FolkHR for HR Folk – business lessons from Dylan

With all the talk of big data I also think there is room for properly applied ‘folksy’ wisdom in business

I’m off to see Bob Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall later in the year and whilst it is disputable as to whether he is still ‘folk’, he certainly had his roots in that type of music. So in tribute to Bob here is some ‘folksy’ business lessons from his lyrical and musical masterpieces.

“Subterranean Homesick Blues” from Bringing It All Back Home, 1965

Key lyric: ‘Don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows’

Next time you ask someone you trust for more data – understand the request it is about your lack of bravery, not their lack of data. Next time you wait for your Employee Engagement survey to tell you what you already know – remember this point. Next time you are waiting for a Customer Satisfaction report when you already know where you can improve remember this point . Remember that sometimes you just know things and so you should act on them. It is ok to just do things, you are paid to act, not to observe. If you aren’t prepared to do things when you believe them to be the right thing to do, then aren’t you administrating rather than leading? Sure, data is good, but how much data do you need to know that someone is underperforming, unhappy or not delivering. How much better would your company and customer interactions be if you acted early?

“Positively 4th Street,” single, 1965

Key lyric: “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes/ You’d know what a drag it is to see you”

There are times where you will not be the awesome leader or team member that you are in your head. There are times that the joke you tell will be funny to you – and not to anyone else. When you think you are being visionary – and everyone else thinks you are disruptive. When you think you are telling a home truth – and the other person thinks you are kicking them when they are down. When you think you are being charismatic – and everyone else thinks you are laying on the cheese.  Spend as much time on learning about this as anything else. if you can’ t make working with other people a strength then you will be limited in your choice of roles.  And when you do understand that sometimes you can be a drag – say sorry and ask people to point it out when it happens. You’ll both benefit from that.

“Maggie’s Farm,” from Bringing It All Back Home, 1965

Key lyric: “I try my best/ To be just like I am/ But everybody wants you/ To be just like them

We talk about leaders being authentic- and that is absolutely a good thing. The real challenge is whether you are allowing everyone to be authentic. Having a CEO who can say whatever he likes – and then a clone army repeating a mantra underneath him, really isn’t the point of authenticity in the workplace. If you value diversity then you have to appreciate people will have, at times, a different view of the world. And that is a good thing because those views are as valid as yours – and pooling everyone’s wisdom – and coming up with a united voice – that has got to be more productive than just the one voice echoing one thought.

Dear Landlord,from John Wesley Hardin, 1967

Key lyric:“And if you don’t underestimate me, I won’t underestimate you”

There is something really interesting about the way we assess our own contribution compared to others. A great workplace is one where everyone understands the role that other people are playing – and they place value on that. If you understand other people’s strengths then why wouldn’t you collaborate? And if you collaborate you all understand everything a bit better – and so it continues until you are part of a well oiled machine. The first step in getting people to work well as a team is to not underestimate them – look for the good in them, look for what they add – because you would be hoping that someone is looking for the best part of you to bring to the surface. That is what leaders do, help people be the best they can be – not underestimate the people around them.

And if you aren’t familiar with Dylan, this is one of my favourite pieces… I don’t think Dylan specifically wrote it about people who whinge all the time about wanting to work somewhere else. He might have though


The unconference: unbottling bravery

On Friday I attended my first Connecting HR event and my first unconference on the topic of #BraveHR.

I have no idea what that meant – can you break it down please?

Connecting HR is a group of HR profesionals connecting through social media and in real life to work out how to do things better

An unconference is a hardly structured collaborative event where the agenda is driven by the attendees. Floating off topic onto something you find interesting is fine, nobody is chasing you for timings. If you want to move to another discussion group you use your feet and do so

#BraveHR is the version of the world where we all do what we know we should do  – and what we talk about doing

# is to do with Twitter. If you aren’t on Twitter then don’t be scared, just get on Twitter. That’s what brave people do.

So, what happened in this chaos? I imagine dead ends and frustration?

What happened was fifty shades of awesomeness – creative, aspirational, practical, challenging, open, fun, disruptive, constructive and relaxed, but always on the front foot.

