The HR Juggler

It’s The People, Stupid!

Posted on: April 29, 2013


Session two that I attended at the CIPD HRD conference was around developing high performing and high potential employees. I rarely use sporting analogies, but this session was very much a game of two halves. Two presenters from different organisations, forming a huge contrast to each other in their approach, presenting style and ability to engage the audience. For me, this session also formed a reminder that when individuals represent their company at events, present their journeys and share their learnings, the audience of professionals are inevitably evaluating (consciously or otherwise) whether they would like to work for or with this organisation, whether they would wish to work alongside or for the individual and perhaps what they might have done differently in the presenter’s shoes.

The first presentation was from Mercedes Benz and their Organisational Development Manager, Karl White. Prefacing his talk by explaining that he disliked using PowerPoint and liked to interact with an audience, my expectations were immediately set…and then substantially lowered, as Karl proceeded to display very plain bullet pointed slides interspersed with technical models and graphs, making no real attempt to engage the audience. The unconscious “would I like to work there?” question was brought to the forefront of my mind and firmly answered when his first slide showed a signpost denoting the choice between being a victim and taking responsibility and Karl announced that he had achieved 100% turnover in the team he had inherited in the first three months of his arrival. I found myself hoping for their sake that the team had been small and wondering about the human impact alongside the business changes. Who knows what the background or individual circumstances were; but rather like badmouthing your former boss or colleagues in a job interview, it just felt inappropriate to present such a negative picture in a public forum, where they had no right of reply.

Ironically, Mercedes should be a great case study of developing high performance and potential, yet all too often I found myself unable to see past the various theoretical models presented and understand what had actually been done, why it mattered and how it had helped individual employees and the overall business. There were some interesting points, for example developing talent with the end in mind, the idea that real talent are ‘sponges’ with a thirst for learning and the identification of business partners as a key training group – those with no direct management responsibility but significant matrix influence across the company. Their e-learning portal, which involved partnerships with Rosetta Stone, Henley, Ashridge and others was made accessible not only to employees but also their families via iPads, which seemed genuinely forward thinking and inclusive.

Yet, my overall response was one of discomfort and lingering doubts – can it really be true that Mercedes Benz have a 100% positive response to the statement that people are proud to work for the company? How would a small organisaton without big budgets learn and implement from this case study? And just how does it translate into the culture of a business when the Organisation Development Manager publicly states ”L&D manages those who can and those who can’t” and “we don’t let them loose in the business until we’re 100% confident that they are capable”. To me it created the impression of a culture of command and control with little opportunity of learning from mistakes and fulfilling one’s full potential, squarely at odds with the qualities that one usually identifies with the learning and development function of a business. I hope very much that I am wrong about that and that these comments merely demonstrated a lack of presenting experience, or nerves on the day.

The second half of the session was delivered by Amanda Whiteford, Head of Learning and Development at Tube Lines Ltd. She opened her talk by showing a video of employees’ ideas that had been put into practice and described how her organisation is 80% male and comprises of 70% engineers, which presented some challenges in learning and development. In sharp contrast to Karl, Amanda spoke warmly of the team that she had inherited and referenced the fact that some good work had taken place before she had joined. She explained that their primary objective of the programme she introduced was retention of talented people within Tube Lines and highlighted the importance of talking about the potential of staff, not just their current performance, which really resonated with me. Amanda described how leaders underwent a 360 feedback process each year as an ongoing reminder and commitment to the fact that it is not just what you do that is important, but how you do it.

Amanda used visual and engaging slides to complement the messages that she delivered around how the development programme was designed and implemented. Three bespoke development strands were created to make it as inclusive as possible: business leaders with the ability to run part of the organisation and move away from their technical background, aspiring leaders and technical masters. The development template was intentionally simple: coaching conversations to talk about the individual’s aspirations, explore the gaps and what opportunities existed to fill them. One aspect that I really liked is that Tube Lines made it mandatory for anyone entering the leadership programme to focus on succession planning and development for their own team and demonstrate what progress that they were making in this area. It was also made clear to potential delegates upfront that there would be honest feedback during and at the end of the year-long programme and that not every one who participated would automatically progress to a bigger role or increased remuneration.

The types of development options that were made available for those on the programme varied from attending exec committees, working on a project of embedding an innovation into the organisation, shadowing a Director, taking part in an audit activity (which Amanda attested that she herself had done and was a great learning experience to find out about a different part of the business…who knew?!), access to a career management programme and participation in a leadership development programme. What was also great was her description of the personal budget that they made available to participants, for them to invest in something that was pertinent to their own development. Interestingly, they had 50% take up of this.

