Wearing One Face

Imagine not being able to be yourself every day.

Those were the words that really struck me from Lord John Browne at the recent HR Directors Summit.

He wrote ‘The Glass Closet: why coming out is good business’. He calls the book his letter to straight CEOs.  It tells his story.  How he was taught by his mother’s example that if you were in a minority that this was a risk.  That the majority could therefore hurt you.  That keeping secrets was the better option.  He hid his sexual orientation throughout his career, rising through the ranks at BP and eventually becoming CEO.  How one day whilst on holiday he received a call to say that a Sunday newspaper was about to expose his private life, after a story was sold by a former partner.  He resigned from his position to avoid dragging the company through a media storm.  He admits to being heavily invested in his double life.  Although he now wishes he had come out publically sooner, recognising that others may have been helped by him doing so, he admits, it simply did not occur to him at the time that it was possible.  It was all about the secret.

We often talk about authentic leadership.  About bringing our real selves to work.  But that narrative often talks of the benefits this can bring to your leadership style, what it adds to the toolkit.  Instead Lord Browne thinks about the converse.  How the constant drag of secrets, compartmentalisation and pretence can impact upon productivity and effectiveness.  The real cost to business. What hiding such a fundamental part of yourself really means for your wellbeing and happiness, the extent to which you can have meaningful relationships with your colleagues, the extent to which you can simply speak freely without watching your every word or worrying that you are going to somehow give yourself away.

Of course when it comes to secrets, it is not just sexual orientation that people feel they cannot share.  I have over the years met many people who are hiding something at work because they fear the implications of honesty.  Sometimes that fear is well placed and sometimes it is not.  I have experience of people concealing disability.  Mental health issues.  Family problems.  Criminal convictions.  Personal problems.  Big fat stuff that they hold inside themselves and carry on doing the day job regardless.  Showing a public face whilst hiding a private self.

Lord Browne spoke of the people he had met whilst writing his book who lived with fear and with paranoia.  That today, in 2015, with protections enshrined in law, did not feel that it was safe to come out in their workplaces.

My first instinctive reactions to this statement are sadness mixed with anger that this bad situation is some people’s every day reality.  But after the emotion comes questions. Lord Browne says that the book is for straight CEOs.  It should be for HR teams too.  There is a point in the book where he interviews someone who works within a large organisation that has an established LGBT network that has executive support. But the interviewee (a banker) claims that it is only ‘for admin staff and HR’.  He suggested that for some roles it was not the done thing to be seen there, in terms of their career.

So here are the questions that for me, the book poses to HR professionals.

At your place, how safe is it to be yourself? I mean really. Not pictures on the website, having a diversity policy and an inclusion programme safe.  But really safe.

If we genuinely believe that authenticity is worth striving for, then how do we create the environments in which our employees feel that they can be just that?  Beyond the initiative or project or programme.  How do we allow people to simply be, just exactly who they are?

No answers, just questions.

Never mind the HR department


Today, Nev Wilshire, CEO of Saving Britain Money is delivering a keynote speech at the HR Director’s Summit in Birmingham.  He is better known to most of us as Nev from BBC3’s The Call Centre.

I will confess to being a fan of the show, even if Nev doesn’t appear to be a big fan of his HR department.  In one episode he is filmed running through the building, ducking into offices to hide from the company HR manager.  There is plenty in the show to make the average HR person cringe.  And employment lawyers rub their hands in glee.

Take making people sing in induction.  Or Nev attempting to get a date for one of his employees, describing her as a ‘desperate female’, by parading her through the call centre and encouraging single men to hug her.  Then there are the arm wrestling challenges to determine whether someone can have a promotion.  Races in the car park to determine if Nev will sponsor an employee’s visa extension.  Playing Russian Roulette with raw eggs.  And Nev’s not particularly sensitive way of discussing the speech impediment of a job applicant.

We could sit here and sneer a little perhaps.  To point to the theory that says this isn’t the way to do things.  That some of these techniques could expose the company to risk and to claims. That our way is so much more sophisticated. To some sort of HR (drum roll) people best practice.


