· 6 min read · Features

Lucy Adams and the school of hard knocks

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In 2013, Lucy Adams became the face of the BBC payoff scandal. In an exclusive interview she explains why, after a year away, she's back fighting.

She’s achieved what no other HR director has come close to matching – being an HRD your average man on the street has heard of. But a year ago, in front of a baying Public Accounts Committee (PAC), it was a renown earned for all the wrong reasons.

On 9 September 2013, BBC director of people, Lucy Adams emerged a battered woman, all credibility seemingly in tatters. A year earlier, probes into the tax arrangements of key BBC talent had, with the Jimmy Savile scandal and the subsequent resignation of new director general George Entwistle, exploded into a forensic examination of a so-called generous payoff culture enjoyed by the BBC’s top directors. At £450,000, Entwistle’s exit (for just 54 days’ work), was indigestible to most taxpayers.

But was it just the tip of the iceberg?

The public needed their pantomime villain. Enter Adams, hauled twice before the PAC in 2013, she left accused of “lies” and “presiding over corporate fraud and cronyism”.

Ever since the scale of payments to departing directors at the BBC was revealed (£60 million to 401 managers since 2005), Adams’ own culpability, but also the ability of the HR profession at large to act in the interests of stakeholders has been the source of much debate.

In the aftermath, The Telegraph firmly declared its stance – in its view, Adams, who joined in 2009, had “killed off the profession once and for all”. Her actions (or inactions) were also a stain on the rest of the profession. “So girls, it’s time to pick another profession,” the article brayed.

For most in HR there are only two questions people still want answered – does she believe she was responsible for a culture of over-paying, and does she feel the reputation of the HR profession has taken a backward step by her very public tenure at the BBC? For the first time, we’ll get these answers.

“I was stupid and naïve,” reflects Adams, speaking to HR magazine in her first any-questions-go interview. “I anticipated concern over a few big payouts, but felt utterly convinced they’d recognise that I’d saved £20 million avoiding tribunals,” she claims.

Brutal honesty, but with fortitude that she was still right, is a good summary of the tone this now former HRD takes. At times she is immensely poignant (after her first PAC hearing she recalled receiving an email: “Someone said I should kill myself”). But full contrition, at least at first, tends to be more measured. “I accepted that the public and MPs were angry, and that it was my responsibility to be on the receiving end of this,” she says.

“But what I had a real problem with was the fact I didn’t seem to be asked about the decisions I was making. PAC questioning simply became an attack on me as a person.”

Internally, some at the BBC branded her the ‘wicked witch’, but to be fair, Adams had an unenviable job.

“We were taking 200 senior managers out of the business, from a population of 650. With hindsight, some payments could have been reduced,” she admits.

But she stops short of taking the total rap. “Of the 150 payments the National Audit Office identified, only about a dozen involved me personally.”

She adds: “Most were done by senior managers, and yes, they should absolutely have been able to do severances by themselves. Many of the decisions I made, I would make again. We were able to move people out of the business quickly, and also avoid tribunals. I felt this was an acceptable price to pay.”

Is this Adams still sticking to her guns? Had she become institutionalised and removed from the business? They are all maybes, but it would be cruel to cast Adams as completely unrepentant. “I thought that if you paid out £1 to save £10 in a tribunal, then that was money well spent,” she explains. “What I only later realised was that the lens people were looking through had changed. I didn’t need to spend £1; I only needed to spend 75p. I hadn’t realised the world had moved on.”

This realisation perhaps explains how, right at the end of our meeting, Adams is unnervingly frank in summing up her own performance: “I was relatively unsuccessful at the change agenda I was brought in for,” she concedes. But the inference remains that the BBC was simply an impossible place to change and that she was the unfair scapegoat trying to do her best.

“In 2011 I actually held a meeting with our executive, to suggest that contractual redundancy should be cut to £100,000, regardless of entitlement,” she reveals. “But while there was realisation that we [the BBC] were spending too much, this call was rejected. So yes, people had come to expect pay deals,” she concedes, “but cronyism is not the right word for it.”

