Interview with Jonathan Sparham, head of HR operations at Novae Group

Jonathan Sparham, head of HR operations at insurance underwriter Novae Group, spends his downtime with his three-year-old daughter, Polly, or showjumping with his Spanish water dog, Nela. And he insists there are parallels between canine showjumping and working in HR.

Jonathan Sparham Head of HR Novae Group

“You’re working as part of a team with someone that is a bit unpredictable,” he says. “You’ve got these obstacles to get past, and you always have to think about how you’re positioning yourself in terms of tackling these in the best way.

“Employee populations are similar. You may think everything is going smoothly, then there is a hiccup that can throw you off course. Keeping in touch with the business and the pulse of what is going on is tricky, especially when there isn’t necessarily a single voice for all employees.”

Sparham started his HR career at Procter and Gamble (P&G) in 1999, where he was tasked with moving 1,500 expatriate employees into a global business centre in Geneva, Switzerland. “It was very complex, in terms of understanding [benefits] packages, the impact of taxes, and then dealing with the human aspect of how employees react when they move from one country to another,” he says. “It was a great experience and great grounding.”

A role in compensation and benefits design at P&G followed, and then a similar post at paints and coatings producer Akzo Nobel and a Spain-based role with customer management organisation Convergys’ DuPont division. “I was looking at the blueprinting of benefits plans through Europe for DuPont, and looking at how we could automate a lot of those plans,” he says.

Global mobility 

Sparham returned to a global mobility role at Unilever in 2009, after which he moved to American Express, where he managed the organisation’s UK benefits, including its flexible benefits renewal and pension auto-enrolment process.

“One of the biggest projects was financial education for employees,” he says. “I worked with the Money Advice Service on providing face-to-face presentations at all the sites in the UK. That was a natural way into auto-enrolment and getting people thinking about pensions.”

Novae Group is the smallest organisation at which Sparham has ever worked, with 270 staff, and this is his most generalist HR role yet after years of working in relocation and expatriate benefits for large multinationals.

“Working in relocation, I got quite a lot of experience of seeing all these different things in miniature,” he says. “But this role is a bit broader, because I am looking at the whole organisation rather than particular individuals. I quite enjoy it, because you can actually influence the way one set of communications can feed into another.

“A number of interesting strategic projects are taking place at the moment, and HR is playing a pivotal role in enabling the business to succeed in these. The organisation recognises that its most important asset is its people, and is true to its word in terms of a principled approach to managing the workforce.

“It walks the walk, and isn’t restrained by the bureaucracy that much larger organisations often have.”


How would you describe yourself?

I like building relationships with people and understanding what motivates them. It’s only by building these relationships that you get the most out of them.

What is your favourite benefit?

The share incentive plan (Sip). It builds a genuine sense of ownership and buy-in from employees. Employees talk about the share price and how projects may impact the business overall. It is a great engagement tool, and with such a generous plan (buy one, get two free) and high participation (75%), it’s easy to understand why.

What are your hobbies?

I spend a lot of time with Polly, my (nearly) four-year-old. She’s highly entertaining at the moment. She just talks and talks. My other big passion is showjumping with my dog.

Curriculum vitae

  • February 2013-present head of HR operations, Novae Group
  • August 2010-September 2012 benefits manager, EMEA, American Express
  • January 2009-September 2010 international mobility process manager, Europe, Unilever
  • March 2007-December 2008 benefits manager, Convergys Spain
  • April 2006-February 2007 compensation and benefits manager, Akzo Nobel
  • January 2004-February 2006 compensation and benefits programme design manager, Procter and Gamble
  • July 1999-January 2004 relocation and expatriate services, compensation and benefits, Procter and Gamble