A Professional Portrait by Kathryn Ward

Director, HR Business Partner & Head of CSR London


Published: 9th November 2017

What inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?


I wanted to work for a global client facing service business with really bright people at the top of their game. When the opportunity came to join Sotheby’s as opposed to continuing in financial services, I was delighted as this historic company has all those elements, in a fascinating industry. 


Can you tell us a little about your role? 


My day job is as HR Business Partner to the Fine Arts and Luxury businesses here in London, as well as our two Swiss offices. This means I am responsible for consulting on, developing, and delivering HR services to those business divisions, from headcount and hiring, through pay and progression, employee relations or performance issues, change management, talent development, and training. As part of our senior HR team for Europe I also lead projects such as regulatory requirements e.g. the Modern Slavery Act, Gender Pay Gap analysis; benefits and compensation; our annual promotions committee; immigration and mobility. Any human-resource issues for “my” teams, whether immediate or looking several years ahead, will come to my door. 


My part-time job is as the lead for London Corporate & Social Responsibility Program. This is strategist, event planner, ambassador, business development, promotions and marketing, and general volunteer coordinator. It’s a wonderful counterpoint to HR, both are immensely practical and commercial roles, but also at their hearts are trying to make this workplace a better and more productive environment. 


What does your average day entail?


It’s an oft repeated phrase but there is no standard day in HR! I will always have one or two regular meetings with the business leaders or department heads, often be working to prepare paperwork for new hires, new roles, and research best practice for a new training program we want to put together, or comparative living costs to help us with an international move. I’ll meet with individual employees to talk about their career aspirations, and talk to their managers about how they can acquire missing skills or experience to get them to the next role or level. For CSR I will review our events calendar and speak to prospective charity partners, or attend an event such as the recent exhibition opening for the Koestler Trust. But

with HR you will always get a curve ball, a resignation, an illness, a performance issue or a document which needs updating across all the European jurisdictions. 


How did you get your job?


My husband saw a small advert on the Officers Association online job board (he was in the RAF at the time) and I emailed the then-head of HR at around 9pm one evening to enquire. I had my first interview at 4pm the following day with my now boss, so I must have written something they liked!


What is the best part of your job? 


Helping and watching teams and individuals grow. I used to work in recruitment, but wanted to see the whole employee life cycle. I really do enjoy the technical side of HR as well, employment law and payroll and headcount and spreadsheets. The most satisfying moments are taking individuals or a company through a difficult decision, such as promotions, restructuring, and ensuring that everyone comes out with respect for the process and decision. 


For the Bid for Better CSR Program, it has been reaching big milestones (such as 20% volunteer participation) in our first year, and realising when staff start coming to us with ideas that this program has momentum, and will sustain its own growth. Being a responsible employer is part of my HR DNA, and being a good arts community partner is vital for Sotheby’s. 


What is the hardest part of your job? 


Juggling! I cannot remember the last time I wasn’t interrupted on project work with something urgent. Which is why my CSR work is often my evening job!


What has been the highlight of your career? 


Realising that I have something to give, whether advice or strategic thinking. I was recently asked by my old university to sit on their Audit & Risk Advisory Committee, and someone told me I am a “role model” for more junior women in the business. I still think I’m learning, and look up to my own mentors, but that was a “wow” moment. My children bring me back to earth with a healthy bump though.


What is your favourite Artwork? 


I studied History, so have always been drawn to the more historical visual arts, ones that tell a story of their time as much as of the subject. The Alfred Jewel is both an astonishingly beautiful work of art, and also represents the highest level of Anglo Saxon craftsmanship. It’s also one of those mysterious objects from the Dark Ages where we think we know what it’s for, but we have to hypothesise. 


For a painting it has to be Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire”. I grew up by the sea, in a naval town, and sailed a lot. There is such pathos in that last journey and the tension between sail and steam, as well as the incredible sun through the clouds. That said since joining Sotheby’s I am now in love with so many artists I had never previously heard of! 


What advice would you give to people trying to enter the art industry?


Firstly, don’t be intimidated by the gilding and hushed galleries and suits. I never knew before coming to interview that Sotheby’s was open to the public, and would have hesitated to walk into a gallery. You do have to take a big breath, but be bold and brave, and grow your own opinions. 


Secondly, do your homework and get to know the detail and the big picture of your chosen area. Have in depth knowledge of something (an artist? A museum collection? Recent exhibitions?) but also understand the wider market. Especially if you are applying for a corporate function, you need to know about the company you are trying to work for. What are their challenges? What are they doing about them? How are they different from their competitors? For an art related role you need to take this to the department – even showing you have thought about these questions and done research is a step above most. Auction houses are commercial as well as scholarly places!


If you weren’t in the art industry, what would you be doing? 


I’d still be in HR for a global company and working on business ethics and corporate charitable / philanthropic projects too. Unless I won the lottery, at which point I would definitely go sailing around the world with my family (husband, kids and cats) before joining somewhere like the National Trust, British Museum or Dan Snow’s History Hit Channel to work on accessibility and storytelling. Our history of buildings, paintings, towns, music, landscape, and works of art, should be part of the daily vernacular as much as literature is. Did you know you can see the shape of the roman Amphitheatre in London’s streets?