The Meyler Campbell Interviews: Genevieve Tennant

Ian Florance
01st June 2016

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The Meyler Campbell Interviews: Genevieve Tennant

In the latest of our interviews we talk to Genevieve Tennant about the path that led her to become Meyler Campbell’s newest faculty member.

In the latest of our interviews we talk to Genevieve Tennant about the path that led her to become Meyler Campbell’s newest faculty member.

Tell me a bit about your background.

I grew up in Surrey and went to Warlingham Comprehensive school, then Reigate Sixth Form College. I’m the third of four siblings and my Mum stayed at home while my Dad worked for customs and excise – he was a VAT man.

You did Geography at university. Was that a burning ambition?

I have to admit that I’m not someone who typically plans ahead: I tend to go with the flow, so to be honest, I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do after university. And, as you’ll see, a lot of my career moves have, to some extent, happened to me.

Anyway, I went to Goldsmith’s College which was a great place to study and enjoy yourself. It was actually known for its art courses at the time: Damien Hirst was there. Having arguably not excelled at my A levels, I was keen to show I could apply myself and came out with a 2:1

Liberty’s always seems such an interesting place!

On graduation I was still unclear about what I wanted to do so, perhaps as a delaying tactic or maybe a sign of the times (it was 1986 and Band Aid had left its mark on me), I applied to do a Masters in Economics for Developing Countries in the following year. I’d worked at Liberty’s on Saturdays while I was at university and was asked if I wanted to join full-time to work in their personnel department. I enjoyed it so much that at the end of the year I decided against the masters and continued my career in retail.

Liberty’s had a very strong, somewhat old-fashioned, quaint English culture. ‘Dresses’ were ‘frocks’ for instance. It was still run by the Stewart-Liberty family and when they walked the shop floor everyone stood to attention!

It’s obviously changed a lot since the late 1980s but it’s still my favourite shop in the world.

So where did your career take you next?

It’s difficult to remember a time when one of the only ways to find a job was to scan the national broadsheets but that’s how I found my next role as graduate administrator at Ernst and Young. After a couple of years, I applied for a manager role in the National Graduate Recruitment team. In those days they recruited over 700 graduates a year – so the team were kept very busy.  I was in charge of the pre-application activities, working with another manager who dealt with post-application processes. So I marketed Ernst and Young to graduates, travelling round the UK presenting and running workshops, preparing the brochures and milk round presentations. It was huge fun. But it’s an annual cycle of activity and after four iterations I decided it was time for a change. I’d also decided I, maybe, should take my career a bit more seriously and I wanted to understand general HR better.

Schroders offered me a grounding in general HR, coupled with work on their graduate/MBA intake. Managing the remuneration process was a new experience for me. It involved lots of Excel spreadsheets and took up the best part of six months in every year. I also got involved with all the other generalist tasks including performance appraisals and leadership development.

Schroders was another traditional, and very male, organisation so when I had my twins some 10 weeks early there was no such thing as flexible or part-time working, so I took an 18-month break – but certainly not a rest!

What took you back to work?

When we had our girls my husband had only recently left the Royal Marines. He was essentially only just starting out on his career in civvie street and, with our new family, there wasn't a lot of cash left over at the end of the month! By the by, I think there is a lot that the corporate world can learn from the armed forces which are more flexible and innovative in how they organise themselves than people think.

Arthur D Little was a US organisation but I became head of UK HR. There were c250 people, based in Berkeley Square and it had a great culture which allowed a lot of autonomy. Then 3 years on the NASDAQ crash happened and the company laid off some 50 percent of staff.

Something like that teaches you a lot.  You never know how an individual will react – with relief, tears or anger! But whatever they do, it’s essential you treat everyone with dignity and respect, as in the long run, once the emotion is over, people remember if they were well treated.   So over the years, I’ve developed a set of rules about how you treat people. I can be tough but there is a line I won’t cross. I think Allen and Overy saw that in me when they promoted me to my role as Global HR Director. But that’s getting ahead of myself.

I made myself redundant from Arthur D Little and set up my own company – GLK Consulting Ltd– where most of my clients were ex Arthur D Little employees

How did you come to work in the legal sector at Allen and Overy?

An ex-colleague who I’d worked with at Ernst and Young invited me in as a consultant trainer to help them roll out a performance management project. They offered me a job.

I had some personal reasons for accepting it, not least that I found running my own business to be rather lonely. My biggest work buzzes are working in great teams: Allen and Overy offered me that. What else it would offer I didn’t have a clue since I knew very little about the law.

18 months after I joined, the HR Director resigned and the Managing Partner asked me to apply for the job. I turned it down. I had been heard to say that my only ambition in life was not to be an HR director. But the Managing Partner was persistent.  He made me realise I had lots of opinions on the people agenda within Allen and Overy. I could either put up or shut up and, if the past was anything to go by, I’m no good at shutting up! So, to cut a long story short, I finally accepted the role and I reckon it took me the best part of three years to really understand the issues, get to know the global network and become effective.

What are the issues in the legal sector?

Well, at Allen and Overy they are about leadership. The senior team are among the most brilliant minds I’m ever likely to meet. But as lawyers, they have often become successful through their ability to critique and see faults. Introducing the softer skills of leadership is critical: convincing some senior lawyers that such skills are important and even worth considering is the first challenge. In summary promoting the benefits of soft skills was a hard sell.

This was not a background issue either. We, like many in the legal sector, were grappling with retention issues as the next generation have different expectations of the psychological contract at work.

Could you tell me how you got interested in coaching?

Well, it was seen as part of the HR armoury at Schroders. But six months into my job at Allen and Overy I, characteristically, had a crisis as to whether I was in the right place. I was coached and some of the insights that developed remain vivid to this day. I was very impressed so I did a course at the School of Coaching and, although I didn’t do the final accreditation it confirmed a number of thoughts.

I believe that most people have good intentions. I also think many don’t grasp the difference they can make. More people than you can imagine doubt themselves and fear failure. Very eminent lawyers are no more immune to imposter syndrome than anyone else.

During my time as HRD we went through two significant rounds of redundancies: the first in 2009 due to the Global Financial Crisis and then a further round following the move of numerous support roles to Belfast. This latter was arguably the most challenging period of my professional life. Over seven years I had built an industry leading HR team and now had to break it up. I went through a real emotional roller-coaster that year but the team emerged intact and we then set about the process of rebuilding 

I met Anne at that time. She ran an Essentials programme for the HR team. This was offered because we felt they needed the skills and as a sign that we were investing in their personal development. I helped on the programme.

We now run it reasonably regularly and partners are doing it. You could say coaching has entered our culture.


And the Meyler Campbell role?

After nearly 11 years as HRD, I wanted something new in my life. It’s been somewhat scary stepping away from such a great role and brilliant organisation but in life I think you need to dare to challenge yourself and I’m feeling really energised by what I see ahead.

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