The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden employs over 900 staff and produces some of the world’s best opera and ballet. Working in both a strategic and a business partner role, Steven has significantly contributed to a number of key change projects, including a major diversity recruitment campaign, the launch of an innovative creative apprenticeship scheme and media rights negotiations with the Trades Unions, in support of the Royal Opera House’s audience engagement strategy, which has enabled live opera and ballet performances from Covent Garden to be relayed to cinemas around the country.
Well, in all honesty it was not my first career choice. After graduating from the London School of Economics with a BSc in International Relations and History, I trained as a secondary school history teacher. After a time, realisation kicked in, though I was interested in my subject and in learning, teaching was not the ideal path for me. I knew instead that I wanted to work in personnel/skills development.
Once I had established what I wanted to do, I found a place on the graduate training scheme at what was then called British Steel. Over the 15 years spent there, I progressed through a variety of roles from Training Officer, Health and Safety Officer, and Personnel Officer right up to the role of Personnel Manager. For two years I was also able to take on a secondment working outside HR in a project management role for a business process re-engineering and IT project.
What are the key lessons learnt during this time?
I have found that HR can give you such a broad insight into business management, just how a business works. Becoming a successful business, whether that business makes steel or puts on theatrical performances, is about delivering excellent customer service and excellent high quality products. You can only do that if you recruit, retain, manage and develop excellent staff.
So how did you move from the steel industry to an opera house?
It certainly is an unusual career transition. To cut a long story short, after a particularly difficult economic period the factory I worked at closed down and I took redundancy. I did not despair, in fact I saw redundancy as an opportunity to embrace something new. I relocated to London and was fortunate to land a job here at the Royal Opera House. With over 900 staff, it is quite a complex operation. Currently I report to the Director of Personnel and work beside two other HR Managers.
Working day to day
Every day is so different, which is just what I enjoy. The nature of what we do in putting on opera and ballet performances make it an incredibly diverse environment. Technical stage staff, dancers, musicians and front of house all have different functions and working patterns. There is no such thing as a typical day, but to give you a few examples.
I could be interviewing candidates in the morning for a retail assistant position, then dealing with a pensions query for an orchestra player who may be retiring, then explaining to a lady who works in the admin department about her maternity leave; then sorting out the work permit paperwork for a singer.
I really enjoy the recruitment side of my job, as we have such a vast range of different skill areas to recruit to, everything from prop makers, to press assistants, to lighting engineers, costume makers and IT specialists.
Working on high profile projects
Last year I was involved in a multiple award winning recruitment advertising campaign entitled ‘Find yourself‘.
This sought to promote careers in backstage roles in the arts. The campaign was truly multimedia – web, print and posters – and was also accessible as a series of videos on YouTube. This idea of using YouTube to appeal directly to young adults and graduates was a novel recruitment innovation that we don’t think anyone else has ever tried before.
Your proudest moment?
Working in HR, the proudest moments are when you are involved in recruiting a new person and see them grow and thrive within the organisation, watching that investment in learning and development pay off both for the organisation and for the individual.
Simply working for the Royal Opera House is, of course, a source of pride. It’s great to feel that what we do in HR, contributes in perhaps some indirect way to the success of the staged performance, which is enjoyed by thousands of patrons, whether that contribution is dealing with something as small as a payroll question or a work permit query, there is a definite, yet intangible, sense of achievement.
What is the best thing about working this environment?
I know this may sound like a cliché but sometimes you really feel part of a family, one has a real sense that each and every one of us is collaborating and cooperating to make a show happen.
In many ways HR is a great place from which to be involved in the arts, as we interact across all backstage, front of house and performing departments. Access to the final dress rehearsals for forthcoming shows is a great perk of the job. As a film and live theatre fan, I really get caught up in the excitement on an opera or ballet performance.
Advice to graduates
- You must take responsibility for your own learning, constantly keep on top of and update your professional development.
- Learn to be a problem solver; HR can throw up new issues and situations from day to day, anything from redundancy to recruitment.
- Maintaining your, and the organisations, professional standards and values is paramount.