Head of Human Resources
When Sarah Tobin became a top cataloguer and researcher at Corbis, the pioneering image library, a defining management quality had come to fore in the young graduate: seeing the essential detail in a situation and characterising it correctly – and quickly.
This lies at the heart of her approach to Human Resources today. She knows how to maximise the signal-to-noise ratio, identify the critical issues and act pragmatically and sensitively in a role she has mastered at the highest professional level. But it was a while before this Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD) found her calling.
At Unitel Networks, a premium rate and alphanumeric telephone number business, she ran a distributor channel team of 20 people, acquiring full knowledge of sales and finance processes, while enjoying a wide operational remit. Not for the last time she found herself in “a small company where you just did what needed to be done.”
Amongst IT and quality systems, security, Health, Safety & Environment and more, HR fell to her. “In the 1990s, HR was about recruitment paperwork but much-needed regulation was coming to the fore and it interested me.” She came to regard policies, processes and procedures as liberating – management tools offering a straight line to efficiency. “But it’s also about fairness – everyone knowing what the rules are and being given a fair chance to follow them – and ensuring that everyone is treated equitably.”
When Unitel was taken over by a telecoms and internet group with inconvenient relocation plans, she moved to a DAB radio tech start-up, Frontier Silicon, where her plate-spinning abilities were a brilliant fit. She loved the business model: “we would pick the radio brand, pick the factory, introduce them and supply them with our technology.” At the outset, the workforce was three – the CEO responsible for sales and business development, the chief technologist and Tobin who did “everything else”. A couple of years later, it stood at 250. Market penetration was 90 per cent.
TOBIN COULD NOW SPECIALISE. Having become global, the business really needed proper HR rather than an ‘admin’ function. It would be a career path reinforced by demanding CIPD and employment law qualifications which she would acquire while working full-time. Reporting into the management board, Tobin developed expertise in cross-border employment law across multiple jurisdictions in the US, Asia and Europe, where she travelled extensively.
The business was acquired by Toumaz, an ultra-low-power wireless technologies business for a wide range of markets including healthcare exemplified by subsidiary Sensium Healthcare, which produced innovative ‘digital sticking plaster’ to detect vital signs, saving lives in intensive care. A whole new level of training was needed to hold patient data. She continued to report into the management board and advised the remuneration committee but when Sensium was sold, Tobin’s fire dimmed and she resigned.
What to do next? On her way to her leaving do, she received a call from Bowers & Wilkins, the high-end audio speaker people, courtesy of a colleague from the Frontier Silicon days. They needed someone to bring cohesion to the workforce after a takeover. It was a fascinating year in luxury brand marketing but ended with the prospect of another inconvenient relocation.
She wanted to return to a fast-growth, start-up business. Phasor Solutions was a process, policy and procedure-free zone that needed full-time attention, smoothing the way for efficient recruitment then – and now under Hanwha Phasor, which is scaling up. She is particularly enjoying sourcing highly specialised talent from an international pool and putting in place support systems to ensure overseas employees settle into their new lives personally and professionally. She has an affinity with engineers. “They keep you on your toes. When I write a policy, they read every word. Everything must have a reason and a prospective outcome, whether it’s about ensuring we have systems to address grievances or logging sick days to ensure that patterns pointing to stress and health issues aren’t missed. They now know that if you want to be a fair and responsible employer, you need to codify that.”
BEYOND PROCESS AND PROCEDURE, Tobin operates at all levels of the business in a support and advisory capacity: listening to employees and understanding their concerns as if she were standing in their shoes; representing their voices at management board level; and helping young and new line managers develop their capabilities.
As a management committee member, her well-developed and very broad-based business sense is invaluable, not least from those years helping a technology business scale up quickly. She prides herself, too, on her functional independence. As she puts it: “I am not down in the weeds of technology and operations”, doubtless startling her colleagues with the simplicity and wisdom of interventions, cutting through to what really counts, as she did in her old image library days.
Sarah Tobin read journalism and social sciences at City University, London. She has an Advanced Certificate in Employment Law and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development.