Perspectives: Dr. Barbara Zesik, Experienced Chief People Officer

Featured, Perspectives

Experienced Chief People Officer, Dr. Barbara Zesik, has a lot of wisdom to share. Having led numerous successful business transformation and company culture projects, Barbara's thoughts on the impact of recent events on the HR profession provide plenty of food for thought. She gave us her views on where the people function needs to improve, especially when it comes to taking a lead on mental health and driving business strategy.

With over 28 years of work experience, Dr Barbara Zesik brings a combination of ‘real-life’ and academic knowledge to her roles.

She has extensive experience across a number of different industry sectors - technology, education, global mobility, FMCG and security, and her passion for people and organisational development is infectious. 

How do you put the people back into the people function? Here are Barbara's thoughts. 

Barbara Zesik (002)


Let’s start with a bit about you, your background and your HR journey.

I was born in Germany. I spent six years as a teenager in the US as a result of my Dad's work, which meant I experienced High School and Graduation; just like in the movies! I then went back to Germany to do an Associate’s Degree in Foreign Languages, before entering the world of work.

My journey into HR was an interesting one. The first organisation I worked for was Hewlett-Packard in Germany and looking back, I realise just how great the company culture was there.

I spent the first six or seven years of my working life in Executive Assistant type roles, eventually ending up at Dell. My manager at the time was fantastic and together with the wider management team, spotted my potential to be more. He sat me down one day and told me that the newly hired HR Manager wasn’t quite working out. He asked me if I’d like the job as he’d noticed how I worked with people and how people tended to gravitate towards me.

How did you find the transition into HR?

As you can imagine, a lot of my early career in HR was learning on the fly, but I embraced it. I took a pragmatic approach, tried hard to do the right things, to find solutions to problems, and always applied a good dose of common sense. It was an amazing opportunity. It was a time when Dell was going through a period of hypergrowth, so I spent a lot of time in recruitment. I did a lot of management development and implemented ‘Situational Leadership’ development for managers and it gave me a really solid foundation for my career.

I was then given an opportunity to move to the UK to join the newly formed European Learning and Development Team. It was written in the stars, as my partner already lived in the UK, very close to the Dell office. The learning at Dell continued and I was part of the HR team that supported the global culture change journey for the company – a five-year initiative during which time the number of employees doubled; as did the revenue!

I’ve been in the UK for 19 years now. After eight years at Dell, I moved into a Talent Management role with Motorola and embarked on a Master's Degree in People and Organisational Development. I then moved into more generalist roles before joining Santa Fe, the global relocation specialists, as Global Chief People Officer.

Through the MSc, I discovered my deep passion for learning and continued personal development – so I started studying for a Doctorate in 2009, which was a bit crazy. I was working full-time, and studying part-time and, in the middle of all this, I went on to have my children. So, it was hard work and taught me a lot about resilience and boundaries.

My career so far has been an exciting journey. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing companies, in a number of different industry sectors - technology, education, global mobility, FMCG and Security.

You’ve recently contributed to a book on talent strategy: Managing Talent: A Critical Appreciation. Can you tell me a bit about the book and some of the key themes and takeaways?

Sure. The main author and editor of the book, Professor Stephen Swailes, was the external examiner of my Doctoral thesis in the ‘viva voce’. After my Doctorate, we stayed in touch and he contacted me to say that several of the things that I'd written in the thesis were well aligned to the book he was writing - I have a slightly more critical perspective of talent management.

My contribution to the book focuses on injecting more objectivity in talent management - it's very much a condensed version of my thesis. Hopefully the chapter is something that practitioners and academics alike can just pick up. It covers topics such as the use of assessment centres, and recognising that often the decisions that are made in the boardroom, sticking to nine-box grids to assess 'talent' and succession plans, no longer cut it.

It also looks at the social and political aspects of talent management. The rhetoric around talent management and the reality around talent management are typically not at all aligned. It sounds very critical but really what I wanted to do in my research and subsequently in the book, was to shine a light on the fact that you can have a playbook on talent management, however, in reality, how we do talent management is very different.

