Thursday, 30 May 2013

Food for Thought

We had our first barbecue of the year at the weekend - in preparation the boys baked a loaf in the afternoon (bread-making was my father’s secret method for ensuring clean fingernails, but I’m pleased to report that my chefs washed their hands thoroughly before kneading) and they sweated over the hot charcoal, as dusk fell, while I created some salads and laid the table.  It’s good to do things together as a team and many of the rules to effective working relationships are learned initially at home.  I clearly am distracted by food as, while waiting for my supper to be cooked, I was struck by how many aspects of life (both within and outside the office) centre around food and drink.  We talk of “water cooler moments”; people wishing to provide services often suggest “meeting up for a coffee”; it is a customary in my organisation for an individual, on their birthday, to buy cakes and/or savoury treats for everyone to enjoy - it creates a wonderful sense of camaraderie as people eat and chat together in the main office kitchen; in many workplaces, the boss is often referred to as The Big Cheese (odd given that something “cheesy” is often considered to be second rate); and how many of us haven’t enjoyed after work drinks or going out for a meal with colleagues or tweet-ups with social media contacts?  Food plays an important role in our lives.
Carl Warner's Vege Head
Having started by contemplating the impact of food and drink in the work environment, I have decided to reverse my view and comment on what we, in conventional work, can learn from the experts in food and drink.  A group of academics have recently undertaken some interesting research into Michelin starred chefs and their kitchens.  The conundrum that intrigued them was how these clearly effective leaders manage to maintain consistency in their offering without stiffling change and thereby preventing fresh concepts and innovative culinary creations from occurring.  I was fortunate to attend the presentation of their findings at an event hosted by the Cass Business School.  As part of the research some of the world’s top chefs’ kitchens were observed to determine what made them effective and the chefs were interviewed.  Certain common themes emerged, supported by comments from the participating chefs, namely:
  • rigid discipline and planning is required to absorb and reduce the risk of unexpected events - “no mistakes admitted”;
  • skill is more important than creativity - “you learn the process and everything else comes later”;
  • everyone in the kitchen must understand what has to be done and why - “keep going, teaching, teaching...”
  • it is important to be able to improvise on the fly - “cook it raw”;
  • sourcing is a primary advantage - “the quality and taste required are found in very few places”;
  • esprit maison (i.e. the in-house style and culture) is key - “we have our own style and the dishes must fit/sit well within it”;
  • good chefs are constantly learning and appraising - looking inside and looking outside - “Never eat alone”, experience boosts innovation/sparks creativity; and
  • creative chefs must not be constrained by convention - “Good chefs steal, bad chefs copy" (with apologies to Picasso).

"El bodegón del cazo Azul" by Picasso, 1945
Having determined the above “key ingredients for a top kitchen”, the academics considered the processes and operational approach needed to enable the consistent reproduction of excellence.  Again, there was a high degree of similarity between each of the great chefs' kitchens.  Each was well organised with specific "stations" dedicated to the preparation of certain elements of the meal - meat,  fish, dessert, cold food preparation, etc...(an idea originated by Augustus Escoffier, who believed in running his kitchen like the military and referred to them as the "Brigade de Cuisine" which translates as the "Kitchen Brigade"). 

New recruits, starting their career in catering within a top kitchen (a privilege many would undertake for free simply to be able to experience and learn from a master chef) all have similar traits.  They are self-selecting due to the demands of being regularly rotated between the stations (usually every six months to ensure a consistency of approach and appreciation of all aspects of the kitchen) and the pressure of the job.  The work is very demanding, verging on punitive - early starts, late finishes and little chance for a social life outside work (work/life balance is not an option) - so trainees have to be:


I saw a friend this week, whom I had lost touch with for the past decade.  We met for a bite to eat and I’m pleased to say that we picked up our friendship exactly where we had left off.  It made me appreciate that strong relationships (in and outside the workplace) are forged on trust and authenticity (and are often accompanied by good food).

Monday, 20 May 2013

The Sound of...Flyin' High

May 22nd, the date of the Carnival of HR (of which this blog is one small part), is an important date in my employer’s corporate calendar, it is when our Remuneration Committee and the Board meet to review, amend and approve the reward packages proposed for each of our employees. (For a glimpse of the full range of the Carnival of HR offering see  |, lovingly curated by Doug Shaw ( ) Thanks Doug - a tough job very well done.  The URL is )  Back to my own day: although our financial year runs in line with the tax year, we tackle reward only after we know how the business units and individuals have performed.  As in many organisations, for most employees the knowledge of what their salary will be for the next twelve months (and whether they will receive a bonus that could enable them and their family to have a significant holiday or pay for some anticipated expenditure), is the beginning of their planning for the year ahead. 

Planning is important...

In fact, as this HR Carnival blog's theme is "Beginnings", I will start by saying that planning, prior to beginning almost anything, enables a better outcome and my intention in this post is to encourage you to think strategically and hence to become more effective in an important, but in my opinion under-valued, aspect of HR.  So...

“Let’s start at the very beginning...”, as Maria sang to the von Trapp children in The Sound of Music

“...when you read you begin with A-B-C”, however, the song does not progress to “when you count you begin with 1-2-3”... it moves straight into singing about “do-re-mi”.  Perhaps it is because I have been working with reward spreadsheets for the past few weeks (and hence have become somewhat obsessed), but I think HR needs to consider its relationship with “dough” (of the monetary variety), analysis and informed decision making, using management information (re M.I.).  So many in HR are more comfortable with letters than they are with numbers.  As the world becomes increasingly data focused, this could become a problem for our profession.  