It turns out that if you get a diverse group of people with a common purpose and just say ‘go for it’ then you don’t need an agenda, you don’t need control, you don’t need a stopwatch or training notes – you just need a place to go afterwards when you run out of time and people are still talking with passion.

If those people are really positive and smart you don’t need to keep saying things like ‘back in the real world’ because everyone is smart enough to know there is a real world – and they know that the world changes and think shaping it is exciting, not daunting.

Sounds like a good chat? Did anything come out of it?

  • The conversations were constantly captured and translated into art. At the start I was just pleased to have my own words being translated into art. It was (selfishly) a lovely experience being able to pick out the contributions that you had made to the dialogue. You weren’t just chatting to someone you were helping create a narrative. By the end of the day the most rewarding thing wasn’t your own contribution, it was being a part of growing a broader narrative – of how businesses can be and the steps we can take to move closer to that reality
  • During a ukulele lesson (!) that was used to break up the day I sat next to poster. I hadn’t noticed it, but suddenly there was laughter and the flash of photography. I now have a new picture to accompany my LinkedIn and Twitter profiles


  • I met fantastic people. I chatted to Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD about the future of the workplace and the role of HR. I chatted to his people about the changes they had seen and what it was like to work for the CIPD at the moment (exciting and motivational) I chatted to the HRD of the company that has just topped the Times Best 100 to work for. I chatted to people whose blogs I have read an enjoyed and I chatted to people just entering the profession. And they all chatted and created with each other
  • I’m currently looking for a new role, I didn’t go to the event to network, I went to learn and relax. It’s Monday now and I’m just reviewing a pile of business cards I was offered over the day from people offering to help in my search . So I found kindness too.
  • 11pm on Friday saw me queuing up at Burger King in Victoria Station (slightly wobbly, I’ll admit) animatedly discussing the benefits and limits of various behavioural nudges ( with someone I hadn’t met until a few hours before. I found energy, shared interests and knowledge.

The output of the day was a mixture of things – all of them good. Each individual has taken away lessons and things to reflect on, but as a group we now have an even stronger shared agenda and plans to take that forward.

It’s amazing what you can achieve without an agenda. Next year – just go. Clear your calendar and go to an event with no agenda. It makes sense.


PS – whilst I loved the collective narrative there is always a strong feeling of attachment to your own ideas. Here are two of mine that found favour on the day and I got a buzz out of seeing illustrated

i) I think that HR should be braver by being the ones that call out the elephants in the room. The problem with elephants is that the more of them you get the less room there is for people to grow (and eventually to be). HR – chief elephant clearers


ii) the conversation wasn’t just about HR, it was about the future of business. In fact it is a frustration of many of the people who attended that conversation is often just about HR in isolation. The role of HR is to help create the conditions and drive for success. Part of this is strategic deployment of resources and I described how the temptation to put your best people on maintaining business (when competitive advantage is always temporary) needed to be resisted


This led someone to ask if it should just be oranges we are looking for or should we be seeking other fruit.

I confirmed that oranges are not the only fruit.

My First Day at the CIPD

The CIPD have recently announced the appointment of a new Deputy Chief Executive , I thought I’d use this blog post to speculate what her first day in the office might be like.

 I’d like to be very clear that this is a parody and that I have had no contact with Susannah Clements and have only heard great things about working at the CIPD. 

