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CIPD conference news: Sugary treats, survival lessons and sad goodbyes

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HR week
Annie Hayes reports on the highlights from this year’s annual Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) conference.


Exhibition goodies:

The lack of ‘big name’ speakers of conferences past including Joe Simpson, Sven-Goran Eriksson, and Adrian Moorhouse was perhaps the biggest tie in with the CIPD’s theme of Surviving in Turbulent Times. While the CIPD pocket may not have stretched to ‘conference drawerers’ of yesteryear there was little evidence from stand-display of credit-crunch reservedness. Indeed the exhibition hall was a veritable feast of primary colour give-aways.

Recruitment outfit, Feather Brooksbank the recruitment advertising agency didn’t let members down with their fun take on the gold-fish logo – with buckets of popcorn, candy floss and lollies up for grabs (if you could hook them out of the pond) whilst employee education providers, oriegen filled delegate’s bags with sugary treats to make a child weep – toffee bon bons, chews and flumps and not forgetting the childcare voucher experts Busy Bees that were handing out yet more pots of honey – mine would be joining last year’s in the kitchen cupboard. Elsewhere, exhibitors were chomping at the bit to give-away iPods, holidays and hampers – there was even a racing car on display. The tills were also ringing at the sandwich and refreshment bars at of course inflation-busting prices – £8 for a sandwich and some Harrogate spa water – expenses would have to brace themselves.

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The delegate take:

Elsewhere, however, the downturn was alive and well. Sharing a cup of coffee with two delegates it was clear to see that the real picture was indeed that of the ‘crash, bang, wallop’ variety. One of the ladies I was chatting with had almost lost her house, car and everything she’d worked for after her company was wound up and she found herself liable as a director on Companies House, “Never again she told me”, having circumnavigated the fall she was now in what she described a ‘lovely HR job’ and she’d learnt her lesson.

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Opening keynote:

“Live consciously, give people hope and show you care.”

Annie McKee, author and co-founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute .

Redundancy and the axe weren’t far from speakers minds either. At the opening keynote, Annie McKee, author and co-founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute told delegates that resonance and emotional intelligence were critical to leadership in the midst of challenge and change. The message couldn’t have been more timely as delegates clutched their newspapers with the latest on the Lehman Brothers closure and buy-out at Merrill Lynch. McKee told delegates they held the power if they could just, “Touch the hearts of people around them and reach out across role boundaries.” Yet whilst leadership was shifting in the right direction, towards values and emotional intelligence, resonance was still ‘common sense but not common practice,’ she said laying the blame at the door of operating on false assumptions about what it means to be a great leader. The message from McKee was to ‘live consciously, give people hope and show you care.’

Cognitive science professor and fellow keynote speaker, Richard Boyatzis, told delegates that part of the problem was that 70-80% in management jobs were not adding value.

This could not be said of Liz Booth, HR director for the NSPCC and Robin Cooper, director, HR service delivery of DSG International plc who gave their insights into commanding major change.

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Successful change:

Booth steered delegates through the merger of the NSPCC with ChildLine, a challenge of tying together two cultures at either end of the age spectrum: “We compared ourselves to a family with ChildLine as our new baby. ‘We told ourselves there would be sleepless nights’.” And indeed there were yet they survived and taking lessons from the corporate world including conducting due diligence and seeking economies of scale together with lessons from ‘planet NSPCC’ on integrating values not the culture and using survey tools to test the temperature they had met their objectives.

Cooper had also faced very real difficulties, made apparent as he told the Currys story. The problem was that whilst the outfit’s revenue continued to grow, profit had not: “It was evident that unless we changed our proposition, we were heading towards the cliff.” Not a nice place to be, we’d seen what that was like from the headlines alone. Currys went down the route of placing renewed hope in customer service. Once they realised that commission was driving the wrong behaviours it was a question of how to excite and engage store colleagues. The answer? Well consult them. With communication in place a structure soon evolved in which all store roles were evaluated and pay-bands created with team-focused bonuses put in place. This was rolled out to 500 stores the effect on the company’s bottom line from 2004 to 2007 speaks for itself with profit moving from around £50 million to £100m. Of course impressive though this is that was in something of a bull market and with the landscape very different today, Octavius Black of the Mind Gym took delegates back to face the current dilemma.

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Courageous leadership:

“Turbulent times call for a different kind of leadership: courageous leadership. Most of our leaders were graduate trainees the last time the economic clouds looked this dark. The skills that have worked for growth are very different from those needed to steer our organisations through the storm ahead.”

Octavius Black, The Mind Gym

“Turbulent times call for a different kind of leadership: courageous leadership. Most of our leaders were graduate trainees the last time the economic clouds looked this dark. The skills that have worked for growth are very different from those needed to steer our organisations through the storm ahead.”

If Boyatzis was correct in his prediction that only 20% of managers add value then what Black had told us showed there was trouble ahead, that is if we learned nothing from the seven key heads of courageous leaders. First up was authenticity, an attribute that can be attractive said Black thinking of Michael O’Leary, Ryanair who responding to claims about poor ‘customer service at the airline, retorted, “What do you expect for a £10 ticket.’ Humility followed suit, “Those that tend to be more humble tend to be more successful” said Black who then pointed to hope in third position. Something of which McKee and Boyatzis laid their faith in too. Next on the list was persistence, the stuff of investigative journalists and adventurers, then‘bravery’, ‘vitality’ and last but not least ‘curiosity’, the essence of generating original and ingenious solutions – something Lehmans I expect wished they’d found in their final hour.

Black’s final tip for HR was to ‘focus on those value winners’ and do less rather than more – something of which Currys had got right when they placed their faith in customer service. Sadly if only HR had to focus on one thing. Elsewhere at the conference technology was rearing its head.

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Using Web 2.0 to competitive advantage:

The low-turn out at this seminar was perhaps something to do with the title. Delegates it seem are still perplexed over just exactly what ‘Web 2.0’ is a conclusion we also reached debating its virtues along with the CIPD at the Hotel Du Vin – very nice too. According to the speakers its ‘Generation Y’ that HR needs to add to Black’s ‘focus’ list, otherwise known as ‘digital natives’. A group, according to Andrew Unsworth, head of e-government for Edinburgh City Council, that is not defined by age, gender or social demography. Being ‘entirely comfortable’ with Web 2.0 technology is the only ticket needed. The trick according to Unsworth is understanding how to make Web 2.0 applications work within conventional business models and add value. By the puzzled looks of some there is still some way to go on this. Whatever delegates grasped from the session it surely is a fitting mark to just how much the function has changed and is now faced with over the 60 years it has been conferencing at Harrogate.

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Say ‘bye-bye’ to Harrogate

Sadly the conference is ‘a-moving’. No longer will delegates need to get to grips with the nasal pronunciation of Knaresborough, as they fly through on the train to Harrogate. Manchester will play host in 2009. Of course the upside is there will be less in-house fighting over rooms at the Holiday Inn but less ‘oohing and ahing’ over the pretty tree-lined streets and ‘in-the-thick-of-it’ yet ‘away-from-it-all’ feel that Harrogate gives. As I enjoyed another dib dab on the journey home I wondered rather like the speakers and the delegates at this year’s conference ‘just where it would all end’ perhaps Harrogate has the right idea by taking some sleepy retirement and leaving others to it for a change.

We’d be delighted to hear your conference tales and lessons. Simply post your comments in the box below.

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