· 6 min read · Features

HR lessons from the military


The Armed Forces struggles with many of the same people issues as more conventional organisations

“This is now one of the most important jobs in defence.” Those are the words of defence secretary Michael Fallon on the appointment of lieutenant general Richard Nugee as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) chief of defence people (CDP) last summer. As Nugee is responsible for the ‘whole force’, including 140,000 full-time and 30,000 part-time servicemen and women, 60,000 civil servants, about 200,000 military dependants, and around 2.8 million veterans, it’s hard to disagree.

Nugee is both an army officer and an HR leader. He joined the army at 16 and got his first HR job as a major in 1995. After that he returned to operations until 2009, when he moved back into HR for good. He believes the two facets of his career work “brilliantly” together. “The Armed Forces are here to do operations and defend the country. Second to that is making sure our people and their families are really well looked after. For me [HR] is the most important thing you can do outside of operations and that is why I so enjoy it.”

HR magazine caught up with Nugee to discuss the quirks of military versus civilian HR and what other organisations can learn from the Armed Forces’ approach to people management. Here are five key lessons.

1. Academic qualifications aren’t everything

While Nugee concedes one of the biggest challenges for the MoD is not being diverse enough in terms of gender or ethnicity, social mobility is “an area we are really proud of”. About a third of army officers have been promoted from being private soldiers, and the proportion is only slightly lower in the navy and air force. “We offer opportunity,” Nugee says simply. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, what your background is, what your religion is. What matters is how good you are. If you’re good enough we’re after you as a leader.”

This means looking beyond someone’s educational qualifications. “Your educational background, particularly if you haven’t had a good start in life, often masks your intelligence and your actual leadership skills,” Nugee feels. “We have to get through the academic into the real person. You may not have the academic qualifications, because you didn’t have that chance, but we can make you an officer. That’s so powerful.”

Nugee himself is not from an armed forces family, and he believes outreach into diverse communities is vital to attract a broader range of applicants. “We don’t penetrate the whole of society as much any more, so we do huge outreach programmes into communities to try and become more of a part of society for minorities. It’s partly so they can understand who we are – and that we are defending them as much as anyone else – and to show you can have a really good career in the armed forces.”

2. Create the structure for flexibility

The Civil Service arm of the MoD is at a disadvantage when it comes to diversity because the face of the department is the armed forces, Nugee says. He adds that diversity stats are lower than other Civil Service departments, something he and his team are “desperately” trying to change.

Cultural change in this area is driven by structure that allows for more flexible working, he believes. His deputy is two women, both with young children, who do the role as a job share. They each work three days a week. “They work brilliantly as a pair,” Nugee says. “To me, as a manager, it makes no difference whether I’m speaking to one or the other because they are so well-connected and talk to each other so much. I get two brains for the price of one and six days’ work in five. That’s a real advantage.”

He admits that he was sceptical at first about how a job share could work, having spent his whole career in a military environment, but is now a passionate convert and would like to see similar arrangements in the armed forces where logistically possible.

“It [flexible working] will be met with scepticism in the armed forces because it’s new and different,” he explains. “We have got to prove it works and that someone working three days a week isn’t less capable. We have to overcome those prejudices that exist in workforces where this is new. While the definition of the armed forces is to be preparedto go anywhere in the world at any time, at no notice, that’s not the whole of the armed forces all of the time. There is the opportunity to let people have a more flexible arrangement.”

3. Help with career planning

Nugee’s personal view is that the Civil Service “has gone too far in abrogating responsibility for the management of its people”. He feels this is symptomatic of a trend that has been repeated in other organisations: “that it’s up to every individual to make their own career and you don’t help them particularly.” The Armed Forces are the polar opposite.

“My career has been managed minutely from the day I arrived to today,” says Nugee reflecting on his own experience.

While he acknowledges that such an approach is “extreme” and wouldn’t work outside its specific context, he believes the Civil Service does need “a more managed, carefully thought-through succession plan for our people”. “We should give people the opportunity to understand what is out there and give them genuine advice about going or not going for a certain job,” he expands.

On a similar note, he believes the Civil Service and other organisations could also learn about the value of recognition from the Armed Forces. “In the Armed Forces if you’ve done 15 years you get a medal, there’s a big parade and reception and your family is invited,” he explains. “In the Civil Service I think we need to value our people more visibly, reward them for spending time in the organisation and say thank you. I’ve set up several projects to make sure that happens. It doesn’t need to be particularly expansive, but it does need to be there.”

4. Get creative around skills

That the UK faces skills shortages in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) is well-known. “The government says the country needs 60,000 people coming out of our schools with STEM subjects at A-Level. We have 20,000,” says Nugee, comparing this to Germany where 95% of students leave school with the equivalent of a maths A-Level.

“We are way behind as a country and this is very worrying,” he adds. “We’ve become so much of a service economy and have lost the attractiveness of science and technology among our young people. We are fishing for highly technical skills – running nuclear submarines and flying fast jets are difficult things to do – in a pool that’s two-thirds smaller than it should be.”

Like other organisations desperate for STEM skills the MoD has started school outreach. “It’s not about joining the Armed Forces or defence, but rather saying doing STEM can lead to a really good career,” Nugee says. “If we got to 60,000 it would be easier for us to be attractive, so it benefits us.”

Beyond that it’s about getting creative. “We need to come up with imaginative ideas,” he says. A collaboration with the NHS is one example; when Armed Forces doctors are not in the field they work with the NHS. “They get training and learn skills so that they are as up-to-date as they possibly can be,” Nugee explains. The collaboration works both ways: “Some of the techniques that come from our emergency helicopters in Helmand – and we keep people alive in extraordinary circumstances – are now in ambulances across the country.” The next step is to trial something similar with different professions, such as chefs, engineers or technicians.

5. Start a conversation

The Armed Forces aren’t known for welcoming backchat. But Nugee is “trying to develop a different narrative”. “We have some really complex problems; defence is a complex organisation with hugely different dynamics: we do nuclear engineering, cooking, fighting…” he elaborates. “There mustn’t be a blanket or one-size-fits-all approach for anything. But armies are based on one-size-fits-all, so this is quite difficult culturally. We need to think about the individual.”

The simple fact is that “our people are really good”, he continues. “It’s this difference between academic attainment and intelligence. We have some highly intelligent youngsters who haven’t necessarily attained a lot in the academic sphere but really understand their business. If they are good-quality then they will have some good ideas. So why wouldn’t I ask them for ideas? It’s the absolute opposite of what happens on a battlefield. This is about questioning: what is the real intent behind those orders?”

It’s all about starting a conversation, and Nugee is embracing various channels to do so. He tweets regularly and writes a blog. He also recently launched ‘mass dial-ins’, where he, the permanent secretary, the chief of defence staff and the financial director chat on the phone once a month, and any employee can dial in and listen. “It’s become an incredibly refreshing solution to get to people,” he adds. “If you hear what we’re saying, rather than just reading bits of paper, you might believe us.” He is also weighing up the idea of a ‘CDP question time’ where he will be interviewed on camera by a younger staff member.

Open dialogue means being able to admit when something hasn’t gone to plan. Nugee uses the example of a plan he published on his blog. “Nobody liked it. So I wrote: ‘well we got that one wrong, didn’t we?’ People thought it was amazing to have a senior officer saying sorry for getting something wrong. Now I have a Post-it note on my desk saying: ‘Have we tested this on our people?’ Before we go anywhere with anything we need to ask our people if it works.”