Monday, 13 May 2013

Varsity Vistas

I have recently returned from an exceptionally productive, enjoyable and informative few days in Cambridge.  I was responsible for a leadership development programme designed in conjunction with the Judge Business School and not only was it very well received, but also I have no doubt that it will have a profound and long lasting impact on all involved.  There is little point investing time, money and effort on leadership development if you don’t want your leaders to develop and change.  Regrettably, many top level learning and development (L&D) initiatives are seen simply as “deserved” or “required” attendance by corporate executives and hence they participate either as a chore or for an easy break from normal routine; once “back in the day job”, it is all too easy to revert to the comfort and familiarity of accustomed roles and approaches.  Change demands effort and determination and works best when people support each other in achieving a shared goal. 

View through oculus window of Lecture Theatre 1, Judge Business School, Cambridge
Photo by Annie Galpin
It is usual, at the end of a learning event, for individuals to make a personal pledge that they will utilise their new-found knowledge and skills in the work environment.  Indeed, each of the attendees with me have been asked to select two things that they will do differently (or commence doing) going forwards and I will be supporting them to ensure that they achieve their goals, as well as measuring what change can be assessed.  I am confident that each individual who attended the event in Cambridge is committed to applying their learning.  However, their personal undertakings, to achieve singular and organisational change, are not what made the event exceptional.  There are few cities more beautiful than Cambridge and it was looking particularly attractive: soft spring sunlight on honey coloured stone and blossom and fresh leaves on the trees.  The verdant foliage, burgeoning after the long period of cold weather that the UK has endured, seemed to echo the eagerness of the attendees to learn and grow.  We were fortunate, we were joined by an inspirational collection of exceptional speakers and experts, who struck a chord with all attendees.  I confess that it was both a pleasure and privilege to share aspects of my alma mater with colleagues and friends, but that was not what made the event so good.

Queens' College, Cloister Court
The thing that made it different was the genuine sense of connection, in every aspect from the attitude of the attendees, their preparation, commitment and the event’s clear outcomes (both agreed and unexpected).  I am an experienced HR professional and have designed and run numerous L&D sessions over the years, some award winning and many life-changing for individual delegates, but this one was genuinely different.  Why did it stand out?  What did I experience and learn?  I think the essence of the differentiation is founded on unity.  There was an almost palpable level of engagement and a shared passion to define and commit to desired change.  Every attendee had come prepared and determined to benefit from the opportunity.  Nobody was there because they felt they had to be and, without exception, they wanted to learn, share, talk, discover and build a better future as a team.  There was a logical flow through the days so that knowledge was built upon and strengthened.  I was reminded of the value of physically bringing people together.  In our increasingly technology enabled world, e-learning has its place and I work for a global group, so, for ease and efficiency, we use webinars and video conferencing to enable people to benefit from shared learning.  However, humans are social beings.  Some of the attendees, despite having spoken with and seen each other from afar over a number of years , had never spent time together in the same location.  Genuine connections and understanding occurred.  We deliberately did not remain locked in a hotel conference suite or lecture theatre for the duration of the event, we used various university facilities (including museums, art galleries and debating chambers) and hence time was spent walking between venues.  People chatted en route.  So much was gained by spending time together, bouncing ideas around, exploring and gaining memories that we all now treasure.
Bridge of Sighs, seen whilst punting on the river Cam
People have returned to their respective offices and teams and have already started applying and sharing their new-found knowledge.  Attendees have designed and started delivering L&D sessions, to cascade their understanding and ensure that there is a shared language and approach across the Group.  We were fortunate to have the corporate artist, Simon Heath, with us in Cambridge ( or follow him on Twitter ) and he has drawn some excellent images that reinforce and remind, as well as capturing the main incidents and discussions.  I am already working on the next stage of our development and have the full support from the Chief Executive (who was an initial attendee) downwards.  It is exhilarating and rewarding to know that you are really making a difference that it will be measurable going forwards.
Simon Heath, corporate cartoonist in action, Cambridge Union Chamber
Having orchestrated and participated in such a positive L&D event, it was interesting to listen to the thoughts of Peter Cheese on Friday.  He has been the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) - the world’s largest Chartered HR and development professional body - since July 2012 .  Mr Cheese stated that he is determined to “help guide HR towards making a difference”.  I would like to state that there are many exemplary HR professionals who are already doing so.  But there are always grounds for improvement.  I was concerned by his comment that there is all too frequently a disconnect between HR and L&D, with each at times being keen to disassociate itself from the other.  How can individuals and organisations adapt, grow and improve if they are not prepared to learn and develop?  The world around us changes so swiftly, with new technology, products and requirements arising almost daily; change is now a constant of working life.  Each of us needs to be alert to the requirements of the future and to strive for continuous improvement.  HR has a key role in enabling people and organisations to become what they need to be, to ensure success and growth.

Onwards and upwards
Peter Cheese is right that HR must be commercial and pragmatic, demonstrating an understanding of the context in which a business operates, appreciating the financial drivers that enable its success and demonstrating in-depth organisational knowledge.  HR must be (and be seen as) a business function and bring the people knowledge to the commercial discussions.  One of the joys of working in HR is the ability to be forward thinking, looking at individuals‘ potential and helping employees to develop the skills and capabilities required to take them and the business to the next stage.  My team and I work closely with Finance and, by combining our knowledge and understanding, we are able to provide more effective support to the business than we if we operated in silos.  The accountants‘ ability to assess and review business performance is invaluable.  HR takes this down to individual contribution and capability and works with people to ensure that the business has what it needs to move forward.  In my opinion, it is harsh to view Finance solely as the rear view mirror in the car - looking back at what has been done.  However, there is immense value to be gained from understanding the path that was taken and spotting speeding vehicles that might wish to overtake.  Finance is expert at measuring performance against pre-determined KPIs, helping to identify issues as they arise and highlighting areas of decline or weakness.  All businesses need  faster responses to a changing world.   HR must be proactive, shaping and building businesses, turning insight into action.  Great L&D is a wonderful way to build future success and growth - when it all falls into place the feeling is amazing for all involved and the results speak for themselves.

1 comment:

  1. I can feel the energy from the leadership event reading this & your comments in the second half make me very excited to be in HR - SC