My professional journey - a personal reflection during Black History Month

27 October 2022      Chizoma Okaro, Director of Human Resources

My foray into the world of Human Resources was neither planned nor dreamt of.

I graduated with a degree in Education with the aim of becoming a teacher but quickly determined that my temperament might not be suited. My first job was as a Broadcast Journalist which I had a natural affinity for and did this for 4 years but gave that up when I became a mum. (Long unsociable hours just wouldn’t cut it.)

I took on retail jobs which allowed me to manage my family responsibilities for a short time before joining De Montfort University as a Faculty Administrator. The role helped me build on my office skills working in a structured environment. When the campus was scheduled to close staff were offered development opportunities as part of an outplacement programme. One of the academics suggested I study CIPD which was being offered on the site. I’d never heard of CIPD but as the lectures were taking place along my corridor and being sponsored by DMU I thought I had nothing to lose.

I put my head down and worked through a course of study with no practical experience to apply to it, but I kept going. HR jobs were hard to come by. HR jobs with no HR experience, like gold dust. I took on some voluntary work within the HR department of my local Debenhams store, doing everything and anything. I struggled to understand the concepts of pay and reward, people strategy and organisational development and whilst my study colleagues were able to apply the theory to practice, I stretched my brain cells to understand the theory and imagine the practice.

It took me 2 years, but I was finally able to obtain a job at my local council working as a Recruitment Administrator. During my 10 years at the council, I took every opportunity to put myself forward for appropriate opportunities and I know that in some cases I came across managers who recognised my potential more than my levels of experience at that time. In 2004, with just one year’s experience I was offered a maternity cover as an HR Advisor and was quite literally dropped in at the deep end. Mistakes were made and lesson learnt, and I feel I thrived in the experience in the subsequent years. But HR was a scary place to be. So much accountability, blame and ownership and major learning on the job. I completed my CIPD studies and a few years later, having recognised that there was no professional growth for me I moved to the Open University having spent 10 years at the Council where I learned to understand the fundamentals of people practice and the bottom line for the HR profession. More importantly I first learned how the term ‘fit’ applied to me and my inability to move further within the organisation. I took it quite personally. This was 2013; clearly there was much work to be done with the EDI agenda back then.

The Open University provided me with an opportunity to experience more openness in expressing both my ability and my flexibility to take on new challenges. I had a manager who was very supportive, engaged and gave me the autonomy to work with greater confidence and I did, which helped me build up my professional standard as HR Business Partner, understanding the job was more strategic than just advisory. I gained my Chartered membership of the CIPD and added to that a qualification in relationship counselling and many years’ experience as a school governor in both primary and secondary schools.

As a black female (with a white male manager) I didn’t feel any limitations and took every opportunity to put myself forward for projects which enabled me to be visible but also reflected my work ethic as one ready and able to help my organisation deliver on its objectives.

At this stage in my career, I had no hang ups, no chips, no anxieties but I had come to a crossroads. My manager left and following a mini restructure I took on my first management role. A year later I wasn’t clear what my next move might be. Change was coming in the organisation and I wasn’t sure where I fit in; not the ‘fit’ of 2012 but whether there was a suitable position for me in the future.

So, when a promotion opportunity made its appearance in another HEI I didn’t for one minute question myself as a black female and whether I’d need to prove myself any more than anyone else. I applied, was successful and joined University of Hertfordshire in 2017.  Being promoted into an external organisation doesn’t usually raise those questions of doubt as you have no history. For me that would come later. In 2020 my boss announced he was retiring as Director of Human Resources. 

Did I jump at the opportunity which presented itself? Of course not. This is when those doubts which had never plagued me before appeared. But I did ask myself, if not me then who? And why not me? After that I didn’t try to talk myself out of it but into it. I also felt I’d be letting more than just myself down. When I was offered the job, I didn’t hesitate in accepting and I haven’t hesitated in ensuring people understand who I am and that I am making the role my own rather than believing there is a ‘textbook’ way of being an HRD. That’s what makes us diverse.

I’m proud of the fact that I have faced some of my challenges head on (be that study or promotion opportunities), even when I had doubts and questioned myself.  I’ve been resilient and resolute in keeping my focus.  Certainly, my career highlight has been my appointment to Director of HR which has been challenging but rewarding too.

When I network across the sector or sit in senior executive meetings, I still don’t see enough who look like me, but part of my role is to continue to keep this front and centre and to reflect and educate on how we can do different and better. Through UHR I was able to connect with WHEN which introduced me to SWOC (senior women of colour) group and with AHUA and sitting on the reciprocal mentoring group. I’m looking forward to contributing to progress the EDI objectives in a much more overt and impactful way.

What would I like to see? Clearer initiatives which reflect how much we really want to understand the lived experiences of Black, Asian and minority ethnic colleagues and students alike.

Chizoma Okaro Chartered FCIPD

Director of HR

University of Hertfordshire

October 2022

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