Getting the best out of people at Unicef

Many employees say they choose a role due to how well a company aligns with their personal values. And the statement certainly rings true for the Unicef director of people Martyn Dicker.

For him, a core value is the ability to help people reach their potential. So, as a people leader in not for profit sector, Dicker manages to fulfil this aim twofold.

After a spell consulting in HR and organisational development (OD), Dicker was presented with an unmissable opportunity to align his personal and professional goals at Unicef, the world’s largest children’s charity, where he has now worked as director of people for over 12 months.

Appreciating the large part work plays in people’s lives, particularly within a charity, Dicker tells HR magazine that his ultimate goal is to make people’s time within an organisation the ‘best years’ of their lives.

“I would like to think one thing I've enabled in my career is people at all levels being able to let me know what they think and feel comfortable and confident to tell me, and feeling like I'm willing to listen and I'll give them time even if outwardly I’m running,” he says.

A fitting statement given the day HR magazine meets him is just a few weeks before lockdown meaning Dicker is already juggling internal crisis meetings relating to COVID-19 on top of his interview and photoshoot.

Generating better performance

Dicker’s secret to efficiency (and not getting completely overwhelmed) is organisational development. OD became a core focus of Dicker’s work in the final six to 12 months he spent working for the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) in 2016. Later, when he decided to set up The POD Consultancy, OD also provided the latter half of his expertise.

For him the concept is a fascination with “what levers that you can change to be more productive and how to generate better performance.” This, he adds, is not always just people interventions or training.

He describes his experiments with ‘design sprints’ as an example of how OD has been leveraged at Unicef. Design sprints are an concept developed by former Google Ventures design partner Jake Knapp where project design follows basic principles. First, a sprint project should have a set time restriction – this is typically a short period, such as five working days.

Second, it should follow five phases: Understand - the problem, competition, audience and value proposition; Diverge - explore creative ways to solve this problem regardless of feasibility; Converge - pick ideas that fit the next stage of the project and explore through storyboarding; and Test through 1:1 workshops with target audience.

Dicker applied this concept at Unicef through a project looking to enhance Trustee diversity in order to better connect colleagues to the organisation’s mission. The department also tested another sprint looking at how to improve mental wellbeing support.

Teams were formed of workers with different areas of expertise from across the organisation rather than just those in HR. This, for Dicker, is one of the most valuable aspects of the projects as it eradicates hierarchical structure: when he takes part in sprints it’s as another member of the team rather than as director of people.

“People enjoy it. They enjoy somebody coming along who isn't there to tell them what to do and how to do it. There's a real opportunity in learning from other people,” he says.

Grabbing OD

Generally, OD is something Dicker believes the people profession should take more responsibility for.

“I think that if the people profession doesn't grab hold of OD better it will end up being taken over by other specialists who could end up with a far greater importance within an organisation [than HR],” he says.

The need for more OD is driven in part by the progression of technology, Dicker argues. For HR he says technology creates a “blur” in what responsibilities people have and what work digital tools such as AI can do instead.

“Ultimately, it's about organisational performance and as we end up with more technology in the workplace, we’re having more of a blur between what is it you get somebody to do rather than tech or AI. Surely then people who are focused on performance are going to be the ones that are going to be more important,” he says.

The advance of technology will require HR to learn skills in new areas. This includes a comprehension of the psychology of human behaviour. “I believe, like the CIPD, that despite the increasing use of tech, ‘the future of work is human’. As HR professionals, we need to understand more about our needs for human connection, emotional intelligence and the psychology of reward.” Dicker says.

As an example, he explains how technology can be applied to make the recruitment process more efficient in terms of processing applications. “But if you have technology making decisions on who might be longlisted, then you need to deeply understand how these decisions are made to ensure that they do not contain biases, and also that candidates get the important opportunity to interact with people and get a sense of the culture” he adds.

False data

Bringing expertise from outside HR, and even the organisation, is something Dicker also advocates, especially where the handling of data is concerned. One of the data discrepancies he has particularly noted in the not-for-profit sector is the reading of false positives when it comes to engagement.

He says: “The HR sector isn't always as mature when it comes to things like engagement design, assessment design or evaluation design, and so on.”

