CIPD Annual Conference 2019: Highlights from day one

From the science of leadership to talent tactics, here’s some of what you might have missed so far in Manchester

This year's CIPD Annual Conference began with a panel discussion around HR's role in the age of greater transparency and public scrutiny, including notable names such as Civil Service chief people officer Rupert McNeil and broadcaster Trevor Phillips.

Here are some of the highlights so far:  

Leadership science hasn't changed for 20 years

Whatever you do, don't ask renowned organisational psychologist Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic what's new in the science of leadership – it's a question that bugs him. His diplomatic answer, he told delegates during his talk on the subject, is that it hasn't changed at all in the last two decades. But with the advent of data, AI, psychometric testing and their ilk, that's somewhat hard to believe.

But Chamorro-Premuzic is skeptical about the value of these tools. The MBTI personality test is "about as valid as a horoscope", he said, and data means nothing without human interpretation. Additionally, when it comes to choosing the leaders of tomorrow, nepotism unfortunately still plays a part. But, he pointed out, we're moving towards a world where competency means more than networks: "We've had the ability to evaluate competence for two decades – we just haven't used it until now," he said.

Chamorro-Premuzic also pointed out that someone's potential to be a good leader is always going to partially be a "bet" – it can never be guaranteed they'll be any good. And while he describes intuition as "the enemy of progress in this field" – i.e. HR and business leaders going with their gut feeling rather than hard evidence – we are, in his words, "getting better at being wrong", with a well-designed leadership assessment centre reducing the chance of making an incorrect decision to nearer 20 per cent, rather than 50/50.

He added that the gap between science and practice is partially to blame for the slow burn of leadership research – according to studies, it takes an average of 17 years for research to make it into mainstream usage.

Don’t rely on yoga or massages to drive wellbeing

Reducing stress and mental ill-health is about more than just offering yoga in the workplace, according to Andrew Spells, head of wellbeing at the British Council. He said organisations needed to look at psychological wellbeing in a more nuanced and holistic way instead of just offering perks. But to do this, employers had to be able to clearly communicate their definition of wellbeing to their workforce.

“Actually just getting a clear message about what you mean by 'wellbeing' throughout the organisation can be a challenge,” Spells said. 

Both Spells and Andrea Vogel, former head of people and achievement at War Child UK, said defining wellbeing depended on each business’s unique culture. 

Vogel said having a holistic approach to wellbeing and a clear definition would help organisations boost their productivity and modernise their culture as older solutions to improving mental health support, such as an employee assistance programme (EAP), were no longer fit for purpose.

“That [calling an EAP] is a very simplistic view and completely outdated in this day and age,” Vogel said. “We need to be looking at much more and the different components at work that impact on your health.”

Leaders, not HR, should own talent management

Businesses have high expectations of their leaders, said Tony Cooke (pictured), vice president of HR at Adidas, including the need to not only develop talent but also coach and mentally support their workforce.

But the responsibility for succession planning and wider talent management should not be allowed to fall primarily on HR, he added. Managers and leaders needed to take a more hands-on approach. 

‪However, Neil Wooding, chief people officer at the Ministry of Justice, said that he felt anxious about talent schemes as the concept suggested an organisation could only be bothered by the most gifted employees. ‬

‪“It’s very narrow-minded,” said Wooding. “It’s locally driven and shows how provincial talent building can be within organisations.” He argued that leadership-focused talent was not about vertical progression, and that people should be able to move across the business.‬

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