Something about this is working for him. Save Britain Money came number five in the Sunday Times 100 best companies to work for.  Unlike other awards that you can enter your company for, this one surveys employees and this heavily influences the results. It’s not the only award they have won. The people that work there appear to be pretty engaged, doing what is a very hard job.

Nev’s mantra is ‘happy people sell’.  The sounds suspiciously like employee engagement drives business performance to me.  You know, that thing we are still talking about and arguing about.  Whatever our HR theory says, Nev is making it work for him, at his place.   Long may he continue to do so.

I had the opportunity to interview him today.  I asked him how he felt about being in a room full of hundreds of HR folks.  He was quite polite. But I’m guessing by the look on his face, he was wondering what on earth he was doing here. For one I am glad he came. Because sometimes we can put own heads up our respective backsides with the theories and the seriousness and the debates.

Somewhere in here there is a lesson to be learned. I’m just not sure entirely what it is yet.

Now excuse me. I’m off for an existential crisis.




Where not only the birds tweet…..

This is the title of the session I’m attending by Ryan Cheyne at the HR Directors Summit.  He is HR Director for Pets at Home – number one in the best companies to work for list.  And he is talking about social media.  Sounds like my kind of session……

Here is what Ryan has to say about taking an organisation social and how it has helped move their organisation forward.

They didn’t see the opportunity to begin with. He was on LinkedIn because you kind of had to be.  He was on Facebook because his kids were but now they have gone somewhere more cool that their parents don’t hang out.

Social got on their radar when people started doing things that they shouldn’t.  Then a shop manager showed him how he was using Twitter to communicate with his team. After some initial panic about the need for a policy, Ryan had a lightbulb moment; that this could be a really powerful tool for them.

They realised that pet owners are social. 88% of pet owners post pictures of their pets on social media. 92% of people have had their pet as their phone wallpaper. 15% of people even Skype or FaceTime their pets when not at home. If customers are there then they should be too.

Pets at Home use social media to recruit. Share content about their stores and their vacancies. They are also moving more of their training online. Their vision is to have people learning socially, anywhere and any when.

Crucially, their social media policy is about what you can do rather than what you can’t. Stores are empowered to do their own social stuff with support and guidance.  Few rules. It’s not mandated, and neither is any particular platform specified.  Deal with those who misuse appropriately – but if they are then that’s not the real problem.

Social media is also part of their reward and recognition practices. She the good stuff that their employees have done openly and socially.

Ryan’s ponderings: Social is here to stay. Ignoring it is akin to denying the existence of the phone. But you don’t have to overthink it. We love a rule and a policy in HR. It can’t be controlled. Just get on with it.  Great opportunity to get your brand out there.  Powerful tool for engagement. Social is short and sharp. Different from our normal approach to internal communications. Use simple messaging.

Their latest advert was socially crowd sourced via social media. Socially engaged customers and socially engaged employees coming together.

Sounds kind of awesome to me.

And here’s the video….




Just call me Cassandra

I’m at the HR Directors Business Summit.  There is a whole stream of content on the agenda about the future of work and how HR can lead their businesses into the future and all that it brings.  According to the pre-event research all this future stuff is on the mind of the HR professional. It’s true that  future of work is everywhere at the moment. The topic has gone mainstream. The bandwagon effect will surely follow.

The future of leadership. Future proofing your workforce. Future skills.  Future of recruitment, learning… all of the people stuff.

Spartacus comes to mind. Only instead of everyone standing up and declaring that they are he, everyone is standing up and saying ‘I know the future of work’.  We are all Cassandra now. Cassandra, given the gift of prophecy, but unable to alter future events or persuade anyone to the truth of her predictions.  But like her, when it comes to the future of work and people stuff, will we be believed, or will we stand and watch helplessly as our disbelieved predictions came true?

I’m mixing up my myths and legends.

