This conference will now be recorded.
“I’m Angela Roberts.”
"My name’s John Wilson.”
“I'm an independent HR and Recruitment Consultant.”
"My name’s Donna Obstfeld, I'm the Managing Director of DOHR."
“Handling and development at QNB in Qatar.”
“What I love about working in HR is that…”
“People aren’t robots they’re not machines.”
“I never know what’s going to happen next.”
“That opportunity to make a difference.”
“It’s still for me fundamentally about people and specifically about how people behave when you put them into an organised situation.”
“Both to the organisation’s performance and to the people in the workplace.”
“To be in the position where I learn more about that on a daily basis feels like a real privilege and I think that's the thing that I most enjoy.”
Philippa Lamb: Hello and welcome to our 100th podcast. This series has always had a clear mission to give you insights you can use, shine a spotlight on evolutions in the profession and bring you thought-provoking comment from people putting all of that into action every day. Recording the series has taken us all over the country, microphones in hand. We’ve gone behind the scenes in hundreds of organisations from start-ups to government departments and heard about what’s working best and what the movers and shakers are thinking and doing. In this special episode we wanted to hear from you too so we invited you to call in and record your own words of wisdom on your role, your profession, and how to build a stellar career in HR. We also asked you for some hard-nosed questions for this month’s trio of expert guests. Ann Pickering is a doer, HR Director at O2, and a trailblazer for business-focused HR. Max Bloomberg and Stefan Stern are thinkers and writers. Max is a research fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London. And Stefan a visiting professor at CASS business school. So here’s the podcast as you've never heard it before – the 100th episode – a good moment for all of us to stand back, take stock and think about what HR is for.
Ann Pickering: In my head I see it as ensuring that I have people in the organisation who have the skill, the will and the opportunity to really drive business success, so there’s a real commercial edge to that.
Max Bloomberg: I think the purpose of HR is to enable the value delivered by people in organisations. They're enablers but not the owners.
Stefan Stern: HR does need to prove its worth I think because it’s fighting against prejudices. I think the purpose is being yes a partner for line managers and above all allowing things to happen, getting things to happen, encouraging things to happen and not just stopping things from happening.
MB: But I think HR people lack confidence. People say, you know, if I do something wrong HR will pick me up on it, that they’re more interested in doing things right than in doing the right things.
AP: Too many times I hear, “How do we ensure that HR is always on the board? How do we ensure that HR has a high profile?” You don’t find a sales director having those conversations with their CEO so there is something about how we need to get over ourselves and understand what a great HR professional can add to any business and I always say to my team, “You are business people first and HR people second.”
“I think when I started in HR it was very much about understanding the organisation but I think it’s more recently I guess that I've started to realise that it’s not just about knowing and understanding your own organisation, it’s about knowing and understanding the external environment as well, and I don’t mean just understanding new developments in employment law, I really mean understanding the social and economic factors, the labour market etc.”
“When I came into HR I think there was a view that you had to choose which camp you were in and you could either be one of the softly, softly old school employee-focused HR practitioners or you could be one of these modern HR practitioners with a sharp suit who would come in and make a point of taking people through a formal process very quickly, firing people. And I remember HR practitioners almost boasting about how many people they managed to get fired. I think what I've learnt over time there is absolutely a middle way through all of that where you can legitimately be business-focused but at the same time you can challenge the organisation where people are losing sight of the human impact.”
“I think it’s a really exciting time for human resources in general. HR is really the glue that will hold global organisations together which is very exciting. I think the technology that's in the marketplace right now will give organisations the ability too, for HR specifically to be able to see the future of their workforce and I think what we’ll start to see over the next five to ten years are the CHROs or the HRDs becoming the managing director CEO job.”
PL: We know that the landscape where the profession sits has changed radically in the past 20 years and the profession itself is evolving to match. So it’s probably worth revisiting Dave Ulrich’s original model of what back then in the 90s he thought was the function of HR.
MB: I was at a function with Dave Ulrich last week and he never used this expression but if he'd known it he probably would have, it’s Jung, Karl Jung, once said that he's really pleased that he's Jung and not a Jungian and Dave Ulrich said much the same thing. He said, you know, since he created the three-legged stool his whole brand and personality have been tied to that and he's not advocating that model anymore.
PL: So it’s a bit of an albatross round his neck now.
MB: Yes and he wishes people would stop saying the Ulrich model, you know, the Jung and not a Jungian because he's not an Ulrichian he's Ulrich.
PL: So Stefan if we need a new model what should it look like?
SS: It’s probably something a little bit more adaptable, and the trendy word, ‘agile’ compared to a fixed model. But all models go wrong as the economists have proven to us over the past few years. And no model will work forever. The business cycle changes, people change and markets change and so HR should change. And your vision or model of HR will have to change too.
