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Reflections on Talent Summit

A lot of my life is spent going around HR conferences across Europe and the States and while they are always thought provoking, after too many coffees and snacks you usually leave conferences a little more tired than you came in. Not so with the talent summit, I doubt there was a person there who didn’t leave a little more energised and inspired than they arrived. A great collection of speakers, panels and even a bit of dancing in between by the gregarious Dr. Peter Lovatt left us all wanting more.

The theme of technology pervading all that we do in HR left lots of room for debate. While Stevie the Robot was a stark reminder that robots are not just coming, but already here; it reminded us to use our judgement in applying robotics, to the areas it most makes sense. A sobering reminder that big data and AI, while emerging and constructing new realities in areas like recruitment and talent, have not yet made the strides that either are capable of, in HR.

What stood out the most was the power of leadership and how we can demonstrate our leadership in multiple ways, leveraged by great technology. Many companies giving examples of how they tackled diversity, new means of recruitment and engaging their workforce by deploying simple but powerful technologies. New approaches to feedback and developing performance cultures were addressed as a clear priority for all. Interesting examples emerged of companies who’ve made bold strides in this space and created far more engaging and connected organisations.

Talent Summit proved to me that HR is ready to take its place at driving business and leadership change, through creativity, innovation and new technologies. It will be great to see the outcomes next year of the debates sparked at the talent summit of this year and it was a real privilege to be a speaker partaking in what was some of the most interesting debates and discussions I’ve seen in a long time; congrats to all involved.

Crowdsourced, real time feedback, empowering & energising people.

Life as an HR Director is always interesting, varied and full of surprises and for the most part enjoyable…except for that one month every year that made me question my profession and career choices…January. Not only had you your own January blues to contend with but pretty much everyone else’s too. Facing into the odd sexual harassment case post the Christmas party, the onslaught of resignations from people who wanted more, nothing screamed January blues like the most dreaded activity of all; the rollout of the performance management review process.

Troubled managers stressed over calibration curves and nervous, confused employees stepped in and out of meeting rooms to perform the annual ritual. It’s not the idea of managing performance that bothered anyone, everyone was in violent agreement, this had to be managed, performance should be discussed; the great people should know you value them, the weaker performers need to know to smarten up. But the cloud lay over the ‘everyone in between’.

The ‘everyone in between’ awaited the inevitable; to be told they ‘met expectations’. After a year of hard work and dedication, you met expectations….well done. About 70% would wander around our organization in a sea of disappointment, accepting that they were an unfortunate sacrifice to the unspoken but well understood calibration curve. Managers faltered, promising all sorts of treats to gain back employee favor; training courses, mentoring and interesting projects lay ahead if they could just all forget that we denounced you as having ‘met expectations’. But the disappointment lay thick in the air, it remained through the new year strategy all hands meetings, it lay heavy through the ‘new initiatives’ meetings and it sat heaviest of all through the Department goal setting meetings, that articulated the new goals that demanded more focus and energy than ever before to hit an ever more ambitious set of targets. The new year got off to a bleak start and renewing energy and enthusiasm was an uphill battle from there.

As HR reaches into a new era for performance management and prepares the ground for more frequent check-ins, ongoing dialogue on performance and a greater focus on new ways of working, we are getting closer to the time when we reach a point where the backbone and engine of our businesses; the 70% who ‘met expectations’ will feel reinvigorated, reenergized and ready to take on the world in a new year ahead.

Given the strides made in this area over the past year there is room for real optimism for a new way of managing performance through continuous and crowdsourced feedback. This year has the potential to change the game on performance management for good. Here’s to better Januarys!

What a busy and incredible week at HR Tech in Las Vegas. The past few days here at the Venetian, I have been struck by the transformation of HR over the last 5 years, where we are now is almost unrecognizable to its former self.

The future of HR is awash with AI/robots/machine learning and endless analytics tools that provide many levels of transformation. Robots are everywhere; in presentations, USBs and cute giveaways for the kids. Making robots friendly to all seems to be everyone’s game, not discussed as openly, is a flip side to this strategy that will perhaps lead HR back into the more familiar territory of redundancies and upskilling. Many commentators invested energy in reassuring us, endlessly, that the pace of transition is slow and our workers will be upskilled into more interesting jobs, avoiding the repetitive tasks of old. For us, HR directors and business partners, I think we have been here before.

