Get to know your peers in the global HR community through our career profile series. Today, we talk to Chris Gilchrist, HR manager at Hilton London Kensington. He shares his career journey from cabin crew to HR, how to deal with admin and why Cher’s words should inspire everyone.
Name: Chris Gilchrist
Job: HR manager, Hilton London Kensington
Current employer: Hilton Worldwide
CV in brief:
- 2013 – 2014, HR Advisor (airline), TUI UK & Ireland
- 2009 – 2013, Performance Manager and HR Coordinator (Gatwick), TUI UK & Ireland
- 2005 – 2009, Flight Supervisor, First Choice Airways (later to be known as Thomson Airways)
- 2000 – 2005, Cabin Crew, Air 2000 (later to be known as First Choice Airways)
A day in your life
Tell us about your job and organisation
I am HR manager at Hilton London Kensington, a large hotel in West London with 601 bedrooms and 11 conference rooms. My role is as the on-site HR contact for 130 team members, line managers, heads of department and directors of the hotel.
These departments include team members from a diverse range of backgrounds, working in areas such as reception, concierge, restaurants and bars, kitchen, sales and reservations, business development, engineering and, of course, HR.
Who do you report into?
My manager is the cluster HR director who also has responsibility for a number of company hotels in the area including Hilton London Heathrow Airport Terminal 4, Hilton London Wembley, Hilton Syon Park and Hilton Reading.
Tell us about your team
I am generally a one-man department although currently, I am lucky to be supported by an intern working with me for three months as part of the Erasmus scheme who is doing a terrific job. I also work closely with a cluster training manager one or two days a week to help develop individual programmes for my hotel team members.
What is the most rewarding part of your role?
Without a doubt, I take a lot of satisfaction from the progress I can see in terms of team member learning and development as well as individual career promotions within the hotel.
Working closely with the team, I know I have contributed to their personal growth and it is fantastic to see the differences I have made in building confidence and in coaching performance improvement and development.
What is the most challenging part of the role?
There is still a perception that HR is the do-er instead of the partner to the business and I believe there is more work to be done in terms of up-skilling managers and building a new culture.
Historically in hotels, the HR officer/manager of the property was the person to deal with all of the people management issues and the phrase “you’re going down to HR” was a term to signify an issue needed attention.
I focus more on people development and HR taking on the strategic advisor/consultant/partner role in the hotel, as opposed to dealing with the transactional and reactive issues.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Every day starts with the morning briefing, where the senior hotel team get together to discuss the daily business including customer feedback, revenue generation, upcoming events and key issues of the day.
I meet with the heads of department regularly to talk about what is happening with their teams, especially in relation to recruitment, performance, absence management and other employee relations issues. I also meet with the hotel general manager and director of operations to discuss what we are doing in terms of employee engagement and operational matters.
It is a massive cliché, but no day is the same and if it was, life would be pretty boring!
Why did you choose your current organisation to work for?
Hilton is an iconic brand, which is what initially attracted me to it. I had worked in my previous company for 13 years and so was due for a change and when the position arose at Hilton Kensington, I jumped at the chance to make the move.
Perks and downsides of your role?
The team are fantastic to work with and there is a real buzz around the hotel. There is also a great potential to develop the role of HR in the hotel and this excites me.
However, there is still a lot of transactional administration to get to grips with and although our HR Shared Service team is an invaluable asset in this regard, the general admin takes up a lot of my time.
What skills are essential for the role you’re in?
Adaptability and decision making are a must, as most days I am here by myself and sometimes need to make speedy decisions and act quickly. There is also a strong ER focus in the role, so one needs to be comfortable in the knowledge of employment law and advising managers on how to deal with these matters. Influencing skills are also great to have, because operational managers sometimes need to be persuaded to a certain line of thinking!
How did you get to where you are now?
I started my working life during university summer break in 2000, when I joined the-then Air 2000 (First Choice) as cabin crew in Belfast on a summer contract. I did this whilst I continued studying and when I graduated university, I was having such a great time at work (and having a great lifestyle!) that I carried on with the airline. After several years I eventually ended up in Gatwick as a flight supervisor, in charge of the cabin and flying all over the world.
I gained invaluable experience about customer service and leading a team of people, however when First Choice and TUI announced a merger in 2007, my position as flight supervisor was disestablished and I was to revert to a role as mainline cabin crew. Not wanting to lose what I had learned about managing people, I joined the management team at Gatwick as cabin crew performance manager.