MB: My view of the way the strategy seems to work effectively is that I do think that line managers are responsible for delivering targets and HR are enablers. I think that HR are people experts, that we know about hopefully what drives people, how to structure jobs, how to make organisations flow better and how to get results out of it and I think that HR needs to be placed into the business function so that the line manager or the owner of the P&L has HR reporting into them so that they are enabling that part of the business. So that would mean your HR person will become an expert in that line of business which is how we started by saying lacking the confidence, you need to be working in the business not working in a separate function.
PL: So if HRs are working towards a better model well you'll need advice for the journey. We asked you to share the best tip anyone ever gave you and you came up with quite a few:-
“The best piece of advice I've ever been given ((sighs)).”
“Keep your integrity.”
“Oh gosh right.”
“I think knowledge is really important.”
“I don’t ooh!”
“First and foremost find a leader to follow rather than a job.”
“Have your moral compass and if you don’t speak up when you’re feeling that your integrity is perhaps somehow compromised or you're not comfortable with a decision it will harm you in terms of how engaged you feel.”
“The best piece of advice is probably about understanding the business.”
“You'll learn more if you are following someone who you truly respect.”
“And not being stuck in HR. So getting out and about, building relationships, meeting people.”
“My name’s Tansy Polwarth-Carter I work as an HR consultant and I run my own business which is CircumHR and I've been working in the HR industry for 20 years. One of the first things somebody said to me when I first started work was they said, ‘Go out there and ask if you can help people with their jobs’.”
“I think it’s important to be critical and I think it’s important to learn, be it in HR or any other kind of career how to challenge appropriately. And it’s a skill some people have and others don’t. It can be acquired. It’s easy to challenge inappropriately and it’s easy to not challenge at all but learning how to challenge appropriately in a constructive way I think is an absolute core skill.”
PL: And what about Ann Pickering from O2, what’s the best piece of advice she ever got?
AP: I always remember being appointed to the role in O2, 2004, and the person who was interviewing me I said to him, “Andrew I have real life work/life balance in my role at the moment will I have that if I move to O2 because it is really important to me because I have two children?” And he was very wise and he said to me, “You know Ann the only person who can manage their work/life balance is you. And that's what you need to remember.” He said, “We will give you all the tools you need to do your job, because you work for a technology company, but at the end of the day you've got to be strong enough to manage your own work/life balance.” And he was right. And to this day that is something that's really important to me and if you ask any member of my team they would say that's something they really do appreciate and have in O2.
PL: Before she became HR director at O2 Ann was responsible for HR across four UK call centres, and 300 stores. That all added up to about 8,500 people. Since then she's launched a raft of successful initiatives like the Customer Service Academy, and that's a one-stop shop for learning and development in customer service and she’s come a long way. But where did it all start for her?
AP: I grew up in Liverpool, part of a big Irish Catholic family and when I went off to university, during my vacations I worked in Marks and Sparks as a student and got to the end of my final year having done an English degree thinking ‘what am I going to do with my life’, Philippa. And I decided that I really enjoyed variety and I had a natural curiosity towards people and I thought if I was stuck behind a desk five days a week I’d really struggle: applied for their graduate training scheme and was lucky to be accepted.
PL: Everyone’s got a moment, that moment you just thought, ‘Yesss!’ and did a private victory dance when no one was looking – the finest moment of your career to date. Here’s Ann’.
AP: I mean the pinnacle would have to be when I got appointed to the board in O2 by my chief executive. So he'd been appointed as a CEO and wanted to appoint a new team so when he called me into his office in 2008 that was a massive moment for me because I just loved the company, so to be part of the team that ran the company was just amazing. I was so proud.
PL: And we asked for your career highlights too:-
“When I worked at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh I think one of the highlights there was we were the first university in Scotland to get the Scottish Health at Work award and it was a highlight because it was achieved through collaboration across the university. So it was about occupational health, it was about welfare policies, but it was also about healthy eating and well-being within the workplace. So that was quite an achievement to have got that award.”
“Many, many years ago I realised one of my weaknesses was actually employer relations and legal knowledge so I went out of my way to actually go and do something about that – read up on employment law. I actually went and trawled through some of the employment law cases, some of the actual pieces of legislation, which took a long time to go through, but it was actually worth doing because I then, as a result of doing that and working out that was my weakness, I made it my strength and it was something that I was known for.”
PL: Of course the career highlight isn’t always about getting a promotion or an award, it can be about getting through a tough situation and out the other side. That's how it was for podcast listener David Jackson.