I really liked Amanda’s authenticity and honesty in describing the successes and challenges of the leadership programme, which is about to enter into its second year. Importantly in this second tranche the exec board can still choose individuals, but the programme is also opened up for applications, to enable anyone to express an interest in taking part. In the first group one person became Exec Director, there were 9 promotions and 3 others moved from the aspiring leaders programme to the business development programme, comprising 40% of participants. A further 40% of participant were identified as key contributors but not necessarily future leaders and 20% of participants either didn’t engage with the programme or left the business. Given that the exec team had nominated the first tranche, Amanda described the results as valuable feedback, that some individuals are incredibly good at managing upwards but did not necessarily have the potential at this stage to go forward and develop as leaders in her organisation.

What Amanda felt had worked well was that there was now an established programme in place with genuine exec buy-in, it had stimulated the business and led to real development for individuals, who themselves felt the importance of being noticed and their contribution acknowledged. To have achieved this amidst the challenges she had faced was remarkable: the organisation had had 6 CEOs in the 5 years that she had been there and as in so many other businesses, organisational change and uncertainty had become a constant. She also admitted that the technical masters remained a weak strand in the development programme and that to some degree it was really the usual suspects that had been included in the first cohort. Amanda had a clear view of next steps for the programme and is aiming to introduce a career paths framework to the business, although given that Tube Lines Ltd will shortly be integrated with TfL, she recognises that the organisational sands will continue to shift and change.

For me, this session demonstrated as much learning about how you can use the potential of an opportunity of presenting your organisation’s journey and hard work to professional peers and colleagues, as it did about sharing knowledge about what has worked or not worked in different organisations. In many ways, organisations are not so very different from each other in the strategies and theories that they experiment with and the programmes that they devise and implement. What makes the real difference and always has done is the people: their passion, their commitment, their authenticity, their loyalty and their ability to connect and make a difference.

It seems to me that the secret ingredient to performance and potential can be found right there. It’s the people, stupid!

What do you think? I’d love to know.

17 Responses to "It’s The People, Stupid!"

Alison, this is a brilliant blog about the session. I too was there and couldn’t agree more with your views.

Excellent piece Alison. So rich in content and so easy to draw key learning points from the session. Thank you.

Thanks Ade, glad you enjoyed it and found it useful

Hi Alison

Interesting that you state “inappropriate to present such a negative picture in a public forum, where they had no right of reply”.

A blog is very much a public forum and whilst Karl can of course comment here does he know about this post? Have you contacted him to give him an opportunity to comment? It would be interesting to hear his views on your points 🙂

Two sides to every story!!


Hi Peter

Of course there are two sides. Bear in mind though that this was a conference to which press and bloggers were invited and expected to blog about their impressions of the sessions they attended and these are mine of that particular one. We’re all entitled to our opinions and differing approaches, that’s what makes life interesting.

Were I ever to write an expose or opinion piece on an individual (highly unlikely, believe me!) then I would absolutely contact them before publishing; however that seems to me to be unecessary when merely giving one’s views on a public presentation.

Thanks for taking the time to comment


I guess there is a fine balance to be struck between pride in your achievements and having the emotional intelligence to keep certain things private re Mercedes

Thanks Alison, great article thank you so much for taking the time and sharing. I really liked how Tube lines made those entering their leadership scheme think about succession planning in their own team. I can imagine benefits for the individual, team and the organisation from such a small point.

I definitely agree with Peter C about keeping some things private, sometimes change in a team is necessary… what isn’t necessary is telling a room of conference delegates that information!

Thanks so much for commenting. I thought it was a great idea to make succession planning and team development an explicit expectation of the leadership programme.

I routinely beg to be spared from the curse of middle aged men in middle management.

Shortest comment ever?!? Lol 🙂

Brevity induced by a monumental long-haul-travel-cold coupled with spring arriving like a jack-in-the-box causing everything to come out at once and making my once sanguine (moribund even) immune system to go into paranoid hyperdrive in response to the simultaneous emission of every shade of pollen known to nature. I didn’t get hay fever until I was 40 and hereby apologise for decades of eye rolling at others.

I am going sailing today. Right now it’s the last thing I want to do, but I know the open sea will be pollen free and just having a stinking cold seems like quite a luxury really 🙂

Meanwhile, I have developed a hyphenation habit.

You always make me smile. Hope the sailing was wonderful x

Worked a treat. Wonderfully shattered. Now I just need a yacht with wifi.

We’re delivering a £5.4 billion programme to improve these Lines, the largest improvement project the Tube has ever seen. To do this, we need talented people. That’s why we’re equally passionate about making Tube Lines a great place to work. Your journey starts here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 234 other followers

HR Juggler’s Archive

%d bloggers like this: