The Big Interview with Henry Sandbach

Henry Sandbach heads up HR for Dr Martens, having joined five years ago. For our latest Big Interview, he spoke to Rosie Jenkins about his career journey.

How did you get into HR?

I started off my career part-time working in a call centre, which progressed into a management position where I was managing a group of agents. 

I could see the impact that good leadership and creating a positive environment had on everybody’s performance and engagement and how happy they were at work.

When I moved into a boring analytics job elsewhere within the bank it made me stop and go ‘where do I actually want to go’ and it was all the people stuff that fascinated me, so I made a decision to move towards HR at that point.

What are you most passionate about when it comes to HR?

My passion is seeing people be at their best and be able to combine their personal best with their career best through creating an amazing environment through great leadership and creating a platform that allows them to flourish, that is why I do the job that I do.

How has the pandemic changed your HR delivery?

Covid for us was a really interesting moment, most of our staff are based in retail stores so we had to pause and work out where we were going. 

Our CEO at that point was clear that our focus was “survive now, grow later”. 

To grow later we knew we had to keep all of the great people that we already had and keep them engaged and ready to go as soon as we were able to reopen stores. 

The good thing about it was it was the great leveller, in terms of people who were not based in the UK office were able to feel deeply and democratically a part of what we were doing on the same level as anyone who was in the UK offices. 

For us, when we went into Furlough, it was all about communication and making sure everybody was clear about exactly what it meant to them. 

But also, we had a whole load of people who were normally based in retail stores who were at home and probably bored, so we focused on how do we keep them engaged in the business and keep them passionate about Dr Martens so that when we come back from Covid we are able to really supercharge. 

It was the same for people who were out of the stores, it was about making sure we really build connections between people and prioritise what the most important things were and create clarity for people, it was all about communication but it has left with us a really strong piece that we are a much more connected and globalised business in the way we think about things and not just focus on the people in the office right now. 

We came out of Covid really strong and managed to grow double digits during that time. 

We also didn’t have to lose a single person; we were able to keep everybody on full pay and we ended up giving back our furlough money as it didn’t feel right to take it while continuing to be profitable. 

People felt very looked after and very connected to us and they could see the heart of the business. 

Coming out of Covid have you moved to a more hybrid way of working for the people who aren’t operational within your retail outlets?

Yes, absolutely we have gone to a 50:50 model, 60/40% of your time should be in your normal place of work and 60/40% of your time can be at home. 

If we go to a solely home-based remote environment, we lose out on some of the elements of our culture, which is based around human connection, teamwork and the spirit of people being together. 

I think the challenge comes with navigating, for example, if I am going to be in on a particular day, how am I going to connect with people who probably aren’t in my vertical but are in more horizontal relationships when I don’t really know when they will be around, that is what we are working on now.

It is very important to us that people can create informal connections across the business.

Some organisations have struggled in terms of recruitment and retention this year, has that been a challenge for you?

Recruitment for us is “always on” because of growth, we have been rapidly opening new stores in different countries, so recruitment has been something we are really pushing forward with. 

We have managed to keep relatively good retention figures, my general approach with HR is to make sure you have good people and make sure the environment is great. 

We really focus on engagement, and people feel very connected to us as a business some of our scores around things like ‘I am proud to work for Dr Martens’ is very high. 

Our scores around inclusion and people feeling included and diversity within Dr Martens are also super high. That is kind of natural who we are as a business and I think this is one of the things that people massively value about us. So, we have not had a massive challenge with retention. 

We are also always continually reviewing salaries and making sure they are competitive.

Around that engagement piece, what specifically do you think you have done right to keep levels so high?

Who we are as a business, naturally we want to put people first. 

Over the five years I have been here we have started to survey more frequently and make sure that managers feel really responsible for their own engagement results. 

We put a lot of focus on how do we cascade but then how do we action plan and make sure we pull people into building the future for how the environment feels. We then keep a continued focus on it throughout the year, we keep talking about it. 

We also keep listening to people, we keep an ear to the ground about how people are feeling about the business and we are always trying to adjust and make sure we are delivering. 

A big thing for me is that engagement doesn’t feel like it is HR’s job anymore it is now the job of our leaders and that has been my big push. How do I make sure leaders feel accountable for it and have the tools to be able to drive forward in their own areas?

What trends do you see facing you and HR over the next 12 months? 

So, I am going to answer that question by looking at the really big picture to start with and then come back to 12 months. 

The number one thing is about how do we make sure that people are able to be part of the future journey. Therefore we are helping people to ensure that their skills are relevant for the future, for instance, do they understand how to work in the digital world, do they understand everything that is going on around them and how do we educate people and take them on that journey so people don’t lose relevance in their professional field. 

In terms of what is happening in Dr Martens at the moment, we are opening a new EMEA office later this year. We seem to have continually grown out of our office spaces because we are growing so rapidly. It will be in Camden, just down the road from our HQ. 

Making sure that we maintain our connection with the global HQ was a really key piece of where we put the office but I want to really use this as an opportunity to continue to amplify our culture and make sure that people really connect with our brand. Also, we will make sure that this isn’t just a UK office thing, for example, that people who are sitting in our smaller Milan office can feel the benefits of it and see it as their home as well and make sure that we share the love basically. 

Engagement never goes off the agenda. 

The other piece is about how do we keep on amping up Dr Martens as somewhere that people see as a career destination, not just somewhere that people come for an enriching career experience but somewhere people can actually make their careers. 

We are recruiting at the moment for our Global Head of Talent Management and Learning and that will be a really key role but in the meantime, it is about making sure that people have development plans, and that they are able to discuss development in a really meaningful way with their leaders, that we are able to talk regularly about the opportunities available and what is coming, also sharing the great news stories where we have seen people progress within the business. 

Then finally sharing some tips and hints with people about what they need to do to help build their careers.

Do you sponsor people to further their studies for various roles within the organisation?

Yes, we deal with it very much on a case-by-case basis and where we can, we will find the funding for it. 

Everybody’s career and development journey and their way of learning is so different. 

We want people to take accountability for it and be able to go “this is where I want to go and this is what is right for me”, then we create an open environment for them to come to us and talk about it and we help to find the solutions. 

Is there anything else high on the agenda for you this year?

We are growing at such a rapid rate, we IPOd last year and prior to that seven years ago, we were a family-owned manufacturing business we are now UK stock market floated run. 

So as we professionalise, how do we make sure that we keep the best bits of our culture and continue to keep our entrepreneurial spirit as we become a much larger organisation? 

Everything we do has to be through that lens of not losing who we are but the continuous evolution and staying true to our best bits.