Reward is too often the ignored little spanner in the HR toolbox... perhaps because traditionally HR has neither valued nor attracted numerate, analysis-hungry, spreadsheet experts. 

In most businesses, HR is recognised as the custodian of remuneration, diligently compiling benchmarking data to validate that salaries are in-line with competitors and that job offers and pay increases are not out of sync with the market.  I am not saying that this is a bad thing.  Everyone I have spoken with acknowledges that the basics have to be right (otherwise employees will become disengaged, feel undervalued, may walk and potential employees may decline to join). However, few HR professionals are doing more than managing the basics when it comes to Reward.  People need to appreciate that Reward is so much more than simply “pay and rations”.  Total Reward is an often over-used, but usually under-comprehended phrase.  Total refers to "involving all aspects" of reward at work. 

How often do we really think of Reward within the bigger picture of employment and the people involved in work?  Most acknowledge that Reward is more than simply base pay, benefits, wellbeing initiatives and a potential bonus.  The BBC is not famed for its high salaries and yet people strive to be able to work there, partially because of the experiential opportunities it can provide. No other organisation can enable you to be part of the production team making world-leading natural history documentaries with David Attenborough.  People there find their roles "rewarding".  A similar positive advantage can be considered applicable to people working in the not-for-profit or medical research sectors - their day-to-day jobs have the potential to change people's lives and that is gratifying in itself.  

Photo courtesy of the BBC
The drivers that inspire people are complex, in addition to money people will give their employer their dedicated thought and labour to achieve objectives in return for: prestige, respect, status, dignity, the ability to learn, the sense of being part of team/belonging, time to pursue out-of-work interests, travel, generous praise and/or recognition, to name but a few.  As a result, smart HR professionals must not view Reward in isolation, away from the broader work environment.  

A number of organisations have undertaken research into the impact of Reward.  A recent, notable paper is Aon Hewitt’s 2012 study into Total Rewards, which demonstrates a link between reward and high performance (as evidenced by companies achieving significant revenue vs. objectives, degrees of innovation and high levels of employee engagement).  A significant element of the success seems to be down to communication, not just espousing Total Rewards but articulating a clear strategy that includes objectives, measures and competitive positioning (back to HR’s need to understand and use data).  Before determining the strategy employees, as well as managers and the top leadership, are asked what they want – the advent of technology and social media has made it so much easier to be personal, to solicit feedback and suggestions.

Landing Signal Officer's Communication - as used on HMS Ark Royal

According to the Aon survey, Total Rewards impact at various stages of the employee life cycle, namely:

Top factors influencing Attraction:          
  • Competitive base pay
  • Competitive health care benefits
  • Financial stability of business 
  • Flexible working 
  • Good pension provision 
  • Number of days’ holiday
  • Reputation as “a great place to work” 
  • Promotion prospects
  • Challenge/stimulating work 
  • Culture

Top factors influencing Retention:          
  • Faith in senior leadership re future direction
  • Tools to do the job
  • Health care benefits
  • Sufficient resources
  • Reliable colleagues
  • Career opportunities/clear career path
  • Good relationship with line manager
  • Supportive culture

Top factors influencing Engagement:
  • Clear career path
  • Involved in decisions that affect their work
  • Appropriate resources
  • Development
  • Team
  • Colleagues going the extra mile for success
  • A culture of personal development
  • Good managerial relationship
  • Comprehensible decision making
  • Appropriate benefits

The best businesses are brilliant at using certain elements of Total Reward (such as manager effectiveness, inclusion, culture, values, learning and career development) to emphasise the factors that differentiate them from other employers in their field.  I have a little experience of this – I co-founded a business in 2000 and within a short space of time we were deemed best of breed in our sector.  It was hard work and demanded long hours to get the business off the ground, but, without exception, my colleagues at all levels in the business valued being part of a team that was “making history”.  We were not the highest payers and we did not have the swankiest offices (indeed our premises as we grew were close to the end of their natural life and hence provided cheap rental), but our sense of community, mutual respect, genuine fun, shared success and mutual appreciation made up for most of the hardships.  HR had a fundamental role to play in the success of the business.  

The time has come for all of us in HR to realise that we can and should make a difference.  We have the ability and tools to enable both our workers and our businesses to become high fliers.

So, returning to the theme of Beginnings, let's make a start, let's change the way we think about Reward.  We want our employees to be truly engaged and to be feeling good about where they work. It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life...

Nina Simone singing "Feeling Good"

              "Feeling Good"

Birds flyin' high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin' on by, you know how I feel
It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life for me.
Yeah, it's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life for me, ooooooooh...
And I'm feelin' good.

Fish in the sea, you know how I feel
River runnin' free, you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel
It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life for me,
And I'm feelin' good

Dragonfly out in the sun, you know what I mean, don't you know,
Butterflies all havin' fun, you know what I mean.
Sleep in peace when day is done: that's what I mean,
And this old world is a new world and a bold world for me...

Stars when you shine, you know how I feel
Scent of the pine, you know how I feel
Yeah, freedom is mine, and I know how I feel..
It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life for me
And I'm feelin'... good.

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.