Sunday, 30 November 2014

Happy sad, young old, stupid wise - Day 1

Day 1
Illustration by Simon Heath
Happy 1st December and welcome to the Advent Blogs 2014! The theme this year is Paths and Perceptions

Before I start, I would like to thank and acknowledge the wonderful Alison Chisnell for coming up with the concept of the Advent Blog Series and for curating it with such aplomb and sensitivity since 2011. You can read former years' posts on her blog, TheHRJuggler. For this year, and this year only, she has loaned her wand to me. I have received some wonderful pieces. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have. I will be sharing one per day over Advent and into the holiday period.

It is an honour to curate these writings. From its first year onwards I have been a participant in the Advent Blogs series and have always been astounded and humbled by the experiences and outlooks that individuals have shared. This year is no exception. It is clear that people have trod some very varied routes and have exciting vistas ahead; come join me and we can explore some of their paths and perceptions…

Number 1 - this number is sometimes referred to as "unity", 
which is appropriate, as that is what the Advent Blog series is all about:
A collection of individuals, each with a voice, who collectively produce 
something unique
We are getting off to a hot start. The first post in the series is written by the talented Megan Peppin. Meg is a well known and much loved personality on Twitter - you can follow her via @OD_optimist or else read her thoughtful blog, Halls are Made for Madness, which was listed by People Management magazine as being one of the top 10 HR blogs worth reading. Meg was one of the first members of the Twitter community to welcome me into its ranks. She has been involved in the Advent Blogs series since its inception, so it seems appropriate for her to be the first voice this year. Meg is a specialist in organisational effectiveness. After an initial career in HR and OD, Meg founded her own business, which has gone from strength to strength since 2003. She helps a wide range of organisations and people to achieve their goals.


This is my third contribution to this advent series, and I have undertaken each previous piece of writing without a plan.  Stare at the screen, touch the keyboard, close the laptop, go away, and think.  Think, think, think.  In past years, something good has arrived for me; when I clear space, the writing flows without effort or design.  This time has been harder, but now that the thoughts are flowing in, I’m seeing how our perceptions create our paths in everything.

One of my maturing processes has been an acceptance of “being”.  I see that being with negative emotions increases peace, rather than battling with them which increases angst.   I can be happy sad, old young, wise stupid, they all exist in me.  I am not one thing or another.

Paths open themselves up when I allow myself to “be”, particularly when I feel uncertain or vulnerable.  I accept my uncertainty and my vulnerability, and I walk alongside them.  I feel less desire to know, and more inclination to explore.

This is the path that appeared…...

I’m curious about the need for certainty, where it comes from, how it helps us make sense, and what it offers.   The desire to quantify “human capital” for example is an area in which so much is being invested.  I’m genuinely puzzled at how much proof we need to trust in our judgement. 
  • Don’t we already know that being treated with respect, being expected to be resourceful intelligent and responsible will lead to good things, good relationships, trust and in turn these will very probably lead to high performance? 
  • Don’t we know that arrogance, leader distance and greed distort reality and contaminate purpose?  What more do we need to know?
  • What else do we need to give us certainty?
We can’t quantify potential, love, power, respect – human qualities; much of the work I and many others do are about creating the conditions for our potential to be released.  Creating time, space to think, to be, to connect with no other purpose.    When we are looking for certainty, we look for evidence to support our particular truth – I wonder, in what way are we limiting ourselves when we search to validate our perceptions?

limited perception
Here’s a short story about something that regularly happens, which I think illustrates how powerful our perceptions are and which makes me really curious and sometimes tips me into irritation.  My surname is Peppin.  I’ve never met anyone else called Peppin apart from my own family.  So that might mean it’s an unusual name (my perception?).    It’s not unusual enough though; there is a familiarity about it I think which results in a perception filter kicking into action, and what happens is that my name regularly gets remade into Pippin.  This doesn’t happen occasionally, it is a frequent occurrence;   I might write an email as Peppin, but documentation gets addressed Pippin; I’m asked what my name is, I spell out the E but it gets remade into an I; name badges, invitations…. I could go on.  (I did once get called Meggy Poppins by one organisation, but that’s another story!).

I’m torn between mild irritation and as I progress through life – curiosity, you see, I also haven’t met anyone else called Pippin. But in the lexicon there’s an apple and a character from the Hobbit that are Pippin.  So the perception filter makes sense and remakes my name.  Somehow whilst uncommon - Pippin is more familiar.

