Is it time to tear up the HR playbook? Should the people profession be less fixated on rules, and instead, lead by principles? We are seeing seismic shifts in the world of work, not just in what our physical workplace looks like, but in what our expectations of work are. But is the people profession – so frequently labelled ‘risk-averse’ – ready to step up, release the handbrake and seize the opportunity to drive organisations forward and make progress where it’s needed?
Join Nigel Cassidy and this month’s guests, Yetunde Hofmann, Managing Director at Synchrony Development Consulting, Caroline Parsons, HR Director and Director of Shared Services at WSP Middle East, and Geoff Trickey, Managing Director at PCL, as we explore how people practitioners can take well-calculated risks and seize opportunities.
Nigel Cassidy: People who manage people are usually cautious; they follow rules and avoid risks but could this approach be holding businesses back? I'm Nigel Cassidy and this is the CIPD podcast.
We could have started with a burst of Freddie Mercury singing I Want to Break Free. Yet do we want to break free really? In this still very uncertain working world people professionals can too easily take comfort in daily structure, yes always busy holding things together, writing and implementing policies and policing it all. But if there's no reward without risk then what is your organisation missing out on here? To help us find out CIPD board member Yetunde Hofmann, who built a stellar HR career at FTSE 100 companies, she's MD of Synchrony Development Consulting and famously gave a TEDX Talk, Why Not Have Love in Business? Hello.
Yetunde Hofmann: Hi Nigel thank you.
NC: Caroline Parsons leads over 170 people as HR Director for WSP in Dubai in the Middle East; WSP provides management and services for clients in the built and natural environments. Among other things she's going to tell us how she stopped writing policies. Hello.
Caroline Parsons: Hi Nigel.
NC: But maybe it’s not just the policies but our own personal risk appetites which might be getting in the way so also with us chartered psychologist Geoff Trickey, the MD of PCL, an expert assessor and consultancy in all things employee engagement, selection and career development. Hello.
Geoff Trickey: Hello, hello Nigel.
NC: So Caroline Parsons before you kind of drop your no policies bomb on us can you just delve back a little bit into your professional training, your initial working life as a people manager in Manchester I think it was? In what way would you say that compliance, the rule book of policies, not only maybe filled your time but maybe even influenced how you worked with people and treated them?
CP: Well I'm trained in HR so the moment I went into HR as a profession, my degree is in HR, I studied advanced law with the CIPD as soon as I graduated and my early career was spent working in unionised environments, so my internships and my early graduate career were with Corus, formerly British Steel, very unionised, an environment where you did have to have policies and rules because people were watching for that. It was also at a time, and you'll guess my age when I say this, but it was when data protection became a big topic and I was a data protection compliance officer very, very early in my career. It was also around the time when Sarbanes Oxley became relevant, so it was all about audit, rules, trade union agreements, following what we said we would do, being held accountable for what we said we’d do. So it was quite an interesting beginning of my career, which certainly put that into my DNA and being in the UK as well just the legislative framework, the policy culture we were in. So I’d say from day one I was immersed into compliance from lots of different angles.
NC: So you were a policewoman almost.
CP: I was and people used to say that and I didn’t ever like that but that was kind of, even from the very beginning that was what we were positioned as, and especially in those environments. So after Corus I went to Balfour Beatty, again highly unionised environment, big textbook trade agreements that we had to follow, you know we weren’t given wriggle room I guess to go outside of what we’d agreed with the unions.
NC: And Yetunde Hofmann this must be all pretty familiar to you, I mean in your time you must have helped create complex handbooks for companies and everything and after all part of the job is keeping your firm out of the headlines to make sure people don't get the company into trouble?
YH: Nigel you’re absolutely right and if you’re working in the controversial industry which I did in my last executive career I was head of people integration for a global merger of imperial brands with Altadis which was basically Seita of France and Tabacalera of Spain. This was a global company but 17,000 acquired 45,000 people. And so how do you integrate? We had to have a rule book, we were dealing with works councils across all of Europe, just like Caroline said, you had to stay in line and you had also local country employment law to adhere to and making sure that people are selected well and so you just had to work within the box that was given to you and very little wriggle room.
