COO Amber Hayat talks to us about her career and Hydrogen’s team-based people journeys.

For someone who loves to plan, Amber Hayat has never had a career strategy.

“I didn’t set out to be business leader or a people manager, I just wanted to keep on achieving and bettering myself, doing a better job. I never even saw the IT directorship coming as I wasn’t gunning for it. All I’ve ever focused on is what I’m doing in the present moment!”

That focus has clearly paid off. Having joined Hydrogen in February 2010 as Head of IT, Amber was promoted to IT Director in 2015 before taking on the mantle of Chief Operating Officer (COO) a year later. She is now responsible for all operations functions (HR, IT, Business Intelligence, Marketing, Facilities & Property and Service Delivery) bar finance. A significant hike in responsibility by anyone’s standards, although her biggest initial fear (to prove unfounded) was moving desks and being “disconnected from the teams”. 

“It took me a while to get my head around it and ensure that all my teams were getting enough of my time,” she continues. “But I’ve been lucky to have experts in all these areas, so for me it’s about guiding them towards the right decisions. We meet for monthly one-to-ones, and I also have a weekly team meeting – it’s important for us all to collaborate, which is one of our key values here at Hydrogen.”

Different landscape
Seven years on and the company is very different to how the former executive found it when she joined. “I was actually amazed to see how well the business was doing given the IT infrastructure. We needed to build a really robust global IT department so we decided to move Hydrogen to the cloud. We became early adopters of tech and develop what we now refer to as our global platform. I’m proud to say that lead times have fallen considerably!”

Amber realised that she’d have to adapt her communication style for a sales environment. “Previously in my career, tech ruled the roost. You didn’t have to convince anyone,” continues the computer science graduate. “Making people see that tech is a game changer in recruitment is much harder as any changes must be carefully aligned to sales.” Those changes are coming thick and fast – the launch of a new website, migration to Office 365, cloud-based telephone solution, tablet rollout and an online timesheet portal for contractors in 2017. 

What is she most proud of? “Adopting new technology, being resilient during tough market conditions, developing our business intelligence and introducing team-based journeys [incubator, fast growth and market-leading being the three stage business growth models]. It’s given everyone a true sense of purpose and ties in with our entrepreneurial culture and mindset. Watching our people grow up here and go through life changes has been special.”

And then there’s the 2017 merger with Argyll Scott. “It’s a really exciting step for us, which will create opportunities for our people and broaden the expertise we can offer to our clients and candidates. The two companies are natural partners with cultural similarities. Hydrogen has a bigger contracting base and UK presence, whereas Argyll Scott is established in APAC and more perm focus. The pressure is on to get the integration right. We’ve got a strategy – we just need to land it!”

Big picture
While building a true people culture remains a top priority, Amber is only too aware that people must be engaged and understand how their role fits in with the company’s overall objectives, “For me the best way of motivating people to achieve more than what they think they’re capable of is to connect them to the bigger picture. You’re looking to paint them and their role into that picture and making them understand why. I probably need to communicate this more but hopefully we’re succeeding and people are buying into me as a leader!”

Creating the right environment is key to success, “We want our people to learn but also teach, which is the ultimate form of learning on the job. A place everyone wants to be part of and where people who want to be entrepreneurial are backed – it’s in our company’s DNA.”

In an industry dominated by skills, what then are the attributes required to succeed at Hydrogen? “You need to recognise that the world we live in and the markets we operate in are constantly evolving embracing change, operating at pace and resilience are all core attributes. To succeed therefore, you must be ready to give that extra 10-20%.” 

And what has she learnt about herself? “I didn’t think I was that resilient and I’ve also learnt how to communicate with lots of different people. My natural style is quite direct and I think people appreciate that, particularly in a sales environment. I am massively self-critical and hard on myself – we all want Hydrogen to do well.” 

But perhaps the most important awakening is that she isn’t a morning person. “I’ve been told I can be grumpy in the mornings and I’ve had to make a real effort to be as chirpy as I can. I realise that how I walk into the office can impact people’s moods. I love starting early, I just don’t like talking in the morning!”

For someone who once told her CEO that her job would be obsolete after two years, Amber Hayat has been remarkably resilient. The diehard Man United fan’s work is doing all the talking for her. 
"Amber sets incredibly high standards for herself and her teams. She has achieved a huge amount of buy in by delivering, time and time again. What has really allowed her to develop so quickly is her ability to adapt and learn quickly. She has taken on a lot of responsibility and has always risen to the challenge. Watching her grow and develop has been a source of immense satisfaction for me."
Ian Temple, CEO, Hydrogen Group

Amber Hayat
COO, Hydrogen Group