Launching his HR consultancy, Marshall-James, in 2006, Andy Cook tells BQ how he has been extending its services into recruitment and training and the lessons he's learned along the way.
What is it the company does?
Marshall-James is a HR consultancy; one of the largest providers of workplace investigations into grievance, disciplinary issues, bullying and harassment matters.
We also have a dedicated recruitment division that specialises in filling permanent and interim HR roles that require employee relations and/or employee engagement skills, which are often in short supply within the industry.
If we weren’t busy enough, we’ve also recently launched a series of workshops for HR managers, the first of which will focus on working with and negotiating with trade unions - they’re taking place across six dates from London to Glasgow, so October and November are set to be a bit of a whirlwind!
Describe your role in no more than 100 words
It’s a role with many hats, from consultancy and training, through to managing the strategic direction of the business and investing time in business development.
We’re lucky enough to have a client base that comprises some of the world’s largest companies, so I spend a lot of time travelling to meet with clients, working with them on often complex issues.
A portion of my time is also spent delivering training and workshop sessions for HR managers, which is something I’m very passionate about - the HR industry suffers from an underappreciation of what I would consider key skills - employee relations, for example - so it’s great to be able to impart those much-needed skills to the next generation of HR leaders.
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far
I began my career at Legal & General, working with the trade unions. It was also where I moved into my first HR role, which was a natural progression, although I’m not sure it felt that way at the time! I was lucky enough to have some great mentors at Legal & General who offered advice and encouragement and it was there that my talent for HR was realised - I knew I didn’t want to do anything else.
Eventually leaving Legal & General as head of employee relations, I joined the British Library as HR director, becoming the first HR director appointed to the board; an achievement I was, and still am, incredibly proud of.
I found my next challenge at Transport for London as head of HR and group employee relations, followed by my last “employed” role at Gate Gourmet, which turned out to be a truly career-defining role!
It also forced me to sharpen up my media skills, spending plenty of time in front of the camera thanks to headline-grabbing strike action.
In 2006, with a huge amount of experience under my belt, I decided to set up Marshall-James, specialising in employee relations - an area in which I have always been especially interested and enjoyed the most.
In 2010, I took that a step further and founded the Employee Relations Institute.
What do you believe makes a great leader?
Great leaders work hard to earn the respect of their team - by far the worst leaders I’ve seen are those who aren’t respected and who fail to take the time to listen to their employees.
Focus is also an essential quality in a leader.
What has been the biggest challenge in your current role?
So far, the biggest challenge has been scaling the business.
While we have a fantastic team, all of whom are hugely experienced, I do still spend the lion’s share of time providing consultancy to clients. Many of these are global companies, so a big chunk of my time is spent travelling - although my air miles look pretty healthy!
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
Running a business can be incredibly stressful - it’s a universal affliction of entrepreneurship. I don’t have any particularly unique methods for alleviating stress I’m afraid, but I find spending time in the gym hugely helpful. It’s important to maintain a certain level of fitness, and I find that the gym helps to clear the head and focus the mind.
Any pet hates in the workplace?
Office gossip! There’s a time and a place and the watercooler isn’t it.
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
Our dedicated recruitment division is growing quickly, and I expect the business to evolve into more of an outsourced services provider, with less of a focus on consultancy.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
Be brave, don’t be afraid to take risks, and be focused - by that I mean have a plan in place, both short and long-term that outlines your strategy and avoid taking on work that deviates too much from that.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
All the above!
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