NC: And Geoff Trickey on top of this of course we all have our own personal kind of risk appetites don't we?
GT: We do indeed. Since I suppose the last ten years we’ve been researching that specifically and that was brought to the forefront by the regulatory response I suppose to the financial crisis and part of that was that financial intermediaries must always take into account the risk disposition of their clients. And of course there really wasn’t a way of doing that that was really reflected psychology. There were a lot of simplistic questionnaires that were reeled out but there wasn’t anything well-researched. And so I guess the last ten years we’ve been working on that and developing a methodology to help identify what we described as risk type, but it’s not actually a typology, it’s continuous but you need to divide it up just in order to attach meaning to the various points along that continuum, if you see what I mean. So we developed something called the Risk Type Compass. And that's proved to be really quite fascinating.
NC: Are you actually able to say that when people are disposed towards rules and they personally say that they’re a good idea that they might be, I don't know, overzealous or somehow they will have a kind of safety first approach which might not necessarily be the best way to do their job?
GT: Yeah I think that’s the case. I think the point is some people need rules, they desperately want the rules and they’ll ask for the rules if you haven’t got any. They like things to be specific and coherent and clear and also they need to feel they have permission to do what they want to do. So that's I suppose in a way your ideal corporate sort of faceless person. I mean the reality is that there are a lot of people who don't ask permission and I mean that's your entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs don't go around saying, ‘Can I do this, can I do that?’ they do it and wait for someone to say, ‘Well what are you doing? You’re violating this rule.’ And it’s, ‘Oh sorry I’ll fix that.’ And so this all sort of occurred to me as a young person living around the green lanes in north London where waves of immigrants would come up, open up a shop or a club, or a bar or a bakery and get on with it and then wait for the local authority to come and say, ‘Oh excuse me have you got a license for this?’ you know that sort of exemplified to me the difference between those who want to have permission and those who don't.
YH: When it comes to the world of HR and organisation it’s similar to boards, there will be an element of compliance that you've got to adhere to because governments across the nations globally will have employment law and it will be responsible and indeed its leadership that the HR leader, the HR professional adheres to that. But then it depends on personalities, listening to Geoff because you may have the HR director who just will stick completely, or the HR manager, business partner, will stick completely to the plan, to the policy, and then you may have the person who’s more open to being entrepreneurial, wanting to do different things and says, okay let’s meet the minimum requirements here and then let’s get creative. So it depends on the individual.
CP: Two points I think one I work in an engineering firm so those people that want clarity exist but it’s also a professional services firm so there’s the entrepreneurial spirit. So trying to balance that has been what has been my freedom over the last years because people didn’t all want the rules that Geoff described but because we were entrepreneurial at the same time, but engineers do in the end, they want some clarity. So that's driven a little bit of how we responded and just to also pick up on Yetunde’s points around, you know HR directors responsibility to be compliant but the thing that I've noticed in the years since I kind of stopped writing policies more or less was I found that the better HR directors or HR leaders were way more creative, way more creative, more curious, they were prepared to work within boundaries but push them a little bit and find solutions that were more suitable to what people needed.
NC: So Caroline you decided that you were going to stop writing policies, you were going to, wherever possible, throw away the rule book, so just tell us first what kind of reaction did you get from senior managers, from colleagues and then how did it work out?
CP: So I think what led us to that point is an important point. So we were doing a merger and it was two companies, equal sized, both very reputable, and you were sitting looking at two sets of policies, looking at how do I integrate and it wasn’t a choice of one or the other it was well maybe there's a third alternative and in that moment I set out with the two teams, the two HR teams, and said, ‘Okay you go away and write that policy again, you go away and find the best of that one,’ and what they came back with was maybe shorter versions of the same thing. And then I just really started to think about the facts, why are we doing this? You know this was a moment that you don't often get in organisations where you can rewrite the whole thing. And so we looked at it and said, ‘Well what does high trust mean?’ we were an organisation trying to be, and managed to be successful in the Great Place to Work Index, and that was all about trust. And we said, ‘Well does this policy sound like it trusts somebody?’ So when we started to ask that question we came up with different outcomes, we stopped thinking about why do we need a policy at all, we need to design it in the process, which is what Yetunde was saying is if you design it into the process then you don't need so much of an employee handbook or a set of rules somewhere that people can go and look at when you want to attack them with it or defend yourself with it.