David Jackson: I was the HR person in charge at Stepping Hill Hospital during the saline poisonings, do you remember the nurse who was contaminating the saline ampules with insulin? They’re in court at the moment up on murder charges. What was interesting about that situation is it was a real test I think of the things that people associate as being perhaps more old-fashioned HR skills, so we talk a lot about strategic HRM and the modern approach to HR but what we had was a workforce that was under suspicion; patients were being deliberately targeted and we had nurses having to work alongside each other in what was already a very demanding job with that shadow hanging over them and the fear of what might happen around them. And the managers were very influential, the senior management in the organisation was influential but people did turn to HR and in a sense it was a throwback to some of those sort of welfare officer traditions in that HR did have to be there in a very supportive role helping people to understand the formal processes that were taking place, reassuring people as best we could, but still with that modern professional edge.
PL: It’s always worth remembering that everyone has their weaknesses – we can't all be brilliant at everything, not even Ann Pickering!
AP: I have never done a stint of any sort in the reward side of life, so if I'm honest that's a skillset I lack. So I always make sure I've got really skilled reward people in my team. Pensions – fine, I sit on the pensions committee, actually I enjoy the pensions side of it but reward is definitely a gap in my skillset. And the reward team would absolutely reinforce that message may I add.
PL: That's very honest of you to say so. What’s more we all screw up sometimes.
AP: There was a very dark moment quite early on in my career in O2 where, and I won't go into the details but we had a very complicated pay arrangement, it was an inherited pay arrangement from our days at BT for our general population and it was all to do with bank holiday and overtime and I calculated it incorrectly. Now I did get a colleague to check it but we both calculated it incorrectly and it did cost O2 a lot of money but do you know what they were fabulous. They said, “That's okay we’ll pay it, we’ve made a commitment and that's fine,” but it was quite an interesting conversation I had with my boss. I held my hands up straightaway and said, “I have absolutely made a mistake here.” I think if I’d tried to cover it up I think it might have been a different conversation. Honesty is always the best policy in these areas.
PL: That must have been terrible.
AP: It wasn't great. Not my finest hour I have to say. My learning from that is anything really big and important and scary get it checked above, get it checked by one of your peers and if you’re really smart get it checked by someone who’s junior to you. So I wouldn’t want to go through it again but I did learn from that.
PL: To help us all learn from those darker moments we asked you to put your questions to Ann, Max and Stefan. First:-
“How can we move HR away from being seen as transactional when there are so many transactional things that need to be done?”
AP: I could have 100 people doing transactional tasks if I wanted to do but that's not the best use of their skills. So anything that we can digitalise and make more simple and more efficient, I'm going to go after that and make that happen. But I've also got people in the organisation who spend seven hours a day talking to customers sitting in front of a screen. Now some people would say, “Gosh I wouldn’t like that job.” And other people say, “This is the job of my dreams.” So there is also something about horses for courses here and I think that's really important that we acknowledge that. I've got people who are data analysts. That would be my job from hell, you know, for Ann Pickering, but do you know what they love it. So there are roles out there that suit people and they don’t suit everybody. But I firmly believe if the transactional stuff can be done in a digital way that's got to be the way forward.
“There was a thing recently in the Harvard Business Review with Rosabeth Kanter who said that the single most effective thing men can do to help women in the boardroom is the laundry. I'm interested in how broad we go in terms of helping women move into more senior positions.”
SS: The Equal Pay Act was 1974, from memory. Equal Opportunities legislation dates to that time, that's over 40 years ago but those graphs of gaps in pay between men and women for people doing the same jobs has closed a tiny bit and those two lines are getting closer together gradually but it’s going to take another 50 years at the current rate of progress for them to meet so something’s not happening fast enough. A lot of people don’t like legislation or quotas because it feels heavy handed, however we might quite like what quotas would do.
AP: I'm not a fan of quotas. I don't know any woman who wants to be appointed because of their gender. However what women want is a level playing field which I think is eminently reasonable. So if I'm working with head-hunters or search firms I insist on a 50/50 gender balance shortlist but I won't necessarily insist that I appoint a woman, I will then appoint the best person – that's really important. So this is about business leaders grasping that having a diverse workforce and a diverse leadership team makes good business sense.
MB: I think we need more research to demonstrate the impact of women on boards and to show that it does bring positivity in. Unfortunately while you've got a lot of male dominated boards getting funding for that kind of research is going to be tricky so we need HR, we need universities, but I don't think it’s just a gender issue I think it’s in all areas of diversity, race, religion, culture, sexuality, that we need to see what are the organisational benefits that each of those diversities brings to the organisation.
“We’re talking a lot about creating jobs with more purpose but the danger with that is are we in danger of it becoming a nice, developed, western world, world of work because we’ve exported all our difficult and horrible jobs to other parts of the world where we’re almost blind to what’s going on?”
AP: I thought this a really interesting question and I don’t see my role as, and forgive me if this sounds flippant, I don’t see my role is about creating interesting, fabulous jobs for people. Frankly I'm here to ensure that O2 makes a lot of money. We’re here to drive business success. Now within that I want to ensure that I've got a motivated workforce so it is in my interest to ensure that people have interesting roles because if they’ve got interesting roles they’re much more likely to stay. However we’re also in a world that is becoming quickly digitalised. Digitalisation is a great thing because I think it just allows people to focus on the stuff that's much more interesting.
SS: Well of course what we’re seeing now in the States, and I think we’ll see it here too is the so-called reshoring of jobs because the gap between pay here and there is closing as developing countries develop and people have higher expectations abroad. So actually yeah we need to think a bit harder before we are offshoring more and more because maybe we need to be doing these things closer to home. This outsourcing is not going to stop, of course not, but it’s not a simple choice.
“What is the future of HR because 20 years ago technology wasn't anywhere near as massive as it is now? You know the things that we do now in HR is different to 20 years ago, there's so much computerisation is there still going to be the need for an HR person in an office or is that going to change?
SS: Oh I think yes there's going to be HR for sure. I think line managers can't do everything on their own. We’ve seen the danger of excessive delayering and individual managers having too many people reporting to them. There's just too much. Good management – the old-fashioned term was supervisory management, it’s about paying attention to people, not in a sort of mollycoddling sense or a therapist sense but just noticing. It sounds banal, it’s incredibly important, line managers can't notice everything and HR is partly there just to say, “Have you noticed?” So I think there is that additional role but the nature of it’s going to change. It’s part coach, part counsellor, part activist, interventionist, provocateur.
MB: From the day that we went into the industrial era we started losing some human transactions. People didn’t have to do the knitting or operate the jenny or whatever we were doing in those days, the Spinning Jenny. So there's a level of repetitive work that it is possible to automate, possibly with levels of error and maybe not as good as a human being would have done it, although nobody’s proved that that isn’t the case yet. I see the loss of human interaction as an opportunity to introduce more innovation and to create more interesting roles for people. So I don’t see it as a loss.
PL: The advance of technology and increasing digitisation brings us to data and the buzz topic of big data. Everyone’s talking about it so what will it mean for business and for HR? Here’s thoughts on that from Stefan and Ann.
SS: I'm sure data is terribly important but you have to be able to do something with it. You've also got to understand what it’s really telling you. Of course they say you can torture data and it will confess to anything in the end! And just the mountain of more data doesn’t really help anybody.
PL: Is HR getting a bit too preoccupied with collecting data, an ever-wider range of data and not thinking hard enough about what they’re actually using it for?
AP: I think any discipline can get overwhelmed by data because we live in a digital world so that danger exists and I work in an organisation that has 24 million customers, we want to know as much as possible as we can about them in order to provide them with a great service. I think you've got to be selective and choose where you’re going to make the difference.
SS: I think we need to focus on a few very central questions, Enterprise Rent-a-car who just ask their customers, “Are you coming back?” and Tammy Erickson likes to ask chief executives, when they’re busy telling her how marvellous their company is, “Would you like your son or daughter to work here?” I mean that's a much more revealing question that the 20 question list survey that you tell employees to fill in.
MB: To start with data is absolutely the wrong place to start and I think this is the mistake that most organisations are probably making. Where you start with an organisational problem and then say, “What data do I need to solve this problem?” and then you see what data you have on hand and what data I need to supplement and then you generate it, it always results in a successful project which fixes the problem outcome. Then people who say, “I've got all of this lovely data what can I do with it?” that's like saying, “I've got all these lovely car parts in the room I wonder if there are enough to build a car?” chances are no!
PL: Finally some nuggets of wisdom from all of you - for everyone trying to build a career in HR:-
“In HR the best question you can ask yourself is not how good a business partner you are or how much employment law you know it’s how good do you want to be for the businesses you serve, for the people you work with or I guess the kind of mission and the purpose that that organisation or that company or that band of people stand for?”
“I would say get yourself qualified and then you come across different opinions on this and people who have obviously worked their way up within a business who haven’t done their CIPD, they haven’t done their qualification at all, but I would suggest to people get yourself qualified because it gives you a good broad grounding in a variety of aspects of HR that you… the management theory, all those sorts of things that you can't replicate that by working your way up in a particular organisation or a particular sector.”
“Those people looking to advance their careers, international experience is a great thing to look for. It will be a massive advantage given the increase in the globalised world. Having done that myself definitely changed my approach in terms of how I roll out strategies when it involves multiple nationalities.”
“I really, really believe that you need to go out there and manage your own career and take responsibility for yourself. A lot of people think it’s their manager’s responsibility to sit there, promote them, give them the pay rise, but I personally believe that you need to go out there and prove exactly why you’re worth it.”
“Unlike most functions of a business you look back 10 or 15 years HR is a very, very different function. And so my advice to innovate, don’t be afraid to fail because it won't look the same in 10 or 15 years in the future.”
“I think that the number one thing I’d want to pass on is to remember you need to continuously develop yourself. In order to progress and change we need to focus on our continuous professional development.”