Karl Burnett
Modern Languages and International Studies, 1997

Robert Humphreys

As the BBC’s HR Director News Group and Radio, Karl Burnett is responsible for training and development, recruitment, diversity and employment policy for more than 10,000 people. It’s not surprising then to find that he’s got strong views on how students now can get a head start in a tough job market.

Karl Burnett is not simply delivering advice from on high when he states that the thing that really sets candidates apart from the crowd is a positive, enthusiastic attitude. As a self-confessed ‘less than model’ student, he’s speaking from personal – and sometimes painful – experience.

Having barely scraped through his first year studying Modern Languages and International Studies at South Bank – ‘I got completely carried away with the novelty of living in London’, he admits – it was the strongly vocational and practical nature of the course that finally helped things to click into place.

‘I wanted to learn how to use my languages, not study literature,’ he says. ‘We were studying politics and economics – proper real-world stuff. It was absolutely fascinating.’ There was also the chance to spend a year abroad – in Karl’s case, six months in Tours in France, and six months in Madrid.

By the end of the four-year course, he was – finally – ready to knuckle down. His first job was with Marks & Spencer, on its management training programme. ‘It was supposed to be an international programme, so it was my languages that got me in,’ he says. ‘In fact, things didn’t work out that way but it was still an amazing time. The training and experience I gained there is still relevant to me today. You were constantly moving, so there was always a new challenge. They threw you in at the deep end, but with loads and loads of support.’

Karl was working as the HR manager at M&S’s King’s Road store when he saw a job advertised at Channel 4. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to combine his interest in the media, nurtured during a series of summer jobs in Soho post-production houses, with his growing desire to work in HR. ‘The great thing about HR is that it always feels like it’s opening up possibilities rather than shutting them down,’ he says. ‘Unless you’re one of those rare people who knows exactly what they want to do right from the start, I think that’s a pretty good principle to adopt.’

From Channel 4, Karl moved to children’s TV channel Nickelodeon and then to the BBC in 2010. As one of the Corporation’s six HR directors, he heads up a team of 60 and oversees some 10,000 employees in total. His remit also includes the radio networks, the Proms and the World Service, as well as high-profile network brands like Newsnight and Panorama. ‘Put simply, my goal is to make this an incredible place to work,’ he says. ‘In an organisation like this, the opportunities for people to grow and develop really are endless.’ 

Karl points to what the BBC labels ‘Future Media’ – which covers digital and online – as a particularly exciting area. ‘It really feels like we’re seeing a craft emerging, and people developing a whole new set of skills,’ he says. ‘We’ve had radio production for 90 years – now there’s this whole new group of coders and developers that didn’t exist a few years ago, but who are going to be so important to us going forward. I find it fascinating that we’re competing with any organisation with digital ambitions whether it’s Tesco with their BlinkBox offer or the government’s digital service.’

But whatever the industry sector, Karl’s advice for anyone looking for work is simply to get involved. ‘You can’t rely on your degree alone to get you the job of your dreams,’ he says. ‘The thing that sets people apart is their attitude. Are they passionate? Are they engaged? Can they hold a room when they talk about doing the things they love? 9 times out of 10 those things bring with them skills that are invaluable in the workplace too. So I’d say be busy. Find what you love, and throw yourself into it. That energy will always shine through.’

© London South Bank University 2018