Interviews

Ruth Spellman - Where to draw the line

Peter Crush , 27 Jan 2009

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HR should set the rules by which line managers manage, not devolve more of its non-core functions to them, Chartered Management Institute boss Ruth Spellman tells Peter Crush.

Ruth Spellman, CEO of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), is not the type to choose words flippantly. So it was a pleasant surprise to hear her depict as 'potty' something that is clearly a concern for her: HR's ongoing devolution of what it deems 'non-core' functions to middle or line managers.

"It's potty passing more and more responsibility to the line," she repeats, barely minutes into our conversation. "You can't just delegate everything. How can HR deliver consistency of quality when it dumps more work onto the management population? In my view HR will never just be the strategic role it desires to be. It has to get its hands dirty; it has to accept this reality."

Her opening salvo - a response to research from Full Potential Group that finds HR directors want line managers to handle at least 80% of day-to-day staff issues (currently HR handles 46% of this but wants it to reduce to 20%) - clearly strikes a nerve. It is only 10 years ago that Spellman was HR director of NSPCC (she then became CEO of HR-championing organisation Investors In People - IiP), but her loyalties are now firmly rooted in the management agenda. "HR's role needs to be clarified," she continues. "There's a minimum amount of people 'stuff' HR must do. People management is a part - but not all - of a manager's role. HR is there to hear the things staff can't say to their line managers. It's HR's task to ensure staff are brought on and developed; it's boring but true. Management needs to manage according to the rules set by HR, but with clear demarcation of where HR steps in."

Further reading

It is not difficult to sense where Spellman's forceful opinion comes from. Almost every study on the state of management today points to it being in a rather parlous, pathetic state. A third of the workforce is demotivated and it's management's fault, finds research from the very body Spellman led - IiP. Its recent YouGov-commissioned poll found 28% of staff felt they were not supported by their managers. Roffey Park's Management Agenda report 2008 finds more than 40% of employees see a lack of congruence between managers' work and behaviours. 'Poor management' is now listed the third-biggest demotivator at work behind only bureaucracy and workload.

Management has improved, maintains Spellman, arguing more employees are aware of what the role (and failure) of management is. Yet, the overall picture is not helped by having more put on their plate by HR. "Many managers do not now have the tools to do their jobs properly," she continues. "When I was at IiP the way HR added value to the board was by talking to staff directly, knowing how the bigger picture fits with something they saw the day before on the shop floor."

Spellman is not wholly critical of HR, and says where it must have greater influence is in setting the right management competency frameworks in the first place. "The only issue for staff is whether managers are competent," she says decisively. "The problem is there is not enough understanding of the support middle managers need at their level. There are few walks of life where employees - that's what managers are still - are so ill-prepared for their role, yet the consequences for the company are massive. It's like expecting people to drive without taking a driving test."

Requiring HR to intervene from a capability, not extra responsibility, point of view is the only answer Spellman seems to advocate. This is not, she makes clear, a shortcut for bailing out the CMI itself, whose own remit is to research and design a modern framework model. She jokes: "The definition of successful HR would be if all HR managers used our competency models and built them into their business model."

The nervous joke, however, does reveal a problem the CMI itself faces. When Spellman took the reins last May, she set herself the ambitious target of 50% of managers being professionally - that is CMI-accredited - by 2020. Spellman is used to success: while at IiP she boosted the number of businesses being audited from 11,400 to 67,000 in seven years, but this task could be a taller order. Currently the figure is 8%-10%, and to boost the credibility of the CMI she needs HR's help. "There's a lot in management that haven't heard of us," she admits. "CMI needs to be seen as credible to training departments. We want managers to aspire to achieve chartered status, and the only way they can do that is to rally for it internally."

Fads in management and a lack of trust in managers, concedes Spellman, are two of the reasons why the image of management has been tarnished. "The thing to remember," she says, "is that I've had rubbish managers before, but I've still enjoyed my job. I believe managers can be trusted if they are given the latitude to tell people what the deal is - a culture HR must create. Honesty breeds engagement, and when you're honest you gain people's respect. The point is, managers don't have to know how to do someone's job, but they need to understand what someone's job is about."

Spellman says she likes the phrase 'authentic leadership' because she believes, fads aside, there are "real fundamentals to good management" that are not temporary or flavour of the month. "Authentic leadership embraces values, and nowadays when people join a company, they want to know about its values. Today, an individual leader is not enough - businesses need a whole company of leaders that don't change their view according to fashions. These concepts precisely chime with management that is consistent, and where rhetoric matches reality."

Surveys still suggest managers are nowhere close to achieving this Utopian goal. In fact according to Blessing White, there is not just mistrust between rank-and-file staff and managers, but middle managers do not even trust their own senior managers. Is management really so doomed?

Spellman thinks not. "I think the answer still lies in the fact there are not enough recognised educational routes into management. It means managers only learn from each other, and that's not always the best thing."

According to Spellman, the management profession is going through a shake-up similar to that of the 1990s when large swathes were scythed and management became the byword for failing businesses and unnecessary layers of red tape. "The difference between now and then is that back then management had lost its way a bit, while today companies understand the importance of excellence in management," she says.

Considering her former role, one could argue that going through the IiP accreditation is actually the easiest method of achieving a management shake-up. In IiP's own literature, the management focus needed to achieve the standard is immense, and yields demonstrable results: 94% of employees in IiP-status companies are satisfied with their jobs as opposed to only 37% in non IiP-accredited businesses. IiP, in fact, has a specific leadership and management module.

"Sometimes you need to change your leaders and management before you go into an IiP audit," she responds playfully, "but yes, in any IiP assessment, the management element is crucial. The truth is I don't mind which end people start from. IiP helps businesses identify future managers and leaders. When I first arrived there, it also had a problem with its brand. I see my opportunity at the CMI as trying to do the same thing I did with IiP. New programmes we're putting into place should help this. At the CMI I actually want to involve businesses more, to challenge them to see if their managers and leaders are up to the mark. We're thinking of launching a new index - something like the 'Leading Organisations' index that compares the leadership of organisations. We want to set a model for what the best-led companies are all about, to enable businesses to learn from each other."

This sounds exciting, but perhaps her finest hour is yet to come. Spellman is about to launch a project that will require both HR and line management to work hand in hand and is sure to re-ignite an argument she first had with the Government in 2003: developing a generic set of employee metrics for company reports that will allow companies to compare their human capital metrics with each other.

It was in 2003, after 10 fruitless months, that Denise Kingsmill, chair of Labour's Accounting for People Taskforce, admitted defeat in this area. At the time, Spellman (then at IiP) was incandescent with disbelief: "I don't share her view; my brain tells me it has to be possible to come up with some metrics," she said at the time. Fast forward to today, and she believes it has been cracked. "The CMI has identified about a dozen things we can measure," she says proudly. "We're about to bring together our own panel of people of academics and practitioners, and we also want to engage the Financial Services Authority to get the views of the investor community."

The broad timeline is to have something ready nine months from now. Will it work though? She doesn't really give an answer but expresses more of a sentiment: "It must not be something that's so complicated it can't be used," she says. "Most people will only work with something when the burden of proof is some arbitrarily high number, because it's more accurate than an arbitrarily low number. I think we worry too much about proving things. Maybe we should try it, then if it doesn't work, try it again. We must make deductions from empirical evidence."

Her message to the HR community is clear: "We'd like to produce something that says 'if you follow this, you'll get lower turnover of staff etc... '. I want HR to use it, give feedback on it and how it works in their organisation, and ideas for how it could be improved."

You have been set your challenges. Now what are you waiting for?

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