The face of HR influence

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This year has been an uncertain one, so all the more reason to celebrate those guiding the HR profession through the turbulence

Ambiguity. It’s a word that crops up in pretty much every conversation HR magazine has for this piece exploring what kind of year it’s been for HR in terms of challenges and opportunities – and what this all means for HR influence.

The current political situation is the chief culprit. You will need to insert your own sentence or two here regarding the latest developments when you read this. And even if the deal or no-deal situation is slightly clearer atthe time of reading, the impact each scenario will have on the UK’s economy and organisations is still unknown.

Which means 2019 and beyond is all about HR striking a balance between existing – and helping their organisations to exist – comfortably in a state of flux but not being immobilised by this.

“We’ve just not known what will hit next,” says Angela O’Connor, founder and CEO of The HR Lounge, former HR director at the Crown Prosecution Service, and a member of the panel helping to compile the HR Most Influential (HRMI) practitioners rankings each year.

“There’s been a really big issue for HR on deciding when to go completely with ambiguity and when to bed into planning and prep. I think being able to move between those in a really agile way shows the top performers in HR.”

More than ever HR directors must represent a “steady pair of hands” and exert a calming influence, adds O’Connor: “It’s being able to communicate with staff, because they’re scared at the moment; they don’t know what’s going to happen, they don’t know how safe their job is.

“The views of the two main [political] parties are so far apart – I don’t think they’ve ever been this far apart. So HR has to maintain brilliant comms.”

“People are swimming in data and messages so it’s really about cutting through that and providing simplicity,” agrees Amanda Scott, head of the talent and reward business, UK at Willis Towers Watson (WTW), parent company of HR Most Influential 2019 sponsor LifeSight.

“So an HRD has to understand what the business is trying to accomplish, who works there and how they receive communication. It’s being a change agent, being really good at change management, knowing all stakeholders, then cutting it down so it’s really simple.”

Brexit also presents some tough challenges on the talent front, requiring HRDs and their teams to be agile and think laterally about where to source great people.

“It’s been a year of prepping for Brexit without actually knowing what you’re prepping for,” states Martin Tiplady, CEO of Chameleon People Solutions.

“Take housing groups, who have lots of property maintenance contracts with traders, many of whom are staffed by people who are Romanian, Hungarian, Polish… whose status is unknown in terms of what the government’s view will be post-Brexit.”

“It’s people just not deciding to come here. In health there have been so many consultants deciding not to come or going back to Europe. It’s real,” says O’Connor, who states the most impactful HR practitioners will therefore be those thinking creatively about the war for talent – by embracing flexible working for instance, which is “still quite a neglected area” in many quarters.

Navigating the storm

Which brings us to our top-ranked HR Most Influential practitioner this year. Someone who is undeniably the UK HRD most at the centre of and affected by Brexit uncertainty.

“There is nothing more difficult today than the civil service,” says O’Connor of why our panel decided this year should be government chief people officer Rupert McNeil’s year. “The ambiguity it’s facing is unbelievable. What you need is a safe pair of hands, a steady head, a calm outlook…”

As such focus on the wellbeing of those civil servants unavoidably facing huge amounts of pressure has been paramount – something all organisations should take their lead from, says Tiplady.

“Mental health is now talked about in daily parlance in a way it wasn’t even two years ago. Now it’s almost top of the agenda in terms of organisational risk. HR should take the lead in prompting managers to think about the effects on staff as a result of their managerial performance,” he says, highlighting that tackling bullying will be a key part of this.

He adds that McNeil is a great example of an HR director exerting soft influence: “HR’s achieving so much there without direct line management over much of it. There will be permanent secretaries of each department with their own HR structure, each of whom will have a dotted line to Rupert. So he’s got to work with them through influence and respect.”

Yet for all the sense of stability McNeil has brought he’s by no means “a boring safe pair of hands”, says O’Connor. “He’s still being really innovative.”

A large part of this is down to McNeil’s multi-sector experience; he came to government from Lloyds Banking Group in 2016. Mark Turner, fellow HRMI judging panellist and managing partner at GatenbySanderson, points out that Whitehall tried a similar push to appoint private sector professionals 10 years ago “but within 18 months they’d all gone”. “This time around with Rupert’s influence those people have bedded in much better,” he reports.

Notable successes over McNeil’s tenure include a new leadership academy, a leadership and learning board with permanent secretaries and director generals, a new systems-thinking approach, and good progress against a target to be the most inclusive organisation in the UK by 2020.

