The HR Juggler

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counselling 2

This post is part of the 25% club series dealing with the topic of mental health, particularly as it relates to the workplace. Some of the posts, like today’s, will be accredited, others will be anonymous – all have a powerful impact and help to shine a light on a topic that we need to talk about so much more than we currently do. Today’s post is by Graham Frost, who you can find over on his blog or on Twitter @grafrost.


In the early 1990’s I was in my mid-thirties, in an unhappy marriage that I couldn’t see my way out of, working five or six 12-14 hour shifts a week on the railway. People who knew me at that time tell me that they feared for my sanity. I was on a treadmill of my own making, and couldn’t see a way of stopping it.

My wife worked for the railway too, we had met while working together, and she had been taking a lot of time off sick because of the stress and depression caused by her very unhappy life. I had married her because I thought I could make her happy, yet all I had managed to do was to make myself unhappier. I used to seek the company of other unhappily married men, so that we could bemoan our lot in life together.

One day, my wife told me that her manager had suggested that she might go for some counselling, to help her on the road back to work. I was happy to hear that she might be taking a step forward, and supported her in anything that might help her to deal with her troubled past. I did notice a difference in her after the first counselling appointment; she said that it had been such a release, being able to talk to someone completely non-judgemental about what was going on in her life.

After the second or third appointment, my wife came home and said that she thought it might be a good idea if I went and saw the counsellor too. I didn’t really think there was any reason for me to go, but I was at a point where I would do almost anything to try to make our relationship work, so I agreed to look into the idea.

In order to make this work, I had to go and see my manager, and persuade him that I needed counselling. I didn’t think I could pay for it myself, and, as far as I knew, it wasn’t available on the NHS, so what other option did I have? I knew my manager well, he was a decent man. When I told him that I also wanted to go for counselling, he looked at me in amazement.

‘But there’s nothing wrong with you, Graham, you’re a model employee, you’re always here, you’re one of the most reliable, hard-working people we have!’

Eventually, I managed to persuade him to arrange some counselling sessions, paid for by the company, on condition that I ‘didn’t tell anyone’. He made the arrangements with ‘Personnel’, as H.R. was called then, and I attended my first counselling session a week or so later. It was the first time I had talked to anyone about everything that had ever happened in my life. All the stuff about being brought up in a fundamentalist Christian cult, leaving home at 17, my brief life of crime, Borstal and my cancer story came out over the first few appointments. My weekly counselling hour became my ‘me time’, something I had not experienced for a long time. My counsellor was marvellous – she was convinced that I had been suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for years.

I see that period in my life as the start of the second phase of my life, when I realised that I could do anything that I set my heart on doing. I did escape from the unhappy marriage, I did put together and work with the best customer service team that I possibly could, and I did go on to have a second career in Learning and Development, all because someone helped me to sort my mind out.


If you care about mental health and want to make a difference there are lots of things you can do

  • visit Mind’s website and check out their excellent corporate resources
  • take the ‘time to change’ pledge
  • attend our event with Mind on 5th February 2013 at 6pm
  • share your story and read those of others as part of this blog series. If you would like to contribute, please contact me via Twitter (@AlisonChisnell) or through the comments section on this blog

So, last week Cranfield published their latest report on women in UK boardrooms and confirmed that women now make up 15.6% of the boards in FTSE 100 companies, compared to 12.5% last March and a government target of 25% of female directors by 2015. In addition, the number of all-male FTSE 100 boards dropped to 13 from 2010’s figure of 21, and, for the first time, a minority of FTSE 250 companies now have all-male boards. Perhaps interestingly, or inevitably, the report found that a high proportion of female appointments to FTSE boards have been made despite those women having no prior FTSE board experience and that 72% of new FTSE 250 female directors had no prior FTSE experience.

Coverage of this topic has ranged from praising it as a record high in business, a general consensus that more needs to be done to achieve the targets set and speculation on the reasons that we have still have so comparatively few women at this level in business, including the old chestnuts of cost of childcare, speed of return from maternity leave and availability of flexible working…all of which are valid points, but I am not wholly convinced that they represent the full picture. Further unpicking of the report also questions whether the rise is as dramatic as it seems, or whether in fact the real situation is plateauing, given that once you break the figures into Executive and Non-Executive Directors, only 5,5% of Executive Director roles are women. That matters, as the Exec Directors are internal, have far more involvement with day-to-day running of the business and generally a much stronger operational influence.

It is also worth mentioning that there is a similar proliferation of female Non-Execs in Norway, whose government introduced legislation requiring companies to have 40% of female Directors and gave them five years to comply. This should in no way detract from the achievement that they have made; but given that an individual can hold several Non-Exec Director roles concurrently for many different organisations, I am not wholly convinced that the gender balance in the boardroom is quite as equal as it might appear at first glance. 

Much as I find the attention given to these stats faintly depressing, the reality is that they also make me uneasy. It becomes so simple to make assumptions and generalisations on figures alone, targets that are devoid of context. I can’t help wondering where the value is in a pure statistic of the number of women on boards, without any sense of what types of role they are doing, what the experience of working in that environment is like, whether they believe that they are perceived as equal to their male colleagues, whether gender equality is an issue for them. Also, what about the next level down? If we are serious about increasing the number of women in board level roles, then should there not be some form of measurement of senior managers within organisations? Or indeed how people progress through the business, how much investment is given to their development, how valued they are, financially or otherwise. Some human element to the numbers, a meaningful and long-term investment and commitment to equality of opportunity.

My perspective on this cannot help but be influenced by the fact that I work in an organisation where there is an even gender split at the most senior level of the business. Diversity matters hugely, but it’s not just about making sure that there is a strong representation of women at senior levels, it is about enabling people who are from all types of background to thrive and succeed. Giving individuals the chance to shine and then appointing the best person for the job. In my view, if only certain types of individuals are able to succeed and be promoted in an organisation, it is not so much a gender issue as a cultural one…and there isn’t any amount of statistics and external measurement that will improve that culture, if the current leadership is not bought into effecting change.

So, once the headlines have receded, we are left with just numbers, which may be getting better, or may be staying mostly the same. I would absolutely like to see more women on boards, companies reflecting more accurately the diversity of customers they serve and a truly level playing field for all individuals to develop and progress. But let’s not fool ourselves into believing that the numbers show this yet or that the issue lies merely in having senior bums on seats. We have a long way to go and some organisations and sectors need to do a lot of figuring out how to get there…and in some cases, whether they even want to.

I would love to hear from you…what do you think?


At the half-way point of this Advent calendar of blog posts, it is worth remembering that personal reflection is not everyone’s cup of tea and that we all approach things differently.
The extent to which you are familiar with Neil Morrison, author of today’s post, will determine how much of an introduction this post requires: if you are fortunate enough to interact with him regularly on Twitter (@NeilMorrison) and via his Change-Effect blog, then this post needs no preamble and may indeed induce some fond nostalgia for bygone blogging days.
For anyone who does not know Neil…….hmmm……what is the usual catch-all of a disclaimer? Oh yes, “views expressed are not my own”….that’ll do nicely!

You have been warned!!


So 2011 eh? What a year….it ranks up there with 1994, 2002 and 1864 don’t you think? Quite incredible……….  I was going to tell you about loads of semi interesting things that have happened to me during the year, but to be honest you wouldn’t give a shit and….to be honest…….I wouldn’t blame you for that.

The turning of a year always causes us to reflect. In essence, this reflection is an attempt to put meaning on a series of meaningless events that in rank up there with paint drying, nail clippings and conference speeches on social media when it comes to levels of interest.  The fact is that most of us have done nothing remarkable, will do nothing remarkable and are by our very existence…..are……..unremarkable.

Woah… this is supposed to be an uplifting blog right?

Wrong. I’m not the wind beneath your wings. I’m the hunter with the shotgun ready to blow a hole in your side. Because that wind….it is hot air and nonsense and you need to come down to the ground tout de suite and with a whopping great force that will separate your head from your arse.

The thing is about life though, the wonderful thing, is that as we count our life in time, as we draw judgment on our existence based on artificial segmentations of nature we are blessed that where there is an end there is a start. Which means we get a do-over every single year. Result.

Which is exactly why you need to stop navel gazing and why you need to stop trying to explain away your frankly embarrassing inertia and general apathy and focus on doing something AMAZING. Something that will blow the whole show up and make a REAL difference. 

I can guarantee right now, that we each have at least three things that we aren’t doing that we want to do. And we aren’t doing them because we are scared, pitiful little wretches looking for existence in the mundane and the ordinary.  But we CAN be different. We WANT to be different. And for our sanity, our health and our happiness we NEED to be different.

So I’m going to ask you not to look back at 2011. We know that was a limp wrist of a year.  Look to 2012.  And don’t give me some balls about, “because” or “however” or “but” or “can’t” or “would”……the moment you use those words you are already consigning yourself to the dustbin marked mediocre.

We know the economics, we know the politics, we know the total fuck up of a world that we are living in.  You know what is going to get us through? People being amazing, not mediocre.

YOU define your realities, YOU define your existence, YOU make your future. And you do it through your actions.

2011 is history, 2012 is the future. Where you focus is your choice.  Make a good one.

Oh….and a very happy New Year to you all…….

I am truly delighted and quite happily overwhelmed with the response to this Advent Calendar blogging experiment…when I initally suggested it, I had no idea that it would capture so many people’s imaginations and create so many fantastic posts from such a wide variety of people. Many of the guest bloggers are people who have become friends on Twitter and some others I have known far less well before their offer of writing a post. Today’s post though, is from someone very special who is part of my family – my sister-in-law, Liz. I am very proud and genuinely touched that she has taken the time to write a blog post for me…and an excellent one it is too :).


This time of year brings mixed feelings for me.  As an accountant, when December starts and the decorations start going up, I have an impending feeling of dread.  Both 31 December and 31 January are huge deadlines in the accounting calendar, and the start of Advent always brings on a bit of a panic attack when I realise just how much there is to be done.

And of course, there are the other things which we have to find time for at this time of year.   Writing cards, putting up decorations, attending school plays, and of course Christmas shopping, all come within the ‘Mummy’ remit.  So December for me usually means stress and anxiety, at least until Christmas Day itself, when I finally allow myself to relax.

This year is slightly different though.  A number of things which have happened in 2011 have made me reflect on my life and my career, so I am in a rather more thoughtful mood than you would normally find me in at this time of year.  The main trigger for all of this reflection and ‘navel gazing’ is the sudden realisation that I am getting, well if not old, at least middle aged.

The festive season also marks my birthday, and this year it is a significant one.  I have drifted through my 20s and 30s without thinking too much about my age, but now I am uncomfortably aware of getting older.  The other major change this year has been my son starting at secondary school, which marks a new phase in all our lives as he and my daughter both get older and the household dynamics change.

All of this has made me stop and think about the direction my life is taking.  This has resulted in a change in my working hours which is allowing me more time with the children in the evenings, but making better use of the time when they are at school.  It has also resulted in re-examining my duties at work so that I can delegate more and make better use of my time and my skills.  Delegation is something that I am traditionally quite terrible at, but I am forcing myself to do it.  Hopefully the new year will bring more progress on this, but I am very aware that it will only happen if I make it.

So all in all, I think that 2011 has been a good year for me.  As my 30s draw to a close, I am pleased with what I have achieved so far, proud of my children, and looking forward to helping to drive my business forward in the future.

But enough of this self-indulgence, do you know how many tax returns I still have to do?!

Today’s high energy guest post comes from the very cool Peter Cook, author of Punk Rock People Management and enlivener of pretty much any Twitter stream he is part of…you can find him at @Academyofrock and over on his blog.


In conducting my review of 2011, I’m resorting to the titles of some rock and pop songs for inspiration …

Britain’s got HR Talent

One of the highlights of 2011 for me was meeting Evan Davis of Dragons Den and Radio 4’s Today Programme.  During our conversation we touched on the vexed question of talent management.  I was buoyed up by Evan’s finding that the UK plc has tons of talent from his survey of the country for the BBC ‘Made In Britain’ series.   On a more worrying note, he pointed out that we need to steer the economy away from ‘tanning rooms and coffee houses’ which largely consume cash, towards a more enterprising culture which generates export wealth.  Davis said that this transition is not easy to do quickly.   HR strategists will have their work cut out in 2012.

There is power in a union?

The year has been marked by a resurgence of industrial relations unrest.  However, it seems that the recent public sector strikes was marked not by braziers, banners and protest songs, but by the best shopping day in 2011, as retail sales soared.  I saw people leaving the picket lines to go to Costa Coffee at 10 am at my local council offices.  Is shopping for Ugg Boots and flat screen TV’s the hallmark of the new rebellion?

Can we look forward to more industrial unrest?   Having spoke with Vince Cable the other day, I’m not sure that support for a return to the pluralist industrial relations era is universal amongst public sector workers.  One thing is for sure, we can expect more performances by proto punk protest singer Billy Bragg:


What’s new pussycat?

Both Evan Davis and Vince Cable were agreed on the fact that the UK plc needs to encourage innovation and enterprise in 2012 and beyond.   HR will play a pivotal role in encouraging people to bring greater levels of focused creativity to the workplace.  They will also need to develop leaders who value curiosity, enterprise, tolerance of new approaches more than command and control, to seize the initiative in generating new engines of growth.  Doing more of the same will not do, we need to do things differently.  Musically, it’s more a case of ‘What’s new pussycat’ rather than ‘Do the standing still’.


Because Peter is officially a very nice man he is offering electronic copies of his latest book “Punk Rock People Management” FREE to readers of this blog.  Please contact him direct by e-mail at – just mention my name (Alison Chisnell) or Punk HR in the mail and that’s it.  Print copies and Amazon Kindle versions also available at Punk Rock HR or via the Rock’n’Roll Business Blog.

So, all in all….what’s not to like???!

The title of this blog post comes from Neil Morrison, an HR professional with a gift for provoking debate and discussion and blogger extraordinaire. If you need further proof of either of these points, you should really check out his change-effect blog.

Compatibility or capability…which do organisations really value most highly? And, as HR, how effective are we in challenging the reasons behind certain individuals being promoted and others being overlooked? Do we ourselves become quite institutionalised in the organisations we work in, the decisions we validate, the values that we share and the behaviours we  encourage? At what price the continuation of the status quo?

Last week a close friend was talking to me about his career and his reasons for looking for roles outside his current organisation. This is a huge deal for him as he has worked for his current employer for 15 years and is immensely loyal and hard-working, as well as talented and capable. His recent projects have involved his team saving his company over a million pounds, so you would imagine that he would feel valued and optimistic about his future there. However, in reality, the most senior manager in his team was thanked, celebrated and recognised, but none of the employees actually involved in the work of the project received a single word of thanks. My friend’s perception was that the popular people get promoted, whilst those that are not in the ‘in-crowd’ are forgotten, overlooked and systematically neglected. Compatibility to the organisation rather than capability.

But does any organisation really want capability at the expense of compatibility and can that ever truly work? At least some of that question must boil down to what we understand by compatibility.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines compatible as follows –

  • (of two things) able to exist or occur together without problems or conflict
  • (of two people) able to have a harmonious relationship

In my view, organisations and senior management teams don’t have to be harmonious or devoid of conflict and issues to be effective. In order to successfully bring change to an organisation and for it to continuously improve its effectiveness and commercial success, employees must robustly challenge themselves and others at the most senior level; an activity and mindset that HR professionals must absolutely be part of, in order to be valuable to the organisation they work in and their own profession. Otherwise, what is the point of us?

There has to be a balance here though and capability at the expense of any degree of organisational compatibility can fail spectacularly.  If  individuals are so at odds with the culture of an organisation, which is not ready or willing to ever change, then those individuals will find it near impossible to succeed.