I wonder what this means; it appears to be unconscious reconfiguring of the letters to fit some sense making need. 

A redesign of a name – it’s easy to see what’s happened.  I can correct it.

This is making me very curious about all the other reconfiguring we do that is outside our consciousness; reorganising, relabeling – people, situations, experiences, to fit our perceptual expectations.  We can’t correct those.

What are our perception filters protecting us from?

What is buried in us that we don’t know informs how we perceive each other, what truth we see and a flood of other questions?

What are we making in organisations when we talk about leadership, when we talk about talent, when we talk about management?

Where is this leading?  I don’t know.  But I’m curious, and I learn that the more we seek certainty, the more we are somehow rejecting important truths.   There are things we can never know; but there is something at play that substitutes an I for an E to make sense, or a you for a me to feel safe.

(with thanks to Japanfanzz for image)
I was telling a friend how much this irritated me, when I’d recently been to a large event where everywhere I was a Pippin for a day, and a life for those who met me once.  We had fortune cookies – know what mine said?

“Write your name on your heart, not on marble”.

Oh what a lovely coincidence.

What you call me doesn’t matter.  It’s what I know about me that matters.  That was my interpretation. 

But I’m still left with an I for an E and wondering what it means.

Old postcard from 1904

Friday, 14 November 2014


Last week Manchester Central was buzzing with HR professionals – some just there to see the exhibition and assess potential providers, others to learn and listen to the speakers at the CIPD Annual Conference (even those not attending the full conference could participate in some excellent free learning, at the “Topic Taster”, “Ideas Exchange” and “HR Technology Zones” sites on the fringe, which were generously sponsored by IBM), but almost everyone there was there to make connections. In many ways, for me, that was the big theme that came through at the event and, in my opinion, is a fundamental role for HR.

In HR practitioners’ daily lives we help: 
  • managers connect with their teams;
  • ensure connections between people’s goals and tasks at work with business plans and strategic objectives;
  • interpret information and make connections between data to provide meaningful MI;
  • individuals connect with their need and desire to learn and grow through L&D;
  • make connections between external factors and internal requirements;
  • connect benchmarking with appropriate remuneration and recognition interventions;
  • encourage people to connect with, join and stay at our organisations through appropriate recruitment and retention activities;
  • spot the connections and correlations between performance and reward;
  • leaders inspire others by connecting with their personal values and aspirations; and
  • make sure that discrimination and bias are overcome though meaningful understanding and appreciation of the connections between individuals across organisations and communities.

Almost everything we do relies on the ability to make significant connections. If a vine fails to reach out and ensure a firm grasp it will never grow tall and strong and bear fruit.

On the second day of #CIPD14 I attended many interesting presentations, the first was “Megatrends: what does the changing economy mean for HR?” which provided some excellent insights by Mark Beatson, the Chief Economist at the CIPD. Mark used data from the CIPD’s HR Outlook Survey, which illustrated disconnects between how HR views itself and the way in which it is perceived by business leaders (for example only 33% of business leaders think that senior HR leaders are involved in determining their organisation’s strategy, whereas 66% of the HR leaders believe they are involved in setting the strategy). Why this disconnect – what does HR fail to do to ensure that it is seen to be playing a part in shaping the direction of the business? I suspect that it is partially due to HR having the wrong types of conversations – we are often very internally focused, talking about issues with particular employees or areas or proposing policies and procedures to be applied within the business.

The elephant in the room - HR's inability to join "the dots"
or explain/appreciate the bigger picture
Often HR is not considered good at scanning the wider environment in which an organisation operates. In addition, HR often waits to be asked to contribute an opinion, rather than raising an issue. If you don’t have the understanding, or are reluctant to speak out, you will be deemed unable to make incite full proposals and predictions. People respond to what they see and hear, so it is only by making appropriate connections and voicing assumptions on matters that will impact the business that others will listen to your opinion. To work with our fellow senior leaders, we need to engage our brains and think beyond our immediate setting.

