Leading People In A Disrupted World

This blog post is based around a talk titled ‘Leading People In A Disrupted World’, given by Lucy Adams at the PPMA summit in Birmingham, on June 23rd 2016.

Lucy Adams used to be HR Director at The BBC, then this happened. In her post BBC world, Lucy Adams refers to herself as ‘a recovering HR Director’, and she is with us today to give her talk about leading people in a disrupted world – which begins looking through the lens of the BBC, something everyone in the audience is very familiar with, and I expect many are affectionate towards.

Disruption : Setting The Scene : The BBC

Technology : Then, four channels. Now, too many to count.

Divisions : The BBC working as tribes, all fiercely proud of their own domain, and all hate each other.

Competition : Then, precious little. Now, Amazon Prime just one example which no one would have predicted, even just a few years ago.

Structural change : Then, London. Now, closing buildings, introducing hot desks, moving big chunks of the BBC north, from London to Salford, as a physical statement, recognising the need to be less London, more UK. Among the complaints and resistance, Lucy Adams recalls one email stating, ‘I can’t possibly move to Salford, I’m a vegetarian!’

Costs and Contracts : Then, final salary pension, incremental pay rises, job for life. Now, pension reforms, huge reliance on a contingency/freelance workforce, lots of anger as a result.

Scrutiny : Then, not much. Now, public, political and media. The BBC went from its highest ever approval ratings immediately post London 2012, to its lowest, in the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile scandal.

That’s a lot of change, and Lucy Adams believes that HR is needed for organisations to cope, to survive, yet she tells us that 42% of executives say HR is not up to the job.

The need to see employees as adults, consumers, humans.

HR feels a need to interfere, to sustain a relationship akin to parent/child. There’s low trust (should that be no trust?). For example – why does HR feel a need to log annual leave? Why can’t we trust that everyone can manage something like this independently, and deal with the odd anomaly – rather than set up a system which assumes people can’t be trusted, need to be managed? Working this way creates child like responses in people – and we are surprised?

Lucy Adams says that in her search for new ideas, she finds no innovation in HR – so where might she find it? In consumer led businesses. Well run consumer led businesses often have:

Customer Insight – a level of data HR would kill for.

Segmentation – market, customer, employee. These businesses understand the different archetypes, and yes, having ’12 different customer types’ may be too simple at times – but we deal with the anomalies as anomalies, rather that over engineer everything to cope with the ‘just in case’.

User centred design – cocreated, not designed in isolation then enforced. Staff surveys came in for a real pounding at this point. In summary, Lucy Adams sees them as telling us stuff we already know, in order that we can do nothing about it.

Our processes and our leadership should be with humans in mind. Humans which have needs and wants, which we currently don’t meet, by design. For example, an annual performance review measures you as an individual, yet almost no one works alone. The whole process starts from a completely disconnected place – why do we expect it to be useful? ‘Can I give you some feedback’ evokes a similar fearful response to the sensation of being stalked at night by someone wearing a hoodie.

Leadership was framed simply as:

Engagement : The ability to help someone to do their best work

Closing comments I noted included:

When you write – write as yourself. Encourage people to be ok with ‘I don’t know, what do you think?’ and ‘Lets’s give it a try, we’ll learn something’.

I enjoyed Lucy’s talk. Starting the story from a place where many of us feel familiarity and affection, worked well. The talk has clearly been well crafted and practiced, I found it useful.

Epilogue : Reflect and Connect

After the talk – Meg and I facilitated another of our Reflect and Connect sessions. Lucy’s talk sparked some interesting conversation, and the people who showed up for the session seemed to enjoy unpacking a few thoughts, snippets of which are shared here.

Putting a process around a conversation is inhibiting, would you talk like that to a client? Following a process is not very satisfying, creates them and us. Can we build our work on respect, behaviours, and an expectation that we trust you to get it right?

Why does compassionate leave need a policy. We’re all different – the emphasis should be on ‘compassionate’. Operate in the grey areas, the soft edges. Tribunals frame things around a ‘range of reasonable responses’, could we do that – in lieu of policy?

Promotion – often done yo retain good technical skills, without regard for the person having management and leadership skills, which we are often constrained/reluctant to invest in.

Worth seeking clarity and quality. HR as a facilitator, an enabler, not a dictator. Where can we encourage opting in and out, over mandatory?

Learning, Sharing, Celebrating 

I’m at the 2016 PPMA seminar with Meg Peppin. We’re here as guests of Sue Evans, the new PPMA President who has kindly asked us to facilitate some Reflect and Connect open space conversations on the fringe of this year’s seminar. I’ll come back to that later, for now though here are a few snippets, things I’m hearing and spotting which are making me think. (I’m writing this post on my iPhone, apologies for any typos).

Sue welcomed everyone to the seminar and encouraged us to Learn, Share, and Celebrate, really encouraging themes. Sue talked briefly of her experiences using Appreciative Inquiry to help bring these themes to life in her work, before introducing Neil Carberry, CBI Director of Employment Skills and Public Services, to talk about productivity.

Neil’s session was conversational – Nick Heckscher from Manpower posed a few questions to Neil before opening the exchange up to the floor. Here’s some of what I heard:

Central government productivity initiatives have one thing in common, consistent failure. If we are to improve productivity, raise output, pay more, and create a better working environment, it will succeed locally. Technology is not a productivity enhancement in itself.

If all you look for from your training efforts is a return on investment, you may improve what people do now, but you’re not preparing for the future.

We need to get better at sharing, data, resources, and power. How do we overcome our fears, our vulnerability? Be open, honest, get to clarity. Focus on how people are treated.