Share and share alike

So McNeil epitomises the HRMI factors of influence (see below) orientated around significant outcomes, a proven track record and influencing his internal leadership regime. But he also (perhaps miraculously) still finds time to share with the wider profession by regularly speaking at events.

Our number two most influential practitioner this year is similarly strong on this crucial factor. She is someone who’s experienced a meteoric rise up our list over recent years, ranking 12th last year and 39th in 2017.

Former group HR director at engineering firm Costain and now group HRD at Wincanton Sally Austin is one of the best role models out there for aspiring and even current HRDs when it comes to getting stuck in and saying ‘yes’, says O’Connor.

“She’s really generous with the profession,” she says. “The past couple of years she’s been working hard on her own personal development and being confident on that… She’s brilliant at speaking and has sought out opportunities.”

Austin is also a great example of the ever-increasing importance to an HRD’s influence of their approach to D&I. “The D&I agenda has expanded into a basic business-critical need now,” comments Scott.

“I think what Sally’s done on diversity is brilliant,” says O’Connor, referring to a strategy that encompassed unconscious bias training, a new applicant tracking system, reward decision monitoring, and a big push on flexible working: “It’s not hand wringing; it’s real stuff that makes a difference.”

She is a particularly brilliant role model to other young women in the profession operating in traditionally male-dominated sectors, she adds: “She has two young kids, a dog, a husband; they were living in a caravan at the end of the garden while they were doing up their house…

“Yet she’s had a huge impact on the board. She’s taken HR absolutely into that boardroom and HR is now seen as a strategic part of the business.”

Commercial acumen

So commerciality and business savvy continue to be key defining features of HR influence.

“I think a lot of change and transformation has meant functions, including HR functions, getting leaner,” says fellow judging panellist and managing director at Strategic Dimensions Dan Caro. “So focusing on the real value-adding roles and activities.”

He adds the growing importance in light of this of HRDs thinking in an open agile way about business models. “Generally the operating models of old aren’t the ones that will see businesses through even the next two to three years,” he says. “I think that’s really making the HRDs who have a grounding in organisational design stand out.”

Which brings us to our third most influential practitioner. As group HR director at Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank (CYBG) Kate Guthrie has certainly had to pull on such capabilities in managing the successful acquisition of Virgin Money in October 2018 – a takeover that has made CYBG/Virgin Money the sixth-largest bank in the UK.

Guthrie and her team are now hard at work leading on the organisation design and people-related challenges associated with the integration of two such large companies, including a transformational approach to leadership and performance management and a team-based incentive scheme linked to delivery of the group strategy.

“Kate has been involved in one of the biggest, most complex and most important deals and organisational changes in the UK financial services scene in the past few years,” comments Anna Penfold, another panellist and consultant at Russell Reynolds Associates.

“As HR leader at Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank she has helped decouple the bank from National Australia Bank; has set the organisation, culture and employee base on a more stable footing; and then taken the organisation through the acquisition of Virgin Money.

“And she’s driven all of this with aplomb, improving engagement, providing stronger purpose and clarity for the organisation, and managing to do so while working closely with regulators,” she adds, highlighting too her influence outside her day job as senior independent director of Action for Children, and inaugural chair of the Bank of Scotland Foundation.

The human touch

Yet within all of this hard-edged commerciality, HR’s role in ensuring workplaces remain innately human places has perhaps never been more important.

In light of ever-higher levels of automation and tech and the erosion in some quarters of nine-to-five face-to-face working, “purpose has really risen up the ranks to be a hot topic for leadership teams and boards,” says WTW’s Scott. “They’re looking for HR to really help evolve organisations to a higher state; so it’s helping them be more human.”

Which brings us to our 2019 HR Most Influential thinkers list, and the individual awarded the top spot this year principally for her work on psychological safety. Amy Edmondson, Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, represents the perfect combination of offering invaluable insight into big high-level topics while also making this accessible and relevant day to day for HRs.

“You wonder how it took so long for someone to cover these things as well as she has,” comments HRMI thinker ranking panellist, director of EPIC HR Gary Cookson. “In a world where ethical behaviour is increasingly important in business, and where mental health and wellbeing are ever more in focus, Amy has given me serious food for thought.”

“Occasionally a concept comes along that manages to make discussion about something very complex very easy through simplifying it,” comments fellow panellist and civilian HR director at the Ministry of Defence Siobhán Sheridan. “Her work has arrived at a moment in time when many organisations and HR professionals are engaged in seeking to make workplaces more effective, inclusive and empowered; and more resilient against poor behaviours such as bullying and harassment.”