It would be funny if working at the CIPD was awful though…

Bounce into the office ready to make a good impression on my first day. Slightly disappointed that nobody has allocated me a desk, but I’m told that George isn’t in today so I can use his 
9.30 am 
Finish tidying up George’s desk. I can’t believe anyone hadn’t noticed the smell from what, I assume, was once an egg sandwich, but is now a strange brown blob.
10 am
After several attempts to log on I have been told that my new starter paperwork hasn’t been passed to IT. When I speak to IT they tell me that there is a 5 day service level on this kind of thing and it isn’t their fault they didn’t receive the form. 
Spend time reading latest CIPD publications, very enjoyable. IT have now set me up on the system, but unfortunately I’ll have to remember to log in as Sue-hannah.Clemenza for the near future. Still, important to stay positive about these things. The default font is set to Coptic, but that just means I’ll have to keep to my mantra of ‘learning something new every day’
I’ve had some time allocated in my calendar to deal with a range of ‘hacks’. I hate dealing with the press, so I ask PR to take care of it. It turns out after a short exchange that it was a different type of hack and I’ve just referred the entire output of the hackathon to PR.
Asked to deal with ‘hacks’ again. Walk into a conference room assuming I’m going to hear some suggestions about next generation work practices, only to be cornered by journalists. We really need to get more consistent with language. It doesn’t go well
It’s been a testing morning, so I decide to try and cheer people up over lunch by sharing some extra food and nibbles I packed for the day, the jaffa cakes go down really well but then I said
‘Cheese crackers anyone?’
The room went silent. It turns out that Peter Cheese, the CEO, is really well loved by the team here and that they believe that I’m attempting to deliberately undermine him. People are muttering about signs of an early power struggle.
Whilst taking a comfort break (and I have to admit sobbing a little,) I overhear a conversation in the ladies about how ‘the new lady ‘Sue-Jannah’ attempted to start an open revolt against Peter and nobody wants to work with her as she smells of stale egg sandwich’
Peter calls me into his office for a short chat over some feedback he has received. 
I really enjoyed my time working with the CIPD, a great institution 

Michael Jackson, Bad Apples and selective blindness

Please note: sometimes I make logical steps that others may find offensive. 

i) if you can find a hole in the logic then please leave a comment
ii) if you simply dislike where the logic leaves us then please go away and reflect on your own position

I hope that seems fair. 

So, why the disclaimer?

I’m going to be writing a blog on Michael Jackson and Apple, two subjects where people seem to get so passionate that I believe they leave logic behind – and they end up mentally committing to positions that don’t reflect their normal views. What Michael Jackson and Apple share is an ability to make people blind to their flaws, due to their brilliance. When people’s views on these subjects are challenged they either

i) revert to restating the brilliance they perceive
ii) underplay or excuse the flaws in a way that almost defies logic

Let’s start with Michael Jackson…

I once had an argument, with someone who I really respected, that made me doubt their sanity. They were a big Michael Jackson fan (each to their own, in isolation that fact isn’t what made me doubt their sanity) and seemed to be hold a position that consisted of the following two statements

i) Michael Jackson was an incredible performer
ii) Michael Jackson could not have been a child molester

Worryingly there appeared to be a mental link in their mind that they couldn’t break between the two statements; that seemingly the better he was as a performer the less likely it could be that he was a child molester. It was almost as though these asserted facts had a causal link

My counterpoints were these

i) someone’s talent is no excuse for or predictor of their behaviour
ii) an innocent man doesn’t tend to make payments to settle cases where they have been accused of child molestation
iii) it is highly unusual for grown men to invite children to their house for ‘sleep overs’

We continued debating until what turned out to be the closing exchange 

‘would you let Michael Jackson babysit your son?’
‘well, no’
‘would you accept that your actual view is that Michael Jackson was an incredibly talented performer, but you aren’t sure he wasn’t a paedophile’
‘that’s not fair’

I think it was fair, it is just an example of cognitive dissonance. Nobody likes to think of themselves as fans of the music of a child molester. 

Let’s move straight onto Apple…

Ok, but before we do I should declare that I am a self confessed Google fan. My world runs on Google. I sometimes assume that when my daughter has acquired a new skill that she has simply had an over the air update from those clever folks at Google. I’m writing this on Blogger (free from Google). I do possess an 160gb iPod, it’s brilliant, I’m aware of the hypocrisy.

I thought you were moving onto Apple?

Yesterday I got into a debate on Twitter about Apple’s business practices that reminded me of the Michael Jackson argument. Twitter is an odd place to debate as neither side is able to show subtlety or context within the character cap. I’m going to summarise some of the views you often hear about Apple, but not directly quote from that discussion, as I want to deal with the substance of the problem rather than an individual debate

Arguments you hear for Apple

i) Steve Jobs was very smart
ii) You can’t argue with the design
iii) They are incredible at innovation
iv) Look how slick everything is
v) They do everything first and everyone else copies don’t they?