Analytics and predictive analytics continue as hot topics, although I’m not convinced anyone quite knows what to do with them yet. Despite this, I could not ignore the excitement in the room, as the future of HR was envisioned as one that can change our working lives, and for the better. Thought leadership focused on the importance of moving with the tide and welcoming the future of technology and data with solutions to overcome current HR problems.

An interesting talk that embodies this message, spoke about encouraging HR to embrace experiments; Easier to get up and running, and a licence to bypass many of the restrictions brought on by traditional approaches, including stakeholder management, procurement and other internal barriers. A strong emphasis on moving in this direction is to obtain data in order to make your business case. Overall, it sounds like a clever way forward for many who may struggle to convince multiple stakeholders of the benefits of moving to agile ways of working.

What was uplifting about HR Tech was how ready HR is to embrace change, adopt new technologies and demand more from their providers. There is a strong sense of HR demanding what it needs and wants from its providers with none of the usual compromises that were traditionally expected or, indeed accepted. A strong energy around start-ups and young companies who can offer these high levels of innovation. HR is ready for transformation and is taking brave moves, in practically all areas and the sales data proves this – HR is the faster adopter across the enterprise to move to cloud.

My final thought leaving Las Vegas was that the wonderful and yet the frightening thing about being in HR is that we have the power to transform working lives. What a power that is to hold, but every time you have the opportunity to transform something there is the possibility of wonderful outcomes, but sometimes it comes with unintended consequences.

My hope for our profession is that we remember, in our pursuit of AI, robotics and innovative technologies, that there are real lives behind our every decision and they are counting on us to do the right thing.

Let’s not forget our people on the digitization journey. Let’s put them right in the heart of our every decision, building our transformation centred on their greater good.

The Board meeting that none of us relish, things aren’t going so well, revenues are down and the business is facing its greatest challenges. Where do we look to resolve our challenges? Sales, we need to double down on high growth clients, what are the pipeline opportunities. Our brand doesn’t resonate with particular segments of clients, marketing you need to turn things around out with a new ad campaign. Finance, a cost analysis to highlight the areas we can cut costs without hurting our operational activities. Technology, we need to review what projects to stop for this year. Finally, we look to HR. HR, a recruitment freeze effective immediately, lets control headcount, new sign off processes needed.

Really, that’s all we get! Is this the only way the business perceives that HR can help in a revenue crisis? The people agenda is the engine that runs all the functions. It’s people who will come up with the new marketing proposition/brand campaign, people who will ultimately analyze the costs and spot the opportunities and people who make sales. The real question for our board rooms to address is how do we optimize the people agenda to drive the revenue growth we need.
It’s rarely about getting more from the top performers, our old ‘reliables’ who deliver every time but ultimately will burn out for having to carry the weight of the organizations expectations. It’s not through managing the bottom performers who will drain your time and energy in exiting them from the organization. But where you will get your real return from the people agenda? The answer lies in your average employee. The core, the reliable, the one who always got a 3 in their performance rating, fully meeting expectations. What if we could accelerate their performance by just 1%, the impact of the core performing at a higher level has an exponential impact on the future growth of your organization.
So why in HR do we obsess about the top talent and the bottom 10%, have we neglected to consider how we really drive performance from the core and the majority of your organization. What if that middle section of your traditional bell curve, the 60-70% of folks who sit in the middle, delivered just 1% more; made one more sale, delivered one more marketing win, reached one more customer with their campaign, found one more opportunity for cost saving, delivered one more dollar on every customer you have. The impact on your bottom line is inevitably going to be greater than the impact from leaning on your old reliable talent heroes to come rescue your company just one more time, ..before they break.
So if you are to focus on your core employees, how do we get the additional 1%? Firstly, they would have to know that you need an additional 1% from them, setting the expectation, creating the stretch goal. When we’re clear what it is they need to deliver, we’ve got to give them feedback on how they can develop to deliver it. Our feedback processes are traditionally recognition driven, it’s time to shift them to growth oriented feedback. Giving the kind of feedback that delivers recognition but in parallel offers developmental opportunities too. Not an annual discussion on what course we should send you on but a continuous flow of feedback that identifies where they can improve or deliver just that little bit more, that all important 1%.
We all want to give people the opportunity to be great, navigating them to their true potential. Growth oriented feedback is the map they need to focus their direction. Maybe you won’t get an additional 1% from this, but just maybe you’ll get an additional 10. So, next time you are in a Board meeting, and the business has some challenges, how about starting with the people agenda.