It’s a similar story for our second most influential thinker. This person is a stalwart of our list who has dropped just one place this year from number one last time, despite battling incredibly tough health issues.

“Mee-Yan needs no surname for all of those who have been so inspired by her work over many years,” comments Sheridan. “Describing herself as a ‘scholar-educator-practitioner’ she thrives at the intersection of the three, offering powerful inspiration to those of us who seek to do the same.”

Founder of Quality and Equality Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge not only seeks to make the world a better more human place through her dedication to the field of organisational development, but also through tireless sharing with the HR community and beyond (a key criteria within our factors of HRMI thinker influence – see below).

“She is notable not just for the excellence of her writing but for the complete generosity of her spirit in the way that she supports those around her – whether that is through conferences, consultancy, training or on social media,” says Sheridan. “Few people of her standing are as approachable and giving as she is.”

Moving the dial on D&I

Last but certainly not least, our third most influential thinker for 2019 takes us back to the rise and rise of diversity and inclusion as an organisation-critical agenda.

Released in March this year, professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s latest book, Why do so many incompetent men become leaders (and how to fix it), is provocative and challenging in the very best of ways. And it has caused a notable stir in D&I circles but also beyond. His previous work around dark personality traits, particularly within leaders, also couldn’t have more resonance with today’s climate of seemingly-daily instances of toxic leadership and bullying.

Having published 10 books and more than 150 scientific papers to date, Chamorro-Premuzic is prolific. He is also highly visible on social and more traditional media, having made more than 100 TV appearances (including on the BBC, CNN, and Sky) and having written regular pieces for Harvard Business Review, The Guardian, Fast Company, Forbes, the Huffington Post and of course HR magazine.

“In an age of increasing visibility of incompetent men in leadership positions, Chamorro-Premuzic’s latest publication and ongoing work in this area become all the more relevant as someone who actively challenges our mindsets around talent and the dangers of personality,” comments judging panellist and founder of HR Hero for Hire Shakil Butt.

Indeed such challenge yet practical relevance is a defining attribute of all those featuring on this year’s thinkers list – offering hope that HR practitioners and thinkers will strongly inform each other and work in even closer partnership well beyond 2019.

“A while back there was a lot of criticism of HR being too naval-gazing, too academic, too theoretical… So it pushed itself to be more business focused and commercial,” comments Strategic Dimensions’ Caro. “Which is all what HR should be doing; but maybe in some circles it lost a bit of focus on that strong academic underpinning you do really need.”

So HR practitioners and thinkers alike take heed. There may be even bigger challenges coming over the horizon, with ambiguity and uncertainty potentially set to continue.

There has perhaps never been such an important time to work together on the big issues of the day. Namely ensuring organisations weather economic storms through creative, agile, talent- and tech-savvy operating models. But all while keeping wellbeing, diversity and inclusion, ethical responsibility – and most importantly humanity – front and centre.


HRMI practitioners: The process and criteria

Our HRMI practitioner rankings are drawn up by applying a set of criteria, devised in 2016 by HRMI research partner Hult Ashridge, to a longlist of FTSE 100 and non-FTSE HRDs. Each name is then discussed in depth with our panel of experienced headhunters and industry experts.

We also gave all contenders an opportunity to put forward a few pointers of ‘evidence’ under each criteria. Through this process the top practitioners in each industry were drawn to form the HRMI sector lists. From these the overall top 40 practitioners were chosen. Our eight factors of practitioner influence are:

  • Significant outcomes in their own business
  • Track record of successful outcomes
  • Internal board involvement
  • External board involvement
  • External influence
  • Influencing the wider profession
  • Developing others in the function
  • Depth and breadth of experience

For more detail on these criteria please visit our HR Most Influential microsite


HRMI thinkers: The process an criteria

HR magazine invited a panel of top HR directors and former HR directors to debate a longlist of names in relation to our criteria of thinker influence. Just as for our practitioners lists, we also asked thinkers for evidence of their influence over the past year. Our six criteria of influence are:

  • Practical relevance
  • Commercial/service impact
  • Visibility and sharing information
  • Works published/influential in the past year
  • Originality/challenge
  • Personal influence

For more detail on these criteria please visit our HR Most Influential microsite


To read full profiles of all 2019 HR Most Influential Practitioners and Thinkers, as well as our Movers and Shakers, Making Waves List, and new Hall of Fame entrants, head over to the HRMI microsite

This piece appears in the October 2019 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk

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