Arguments against Apple (sources at end of Blog)

i) Unpaid internships to 14 year old children in factories producing Apple products
ii) ‘Suicide prevention netting’ to catch people jumping off the roof of factories producing Apple products
iii) Workers forced to sign a legally binding document guaranteeing they and their descendants would not sue the company as a result of unexpected death, self-injury or suicide
iv) Apple Inc established an offshore subsidiary, Apple Operations International, which from 2009 to 2012 reported net income of $30bn, but declined to declare any tax residence, filed no corporate income tax return and paid no corporate income taxes to any national government for five years.”
v) Apple have pursued a policy of attempting to create broad patents which cover design concepts that are the only way of doing things. They aren’t originators of some of these ideas, in fact they are off by decades…. 2001 – an iPad adventure

And a great, great story about Steve Jobs…

There is also this great exchange that may shed some light on to what extend Steve Jobs is the great innovator people believe him to be, rather than an incredibly good refiner of other people’s ideas. Because the cult of Job’s worship is another reason why Apple is sometimes above criticism. 

Their meeting was in Jobs’s conference room, where Gates found himself surrounded by ten Apple employees who were eager to watch their boss assail him. Jobs didn’t disappoint his troops. “You’re ripping us off!” he shouted. “I trusted you, and now you’re stealing from us!” Gates just sat there coolly, looking Steve in the eye, before hurling back, in his squeaky voice, what became a classic zinger. “Well, Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”

So you are saying Apple is evil?

My point isn’t that Apple is all bad, my point is that people still point to them as a great company. Yet if I asked you to describe a great company you wouldn’t start your list with slave labour conditions and tax evasion. These positions should be largely mutually exclusive. 

But when you talk to people about Apple the mental shutters come down, suddenly the actions are justified by the need to protect market position – or the fact they make great products. It’s an irrelevance. Ethics matter, if you believe that ethics matter then the quality of the product ceases to matter to the debate. 

It is no more relevant than the quality of Michael Jackson’s music to his other alleged activities. Or Jimmy Savile’s charity work to his systematic abuse. 

The world is complicated  In many ways Apple isn’t a great company – if you want to call it a great company you probably have to ignore your own definition of a great company. It is cognitive dissonance, nobody likes to be fans of the tax avoiding, child labour employing patent bullies. 

If smart people did become fans to that degree you would end up with silly scenes like this…see 1 min 30




Issues at Apple factories:
Tax avoidance:
Discussion with GatesExcerpt from Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson Copyright © 2011 by Walter Isaacson

HR: Awesome

Why do you hate HR?

After I posted my Star Wars blog the other day someone I have a lot of respect for asked me ‘why do you hate HR?’. 

It is an interesting question as I don’t hate HR, I just hate some of the things that people do in the name of it. When you write a blog you tend to end up with a short space to make your point and that leaves you open to being thought to hold extreme opinions . I think about HR like people think about their favourite football team – you always want them to be the best, so you are always thinking of and talking about things you can do better. 

But you’ll always be their biggest supporter when it comes to matchday.

Do you ever hate HR?

When HR is like this I’m not a fan. When people are hiding behind policy then I hate that – I don’t hate it in HR in particular, I just hate that in any profession. 

I do, however, think it was a really cheap shot to publicise this rather than just resolve it internally. I can imagine a conversation where a line manager explains there has been a breach of H+S and a degree of insubordination and an overworked HR Manager fires off a disciplinary invitation without thinking more roundly. We are all human. 

So do you love HR?

I love…

  • the incredible possibilities that it brings in terms of influence and ways of working
  • the dazzling blend of the operational and strategic – with one always impacting on the other. You can change one thing and it impacts everything else. There is always another puzzle
  • the continuous stream of judgement calls, that are like tiny case studies every time you come across them
  • the people – some of the most interesting, courageous, welcoming and smart people that I’ve ever met have been HR people
  • the fact that ‘it’ isn’t solved yet – and might not ever be – but it’s hurtling forwards into exciting territory
  • the breadth of opinion and insight that exists
  • the ability to draw in lessons from other disciplines and make use of them to build ours even further
  • the fact that we’re so passionate about it falls into the ‘love/hate’ category for so many people
and finally I love HR because it is such a glorious variety of personalities and opinions that you wouldn’t ever expect to inhabit the same space.
Like Taylor Swift and Def Leppard. 
Who popped up when I searched on Youtube for ‘love and hate collide’.
Really…this happened. And let me know what you love about HR below or on Twitter.