It really highlights some of the traps organisations fall into, and frankly continue to fall into. I think that's one of the reasons why so much of the people agenda or HR agenda is just not shifting and evolving. We keep doing what we've always done, but we expect different outcomes.

Throughout your career, you’ve led a number of really successful business transformation projects. Can you tell me a bit more about the work you did at Santa Fe?

During my time at Santa Fe, we created and implemented a new graduate programme. The relocation industry, as with so many other industries is quite specialist and niche. If you have a passion for relocation, what tends to happen is that people spend their whole careers in the industry and simply move from one relocation company to another. While they bring their skills and experience with them, the challenge with this is that it doesn't necessarily change the way organisations in the industry think and operate. It can limit diversity of thought and fresh thinking and perspectives.

When I joined Santa Fe, the business had many years of history and loyalty, and a great track record. There was a sense that we were very good at what we did, but the challenge was how we could innovate and do things differently, and that’s where the concept of the graduate programme came in. It was about injecting a completely different pool of talent into the organisation, with different backgrounds, and different digital skills.

What results did you see?

Interestingly, we found that the mentoring relationship was two-way. The graduates entering our business had skills and knowledge that other people in the business didn't have. When they came together as part of project teams, they would share their knowledge and experiences too. It was great for the graduates, but it was also great for the business in general.

The scheme really took off and grew. It became global and very quickly we reached a point where managers wanted to welcome graduates into their team. There was an understanding that they weren’t yet relocation specialists, but that they brought something different to the business.

After two years of the graduate programme we were shortlisted for an HR Distinction Award for Early Career Development Programmes. We didn't win it, but it was an honour to be recognised and evidence of the success of the programme.

You did a lot of work around company culture whilst at Santa Fe. Can you tell me a bit more about it?

We undertook a big piece of work to reshape the values of the organisation. We really wanted to bring them to life and did this by running global values workshops. We built up some real momentum and within the space of nine months, we put about 98% of our employees through a workshop.

When you undertake a project like this successfully, the amount of buzz you create is just incredible. We were able to create a real sense of belonging. It made people feel excited about the company, and it sparked different conversations. It wasn’t just about being a great relocation company, it was about being a great place to work, to thrive, to meet exciting people, and to learn new skills. It was all based on new values, a new vision, and a new purpose. It was really quite exciting.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the need for HR to take more of a lead in driving the digital agenda. Can you tell me a bit about the technologies you’ve helped introduce as part of your roles, and whether you experienced push-back from other areas of the business?

I can’t say I’ve experienced pushback. When I arrived at Santa Fe, we didn’t have a consistent global HR system and it was clear that we needed one. The wider business had already wrapped its head around the fact that there was a need for something to help facilitate performance management.

When it came to making a recommendation and putting a business case forward to our CEO, he was very supportive. It helped that I was able to show him that by losing a collaboration platform that we just didn’t use effectively, we could actually implement a great new system with little extra cost to the business. I didn’t have to convince him as he understood what we were trying to do and hadn’t thought of the solution we were proposing.

IT were on hand to help us with integrations and to make sure that the system would support the business, both now and in the future. The implementation itself was very hands-on. It was a case of rolling our sleeves up and getting data into the system.

Funnily enough, when I joined Cognita, they were in the middle of implementing the same system. The project was a bit behind where they wanted to be, and I think that was due to the fact that they’d tried to do too much too soon. It was hard work but in six months, we managed to get the system live across 70+ schools. I think they thought I was crazy when I claimed it was possible. But, luckily, they allowed me to bring in a great colleague who was experienced in implementing the system, and they were willing to let me run with it.

What are your thoughts on how the profile of HR has been elevated due to the part it’s played in responding to the pandemic?