NC: Are we talking about rules for what here?
CP: For process, you know how do you manage sick leave, how do you manage disability claims, harassment, how do you manage any part of the life cycle, on-boarding, off-boarding, anything that is process-driven and requires guidance we found you could often design it into the process. So it isn't that guidance doesn’t exist it’s that the handbooks and the pages and pages of, this is the policy and this is the eligibility and this is the criteria and this is how it’s enforced, you don't need those. And your question was how have managers responded? Nobody came and asked me for a policy and it’s been about seven years now.
NC: That’s extraordinary. This is the kind of business world that we’re moving into now which is much looser and I'm just wondering whether there are any tactics, any assessment, any things that you can do that make it slightly easier to ease both managers and people who work for them into this kind of environment?
GT: I think there's a kind of natural phenomenon here isn't there, I mean take it on Caroline’s point about really a moment of disruption and chaos, times of disruption are perfect for introducing new policies aren’t they? And I know, I mean just as a result of COVID there are many organisations that will never go back to what they were before and when we’ve been talking about a new normal, I think there will be a new normal, people will take advantage of the disruption to take the opportunity to take over a piece of territory or to do things differently or to get another point of view across. I think the other point I would make is that it is about diversity, I don't think it’s about having, I mean the last thing you want is people who all agree with each other. So you can create your own disruption in a way but within the board. If you've got a board which is all of one mind and looks at everything the same way then you've got instant groupthink, I mean that's not a good thing. So a lot of the work we’ve been doing with boards is to first of all build self-awareness so let people recognise that that person has a different point of view and that’s a point of contention at the moment but if you can recognise it, and another word that Caroline’s used a lot is trust, if you work in a climate of mutual trust then you respect that other point of view and that becomes a strength. So yeah my general point was that having a variety of viewpoint is what you want, you don't want either entrepreneurs or you want rule players you want both. And you want a climate, I mean it’s the risk culture needs to be not something highly specific but something that is broader and looser so that people feel free, they feel that they have the permission to make their contribution. I mean the worse thing you want is where you've got a lot of people that think the same and the person who really has the answer is the person who’s outnumbered, but they have the answer and they’re reticent about disturbing this consensus. So I think there's a way of working together and I mentioned disruption, I mean we know that disruptive points, commercially or whatever in our world are the times when things change. It’s when we have a completely new view of shopping because Amazon comes along or whatever, hi-tech have obviously been the main players just recently. But that's just history. I think whenever there's disruption there's opportunity. But I would stress this point about divergence and complementary views and having that sort of solid basis for decision making is always better than one autocratic view.
NC: We’re talking essentially here about learning to take more calculated risks with people so I’d like Yetunde Hofmann maybe to go through some of the things because like Caroline you were in very much command and control situations in the early part of your career, so can you just talk us through some of the areas in your practice where taking the brakes off and thinking carefully and then doing something which might appear a bit risky can bring rewards?
YH: Well I think that one of the things that you've got to be aware of, any HR person living out there, is that you've got to really understand the people that you are working with, who you support, and you've got to have an attitude of people first, what are we trying to achieve, and how will it impact the people I'm working with? So I come from a school of saying we’ve got to have freedom with discipline because people do want psychological safety in the way they operate, and as an HR leader, all HR leaders out there have responsibility because it's a leadership profession, it’s a leadership function. And so the first thing starts with trusting yourself and belief in yourself, in the leader, believing in yourself as the leader you are called to be, to serve, to lead, to step forward. And this can show up in all kinds of instances whether you’re around a table at a talent review meeting, you've got all your boxes, the nine-box matrix etc. and there's somebody who absolutely is a shining star and that person is not being recognised as such because maybe the rule of the day in the organisation is all about strategy and this person’s very operational, high performing operational, then it’s up to the HR leader or the HR professional in the room to stand up and be counted. And I've seen situations where that risk has been taken because the HR leader has established some trust, has been willing to say, ‘I personally back this person,’ and that individual has soared. And therefore you cannot go by the rulebooks all the time. I've seen this time and time again. I've seen it in my role in Unilever, I've seen it in my role in Northern Foods, I've seen it in my role in Domecq. So it’s so important the HR leader his or herself having a belief in what their role is about to be, having a high level of self-awareness or making sure they develop that. And then because they know what they're there to do, not climb up the greasy poles of power, they’re there to serve, to make a difference, if that's backing them then they’re more willing to stick their neck out, round the talent review table, round the promotion boards if you’re in a partnership, round the recruitment and selection boards if you’re in graduate recruitment, whatever it might be.
