then moved into agriculture, into the first commercial organisation I had worked in, for a company called Frontier. It was a brilliant time and a great organisation. I learnt a lot and look back on it fondly. It was my first step into business partnering and working with managers, helping them to unlock their people agendas.

Following that, I moved into food manufacturing at a chicken factory in Essex for a company called Vion. It was a small site that delivered significant volumes of chicken into retailers daily. It was also my first step in management.

It gave me lots of hands-on practical experience about how the business operated, the financial and commercial drivers of the business and how I could gain credibility for the HR team as a manager as opposed to an individual contributor.

I’ve enjoyed the challenge of changing perceptions of HR and the value that good HR brings to an organisation.

Eleven months later we got bought out by 2 Sisters who had set up a new division called Added Value and I was promoted to my first Head of HR job.

The business was not performing well either operationally, financially or commercially. 

With a new leadership team, we had to understand the issues quickly and together build the solution. We had to make some tough decisions focusing around changing the footprint of the division which involved increasing capacity at some sites and unfortunately closing one.

Working closely with colleagues in Operations we focused on shift patterns and other terms and conditions that would be part of the overall turnaround plan. I thought I gained some good trade union experience but later learned that I really didn’t.

I then moved to East Midlands Trains as Head of HR for part of the business.

On paper it was a step back, but a step back to get me onto a different ladder.

A couple of years later I took the opportunity to become the HR Director for Arriva Rail London, which is part of the wider Arriva group and the company that operates the London Overground on behalf of Transport for London.

My role is delivering the people service to Arriva Rail London but also working with my colleagues from across the division on our divisional people agenda.

What is it you love about your role?

I think it is the same thing I love about any role I have had, unlocking potential.

Whether that is potential in the effectiveness of our organisation, or whether that is a coffee with someone in the team who is struggling with something and helping them to find their solution.

I really enjoy unlocking potential.

Coaching is something that I absolutely love, I just don’t get the time to do as much as I would like.

If you could change anything to be the agitator more than what you are right now what would that be?

I think it is more of the same as it is part of the role.

Agitating people encourages them to look at things from a different perspective, challenging their beliefs and seeing the value of diversity of ideas.

Being the one who is comfortable to ask challenging questions or nudging teams and people to think differently.

Do you have a proudest moment in your HR career?

I’ve had a couple of people from my team’s progress into bigger jobs, unfortunately in different companies. It’s bittersweet, seeing them grow and develop and being proud of their achievements and progression, but at the same time losing them from the team. 

If our readers are aspiring to be HR Leaders of the future, in your opinion what three traits do they need to bring to the table?

Take your time.

Have a goal and be clear of you motives for achieving that goal.

I did gain good, broad, generalist experience and I think that is something that we, as an HR profession, are losing. You can come up with brilliant strategies, but if you don’t know how to turn them into reality then they won’t be a success.

Being a resilient character is always helpful. 

Things will not always go to plan. Being resilient encourages you to learn and enables you to look at yourself to find the areas that you need to improve upon. It also enables you to keep going when things get tough.

Something that I challenge myself to do is keep outside of my comfort zone. It’s the only way you grow. 

If you get the chance to take on a project, say yes. You are the only person that will determine whether and when you will meet your goals.

Be authentic.

I’ve found that rather than trying to portray yourself as someone who knows everything, it builds credibility to admit that you don’t know all the answers and take the time to find out and go back with the solution. 

Also, be curious and get outside of the HR box.

Looking at the HR industry, what is on your agenda in terms of championing Human Resources as a profession forward?

I have just finished reading a book called Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed. It was really refreshing for me; I think diversity and inclusion gets a bit of a bad rap. There is so much evidence that points to difference being a positive influence on business. 

To unlock the potential of a business we need to, through our line managers, enable our colleagues to feel part of something where they can truly be themselves.

We do not do enough to create the next generation of HR professionals. This is something I am certainly pushing for within Arriva.

As a profession, I think we need to rebrand and think about our roles differently. 

Every industry is continually challenged by customers to innovate and improve, why should we be any different. People are the key to continuous improvement, but to do this sustainably we need to create psychologically safe environments for people to be themselves, make mistakes and grow.

Books, cuisine and destination…what are your favourites?

Anything by Simon Sinek, Dan Pink or Brené Brown. A good book to start with is called ‘Why We Do What We Do’ by Edward Deci. I recommend it as it has catapulted modern thinking and I think it is really worth reading.

The simpler the food the better for me and you can’t go wrong with chicken and pasta.

I have been lucky, I have travelled quite a lot – if I am with the family, I just want my children to enjoy it.

If I am on my own, somewhere with a challenging golf course.

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