Interview with Helena Peacock, HR director at Penguin

Helena Peacock combines HR, legal and company secretarial roles at Penguin, which has been a learning curve, posing challenges around pay and engagement

Having come from a legal background and developed a specialism in tax law, a move into HR management was an unexpected career change for Helena Peacock, HR director at publishing firm Penguin.

Her first taste of HR came when she assisted with graduate recruitment, in her role as the publisher’s legal director, a position she still holds. When the company’s previous HR director left the firm, it was decided that the two roles should be combined, making Peacock legal and HR director. She also has a third role at Penguin as company secretary.

“I had been legal director at Penguin since 2000 but I was looking for a wider management role. I wanted to spread my wings but it’s very difficult to get into general management if you have a technical background. I did need a bit of persuading [to take on the role of HR director] because I had not been trained in any way in HR. I needed to feel I could bring something to the department and I hope that I have,” she says.

Combining the two positions has been a culture change for Peacock. “In the legal profession, if you spend time chatting to people then you are not doing your work, but as HR director I find that if I am not chatting most of the day, I’m not doing my job,” she says.

Peacock learned very quickly that HR requires a mutual understanding for others and the collaboration of ideas. “On the legal side, non-lawyers respect your technical knowledge, but in HR, everyone has their own view, hence the need to influence because there is no right or wrong really,” she explains.

Since becoming HR director, one of Peacock’s biggest achievements has been a pay restructure. Whereas junior employees’ pay was previously increased annually, they now receive rises based on merit. “I’m very pleased with that because it’s good for employees who all know what we want to reward and it’s good for line managers because they will be able to award what they want, without having to pay somebody additional money just because they have been there for 12 months.”

Some of the biggest hurdles Peacock believes benefits professionals have to face concern employee engagement and the challenge of looking after staff, treating them well and being an employer of choice for a young and savvy workforce. “We have to make sure our entire package, both monetary and non-monetary [aspects], satisfies [staff] requirements. People have different requirements at different times in their lives.”

Peacock is also an advocate of flexible working arrangements. “I am very pro flexible working, having worked part-time myself so I could spend time with my daughter when I came to Penguin. I’m very grateful, and this is one of the reasons why I’m so loyal to the firm,” she explains.

Having arrived in HR via an unusual route, Peacock’s ambitions for the future are simple. “I’d like to do what I’m doing, but do it really well. That’s my ambition. I’m not sure anyone will ever get into that position in a job because there is always something to be done and improved. The business keeps changing, so the needs of the business change as well,” she says.

Nevertheless, Peacock relishes the chance to combine three roles and the challenges that come along with this. “I’m really pleased I took on the role [as HR director]. It has been great to do both HR and legal work. The HR team is great so I’m very lucky in having two excellent teams to manage.”

Curriculum Vitae†

2006-present : HR director, legal director, and company secretary at Penguin†

2000-2006: Legal director and company secretary at Penguin†

1998-2000: Company secretary at Penguin†

1993-1998: Part-time solicitor at Penguin (dealing with commercial matters)†

1989-1995: Part-time company secretary at the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants, while also running her own practice specialising in personal and corporation tax law.†

1987-1989: Part-time tax technical adviser at the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants†

1978-1985: Graduate legal position in private practice


What is your favourite benefit?†

We love the provision of pulp books at Penguin. Staff are allowed to take two books every day, subject to availability, that have been returned by shops. It means people are connected with the books that we are publishing, so it increases employee engagement with what they are working on. Some of us laugh about having to move house because our homes can’t take all the books we have got over the years.

How would you describe yourself?†

I’m very calm, which I think is really important, and I have a good sense of humour although I can do the stern stuff when I have to. I think that’s how someone described me recently.

Which management books would you recommend to other HR professionals?†

I found The Inspirational Manager by Judith Leary-Joyce a really useful read.