Long reads

Reader Q&A with Peter Cheese

6 Jun 2019 By PM Editorial

As part of People Management's special guest-edited edition, we offered a group of readers the chance to discuss their burning issues with the CIPD chief executive

These are tumultuous, and exciting, times for people professionals. And few experts understand the potential opportunities and challenges they face better than Peter Cheese. The CIPD chief executive has been in his role for seven years but has devoted his entire career to helping the HR function increase its impact and effectiveness, having previously held a variety of leadership positions at consultancy Accenture. As part of our special guest-edited issue, People Management offered a group of readers the chance to put their burning questions to Cheese – and they covered everything from the impact of new technology on HR departments to whether the function can finally achieve its much-discussed ‘seat at the table’.

Where is HR is at the moment in terms of its own development, and are we getting the people we need into the profession?

For the profession, in many ways we’re at a point of change and transition. I’ve never seen more debate, I’ve never seen so many of the things that we care about as a profession on the business and political agendas – for example, wellbeing and inclusion. But there’s also pressure from us to be more commercial; huge amounts on how we use technology; how it’s influencing work; how we understand data and so on. I think that creates greater opportunity – but it’s also putting additional demands and expectations on the profession. 

We’re at a really interesting point in time. We’ve got this opportunity to truly take our rightful place at the very heart of business. I’m often reminded of a quote somebody told me: “There are only two things you have in business. One is money, one is people.” And I think it’s very true. 

We have to think about what the biggest changes we need to make as a profession are, and a big part of it is about investing in ourselves and doing more of that, and having a bit more confidence and courage to make a difference.

Do you think HR has been guilty of being too risk-averse in the past?

As with any function in business, you have to understand risk and what you’re trying to manage, but equally you’ve got to understand value. A lot of our thinking in the past has perhaps been too orientated towards risk and control. If you look at the philosophy of business in the last century, it was very much about standardisation and processes, and writing lots of rules so we could control people’s behaviour. 

A lot of the psychology and thinking in business was very cost-driven – it was about economics, control and risk, and of course you have to understand those things. But now we’re really trying to orient ourselves towards the idea of value and outcome. Because if you take things like productivity, you’re not going to get productivity by controlling everything. You have to begin to move away from control and give people space. Every function in business has this responsibility – they have to understand the things that drive value outcomes while they try to minimise risk.

But in our profession, there are a lot of risks. Look at cyber security – what’s the biggest single risk to cyber security? People. The so-called insider threat – people doing stupid things. But are they doing stupid things because they are stupid, or because they haven’t been trained properly? There’s always that duality of tension between risk and value but I think we’re really moving to a world now where we can be more confident in the things that we do and how those drive long-term sustainable value. 

Sometimes people have either no idea, or a really caricatured idea, of what we in HR do. Do you think we need to market the profession differently?

I see lots of signs of change and improvement, but I hear it from both sides. People say to me, ‘What a great time it is for HR, you must be thrilled’ and I say, ‘Yes I am, it’s brilliant, isn’t it?’ but then you hear the other side, particularly from my friends, who say, ‘Let me tell you my nightmare stories about HR’ and all of that.

Everybody’s got a story about HR – usually not a positive one. So we’re still wrestling with that, and we’ll never entirely free ourselves, because sometimes we do have to do some of the difficult things – in a professional way, but in that policing role. But I think it is demonstrating the value we can bring and how we help people create better organisations – which brings us back to our purpose.

How do you think technology will impact the world of work in the next five or 10 years?

There’s never been more debate on the future of work that I can recall in 35 years of work, and it’s driven a lot by technology. Some of the surveys that came out five years ago said ‘these are all the jobs which are going to disappear’, but the conversation moved on to be more subtle. First of all, people now recognise that it’s not necessarily the tons of jobs that have disappeared, but certainly many jobs will be affected, and the nature of what we do and how we do it will certainly change.

There’s a lot of concern about this bifurcation of the job market, where you’ve got quite a lot of high-skilled jobs which are scarce, but you’re going to be paid a lot of money, and then the hollowing out of the so-called middle, and a lot of very low-skilled jobs. 

That’s hard to imagine, but the best way to predict the future is to help create it. As HR professionals, we have a really important role in this because we should be at the heart of the debate around how you design good jobs. A lot of technology that’s emerged in the last 10 or 20 years has not necessarily been good for people, so there’s a challenge and an opportunity – the opportunity is that we can profoundly influence the shape and nature of jobs, and we should.

Looking specifically at the nature of jobs, one of the big strategic agendas that we’re very focused on now is this idea of ‘good work’. Historically, I don’t think HR has been involved enough in this – often we’re brought along at the end and asked to recruit somebody for a job and then train them. We’ve got to be involved from the start, and especially where AI or robotics is a factor, we’ve got to make sure we’re designing meaningful jobs that use people’s skills effectively and can demonstrate progression, to give them a voice and control over what they’re doing. 

That is a really important agenda. In the end, this is in our hands. There’s not some big system in the sky that’s going to make all of this happen. It’s about how we work closely with these other functions in designing jobs that are good for people and asking what good work is. You should have meaning in every role, not just when you’re running a big business. People have a right to good quality jobs. 

How do you think HR professionals can get better at confronting management when it’s needed?

I talk to lots of HR people about the conflict between working with management and having the courage to confront them. Are we representing management or employees? The answer is both. But we have to have the courage to challenge management. 

If you look at the endless stories around leadership behaviour and corporate culture, you think ‘where was HR in that? Did we know and we tried to confront management but they told us to shut up and do our job?’ Those circumstances are still there. I strongly believe we’ve got to help our profession to be more confident, and one of the ways to do that is having good evidence.

Somebody once said to me the trouble is with HR is that they bring too much PowerPoint and not enough Excel. That’s true and we’ve got to get better at data, but equally don’t think that businesses can only be run by understanding numbers. We need to get that confidence with evidence so we can say ‘here is the proof why what you’re doing is not the right thing to do. I’m giving you my professional judgement and it’s based on evidence and good understanding, and this is what I’m telling you to do’. You’ll hear finance people say that.

With HR it’s more about judgement. One of the things we’re doing in the new Profession Map is to teach ethical competence – what is it that drives the right decision when you could take various paths? Like NDAs – they’re not illegal but in a specific set of circumstances, is that the right thing to do? It’s important to have professional skills and good evidence, but also that we have ethical competence.

What does HR need to do to get that coveted seat at the boardroom table?

I’m convinced the seat at the table is there, but it’s about our ability to occupy it effectively and demonstrate our value. I’ve also often heard CEOs say that their closest confidante is the head of HR, and I find in my job I will talk about things with my own HR team that I can’t often share with others, because you need that objective input about what is really going on and whether the team is working. But that can be a bit of a double-edged sword – at an event I went to not long ago, one CEO said the thing they liked about their HR director was that they were the only person who didn’t want their job.

 


Thanks to our panellists

  • Michelle Burton, interim group HR director, Halfords
  • Yasmin El Kholy, head of HR and OD, Lampton 360
  • Stacey Julien, HR adviser, Lampton 360
  • Vanessa Rhodes, founder of Imago HR
  • Ayomi Soremekun, recruitment lead, The Transforming Autism Project
  • Derren Young, former HR director, RFU
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