Andrew Mayo does not consider himself an academic - despite his title as professor of human capital management at Middlesex University.
Instead for him, HR has to have a business focus.
So rather than simply explore abstract theory, his teaching is very much geared towards explaining to masters students the real-life applications of HR, drawn from his own decades of experience in both HR and business.
Alongside his work for Middlesex and other academic institutions, however, Mayo has also authored a good many books on HR and management.
His latest work entitled ‘Human resources or human capital?
’, which was published in February, charts the measures that organisations can employ to identify and get the most value from high-performing staff. It likewise details how HR departments can become a serious and credible partner to the business.
But Mayo has also run his own consultancy, been a public speaker and was president of The Human Resources Society
for five years. In 2009, he was even named 13th in the 100 most influential people in HR listing.
So he has clearly made his mark on the world of HR, but he didn’t start out there. After having completed a chemical engineering degree, Mayo joined Procter & Gamble
in 1966 as a trainee manager and stayed for six years.
From there, it was a quick hop to another big name firm, Philips
, as a management development manager, before moving on to one-time UK technology firm, ICL, where he worked for 20 years.
Mayo initially joined ICL, which is now owned by Japanese giant, Fujitsu
, as development manager for customer services. But in 1980, he migrated into HR, where he worked as personnel manager for a UK sales division.
Lots of variety
After two or three years there, he landed a job as head of HR in an ICL subsidiary. But when the division was broken up and no equivalent-level job in HR was available, Mayo took a sideways step into marketing.
A further restructuring led him to leave the company for two years to join British Oxygen as a development manager, but he subsequently returned to the ICL fold as international HR director. After 20 years of corporate life, he decided it was time for a change of direction once more, however.
“I’d worked my way up to international HR director and travelled the world at someone else’s expense,” he recalls. “But I’d got to the age of 50 and started to write a book (I had already written two) and was a well-known conference speaker and known in HR community, so I decided I would leave.”
This move took place at the end of 1995, but Mayo quickly became involved with the London Business School
as programme director, a relationship that continued until last year.
In parallel, Middlesex had also asked him to become a visiting professor, before offering him an associate professorship. But Mayo also runs his own consultancy, which focuses on developing and measuring human capital.
“I like doing lots of things and variety,” he confesses. But this very variety has proved a great asset in his career, Mayo believes. “I greatly value the chance of working in line-of-business and I think that is missing in lots of HR people,” he explains.
In his opinion, HR people should have a broad business understanding, even if they do not understand the intimate details of a given business.
“I was an HR director in the computer industry, so there’s a limit to how much you could understand about the business itself, but it’s vitally important that you do understand the mechanics,” Mayo points out. “In my generation, it was more common to move into HR, then do other things, but in the last 25 years that’s not been the case.”
But he thinks that this situation is a mistake and that people need at least a six-month secondment in a line-of-business post – but preferably a lot more. “It transforms the way you perceive HR,” he believes.
Mayo found that his segue into marketing, for example, gave him HR amnesia. “When I went into marketing after HR, I lost all interest in HR and was consumed by the business, and HR became a bit of a nuisance,” he admits.
But this situation served as a warning to him of just how important it is for HR to really get under the skin of the business. All too often, the profession can end up being out of touch with reality and “pushing their own agendas” rather than focusing on business requirements, he points out.
“The CIPD is really light on the business side and that’s a disappointment,” Mayo says. “To have that credibility to be strategic (to use that awful word), you have to know how business works and I come across so many people who don’t know that.”
He sees a parallel with the IT profession, where heads of IT want to make it to the top table, but can be perceived as lacking business acumen or the ability to communicate effectively in business terms.
But if it simply isn’t possible to obtain direct experience in a business unit, Mayo recommends taking an MBA or other management course outside of the HR discipline as it can provide invaluable perspective.
Mayo himself, for instance, studied for a diploma in accountancy that was designed specifically for non-accounting professionals and, although he found it hard work, he also found it incredibly useful too.
Despite all of this, he is confident that HR is making strides in professionalism terms and that the current emphasis on employee engagement, talent management and people strategies is changing the profession.
“I think the HR profession has developed enormously over the years,” he says. But while he feels that HR’s rising status can only be a good thing, Mayo also believes that HR directors’ obsession with making it to the top table has been rather “over-egged”.
Although he is still a busy man, Mayo’s move into his late 60s means that he is now entering a new phase. As he begins to scale back his commitments, he is wisely putting as much effort into enjoying his private life as he has in the past put into his professional career.
Who do you admire most and why?
A person from my youth - the owner of the firm where my father worked, who was also a family friend. He talked and lived a set of values that respected the best in all around him. He was full of compassion, humour, enterprise and energy and loved the variety and richness of life.
What’s your most hated buzzword?
‘Strategic HR!’ I much prefer ‘HR contributions that support stakeholders in the organisation’ - providing value that can be identified and measured.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Never take a new job for the money alone. Make sure that it’s a stepping stone to your career aim.
How do you relax?
My favourite relaxation is my love of plants. I am chairman of the Herts Alpine Garden Society and I enjoy growing them, and especially hunting for them in the wild.