Humane resources: Interview with Vlatka Hlupic


Vlatka Hlupic hopes her new book will provide the evidence the business world needs that humane management is not just a nice to have, but a necessity

‘It is my fundamental belief that each of us has a moral responsibility to humanity. I’m convinced that we all possess the potential to contribute to the happiness and welfare of others.’

As book forewords from the Dalai Lama go this is perhaps the kind of thing most would expect. What they might be surprised to learn is that this isn’t an endorsement for a guide to spiritualism or meditation… but rather a business read.

‘Those in the world of business play an important role in our society,’ the foreword continues, ‘…it is essential that they assume that role responsibly, especially towards those with whom they engage daily, whose lives depend on them and whom they are dependent on as well.’

The book in question, Humane Capital: How to Create a Management Shift to Transform Performance and Profit, is the latest from professor of business and management at Westminster Business School, and CEO of The Management Shift Consulting, Vlatka Hlupic. Its scope and intentions are no less grand nor ambitious than his holiness’ rousing call would suggest.

“Work should be enlivening, enriching, sustaining; a place where we can thrive and combine work and life together,” enthuses Hlupic when we catch up to discuss the inspiration behind her book. But she’s firm that creating more ‘humane’ organisations isn’t just a nice thing to do or a luxury.

“It’s the difference between life and death,” she states, simply. “There’s the personal level but also the economic side of the millions of pounds that could be saved when we shift to these ways of working.

“We talk about how wonderful it is when the shift happens, but we also need to look at what happens when you don’t,” she adds. “It’s a matter of survival. When I ask people who’ve been through the shift what would’ve happened if they hadn’t they say: ‘we wouldn’t be around’.”

It’s a concept explored in Hlupic’s first book, 2014’s The Management Shift. Here she presents her five-level model for a higher-performance, more enlightened and humane way of working, taking the reader through transforming from a Level 1 organisation – characterised by an extremely disengaged workforce – to Level 5 (featuring unbounded passion), and drawing attention to the particularly significant shift from Level 3 (‘command and control’) to Level 4, featuring highly engaged and enthusiastic workers.

The first book’s reception was warmer and stronger than Hlupic anticipated. “I was so pleased and delighted… I was getting invitations everywhere to do a lot of keynote talks, a lot of interviews, blogs,” she says, citing the many who’ve subsequently contacted her to report implementing her model at their organisations. Clearly Hlupic had touched a nerve.

And yet, by her own admission, the state of UK and wider global organisational life paints a reality far from one where more trusting, humane approaches to management have been accepted as synonymous with success. While the link is clear to the many ‘converted’ and those with personal experience of the benefits, this – as recent high-profile corporate governance failures such as Carillion, sexual harassment scandals, and headlines regarding worker exploitation show – is far from the case for the majority of businesses today.

Which is where Hlupic’s latest book, designed to take her work a step further by providing a plethora of evidence and case studies, hopefully comes in.

The problem, she explains, is the sheer weight of belief to the contrary still insidiously present in corporate life. No matter how strong the evidence, there’s scepticism that humane management and superior shareholder returns – or better value for money in the non-profit sector – go hand in hand, explains Hlupic. Generations of managers have grown up with a belief that it is always a trade-off: that being ruthless or dictatorial is the ‘real’ way to boost profits.

“I read a story in The Guardian about a 25-year-old warehouse worker describing his life as a robot,” Hlupic laments. “Some of these places are turning people into robots. And those workers can only do so much for so long before they can’t do any more… There are so many companies that neglect people and focus only on numbers. It works for a while, but it’s not sustainable.

“The link between profitability and humanity came out so strongly over my many years of The Management Shift research, but I was looking for evidence,” she continues. “I want to show leaders the evidence that it’s not wishful thinking; this is how it works.”

The key is converting those at the very top of organisations, says Hlupic. And integral to this will hopefully be the many in-depth interviews with leaders she carried out for, and included in, the new book.

“I was meeting leaders at keynote talks and whenever I realised they practised this, I asked if I could interview them for my new book. And the success rate was 100%. I personally interviewed everyone face to face or over Skype. I couldn’t stop! I just kept going until I reached 59,” Hlupic says, adding that her original aim was to interview 50 leaders and call the book Leaders50, and that the final 272,000 words of transcript were far more than she anticipated drawing in.

“Any big shift has to come from the top; the CEO has to have the awareness of the benefits to go through the process,” Hlupic adds, explaining that evolution into a Level 4 organisation is far from an overnight shift, but something that often requires patience and faith.

“Although sometimes we can have this eureka moment, that’s more of an individual moment. As an organisation you need a longer period of time. You need to start changing the language and then the processes. Then you start implementing some initiatives, you work to a common purpose… That could take six to 12 months.

“I’ve seen HRDs have the awareness and want to make a difference but the crack of light is not yet there for the CEO,” adds Hlupic regarding the importance of CEO buy-in.

Nonetheless HR professionals, and indeed anyone else in an organisation, can play a crucial role in making the case, she says. “It’s about coaching and mentoring, maybe not formally, but having the conversation and maybe sending the CEO an article or something that might provoke awareness,” says Hlupic.

“The book is for anyone, including Millennials,” she adds. “If you look at the example of Sanofi Pasteur [the vaccines division of multinational pharmaceutical company Sanofi], that whole movement was started by someone who was just an employee sending an email to their CEO… In the end she created a whole social movement in her organisation. She created a new job for herself.”

Hlupic is hopeful that the most widespread change might be enacted at grassroots level – at business schools and on MBAs.

“We still teach a lot of theories that are based on Level 3 but the world is changing,” she says. “So we need to adapt to the complexity of a VUCA world, to inter-disciplinary thinking and more humanised approaches. I think that needs to feature more prominently in business schools.”

And Hlupic is confident, despite the many obstacles, that things are starting to change slowly but surely. She certainly has plenty of energy left to take her ideas to an ever-wider audience.

“A year after The Management Shift was launched, it was my 50th birthday. So I was thinking: some people do abseiling, ballroom dancing, things like that,” she says. “But these ideas lacked purpose for me.

“After that book launch I quickly realised – from its reception – what my new purpose was. My whole life had changed, and I realised this was why I was alive.”