NC: Yetunde is talking about a kind of life’s experience which she’s inspiring people to put into their practice but what about people who are maybe just not quite so far up the career ladder, this kind approach to work is maybe a little bit more difficult so just talk a bit about how you inspire you're people to kind of, if not break the rules then certainly work out how they maybe don't need them?
CP: I definitely can say I've experienced that, so where you give, even you say, ‘Go away and rewrite it, think about trust, does it feel like it trusts you?’ and a team would still come back with a version that maybe has less words but it’s still got the control in there, you know they may take out some of it but they still hold on to a bit, and it takes a lot of time, it takes coaching. But it does take leadership to that point, it does take to have a leader who’s prepared to resist the organisation’s urge for policy for example, or resist the organisation’s urge to be black and white on matters that are absolutely grey. So I think leadership is key and making it a safe space to do that. As HR people, as I said, I try to grow this idea of creativity and freedom, so I often say, ‘Well what do you think?’ I'm very much of the school where it says, ‘Okay well I think this is an idea we could go with but what do you think? How do you think this is going to work with the people that you work with and the people that you serve? Is this going to go well, is it going to cause issues for us?’ so over the years I've spent time walking it through to reach a solution but often I've found giving people freedom to go away and set the parameter of I want high trust, low process, what does that look like? And then they come back and then I kind of say, ‘Well do we really need that bit and that bit? Does that say it’s low trust?’ So just coaching but it does need leadership I have to say. You have to have an organisational climate where this is permitted or encouraged even, that curiosity and that creativity.
NC: Geoff Trickey what about situations, we’ve already had hints of this, where people actually need more structure, that they would feel slightly discomforted by not knowing what the structure is?
GT: Well I think that accounts for quite a lot of people, and particularly in certain professions, where that is kind of the situation. I think different professions attract different people, so you don't have the same cross section of people, for example working as air traffic controllers as you do working in advertising or marketing or something. I mean they get attracted differently and that kind of establishes a culture I suppose.
NC: So Geoff what kind of people are HR managers then?
GT: Well I'm interested in this. We had a look at our data and we have a lot of data and all our data is anonymised but we do retain what their background is and I was surprised, we didn’t have a huge number of people who identify as HR but they seemed surprisingly to me, varied. I mean we break up the spectrum and it is a 360 degree spectrum and we break that up into a number of different parts, there's eight different risk types basically. And if you’re talking about air traffic controllers for example about 99% of them come from the same quadrant within the compass. HR are fairly evenly distributed around. And this is reflecting people in all sorts of different positions in HR, so you can't draw much on it.
NC: I’ll just stop you there a second. Yetunde are you surprised at that because I would have thought that a lot of people who are attracted to HR would be relatively risk averse, they’re not probably entrepreneurs, they're not bold people who want to do something different every day and then not clean up the mess.
YH: Nigel I believe without a shadow of a doubt and when I talk about HR being a leadership profession I mean at all levels, it’s a profession as a leadership one, so it’s not just about the career ladder. But coming back to what you said about the people who are attracted to HR I believe, without a shadow of a doubt if more HR professionals believed in their own capabilities and what they were there to do many more of them would be transitioning into CEO roles, because I believe the HR profession in organisations deals from the ridiculous to the sublime. It deals with detail, process, strategy, creativity, the finance and every aspect of the organisation. And so I often believe that HR directors, HR professionals are really close at CEOs and if they had somebody backing them and saying, ‘I believe in you,’ indeed if they backed themselves more we’d see more HR people going for general management roles. And they would be fantastic.
NC: Caroline this is a pretty revolutionary idea isn’t it?
