Alison Benney started her life as a hoteliers daughter, in a small family run business. She qualified in hotel and catering at college and worked for various bars and restaurants. She moved into HR and Training and went back into education, lived in halls of residence at the age of 30 and completed a post graduate degree at University of Glamorgan.
Planning and tough decisions
Alison enjoyed training but needed more experience to work at a managerial level so a post grad qualification in HR management was her way forward. She did this full time over a period of 9 months, it was a great experience… not too sure she could live in halls ever again!!…. but it was her steppingstone for her next role.
After joining Marriott as a Personal Assistant Training Manager, she worked for Trust House Forte and subsequently joined WHSmith in HR, working for the distribution part of the business. She finally worked for Unite who experienced massive growth, which was phenomenally interesting.
HR role challenges
Many people are keen to go into HR and Training. One challenge she found was that there are usually only a couple of HR roles per business perhaps covering a headcount of 500-1000 people, so they are few and far between.
A further challenge was that she felt she got pulled in two different directions. Training was very proactive – where you look at the business strategy, plan your training around it, schedule it in and book your delegates. There are often stress points in the business where people don’t come onto the training because they have to work which creates an interesting and frustrating challenge. Although HR should also be proactive, looking forward and planning – quite a large part of it is reactive where something happens that you have to deal with. So Alison, being pulled in two directions, decided that she needed to focus on one or the other and she chose HR.
To absorb knowledge around her, Alison wanted to be part of a larger HR team. After deciding where she wanted to live, she got the role at WHSmith in Swindon. The role covered compensation and benefits, HR from the legal point of view, L&D and all of the admin function that went with it. From a learning point of view it was great because there were people in higher positions in the office to learn from and ask questions to.
A strategic and planned approach helped Alison find the right job using a bunch of criteria. Many people are often not sure what they want but randomly look about and just want something to appear for them or appeal to them. Perhaps at the start of her career Alison was a little more like this and it was not until after her post grad that she began to realise and focus on where her career path could progress.
Whilst working in a great job at Unite as a Divisional HR Director, Alison got a little dissatisfied with the corporate side of the business… the traveling, other people being in control of her diary and to some extent sitting in meeting where she didn’t always feel she was adding value. She saw a gap in the market for small businesses in terms of HR support. She knew there were a lot of small businesses out there who would find it useful to tap into her as and when they needed an instant answer or something at a higher level from an expert, and she could do this on a helpline basis and be based wherever she wanted to be. Alison was in a great organisation and was able to have open and honest conversations to negotiate her exit. She started up her own business in 2004.
It is a very different mindset being an entrepreneur, running a business, providing a service, dealing with sales and accounts. It’s a steep learning curve. Alison’s preference was not to do sales, so her business didn’t grow rapidly, she had less pressures that way and enjoyed the time with family. The vast majority of her business came from referrals and it still does – topped up by networking. She now has a great relationship with a lovely number of clients who are very happy to refer her.
Nowadays there is no certainty in employment. Alison deals with a lot of redundancy issues in her work. Many who get called in, can be out of a job in 6 weeks and if you have not been there very long redundancy money is small. In a way being self-employed with a range of clients, is spreading the risk and that is a huge benefit to Alison.
What are the modern challenges for HR?
Social media is a modern day challenge for HR. For example if a member of staff made a comment on facebook, which could potentially be seen as racist – somebody could see the comment and contacted the company as the company’s name is on their profile. People often don’t understand who is seeing what they write. It is a public forum and not a private conversation.
There is more stress and pressure in businesses today. The profile of mental health is being raised which is fantastic. Alison feels that there is an element of people blaming workplace stress on mental health issues when it is more a contributing factor. Stress can be purely work place based but often it is wider than this. Sometimes it is easier to blame work as you displace the problem from your home or social environment. Workplaces may exacerbate a situation but there are other stressors outside of work which all add up, so trying to deal holistically with things is very difficult.
We are getting to a point where we understand that a lot of illnesses are actually stress related, so raising the profile of resilience and how you deal with stress and the practices that you bring in to cope with it are essential. Employers have a responsibility for this but society does too. We should be encouraging wellbeing and mindfulness practices to be brought into schools, colleges and Universities, building resilience and a more holistic approach to life in general.
People become empowered when they realise that they have choice and control over everything that they do. Alison is certainly an example of that in action – she has made some amazing decisions and achieved some brilliant things. Going out on your own is possible when you have the criteria or realisation that it takes an amount of time to do something well. There is not such thing as a one night wonder.
You can contact Alison at alison@enlightenHR.com 01803 469466
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