Here’s the thing about the future of work.  You can write any old bollocks about it.  I know, I wrote a whole book on the subject with that nice Tim Scott.  And chances are that no-one is going to pick up a copy in ten years, read it and then tell us we got it wrong. Of course if they do, we will look very serious and reflective, and say something sounding terribly wise like ‘that was based upon the world as we knew it then, and was subsequently influenced by factors that we could not reasonably have foreseen’. 

The future of work genre generates many unanswered questions.  First and foremost, even if the predictions are true, can we make the changes that we need to make?  Are we ready to change and to open up our perspectives? When many organisations are so focused on the short term, can we take a sufficiently long term view?  Will the hype ever match the reality?

Borrowing shamelessly from an entirely different debate, I will refer to environmentalist Alan Atkinson, who, when talking about environmental change, says that we are stuck in a Cassandra dilemma.  The trends are there, and a likely outcome can be forseen.  The warnings have been given.  But still, the majority can not or will not respond.  Can the same be said of the future of work?  I think that it can.  There are some people too invested in the status quo.  There are some people who don’t want to change.  There is sometimes a lack of the real commitment that is required.  But you can wave Kodak and HMV case studies around the leadership team all you like, but some places are too stuck in their corporate boxes, still too stuck in the ‘it doesn’t apply to us because’.

There’s a quote that goes a little like this: ‘the future belongs to those that prepare for it today’.  The questions that ocurr therefore are these:

Can we? And will we?



The times they are a changing

Today I’m at the HR Directors Summit in Birmingham. We are hearing about how the world in which we live is changing. Technology change. Economic change. Social change. Cultural change.

According to futurologist Graeme Codrington we are living through a period of deep structural change. We will look back at this time in the future and recognise that this was the point in which forces combined and fundamental shifts occurred.

As HR professionals this is the time to stand up and be proactive. Anticipate the future people needs of our organisations and take action. This is the new HR landscape.

There will be five forces that will shape our futures. Codrington offers us, TIDES.

Technology. More computer power today in your washing machine than NASA had to send a man to the moon. This has fundamental implications for work, organisations and the people within them.

Institutional change. The way things have always been done around here is no longer good enough. We must embrace new things and be prepared to adopt new methods. Rethink the rules, the polices and procedures.

Demography. Significant demographic change is happening right now, and will both continue and escalate in its impact. An ageing population with simultaneous high youth unemployment.

Environment and ethics. Our use (and overuse) of the planet and its natural resources is changing our world.

Shifting social values. The expectations that people have of the world around them is changing too.

So here is my take on this. Whether it looks like it or not at first glance, this is all people stuff. We can influence all of this agenda. And we must. Just like Peter Cheese said last year: there has never been a better time to be in HR than right now.

Let HR lead the way.

The best thing about a conference…

..isn’t actually the conference.

No matter how good the content, the sessions, the speakers, these are never the things that I value the most about attending any conference or event.

What I value the most is the time. The space.

Because normally we are so immersed into the day to day, the next meeting, the next conference call, the next thing on the to-do list, that the thing we rarely get is time to think. Time to reflect. Time to just be. And that is when, for me, the ideas come. This is when I get creative, energised, inspired.

It comes from the conversation, the people, the time out.

The best things that you can take away from a conference are new ideas and new connections.

And I don’t just mean that you have listened to some high profile someone, standing at the front of a conference hall, telling you, selling you their wisdom. I don’t mean listening to a talk about what someone has done at their place, and deciding to implement it at yours. That way problems lie.

I mean that little spark. The one that comes when you are not expecting it. It might not even relate to the session, the talk, the speaker. Thought leads onto thought.

It’s the away from the office thing, the email pinging in thing, the meeting after meeting, people stopping by the office thing. We are away from the old routine, and that just makes your brain operate a little differently. It open ups new thought patterns, new synapses. Conferences provide you with a new stimulus.

Hold on people. I’m having an idea.

Whilst drafting this post, Sukh Pabial posted this blog, about the value of a keynote. Do read this too.