We forget how hard it is to be a young Manager, to manage people for the first time, to wonder if your team think you’re a bit of a flake or even worse. The insecurities that all young Managers face are probably the hardest part of the journey to becoming a great leader. In the early days, the temptation is to be the Mr or Mrs nice guy so you do all the usual’s, the team nights out, paying the bill (sometimes out of your own pocket!), praising them when they do well and working so hard on team spirit that it seems you are, in fact, the last to leave the office, when really you thought it would be the other way around, as soon as you hit management!

Then it happens, somebody drops the ball on something really important. You can’t ignore it; you can’t let it go with the comforting remarks ‘it could have happened to any of us’. No, this time it’s serious and if you’re being really honest with yourself, there’s been a bit of a pattern of mistakes. Little things, nothing to lose sleep over but not our highest performer. You can’t avoid it any longer, you have to have “the talk”. Address the issue and plan the development from it. It’s awkward, it’s all a bit of a downer, you dread having it and you’re more than relieved when it’s over. You get on with it and you all move forward.

Now its performance review time, you have a whole team to evaluate and HR are talking bell curves. All the team spirit you’ve built up is about to be trashed with reviews, recriminations and all-round stress. You dread it but get through it, with the end results that everyone seemed disappointed. The high performers were looking for more constructive feedback to help them get promoted for jobs you can’t identify, the average performers were disappointed to not be high performers and the lower performers are annoyed that you didn’t tell them sooner. This people management business is harder than it looks.

Over the years, you become more skillful at it, you give feedback at the moment its relevant, you provide regular feedback that helps develop your’ people. You catch the issues early so that they don’t build, you praise in public and you deliver more constructive feedback in private. You try to grow and develop your team and when it’s really going well your team become superstars, get promoted and move on to bigger and better opportunities than they ever even envisaged for themselves. You are proud of your team, proud of your managerial skills and your 360 reviews/employee surveys tell the organization of your accomplishments of your leadership.
But how can we short circuit it all, why does it take so long to move from the insecure first timer to the experienced and professional leader that we all love to work for. Why? Because we are rarely naturally equipped with the skills we need, they are learned over time. We rarely get the chance to be coached on the job with measurable and tangible measures that teach us continually how to improve the art of being a great coach. Sure, we are sent on the odd leadership course and we might be lucky enough to have a mentor who is a great people leader but all of that feels more like therapy than something we can tangibly change in our work practices.
Now, more than ever, leaders need to move faster through the learning curve of being a great people leader. Giving them hands on tangible measures of their coaching capabilities will help. Giving them real advice and tips based on their results will help even further. We need to give a lot more feedback to our Managers on their true coaching capabilities. Coaching is like any skill, it needs to be learned, practiced, measured and refined. There’s a real role for HR in taking Managers from early stage to maturity, through rolling out coaching skills in the same way we learn many other skills, through practice and feedback. It is only with a continual focus on refining the art of becoming a great coach that we will produce great leaders.

There is a lot of focus on the idea of continuous performance management or sometimes referred to as continuous performance assessment, the idea that feedback should be a continuous process and happen in the moment it matters. It’s hard to argue with the case for continuous feedback that should happen in a timely and relevant manner and we should, no doubt, welcome its place as a core process. However, there is a case to be considered that continuous performance assessment or management is somehow missing the point.
The world of work has transformed and we can no longer rely on the linear relationships of the past, where a Manager reviewed employees work and gave them feedback that they should discuss and align on. The world of work is far too complex for that, most employees work cross functionally, in multiple teams and sometimes with multiple managers and stakeholders. In such a world, it can become the norm for an employee not to interact with their manager on a daily basis but perhaps only see him or her intermittently, for updates and progress reviews. This gives the manager limited time to observe the quality of the work and whether their employee is living the values of the organization. In such a case, why would we limit feedback to being a linear relationship between the Manager and the employee only?
If we are to deliver on the promise of a workplace where feedback should happen in the moment it’s relevant and support the development of our people, we need to consider a fundamentally different approach. To transform our organizations, it’s time we considered the concept that feedback should be crowdsourced; come from a source of relevance wherever that source may be. It could be a stakeholder, a peer, a colleague, a Manager above a Manager. Feedback should come from any place where the intent is to help grow and develop the individual.

Reflecting on the way we live our lives, we don’t limit feedback to one relationship, we receive and give feedback instantly to multiple sources, sharing views, ideas and concepts through our social media networks. With the right level of consideration, our workplaces could reflect the best of this approach. It’s time to consider opening the channels of feedback to multiple sources, where feedback flows horizontally, vertically and upwards in our organizations, in an easy and intuitive way. Through this approach, we can fundamentally evolve the new world of performance management while addressing the growth and development of our people.

Continuous performance management serves only as an extension of what we have always done. It limits us to extending processes of the past, rather than transforming them and can only lead us back to where we started. A simple shift in focus from managing performance to supporting an individual’s growth, through a rich feedback culture, can transform the way we manage performance and usher in a new era for how we grow and develop our people.

Performance management and talent management have long been the biggest sources of conflict between HR and the business. Despite endless search for objective data in the form of surveys, 360 reviews and even assessment centers, they remain largely subjective conversations that happen both inside and outside the boardroom. This is how careers are really made and broken. “Andrea thinks he’s a good guy”; “Ron thinks he can do more” and hence a new king is born.

Meanwhile, the debate rages on during talent management reviews. “He’s delivered amazing business results but can he coach and inspire his people?” I’ve seen HR fight for the people agenda countless times, trying to ensure that our future leadership have a strong people management emphasis, fighting for our leaders to become the perfect coach. Extensive training courses, endless evaluations, elaborate mentoring programs, e-learning suites, you name it, we’ve all tried to create these perfect coaches who, in parallel, can be trusted to deliver amazing results. Consultancies profit from our quest by introducing new fads and models that promise this time, we will reach this Holy Grail. But where have we got to? Have we created the perfect coaches? I struggle to think of any organization where leaders are uniformly as strong on the people agenda as they are on the delivery of business results. Maybe we expect too much, maybe we are not so much in search of great leaders, as much as we are in search of Yoda! But let’s face it, there aren’t many Yoda’s out there. Do we need to rethink all of this?

We have been trying to make coaching work in business for over 20 years but perhaps we need to revisit how we think of coaching? What if the organization could drive a growth oriented culture where we all contribute to each other’s’ learning? Why rest the sole responsibility for growth and development of our people at one person’s door, the unfortunate leader who has so many expectations on his shoulders he may not know where to start! I don’t’ know a child in this world who hasn’t benefited from a multiple of adults, who have helped them grow and develop. Of course, the parents are the biggest influence, but aunts, uncles, friends and neighbors all feel a responsibility and play a role in their development. What if our organization could reflect society in this way? Everyone has a responsibility to help each other grow and develop. Similar to the way our villages used to raise the kids, organizations could raise up the employee to become the best version of ourselves.

Our ways of working have changed so dramatically, we spend more time with our peers and colleagues, than our boss. Our limited face time with our bosses mean we can easily show only one side of our performance, whereas our colleagues often understand a much more rounded version of us. If they were to give us feedback, chances are they see so much more in us and can truly help our development. They better understand our strengths and weaknesses and can deliver insightful feedback on a regular basis. I’m not for a second advocating that Managers shouldn’t take a primary role in developing their people. I’m just suggesting that they aren’t the sole architect of an employee’s development and rooting for it to be a wider effort. Entering an organization would become like entering a new phase of your learning and opening yourself to feedback coming from anyone, anywhere, that would accelerate your growth.

Just think about it, a culture where we go to grow and become the best version of ourselves, supported by bosses, peers and colleagues alike. Now there’s an organization I’d love to meet!

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