Her hands being tied, Adams says she made the best of what she could. “When you’re an HRD, you have 14 meetings a day, and no time between them; you’re knackered. There is no time to think big thoughts,” she says. And it’s clear she also feels disappointed about the way journalists covered the story. “There didn’t seem to be space to explain the money we had saved,” she laments. Reportedly, BBC news staff cheered when they heard she was leaving.

It’s because she tried, but couldn’t win her battles over pay that she ultimately rejects she was complicit in continuing a rotten culture, and also the broader claim she’s somehow sullied the HR profession.

Adams argues “only one or two” people told her she’d let HR down. “The vast majority have been very supportive,” she says, adding: “HR departments might be under more scrutiny, but no-one’s revisited their entire HR approach. So have I ruined the perception of HR? No, I don’t think so. Most people perceive HR as being too process driven. I was being accused of the very opposite – being too cavalier. That’s very different.”

But perhaps this is a political response. For while she has largely shunned the press in the year she’s been away, there’s a very good reason she is back. Adams wants to rise, phoenix-like, and re-engage with HRDs again, as a consultant. But her mantra is – ironically some may think – consulting about where she thinks HR is going wrong. “I was getting all sorts of calls from HRDs supporting me, saying they couldn’t believe I was going through what I was, just for doing the things they do every day,” she explains. “ I was accused of killing HR off, but really, was it already wounded?”

It’s a question she leaves deliberately hanging. For her new big idea is ‘Disruptive HR’ – righting the wrongs she says the rest of the HR community found sympathy with about her (and their) job. Its four principles comprise: putting the human back into HR; having adult-to-adult relationships (“so much HR is based on a parent/child relationship”); being digitally savvy; and building for a disruptive world.

“Much of what HR professionals do is based on what has worked in the past; we need to think about the VUCA world – one that’s Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous,” she explains.

But there’s no way to soften the inevitable question this prompts: Can she really expect people to listen to her proselytising about where HR is going awry, when she (in some people’s minds), embodied everything HR got complacent about?

“I knew that was coming!” she retorts. “What I’m saying is that ‘yes’, I was as guilty as anyone else. Working at the BBC made me realise that by doing what it’s always done, HR is not going to equip people for tomorrow’s world. We’ve become the voice of compliance.”

Critics will still argue telling others to disrupt is all well and good, but if she was unable to at the BBC – and Adams is without doubt a skilled orator – the rest of the HR community has no chance.

“Remuneration was a policy I couldn’t get through, but people have forgotten that I drove pensions reform, moved people to W1A in London, and also to the new media city in Manchester,” she says. “I went through the mill because HR didn’t ‘think big’, but I’ve since gained the headspace other HRDs need, but don’t often have, to guide them through it.”

Whatever people may think of the move, it’s a bold one, and exactly the sort of venture those who know her will have come to expect. A thicker-skinned, more resilient Adams certainly won’t be troubled by a brickbat or two.

“I didn’t have this great epiphany that all of HR is bad,” she says. “But I knew it could improve. I knew I probably had to sit myself out for a year in the sin-bin. But after this, I also knew it was the right time to give something back.”

So is it a form of penance? It’s a question she thinks about for a second. “No,” she says firmly. “And I don’t want to become an HR guru either. Disruptive HR is about me finally creating the impact in other organisations that I wasn’t able to create at the BBC. For anyone else, I think HR can more easily drive change, but first they need to be comfortable giving away power. It’s only when HRDs give away power – like compliance – that they gain freedom to think.”

A year ago, Adams says she was “scared and anxious”. The recovery, it seems is complete. She is a happy, confident, eager ex-HRD, enjoying helping others do the things she never felt she could.

Whether the HR profession forgives her, re-embraces her, or listens to her is a gamble she’s willing to take. “A year on, I’ve got more energy than I’ve had in years,” she says. “Whether you like it or not, I was the most well-known HRD in the UK. Now I want to at least try to use this for some good.”

So did she think she’d really worsened the reputation of HR? “I don’t think so,” she replies. “I was accused of something very different.”

She instead asks another question: “Should we, as HR professionals, be more conscious of our actions? Here, the answer is ‘yes’. I think people will soon forget about what happened at the BBC.”

Whatever her critics may think, Adams certainly believes in herself once more. And perhaps the HR fraternity (even her detractors), shouldn’t complain. A bit more self-belief is actually all she wants HRDs to have.