The discussion about whether HR should have a seat at the top table has been around for such a long time. I think one of the main reasons that the debate is ongoing is that historically, HR as a function hasn’t always done itself any favours. I think the lack of data has been a factor in this. If you can't measure something, it's very hard, if not impossible, to manage. You just don't know what you're reacting to. I think for the profile of HR to really change, we need to be able to make decisions based on data and then use the data to build a compelling business case.

During the pandemic HR has played a different role. The function has found itself advising Chief Executives and MDs on how to work with their people and how to embrace remote working. HR has certainly shone. Teams up and down the country have had to get to grips with different policies and procedures. They’ve had to learn about and be ready to implement the furlough scheme almost overnight.

I'm certain that there are HR teams across the globe who have risen to the challenge and have done nothing short of astonishing work and I hope this is recognised. However, something which worries me a little bit is that again a lot of what has happened during the pandemic has focused on very technical things. Things like the furlough scheme, implementing working from home policies, and managing changes to employees’ hours and pay are very procedural and transactional, which I think we need to get away from if we’re to elevate HR as a profession.

What do you think HR needs to do in order to take that next step?

We need to have a succinct, very clearly mapped out business case and argument. We need to be able to go into the boardroom and compare what we’re doing with what we should be doing. We need to move with the times and do more to support the business strategy. There’s more that can be done from an HR perspective. We need to advise the business and show how we can change things for the better. We need to challenge the status quo more, draw on data and bring in research. A commercial mind-set and understanding of ‘how’ a business runs is imperative. Put yourself into the shoes of the executive you are supporting to understand his/her perspective – would you offer the same advice?

What do you think are the biggest shortfalls of the people function as it stands, and what can we do to address these?

We’ve already touched on the use of data, being able to pull data, to understand data and use research data. I think that’s a really big thing.

Another big challenge for HR teams is the notion of understanding what makes people tick, the employee engagement piece. I think it’s so important. We need to work out how we shift the talent conversations in organisations. There’s a sense that too many HR professionals stick to the rulebook and rely solely on what organisations like ACAS and the CIPD say. Now I’m not saying that the fabulous work they’ve done doesn’t have a place, but HR teams need to do more to better understand their people and company culture.

I think there’s still a challenge for HR teams in convincing senior leadership, because they just don’t speak the business language. There’s a feeling that HR as a function is still quite separate from the business. It’s crazy because the people function is the chaperone of all employees, and we know that employees are the heart of every business. I think often, due to the responsibilities held by HR teams around handling confidential data, GDPR and safeguarding, our creativity in bringing ideas to the boardroom gets stifled.

More courage in HR would go a long way. Let’s be a little bit more provocative but make sure we have clear data and arguments lined up, so we have the confidence to go into the boardroom and say ‘this isn't working, we have these problems, and here’s how we can fix them.’

HR Directors and HR Business Partners could have so much more impact. I always wonder what we’re waiting for collectively. We need to move towards becoming people and strategy consultants. If you’re good at your job and you have a strong enough relationship with your senior leaders, be their sparring partner, shift and influence the strategy of your organisation.

Do you think leaders post Covid-19 require a different skillset? Is it time to look at revamping leadership development programmes?

I think so. The impact of Covid-19 has really put leadership under the microscope. Unfortunately, what we tend to see when businesses go through tough times, is that learning and development gets put on hold.

For me, it’s the wrong approach. Now more than ever, businesses need to look to up their investment in people. Those occupying management positions are now leading people who have shifted to working from home, their team members might be full-time carers, homeschooling their kids, and suffering with their own mental health challenges. Leaders need to figure out how to engage with team members facing really different challenges.

I think communication will be such a big thing for leaders. It’s something that’s been discussed a lot in organisations and identified as a skill that leaders often need to improve, but I think Covid has really upped the ante. Whether it’s setting up a company Whatsapp group, a daily check-in call with the CEO to update people on what’s going on in the business, or even just to say ‘hi, I hope you’re all doing OK’ – and meaning it! Raising the visibility of leaders is so important now. Leaders need to do more to keep employees engaged and communication lines open, as people can feel quite isolated when working from home. Covid has taught us that continuing with what we’ve always done as leaders is just not enough. We need to work out how to reach our workforce, communicate our strategy, and support employees in helping us to execute this strategy.