Referring to a piece of external research he did on this topic, he explains: “What we found is that despite organisations reporting very high engagement levels, the reality was that there was quite a lot of frustration in the way in which the organisations were run. The reason why you were getting these high scores is actually masking the issues were because people care so much about the cause.”

The remedy to this, he suggests, is asking the right questions and not diluting the result to make engagement appear better than it actually is.

One common example of the wrong kind of engagement reporting is the temptation for departments to clump together their data. When giving employees a range of possible answers, from ‘disagree’ and ‘somewhat disagree’ through to ‘agree’ and ‘strongly agree,’ Dicker says it is important that each answer is accurately represented.

When it comes to doing the engagement survey a year later, if you clumped together the data for those that answered ‘agree’ and ‘strongly agree’ for the prior year, then you’d have to do the same in this year. And so any movement between those two answers, say 30% or more answered ‘strongly agree’ rather than just ‘agree,’ is lost.

Dicker says: “Within the CIPD and others we just need to get better when it comes to data […] And if you don't have these specialisms within your team bring it in.”

Yet highlighting ways to improve, Dicker constantly refers back to what a great privilege it is to work for such a meaningful organisation.

“Not only does it feel like a fantastic cause to work for but the people that work there recognise that privilege. They care about the work, they're engaged and they're passionate, and there's a real sense of being hopeful, getting stuff done, and almost being impatient because they've got such passion for things to be better in the world.”

Positive dissatisfaction in the workplace

With this privilege however also comes a unique set of challenges, one being something Dicker refers to as ‘positive dissatisfaction.’

“There's an impatience with things not being better, whether it's in the environment and us not doing more, or whether it's around the Rights of the Child. So often you get that frustration, but I think what you need to do is channel that.”

Rather than “standing on the sides and criticising,” Dicker says a frustration with the slow pace of change can be directed in a positive and hopeful way by “recognising the extent of the problem and wanting to be part of that solution.”

As people are so invested in the cause they are working for, Dicker also admits that the sector often experiences a lack of deference to leadership.

“People sometimes join the sector and try to set a new vision for the future and change direction,” he says. “But you really have to inspire people to do that, to get that change right. You can't just say, ‘I know the strategy is that but we're doing it this way instead’ because people's engagement with it is so much deeper. The work relates to their personal values.”

To be bold in the sector, HR must first understand the people that work for an organisation. Then, he adds, you have to take these people along on a journey: “You can't just have a quick switch and move because people won't come with you.”

One of the pressing issues currently posing a risk to Unicef’s work is undoubtedly the coronavirus pandemic. Unicef’s response to the crisis has been to publish guidance and provide aid to help support children around the world.

Internally, the organisation has been keeping a close eye on its employees with their safety as an absolute priority. A day prior to HR magazine's visit in early March, Dicker orchestrated a forced office closure for all staff to understand what measures might be needed in the event of a full, government-ordered lockdown.

Thankfully, communications and remote working worked well and all teams managed to stay in touch via video conferencing. However, Dicker was surprised to learn how quickly fears of social isolation set in even after just a day of working from home.

“We were all trialling it with the view that we could be doing this regularly for a long period of time. And I think to some people, that was bringing on further anxieties,” he says.

Having pooled feedback from employees, Dicker proposed putting additional support in place to prevent colleagues from feeling isolated. This response has included the introduction of regular video updates from the executive team; all-staff updates and Q&As via Microsoft Teams; Facebook Workplace groups for support; mindfulness classes; desk-workouts; and regular “caring cuppas” to keep colleagues socially connected.

To gauge employee feelings about the response, the company has also introduced COVID-19 specific questions in its regular engagement survey so it can continue to review and amend its action.

Managing the health crisis and its fallout effect in business presents a large undertaking for HR departments worldwide. Yet dealing with this right is extremely rewarding for HR. Dicker says: “Choose the tough jobs. You may not always be able to do a brilliant job in very difficult circumstances, but people respect you for putting yourself out there and doing it.”

Though speaking generally at the time of our interview, Dicker’s further advice to HR professionals also resonated well with the current position the sector finds itself in.

Noting a tendency for professionals to play down the work they do, he says: “As HR professionals there's a real opportunity to make a massive impact. And I think it's really important to recognise that and make sure your voice is heard.

"One of the things I’ve learned the most from in my career is looking up and out - learning from best practice, looking beyond your own organisation and setting your goals high. Don’t just do things that have already been done.”