HR Passion Series  #7: Featuring Alex Rutherford – VP of HR at Kaplan International English

HR Passion Series #7: Featuring Alex Rutherford – VP of HR at Kaplan International English

August 7, 2018 | Rob Catalano

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Welcome to the HR Passion Series.

We wanted to create conversation and share insights and inspiration from leaders in the HR world, which is why we’ve designed this series, where you can hear directly from prominent HR Practitioners.

These aren’t vetted, polished answers. These are raw, real experiences, honest stories, and heartfelt insights. We hope you enjoy reading this series as much as we’ve enjoyed creating it.

We’re excited to welcome this week’s guest, VP of HR at Kaplan International English, Alex Rutherford.



The Interview:

1. What was your journey coming up to your current HR role? Any milestone moments in your career?

– I’ve been in HR for nearly 20 years now, starting as a Personnel Assistant in a UK supermarket whilst I completed my Bachelor’s Degree in Business and Human Resource Management. From there I have worked in a variety of industries including retail, banking, travel and most recently education. I’ve gained a huge amount from each role I have been in and always tried to remain on the ‘commercial’ side of HR, trying to be a real partner for the business. There have been a few milestones but I would say joining Kaplan in 2012 was the big one for me, from there I was provided with a huge amount of opportunity to grow and develop my career, culminating in my move to the US a little over 2 years ago.


2. As an HR leader, what keeps you up at night, rounding out 2018 and looking forward to the next year?

I’m a great believer in having a successful work/life balance, so I try not to let anything keep me from much needed beauty sleep. I do however try to keep up to date with trends and changes in the industry as often as possible. At the moment a lot of my focus is on retention of staff and training & development. The two issues go hand in hand so trying to develop a training program that keeps our staff engaged at the same time as identifying our future leaders and stars, all within a budget, is probably the most occupying thing in my professional life.


3. What are some elements of focus for your HR strategy in the coming 12 months?

As above, retention and training & development are a key focus, but also looking at ways to do more with less. Our industry is facing a lot of challenges at the moment and from an HR perspective we need to be flexible enough to help support the business through a big period of change. For 2019 I’m starting to think about labor market changes, technology changes, budgeting and much more, all in the context of making sure we have happy customers and engaged employees.


4. What advice would you give someone going into an HR leadership position for the first time?

Never forget the importance of the ‘Human’ part of our role. This is something I’ve tried to carry with me throughout my career. It’s easy in HR to be bogged down with policies, procedures, rules and projects, but at the end of the day we are here because of the people in the business. Whenever I am making a decision involving another person, I always try to ask myself what the impact of that decision is going to be and how I would feel in their position.


5. Is there anything in your career you’re incredibly proud of?

Good question, there is no single moment that I would look back on and say that I am hugely proud of that one thing. I love what I do, I enjoy coming to work and meeting/working with a hugely varied group of people on a daily basis. If anything I would say that as I’m from quite a small city in the North of England I would never have expected to be in a VP role in North America in my 30’s, I know that makes my parents proud!


6. Is there anything you failed at? Any lessons learned?

That could be quite a long list. I’ve failed at many things professionally over the last 20 years, but I like to think I’ve learned a little bit more every time I’ve had a failure. I think the one big thing that comes to mind was once joining a company just because of the job title. I was young and saw it as a good addition to my resume but soon realized I did not enjoy the culture or the business. That certainly taught me that it is not always important to chase the title or the money, finding a company that matches your personality, values and ideals is far more important in the long run.


7. Can you name a person who had a tremendous impact on you as an HR leader? Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you?

I’ve had a lot of people influence my career but there are two people who really stand out for different reasons. Firstly a gentleman named Simon Woodley who I worked with in my early 20’s. At the time I was maybe a little over confident in my ability and he once told me ‘Alex, you can get so far with blogging but one day you’ll realize you need to know your stuff or you get called out’ that really struck a chord with me and made me knuckle down and focus. The other was a lady named Su Breadner, my HR Director from my first role in HR Education. Su was always everything I wanted to be as a HR leader, confident, talented, knowledgeable but most importantly just fun to be around. I owe those 2 and many others a huge debt of thanks for my development.


8. What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and develop as an HR leader? Any resources you recommend to HR colleagues?

I’m lucky that I get to work with a phenomenal leadership team in my current role. The challenge of working with people who are as smart, educated, experienced and have such a passion for what they do drives me on to develop myself each day. I’m privileged to work with people who value the HR team and the benefit we can bring to the business. From a learning point of view SHRM, daily HR newsletters and my other HR colleagues around the wider Kaplan business keep me sharp. Overall I genuinely believe that you learn the most as a HR professional by listening to the people who work in the business, so I try to stay in touch with as many of my colleagues as possible, whether that is through school visits, online communication or our regular Town Hall meetings.


9. When you win HR Executive of the year soon, what song do you want playing when you walk up on the stage?

Haha! Professional answer or not? Mr Boombastic by Shaggy has always been my karaoke song, seems fitting that I should use that for collecting an imaginary award.


10. Finally, give us three words that you would use to describe the HR profession.

We love people.

A big thanks to Alex, and stay tuned for our next HR Passion Series guest.


Rob Catalano

Rob Catalano

Rob Catalano is WorkTango’s Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer. Rob has spent the last 17 years building HR Technology companies.