This is where I got involved with HR and I enjoyed it so much, I took the plunge to go back to university to complete a master’s degree in HR management and gain CIPD accreditation. Following on from this I became the HR coordinator at Gatwick and eventually moved to head office as HR advisor, before moving on to Hilton Worldwide.
What were your best subjects in school?
I loved English as my imagination took me to places I could only dream of. Reading and writing stories was my passion at school and my creative nature also led me to study music at A-level, playing clarinet and violin and being a member of the choir and drama club.
What was your first job? How did you get it and why did you choose to work there?
I spent a summer working on the check-in desks at Belfast Airport. Flying and travel had always fascinated me from a young age, so the chance to work at the airport was too good to miss. I had no previous customer service experience, but being true to my roots I have a great gift of the gab and was able to charm my way into a job.
Have you followed the career path you set out to?
Not at all. When I was at school, my chosen career path was to move to Manchester and study international management. I didn’t study enough for my A-levels and didn’t get the three A’s that were needed for this course, so I went through clearing to study initially geography at Queen’s Belfast, before shifting to politics and getting into debates with anyone who didn’t agree with my views. HR was never even in contemplation until seven years after I graduated.
What challenges have you faced along the way?
Not having a job in the winter months during the initial few years of being cabin crew was tough. I was too arrogant to go to an agency and lasted just a week in a retail store, where my main task was opening and closing the doors for customers.
When I was initially trying to move away from cabin crew at the time of the TUI-First Choice merger, I found it really difficult to have anyone consider me for the roles I wanted, because all my CV said was “cabin crew”, no matter how hard I tried to bluff it. Eventually, I was able to express the fantastic leadership skills that I had learned into my role at Gatwick which has led me to where I am now.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to land a job?
I applied for the same job at Virgin Atlantic twice. That was crazy enough – the second time around was excruciatingly embarrassing.
What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
Proving to myself that I can do it. This has happened when I moved from cabin crew to manager, to completing my masters whilst holding down a full time job, to moving to Luton and eventually to Hilton Worldwide; all equally proud moments for me.
Do you have any career regrets?
I use the same mantra as the first lady of popular music – Cher – who told me at a concert in 2003 that nobody should have regrets. And so I live my life.
What advice would you offer to others who are looking to get to where you are now?
Studying for my master’s and CIPD accreditation has been the best thing I did. Although a huge commitment in terms of expense and time, it has been eminently worth it.
What advice would you give to your 22-year-old self?
Keep doing what you are doing and keep enjoying yourself.
- Coffee or tea? Coffee. Starbucks is my best friend.
- Jam or marmalade? Jam. Tastes better with clotted cream on a good afternoon tea.
- The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? Rolling Stones. Because Bette Midler covered Beast of Burden.
- Mac or PC? Mac. I’m a slave to marketing.
- The Guardian or The Times? The Times. Because my boyfriend works for The Guardian and I quite enjoy criticising Polly Toynbee at any given moment.
- BBC or ITV? BBC. Because I want tickets to Strictly Come Dancing and Jeremy Kyle offends me.
- M&S or Waitrose? Waitrose. They check your eggs at the check-out.
- Morning or night? Night. It lasts longer.
- Rain on snow? Snow. I have my own skis.
- Sweet or savoury? Depends on my mood. I check the pudding menu first.
- App: Facebook. I’m nosy.
- TV show: House of Cards. I’ve just given in to Netflix and this is an amazing show. It reminds me why I love politics.
- Band: Depends on where I am. I don’t really have a favourite, just whatever I’m playing on Spotify.
- Song: Confide in Me – I played this on repeat on my Walkman for two hours when I first had it on cassette in 1994.
- Book: Angels in America. It’s inspired the comment on my notice board in my office: “Don’t be afraid; people are so afraid; don’t be afraid to live in the raw wind, naked, alone…Learn at least this: What you are capable of. Let nothing stand in your way.”
- Sports team: Does Tom Daley count?
- Thing to do on a Friday night: I wish I could still say go out in London and not come home until Saturday afternoon, but I am too old for that now. Now it’s more like a pub or theatre – I would go to The Book of Mormonevery week if I could afford it.
- Place to eat: Circus London – nice food, not amazing, but has the advantage of acrobats and burlesque dancers on the table while one is sipping an overpriced cocktail.
- Holiday spot: Las Vegas. It’s tacky and gaudy and over the top and I love it.
- Piece of advice you’ve been given: Take the risk because nothing you do is going to cause a plane to crash*(*adapt as necessary to suit requirements)
By Karam Filfilan
Karam is Changeboard Middle East's editor and UK deputy editor.
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