I’ve seen some really great examples on LinkedIn. Companies who have sent employees fruit and vegetable boxes and told them to try and do something for their health this week. Businesses who have given their employees a ‘free’ day off to do something to help them prioritise their own mental health and wellbeing.

Another really important point is that for many, the Covid pandemic means that people are looking for increased meaning in their work. How can I make my contribution to an organisation and perhaps society as a whole more substantial; more purposeful? Yes, we all have bills to pay but how can we make the process of earning money more engaging, more relevant, and worthwhile. A bit of kindness and empathy might also help bring out the best in people.

Let’s talk a bit more about mental health. What part can HR teams play in driving the mental health agenda?

I think we have a big part to play here and there’s room for improvement. It’s great to see roles like Mental Health First Aider emerging, but we need to work out what it means in reality. Remote working makes it much more difficult. When you’re in an office, you can see if people don’t look happy or need extra support. But we must be conscious of the fact that when we leave a call, we don’t lose sight of people and their mental health.

One of the questions I always ask when I go into a business is do they have an EAP programme? It’s so valuable to be able to offer employees a 24-hour hotline, and a skilled mental health professional at the end of the phone.

I think sometimes HR forgets that we should be doing everything that we can to look after our people. Of course, we need our employees to help the business achieve its goals and be successful, but we’re a people-centric function. One of my biggest bugbears is the term ‘Human Resources’ and I think it needs to change. People are humans, not just resource. I think we need to move towards being known as the people function.

It’s interesting that so many organisations put their customers first in their values and strategy, and I do wonder if companies started to put their people first, a lot of the organisational issues would take care of themselves.

It can be tricky, but I believe it’s about finding that balance between making sure that people can work and thrive in an environment where they feel safe, can really tap into their inner motivation, and contribute. But we can’t shy away from having difficult conversations and addressing issues if we see things in the business that aren’t right. I think it’s a dichotomy that a lot of HR professionals get caught up in.

Finally, upskilling and reskilling are hot topics right now. What are your thoughts on what HR needs to do in order to ensure it can provide sufficient support in this area and build on the momentum gained in the last nine months?

I find it quite incredible that people can go into HR, just do the job, and never really spend time on personal development. One of the big changes in my career was doing a Master's Degree. It really shifted the way that I applied my thinking. It changed the way I question things and that critical thinking element really came to the fore. It meant that I wasn't just applying policies and procedures without asking why and questioning whether things could be done differently.

It’s easy to become institutionalised. We know what we know, and we become comfortable. I think there’s a need for HR teams to look to develop in completely different areas of expertise, in areas like business strategy and finance and then think about how learnings can be applied to HR roles. We’ve already shown we can do it. A lot of our learning over the last nine months was on the hoof. If you take something like the furlough scheme, the level of understanding we achieved in a short space of time was pretty amazing.

We need to challenge ourselves to continue to learn and develop ourselves. I think there’s a lot of value to be had from learning from colleagues in different organisations. Sharing knowledge about how things are done differently and what the results look like is something I hope we see a bit more of.

I really do hope that HR is seen as a partner in the business. I think this will depend on whether we can speak the language of the people that we support within senior teams and at middle management level. I don't think it matters where you are in your HR career. There’s always something that you can do ever so slightly different, and ever so slightly better.

If you look at roles five years ago, there are a number jobs we see now that simply didn’t exist. Who had heard of Content Curators? We’ll be in the same position five years from now. We don’t know what roles will evolve in the future, but we need to focus on our own learning and personal development to make sure we’re ready for them.

Thanks Barbara! 

If you're interested in being interviewed as part of the BPS Perspectives series, I'd love to hear from you. You can get in touch with me at

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