Interview with Derek Cummings – HR director at Burness Paull

 
Anna Auld, senior consultant at Michael Page Human Resources recently spoke to Derek Cummings, HR director at Burness Paull, a leading Scottish commercial firm of solicitors, about human resources goals and challenges as well as his own career development.
 

How’s business?

 
Really good. Since the merger on 1st December 2012, Burness Paull has gone from strength to strength. Our turnover was up 20% and profit up 25% in the last financial year. We also paid a 10% bonus to all staff and have recently been named Large Scottish Employer of the Year.  We’ve made great strides since the merger and really feel like one firm now.
 

What role has HR had in making the merger a success?

 
First off, we had the due diligence in the run up to the merger for both legacy firms. There had just five weeks between announcing the merger and go live date - communication was key during this period. Afterwards, we harmonised terms and conditions, wrote and introduced new policies and procedures, and worked towards new cultures and working practices. So yes, HR had a significant role.
 


Was achieving one culture a challenge?

 
Change is difficult for people. Uncertainty around a merger is a big part of the challenge. Gaining trust and confidence during this process is hard. Many of the people leading a big change, like this merger, haven’t experienced one themselves, which makes it tough. There are inevitably errors and hindsight tells you how you’d do it next time. Generally, the focus of a big organisational change is on the financials, which is very important, of course, but often it’s the people side of things that makes or breaks a merger. People are rightly proud of their legacy cultures and ways of working. The main thing is that there were two very good firms with fantastic people who had a will to make it work. The fit was a good one and overall, I feel we’ve got a lot more right than wrong.
 


Now that you feel like one firm, what’s on the cards for the next five years at Burness Paull?

 
We aim to be the leading commercial law firm operating in and from Scotland and I see no reason why that can’t happen. There’s lots of work for us to do to get there and we’re not complacent about what we need to do, but the firm has drive, energy and ambition to succeed. It’s an exciting time for the firm and it’s a good place to be.
 


How will your HR team support the firm to achieve that goal?

 
Really it comes down to planning and everyone knowing what’s expected of them. We need to understand the firm’s strategy and divisional plans and what that means from a people perspective.  We then create a HR strategy and operational plan that fits with the firm’s strategy and plans. Crucially, we revisit this regularly and communicate with the business. Each month, we review how we’re doing and ask: are we adding value to what matters to the business?
 
Earlier in my career, I probably had too many plans and objectives, whereas now the focus is “what really makes a difference?”  and “where do we really add value?”. It has to come back to what the firm exists to do. Ultimately, in the private sector, firms exist to deliver a fantastic service/product for their clients and to make a profit. You have to understand your business’ performance drivers.
 
It’s a cliché, but Burness Paull really is a people business. The HR team needs to identify and hire the very best then we need to develop and retain them by creating a culture where they can give their best.
 
A HR team must be commercial. You need to keep asking “what does my business exist to do? Where can I add value?” A pet hate of mine is hearing HR professionals say that they “don’t do numbers”. You have to get to grips with the financials to be taken seriously within your business. Understand who your clients are, how the business makes money and what it’s trying to do. Only then can you identify the people challenges and solutions to address those challenges and aid growth.
 

Tell me about your own career

 
I started out training as an accountant. It wasn’t right for me, so I left and joined what was then Scottish Life in the cash department. I was moved to different departments of Scottish Life while I sat my insurance exams. I then moved to Standard Life and was leading a team focusing on recruiting sales representatives. That’s where I fell into HR. There was a programme called “Total Customer Satisfaction” focusing on a total quality initiative. I was asked to facilitate training and joined the people development team from there.
 


Like many people, you fell into HR. What advice would you give for someone looking to start a career in HR?

 
My personal view is that you must get experience in a business outside of HR. It helps you understand the heart of a business. HR qualifications are hugely helpful and beneficial, but are no substitute for understanding from a business perspective. It makes you a more commercial and pragmatic HR person. You can get HR experience by helping with charities or voluntary organisations alongside the commercial piece.
 
I had six yrs line management experience before joining HR. It must be tough to come straight from university to a HR role. The theory is important but practical experience is critical. It’s great for your credibility too. If you’ve no other experience, it’s hard to be credible with managers.
 
I think sometimes when HR professionals fail to deliver, it’s because they don’t engage effectively with the business or don’t have enough financial awareness. You must have a handle on the financials. Some experience in a commercial environment, whether it’s customer service, retail or sales, will be extremely helpful.
 
My other piece of advice would be to take every opportunity that comes your way, whether it be extra projects or additional responsibility. I wanted to be a generalist HR person. My HRD at Standard Life put me in recruitment, employee relations and chucked me into projects at the last minute to sort them out. It was stressful at the time but with hindsight I can see it was a great HR experience. Go in and prove yourself and make a difference.
 
When I’m having conversations about promotions, my advice is similar. You must already be doing the role before you’re promoted. You have to make it obvious to the person making a decision before the opportunity comes up. It’s a bit of a case of right place and right time, but only if you have the right experience. An opportunity will come your way, just be open-minded and get stuck in. Stop worrying and deliver! The only thing you can control is yourself. Just get as much experience as you can and opportunities will arrive.
 


What do you look for when hiring into your team?

 
The main thing I look for, and it’s a bit of a cliché, is passion. That attitude to get things done is crucial. Technical experience is important but you can learn that. You can’t change a personality, so hiring passion and attitude is key.
 
Working in professional services HR can be demanding. It isn’t right for everyone. I’d advise people to be open and honest and ask themselves – is this the right place for me? We’ve got lots to offer if you’re hardworking and driven, you just have to be open to it.
 


At this time of year we’re all reflecting. What’s been your key achievement this year?

Burness Paull won the Large Scottish Employer of the Year at the Business Insider Scotland’s Best Employer Awards in November. What was really pleasing about this award is that it’s for the whole of Scotland, and not just the legal sector. Part of the submission process was an employee survey, which 10% of the employees had to respond to. We opened it up to everyone in the firm and within a few days nearly 50% had responded. The responses formed part of the submission. The feedback was very honest, not just the perfect response people think the panel would want to hear. It’s great that people care enough to give feedback. It means more when it’s not just an entry form, but you have the backing of the people who work with you.
 
Michael Page has spoken to some of Scotland’s leading business directors over the years to learn more about the issues affecting their industries, how to start a career and more.
 
Find out more by reading the full interviews.
 
Looking for an HR job in Scotland? Looking to hire HR professionals in Scotland? Contact Anna Auld now.
 
T: 0141 331 7931