I found Neil’s session quite grounded. He focused much more in real work, and was reassuringly light on the usual management speak and lofty, disconnected ideals you frequently hear in an opening keynote.

Later we heard from John Henderson, Chief Executive of Staffordshire County Council. John took up his post in 2015, following a career in the army, and he spoke about confidence, organisational agility, and leadership. Leadership is largely the same, behaviourally at least, in the army and the county council. It gets talked about a lot more in John’s current role, ‘I’ve heard more about leadership in the past year, than in all the previous ten’.

Recently I’ve observed a tendency for people to lump HR and OD together. John highlighted organisational development as an important, distinct function, with a focus on thinking, and capability development.

John also spoke about visible leadership, using it to subvert hierarchy at times, and to see and feel experiences first hand.

And what of our Reflect and Connect conversations? So far, these have focused on big data. What is it, how do we gather, store, and use it? How can we make access to data open by default? How can we lower some of the bureaucratic barriers in organisations in order to pilot more new ideas?

Day one finished with a black tie drinks reception in a courtyard followed by celebrating the PPMA Rising Star and Apprentice of the year. This was followed by dinner, and the PPMA Excellence in People Management Awards.

A lovely day of learning, sharing, and celebrating.

Meaningful Work

My intrepid friend Martin Couzins is often to be found out and about at various events and conferences, thinking interesting things, asking interesting questions. I spotted this on his Twitter timeline recently:

The term ‘meaningful work’ being talked about a lot at #HRSS16 ~ are lots of people doing work that isn’t?

My thought, and response to Martin was:

Meaningful to whom? Most work is coercive, make it coactive, it may generate more personal meaning.

Owen Ferguson added:

Meaning is in the eye of the beholder

To which Martin replied:

Yes, do people talk about their work in this way vs other areas of their lives? Who knows?! Does it need to be meaningful?

Back in the Middle Ages, I had a student job, working in the fruit and veg department in Sainsbury’s. At the time, shoppers bagged their produce, and brought it to a member of staff, who weighed it, sealed it and priced it, then gave it back to the shopper who would pay for the goods along with everything else, when they got to the till. I used to love this part of the job. I set the work out in my head as a series of challenges, which included having conversation with the customer (if they appeared to want to), making the seal on the bag as neat as I could (which was a struggle with the cranky old machine we used), and moving the queue along as quickly as possible.

Was this work meaningful? No. I do not believe I was put on this planet to achieve my own, self imposed nerdy customer service challenges. However the choices I made helped to pass the time, which was beneficial to me, and helped the customer get served well and quickly, which was beneficial to them. I accept that I derived satisfaction from a job well done, and my primary purpose for doing the work was to get paid so I could save up for something useful have a social life. I also remember that Graham and Steve (the department manager and assistant manager) were great fun, and did what they could to make work enjoyable. That helped at the time, and the fact that I can recall their names in an instant, after so many years, is worth noting.

Within the HR conference environment, meaning gets talked about a lot. As an example, I doodled this sketch note after attending the 2014 Meaning conference.

My attempt to capture a sense of Meaning 2014 -based on my own reflections and some tweets I spotted. I sketched this on the train on the way home.

My attempt to capture a sense of Meaning 2014 -based on my own reflections and some tweets I spotted. I sketched this on the train on the way home.

For many people, I’m not sure how much the idea of meaning relates to their day to day work. I’ve worked in lots of operational environments where the lofty concept of meaning, is frankly meaningless. I’m struggling to recall the last time a client asked me to help them ‘find meaning’ in their work, yet I am guilty at times, of helping people to seek it out. Am I asking the wrong questions of the people I work with? Look again at Owen and Martin’s comments. ‘Meaning is in the eye of the beholder’. ‘Does it [work] have to be meaningful?’.

i recall a section of Dr Ken Robinson’s book, ‘The Element : How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything’, where he writes that many people do their work to sustain something more enjoyable/useful/maybe even meaningful, beyond the work they do. And that’s OK. I see that having a clear understanding of how my role fits into the bigger picture is really important. If I know:

  • Why I’m doing the task
  • what impact it has on our goal
  • and I support the goal
  • and feel I am able to cocreate it as well as contribute to it…

That is powerful. That sequence is also, in my experience, quite unusual. As a series of steps, this may not appear as seductive as a powerfully crafted, conference presentation about the search for meaning, yet in practice it may actually be much more meaningful.

I shared a draft of this post with Martin and Owen and invited them to comment. Here are their reflections – first Owen, then Martin.

“Thanks, Doug. It’s a thought provoking post and explores an area I think is particularly interesting at this point in the history of the “developed world”. To what extent could the search for meaningful work devalue satisfaction, contentment and happiness with a job? We can’t all be doctors for Médecins Sans Frontières. And sometimes meaningful work is disguised through years of abstraction. Banking used to be a noble profession that helped grease the gears of the economy and, perhaps more meaningfully, help new parents buy a new home sooner than they would have otherwise. As you can see, your post has already spurred more thought for me and I’m sure it will for others. Which is hopefully meaningful for you 🙂 “

“I really like what you have created here, Doug. I’m still not sure what meaning at/through work is. Is it about developing your sense of self as a person, making friends, making money to do other more meaningful things in life, getting personal joy from achieving things? Maybe it is all of this. But can employers make work meaningful – I don’t know? I like your thinking on this Owen and agree that this is an interesting time to be thinking about such things. I’m just thinking more on this and am enjoying the conversation and what has come out of it!”

This is the second time in recent weeks I’ve invited and sought feedback in the process of writing a post. I’m enjoying how this is currently working – it broadens my thinking, and reminds me of the importance of other perspectives too. If this subject resonates with you too – feel free to add to the mix.

More to follow…