In truth, it is probably too simplistic to view promotion on a simple either/or basis and that the correct balance of compatibility and capability depends upon where an organisation is and what it is aiming to achieve. However, all organisations and all HR professionals would do well to guard against promoting candidates who are high on compatibility and low on capability, as this will surely be a far greater risk than the reverse.

I’ve enjoyed blogging on this topic…plenty of food for thought and lots more questions than answers. I’d love to know your views.


A terrible pun of a title, which I couldn’t resist. This week I attended the Human Resources Summit in Lisbon. I was filled with some trepidation before the event, particularly because of the dynamics of the set-up: suppliers pay to attend, which funds the flights and hotel accommodation of the delegates, who therefore attend for free. Not only that, but there were a series of half hour one-to-one meetings between practitioners and suppliers that were  tightly scheduled and mandatory. I approached the event with an open mind, but I really wasn’t sure it would be for me.

To my surprise, I really enjoyed it and got a lot out of it. I met some fantastic people and have come back with my head full of ideas, thoughts and plans.

What I enjoyed most was the networking, both with other senior HR people (there were around 50 in all from a wide variety of organisations) and with suppliers, who were (almost!) without fail engaging, interesting, thought-provoking and likeable. I didn’t manage to speak to everyone over the two days, but had stimulating and useful discussions with those that I did.

The key-note speaker on the first night was rather underwhelming, however the quality of conversation with other participants mostly compensated for this. I selected two strategy sessions in advance of the conference, which were both excellent. It was an extremely well organised summit, a beautiful and fortuitously sunny location and a genuinely engaging and enjoyable event.

And the dreaded one-to-one meetings with suppliers? Mostly fine. I rarely felt as if I was being sold to, was often very interested to hear what types of services they offered and got to know them as people in a reasonably relaxed environment. Whilst it wouldn’t be everyone’s choice to do that type of event, the suppliers were evenly split between those that were regulars at such summits and those who were trying it for the first time. The regulars felt that it was a good investment and that building relationships in this way with senior HR people was effective and bore commercial fruit over time.  Many of the ‘newbie’ suppliers were as anxious as the delegates about the ‘speed dating’ concept of selecting who to talk to in advance and were keen to interact and get to know others on an individual basis.

All in all, it was a good opportunity and one that I enjoyed. I even got to meet a couple of Twitter buddies for the first time, which was a highlight.  Something to think about further, for sure :).

So, why is HR the brake and not the accelerator? How does it need to change? That is today’s blogging challenge.

First things first, is HR really the brakes of an organisation? Sometimes, yes, although that is not always a bad thing. It surely depends at least partly on the motivation for encouraging the business to slow down – is it for a positive reason, that prevents the organisation from rushing headlong into risk without first understanding the implications? Or is it just process for process’ sake and do we at times lack the urgency, the killer instinct to close the deal for the businesses we work for? Certainly being consultative is a common HR trait and skill, which we perhaps need to learn to be more  selective about utilising.

Is HR ever the accelerator? Rarely in my experience, although there may be some circumstances that this takes place and I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

So, how does HR need to change? In my view the following would make a powerful difference –

  • Looking outwards – focussing on the external market, understanding the business we work in, not limiting ourselves to “people issues” but getting stuck into the daily discussions of all aspects of the organisation…think and behave like the Chief Operating Officer and review and align your processes and priorities accordingly
  •  Being obsessed with profit – understanding the commercials of the business you work in, what the profit levers are and what affects the outcomes your organisation is aiming for, as if your professional life depended on it. Because actually, in the business that you work for on any given day, it does…temporarily at least

If you are able to achieve both of the above things, or at least start the journey of working towards them, you will end up being so close to the business that you work in, that you instinctively understand when they need you to be the brake, in order for common sense to prevail and when they want and need you to hit the gas and drive the organisation forwards. And surely the driver’s seat is where we all want to be…..?

Beep, beep, yeah 🙂


This post is the second of my blogging experiment, where all of the post topics have been generated by others and there has been voting taking place on which topic I should blog on each day. If you haven’t voted for a topic yet, please do – I will be tackling the topic with the most votes every day for the remainder of this week. In the event of tie-break votes, I will make the final choice between the two most popular myself  ;)  

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