CP: Not really I was on a career track for CEO, it’s totally legit. I think who does the CEO call when he has a really big problem? It’s usually the HR person first, certainly that’s my experience.
NC: In which case then why is the image of the profession behind the curve because it’s almost like, I mean you’re all talking about a very different kind of modern HR and yet we’re talking about the sort of stereotype of people just policing rules.
CP: I am sometimes disappointed with HR practitioners that I meet who perhaps haven’t had the luxury that I've had or not had opportunity to look at it differently, because I came from that same route and I was going on that same route and I now find myself throwing away work that I would have years ago found sacred, that I needed, and I don't need it anymore. So I think it’s often the opportunities and experiences had, in the Middle East particularly we don't see as many of the kind of creative visionary HR leaders as I describe, they are here but there's not as many of them. So they’re definitely here. So I think there is a general shift in the profession but it’s taking some time and I have to say, going back to Geoff’s point about what kind of people come into HR, I do think they are a little risk averse. I'm a little risk averse, you know I've had to come out of my comfort zone to be the person I am today, to be the leader I am today but for sure in general life I would be nervous of risk so I am exactly the stereotype of risk averse, you know I like to have some rules but I like to know what I can do inside them.
NC: So Geoff can you work on yourself to do better in that area, to understand better what your natural tendencies are and to play against type maybe sometimes?
GT: I think that's just about what growing up is, isn't it really/ you start off as a kid who has tantrums at the counter in the supermarket because you want a sweetie, and you nail that all down as you progress through the organisation because you know you mustn’t have tantrums as a newly employed graduate. By the time you become the CEO you don't care anymore. I mean you get people who are incredibly self-indulgent at the top of organisations and it’s a sort of a coaching theme I guess that we deploy a lot which we refer to as the dark side of personality. Personality is fundamentally a part of your nature really, that part of it, but then you've got a cognitive side of you which is trying to wrestle with that and present to the world whatever is going to work. So there's always this sort of struggle between what is your nature and what you desire to be. And the problem is, I mean CEOs these days and on a global sort of basis, don't last long. I mean the likelihood is they’ll change after three years, four years in big organisations. And that's largely because they lose the faith of the people they work with, they lose the trust of the people they work with because they become, I suppose, well it depends I mean the dark side of personality is a big subject so I can't just boil it down to arrogance but hubris is something that comes to the fore and is often discussed. That's one aspect of this where what would have been restrained in the younger newly appointed person who does everything they’re told to begin with as they rise through the organisation they allow themselves to be, you know who’s going to tell me what to do, look where I sit in the world, I'm right up here, you know. That is a massive over-simplification, don't take that too literally but it’s a good example because we all know about confidence and over-confidence and hubris. And it’s one of the tracks, there's about 12 tracks like this that you can identify within the dark side of personality, they are derailers basically in the end. What is your basic strength turns out to be what derails you in the end if you let it get away from you.
NC: It sounds a bit like politics, all careers end in failure. Well stay in HR that's the answer isn't it? Yetunde Hofmann as we try and start to draw this to a close can you just give us a tip or two, just give us a couple of ideas for making sure that you’re being more creative in this work and not just avoiding everything because there might be a risk involved?
YH: Well there's an expression I would use, physician heal thyself. And to heal yourself you've really got to understand who you are. So the very first tip is that an HR leader, and we all are leaders it doesn’t matter what level you are in the HR function in your organisation, invest time in understanding yourself and invest time in accepting all of who you are. This is what I call love in an organisation you've really got to operate from a place of love. And then from there you've got to understand your boundaries and if you want to take some risk go to colleagues that can help you, surround yourself with people who can support you, people from the frontline, who buy into what you’re trying to do. Test your ideas on a few things and situations. I talk about bringing love in organisations and people have said, well how do you do that? Well like with any change programme to take some risk try, test with one or two trusted people and then from there you can create the butterfly effect across the organisation. And I tell you something CEOs are very risk averse, if we had more leaders, traditional leaders, as in CEOs, top level people in organisations taking more risk we wouldn’t have the diversity problem we have now in business across the world because people like to be safe, they want people that look like them, sound like them, feel like them, at the top. So if we had more creative thinking in the gatekeeping positions we’d have more colour, more thought leadership, more neurodiversity, more gender, all of that, the richness would be in organisations. So I think that that's the place to start. Start with understanding yourself. Here’s a tip, be clear on that, do some personality tests, create a journal, seek feedback and then if you have a germ of an idea find one or two stakeholders in your organisation who are willing to support you and back you.
NC: Wow, well follow that Caroline. In terms of your own practice anything you would add?
CP: Wonderful contribution I just love everything you just said there. It’s even inspiring for me as well. I think one thing that occurred to me then as well was just this abundance idea that there is enough ideas, there is enough time, there is enough creativity to go around, so to the point of trying things out is a great idea. So having an idea and saying, ‘Well what’s this organisation about, how do I really speak to the guiding principles or the mission or values of an organisation when I'm drafting the HR way of working or when I'm designing the employee experience?’ I think if you profess to be an organisation that is high on trust or values empowerment then you have to go back and say, ‘Well did I design that in?’ because often we haven’t done that. We’ve created a whole set of vision and values and then the design of the organisation does not complement that at all. So my advice to any HR practitioner is just go away and read back over the things that you’re doing and the policies you've written and some of your core processes and just ask yourself is that doing what we’re designing here? Because sometimes we haven’t looked at it in that mirror for a while. We haven’t thought deeply enough about what we’ve designed. So that's my tip. And some of my better ideas and some of our teams and organisational progression has been coming from really unravelling the detail of why we do what we do.
NC: And a final thought from you Geoff?
GT: Well social defence theory is a theory that suggests we survive as a team, as a species and that's why we’re so diverse and in terms of our temperaments we need the mix, no one person has it all, if they do they only have any of it in a very diluted form. So Mervyn King draws attention, you know the former governor of the Bank of England, has a concept of radical uncertainty and as we get more technological we will move into greater and greater radical uncertainty. That's to say we’re driving with the rear view mirror which has less and less in it because it’s all more recent. In the past if you think traditionally you looked in a rear view mirror that might have said gone back 100 years. Now if you look in your rear view mirror you’re looking back probably months or a couple of years to the last revolutionary destructive technical innovation. So we do need to find a way to get back almost to the team work and that's the diversity of approaches that enabled us to survive and to be successful as a species. That's my view and I think it’s going to become more the case as the world becomes less and less familiar to us, and it’s happening extremely rapidly now already, we’re changing the world at a huge rate. You don't have a rear view mirror any more that's a guidance and a help to where you’re going in the future. So that's radical uncertainty, better to make decisions from a diverse background of people, a diverse set of different dispositions, particularly in terms of risk because risk dispositions affect all your decisions, every decision is a risk decision if you think about it and your risk disposition is at the core of your personality. So that diversity needs to be there. That's my view of it.
YH: I just wanted to give, on top of what Geoff said, a practical tip to any HR practitioner out there, when you’re in a meeting two things, any meeting at all whether it’s about talent reviews, whether it’s recruitment, forming a policy etc. etc. two questions you could ask yourself, the first question should be who should be in this room that we haven’t considered? That's creative because you might think of somebody, maybe somebody on the shop floor, it might be somebody on an engineering line, whatever it might be, because diversity is really also thinking who is this going to impact? That's the first question. Question two you could then ask is, who is going to be impacted by this decision that we’re making, positively, negatively? And see whether that changes your decision or the process or whatever. I think those two questions any HR person in the room when they ask that question of their stakeholders, whether they’re your peers, more junior, more senior, I think it would lead to some very constructive discussion and could bring some creativity and innovation out as well.
NC: Great well some excellently constructive discussion from you all. Let me just thank our guests, Caroline Parsons in Dubai, Yetunde Hofmann and Geoff Trickey, great stuff one and all.
Talking as we were just now about this new working world that COVID has rained on us we had a great and very positive reaction to our last podcast, Severn Trent’s Neil Morrison, Compass Group’s Deborah Taylor [sic] and the CIPD’s Brad Taylor, walked us through how 2021 is set to change so much else in HR. So do have a listen if you haven’t caught that first show of the year and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts so you don't miss any future editions. But until the next time from me Nigel Cassidy and all at the CIPD it’s goodbye and keep taking care.
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