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  • Writer's pictureJohn MacKenzie

An inflection point of opportunity

This is the title used by Peter Cheese, chief executive of the UK Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), for his welcome letter in the latest edition (October/November 2021) of People Management, the organisation's magazine. He quite rightly emphasises the point that the way businesses are organised and run are at a 'once-in-a-generation' point of change and that the current crisis due to the pandemic is not just a short-term 'aberration'. He goes on to describe the key role that the HR function has played in promoting inclusion and wellbeing, and how these are now 'central issues in support of talent acquisition, retention, innovation and productivity'. I agree wholeheartedly, but after having read it I was left with a feeling that something a little more fundamental was missing.

I left the Army after more than 20+ years with little knowledge of how civilian organisations were managed and no idea of the role of 'HR', or any other business function for that matter. Leadership roles in the Army meant that in addition to being 'the boss' you were the father, mother and general counsellor to the soldiers under your command. It was rammed home from the earliest days of leadership skills training that the guys and girls who you were responsible for were the eyes, ears and brains of the outfit and they did 'what the business does' as it were, so as their leader you had better look after them.

With promotion, your responsibilities as a leader increased, including the level of intervention in the personal problems of those under your command. Whether it was a relationship problem, issue to do with pay and allowances, allegations of bullying or harassment, recommendations for promotion, absence, or unfitness for duty for one reason or another, you had to deal with it. There was no HR department. This meant that you had to know your people well and, perhaps most importantly, how to actively listen to them. You needed to learn how to intervene appropriately and when to step back and let things take their natural course. Given that we were part of the UK armed forces, we had the comprehensive support of the organisation around us and we always had someone to turn to for advice or a bit of encouragement.

Starting my job as a civilian on the Monday following the Friday I left the Army, I expected to find they would be way ahead in terms of how people were managed. After all, in the Army you just have to obey orders, follow instructions and do what you're told, don't you? I soon came to realise that actually, if anything, it was the other way round! In the Army an effective leader would always seek suggestions for the best way to achieve a difficult objective. Working my way up through the ranks I never felt restricted in either voicing my views or expressing my ideas. Of course, there would always be occasions in military operations when there was no time to consider differing viewpoints, but the trust and faith in your leader built up over time generally meant that when 'the boss' told you to do something as a matter of urgency you would just get on with it, confident that it was probably the best thing to do.

The first few months in civilian life were an eye opener! My position was probably what would be described today as 'middle management' in an operational function and included getting a new computer based operations call centre established covering a large part of the UK. I took a broad view of the role and got involved in every aspect of the project, including advertising for the new positions, interviewing, selection, initial training and so on. I was sometimes told 'Oh, that's an HR matter, let them deal with it'. Absorbed as I was in getting the project off the ground, I felt I could not waste time by referring problems elsewhere, whether to do with people or technical issues, and usually dealt with them myself. Some months into the job I was reprimanded by the HR Head, who was based in London and I had never met, to be told I must involve the local HR team in recruitment, designing shift patterns, establishing policies and procedures for managing performance, etc. Suffice to say that of the five UK centres established over the course of the following year mine was the only one to go live with no drop in operational performance!

The point I'm making is that if we get too tied up in focusing on our own particular function then we run the risk of forgetting what the business is about. It is a responsibility of all managers regardless of department to get to know their employees, their strengths, areas for development, their preferred ways of working to achieve maximum productivity and so on, at all times with a focus on the overall purpose of the organisation. Peter Cheese is correct in saying that now is the time for a 'once-in-a-generation-change'. But it's not just a challenge for HR teams; it's a challenge for all managers no matter how large or small the organisation or the nature of their business.

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