The Orator, Magnus Zeller, 1920 
In his talk Mark Beatson provided some good examples of the type of data that could be used to encourage discussion. For example, although things are picking up in the UK, much of Europe is struggling economically – the Brits talk of a “special relationship” with the USA (indeed 13.2% of UK overseas trade is with America), however American exports need to be seen in comparison to the UK’s trade with other nations, most specifically with those in Europe (according to the Office of National Statistics, the percentage of UK exports to European countries in 2013 was 10% to Germany, 8.5% to the Netherlands, 6.9% to France, 6.1% to Ireland, 4.6% to Belgium/Luxembourg, and 2.9% both Italy and Spain - making a total of 41.9%) – the UK is very reliant on Europe. The knock on effect of the economic woes impacting the UK’s main business partners will have ramifications for the UK economy and the companies that work within it, even those businesses that focus solely on the USA. Employment costs, workforce trends, labour migration, interest rates, fiscal policies, and legislation are all impacted by the bigger picture and HR needs to appreciate that. We need to make the connections

Small pictures used together make a bigger picture

In addition HR is guilty of using its own language, which must sound like gibberish to the people outside the department – they need a dictionary to make sense of:

  • PIPs (“performance improvement plans – to get people back on track when they are not working as well as expected”);
  • PDPs (“personal development plans – the training and personal development suitable for an individual to help them achieve their objectives and potential”);
  • HCM (“Human Capital Management” – often part of “ERP” (enterprise resource planning) – “an approach for managing the employees in a business that sees people as assets whose value can be measured and enhanced”)
  • Performance management (“a basis of HCM, where employees are given clearly defined and consistently communicated performance expectations and held to account” - why not simply say “are people doing what they are employed to do as well as we need them to do it? If not, what can we do to help them produce the required results?”);
  • Reward rationalisation (“ensuring pay and benefits are appropriate, cost effective and remain within budget – often by looking at total cost to company, instead of considering each benefit in isolation”);
  • Employer brand (“what people think of the company as a place to work”);
  • Employee engagement (“the degree to which people want to go the extra mile at work”)
  • Workforce optimisation – (often used as a euphemism for “making people redundant or reducing the number of people with roles in a particular area”); and
  • OD (we ourselves get confused by this one – do we mean design or development?) 

It is often quicker for people in HR to use jargon, but by doing so we alienate ourselves from others and lose the ability to connect with colleagues who are not familiar with the acronyms and terms.

Sometimes the unfamiliar needs translation or interpretation. As you are probably aware, I enjoy contemporary dance and, living in London, I have access to some of the world’s most amazing performances. Recently, I went to Sadler’s Wells to see four pieces inspired by the music of the UK’s leading pianist, composer and conductor, Thomas Adès. It was the first time that an evening had been dedicated to a performance that blended modern ballet and movement with his music. Under the heading of See the Music, Hear the Dance, the production ranged from an intimate duet choreographed to a piano solo, played by the composer, to the epic Polaris, choreographed by the Canadian Crystal Pite, which had a cast of 64 dancers. Adès’ Polaris (the title refers to the North Star) is a great piece of almost otherworldly music

For me, the combination of the music with the dance was immensely powerful. Crowds of dancers moved in unison, like the tentacles of an anemone or tendrils of seaweed stirred by the surf. Lines of people rippled, bobbed and flowed, with the sound as their evocative backdrop. The combination of the music and the movement was better than either in isolation. The piece as a whole was extraordinary and in many ways epitomised the word “connections”.

Crystal Pite's choreography of Polaris by Thomas Adès 

HR needs, like Pite’s choreography, to bring greater meaning and insight to what is already there in our organisations. It is people that make any business succeed or fail. HR is responsible for ensuring that work and the people who work are the best they can be. That can only be achieved through true understanding, the ability to appreciate the bigger picture and by making meaningful connections. Like the twinkling North Star (so evocatively represented in Adès’ music) – HR has to be able to shine and enlighten on many levels – understanding what drives people, appreciating economics, using the findings of neuroscience, being financially astute, mindful of wellbeing, appreciative of diversity, etc… all the factors that can make a difference. However, just understanding is not enough, HR has to communicate and inspire, to ensure that others take the right action. (for me it is the breadth of what is required that makes HR such a challenging but ultimately satisfying area in which to work – there is no chance of getting bored or numbed by monotony). So go out and make the right connections, help others to understand and hence to amend their thinking and behaviour to achieve better outcomes. Make your business shine.

Photographer Lincoln Harrison spent up to 15 hours taking these long exposure pictures of stars

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