Get to know Nicola Gater, HR Consultant at Reality HR.

Can you tell us about what you do?

I have a portfolio of clients in a range of industries and I work in partnership with them across all areas of HR. My work is both strategic and operational; building HR plans to support the business goals and then helping the business bring them to life. It’s a wide spectrum of HR specialisms all geared towards getting the right people in the right roles and performing in the right way to make the business succeed.

I do have a special interest in employment law; it can be a really dry and difficult area and many business owners and managers see it as a constraint on their business. I enjoy translating it into something that businesses can understand and showing how we can come up with solutions that achieve what the business wants, without exposing themselves to too much risk.

Here at Reality HR, we avoid saying “NO, you can’t do that”, which is what I think many people view HR as doing! I’ll always work to understand what the business is trying to achieve, and then find a way to make it happen. I will outline different options and the different risks along the way and help them reach a solution that works for them with a risk level they are happy to accept.

Employment law is just the underlying framework that we operate in, and just one aspect of HR and my role. Anything a client needs doing I’ll be there to advise them – be it recruitment, mergers and acquisitions, management development, performance management, reward or anything else relating to their people.

What do you like most about your job?

I really love getting in and understanding everything there is to know about a business. I ask a LOT of questions! I did business studies at university and I have always been fascinated with how businesses run and what makes them succeed. It’s quite satisfying when you can see you’ve asked a question that hasn’t been considered before – I like to feel I’ve made a difference and challenged some ways of thinking.

Although I’m an external consultant, we act very much as an organisation’s internal HR function and look to become part of their management team so we can bring a valuable influence to their business at the right level. Knowing the business inside out means we can make recommendations and deliver bespoke projects that are right for that business context, in a way we know will work for them and their teams.

Because we have such a breadth of experience with so many different clients and types of businesses, we can suggest different ways of doing things – sometimes it’s a bit of a lightbulb moment for our clients and business managers who may not have seen it that way before. There is no “one size fits all”!

What challenges do companies face in the future?

Everyone knows the economic climate at the moment is tough – the uncertainty around Brexit is affecting businesses. Certainly, some of the SMEs we work with just don’t know what’s coming in the next few months and many are battening down the hatches and holding off on their investment in people until the next few months play out.

On the other side, we also have clients who are growing and recruiting but there’s a real battle to find the right people. Low unemployment and talent shortages mean there’s not a huge pool of people out there just sitting and waiting for the right job to come along. Employers must fight to get the right quality of people for their business and keep them once they are there – it’s about looking at what you can offer to employees and understanding what they want from an employer, with lots of factors in play such as flexible working, investment in training and providing interesting and fulfilling work.

There are so many challenges ahead, it’s hard to pinpoint one particular thing!

How has your previous experience in the highly-pressurised airline industry helped with your current role?

It is very different in terms of the clients I work with now; I worked in a much larger company to the SMEs I work with now, with 600 staff working 24/7 across many different locations and with a very active union.

I was new to HR when I started in the airline industry so it was a complete education in employee relations especially; that’s where my interest in employment law came from, with frequent discussions with unions about what was legal, what was fair and what was appropriate for the business – trying to find solutions that satisfied everybody. This is, of course, relevant to what I do now.

We must always remember we are working for businesses within which everyone will have different viewpoints and opinions and priorities – whether that’s the staff, the managers, the owners and even their clients – and it is our job to find a solution that everyone can accept.

A lot of what we do comes down to effective communication and making sure that the message is heard in the right way so that everyone buys into it, whatever their position. It’s great when you can see that that is working, and there isn’t any conflict.

It is a common pattern in SMEs that initially there is very little conflict or differences in priorities – they have developed a product or service that’s new or unique and exciting and they have built a business around it. Everyone is really passionate about what they do, and everyone has bought into the same idea because they’re a small team and can see how what they are doing really matters. But as that business becomes more successful and grows, they employ more people and that’s when the problems can often start. Business owners didn’t start business to manage people; they just had a great product! As new people join, businesses have to find ways to engage them and maintain a culture that will support everybody to achieve the best for the business.

What made you choose HR as a career?

It wasn’t a conscious decision. I did business studies at university and none of my modules really focused on HR so I didn’t really think about it much at the time. I came out of uni and joined Hewlett Packard as part of the team looking after voluntary employee benefits – it was the nice side of things: providing discounts, holiday schemes, theatre trips and staff events. I started to get an idea about what does and doesn’t motivate staff from that. I left to join a cargo handling company as Administration Manager and just happened to report to the HR director. Within a week, I was minuting union pay negotiations and supporting him in his role. Things developed from there and I was exposed to all areas of HR. Eventually the company sponsored me through my professional CIPD qualifications and so here I am!

When you’re not HR consulting, what do you like to do in your spare time?

I have two young children aged 8 and 6, so they keep me busy managing school life and after-school activities. We live in Sandhurst in Berkshire, which is a lovely area with lots of green space and local activities. We get out to the parks – my daughter had a new bike for Christmas so insists we take her out! We have family and friends in Brighton and Cornwall so love spending time there too. I try to get to my local parkrun when I can and am contemplating (but not yet committing to!) another 10k race this summer.

Reality HR is built around flexible working, so my days can be tailored to suit both my clients and me – good work life balance. I see the benefits at first hand, and so it’s easy to use our own business as an example of just how well it works.