· 18 min read · Features

The people champions: HR's Most Influential 2012


US novelist Jack London, best known for The Call of the Wild and White Fang, famously said “affluence means influence”. But for those ranked on HR’s seventh annual Most Influential list, contemporary Nigerian author Ogwo David Emenike may be more pertinent: “Greatness is in influence, and not necessarily in affluence. It is not achieved by being a ‘paper millionaire’, but a ‘people millionaire’.”

The themes arising from this year's Most Influential ranking, sponsored by research partner Ashridge Business School, HR and payroll company Ceridian (Pictured left - Doug Sawers, MD of Ceridian), professional services firm KPMG and career management consultancy, 10Eighty, show the term 'people millionaire' to be apt for those regarded as influential in the field of HR. Leadership is a common motif, as is the ability to inspire others and possessing honesty and integrity.

Change, especially the ability to create energy and enthusiasm around change, is mentioned this year, as it has been in past surveys - not only organisational change, but change with regards to HR ideas. Resilience, passion, ideas and a 'can-do' attitude all matter. Connectivity and credibility are also common themes, particularly in the HR practitioner list. HR directors who develop links and stay close to other senior people in the business stand out. Those in our ranking are invariably good at understanding, influencing and communicating with key stakeholder groups, including the leadership team, employees (co-workers and colleagues) and line managers.

"The practitioners on this ranking are clearly driving measurable value in their organisations and this is the acid test for the profession," says Robert Bolton, head of the Global HR Transformation Centre of Excellence at KPMG. "It's hugely encouraging to see evidence of this. It was encouraging also to see such ground-breaking work being achieved by the thinkers; particularly in the way that their work was being applied in organisations, with considerable benefit being achieved. There is clearly reason for optimism about the future for HR and the value it will bring in such globally challenging times."

There also is a sense the HR profession still needs role models: leaders who can show the key qualities of a 'great' HRD.

HR Most Influential Practitioners 2012

The most noticeable difference in people's comments this year is the difficult trading environment in which HR practitioners are operating - mentioned by both private and public sector respondents. The result is that bravery is one admired quality, defined in this case as being willing to tackle 'tough' topics, challenge conventional HR thinking and having the skills to lead change issues - in particular, speaking out to challenge the business, when necessary.

Deborah Baker, group director for people at BskyB (8), Valerie Hughes-D'Aeth, group HR director at Amey (10), Sandy Begbie, group operations officer at Standard Life (14), Geoff Lloyd, group HR director at Serco (16), Steve Connock, group HR director at National Express (24) and Claire Balmforth, group HR director, Carpetright UK (28), are all mentioned for this influence at the top in businesses playing in challenging sectors, many of which are regularly in the news.

Another theme is strategic awareness, one of the skills marking out 'great' practitioners from those who are 'good and competent'.

"The top HR leaders are all increasingly embodying a stronger commercial/business focus than before," says Doug Sawers, MD of sponsor Ceridian. "It's difficult to see how a good HR strategy on its own can deliver the impact it would like to, unless it's rooted in overall business strategy and development.

"It's interesting to note that, from time to time, people enter the HR arena from other disciplines - and often are successful in this transition. What we have seen less of is where this happens the other way around, and HR people move to other areas of management. Once this happens, we suspect the perennial question of 'the value of HR' will be answered more clearly than ever," Sawers concludes.

Vicki Culpin, research director at HR Most Influential research partner, Ashridge Business School, says becoming a business partner can be a challenge. "It may require an image makeover for HR and altering long-established stereotypes," she says. "A model of HR at the heart of the organisation, working closely with the senior team, is something that individuals nominated, as well as those making the final ranking, often achieve."

Knowledge and expertise are important, but it is also what Gillian Hibberd, strategic director (resources and business transformation) at Buckinghamshire County Council (number 11 in the practitioner list), describes as the value of "thinking ahead long-term, and making sure HR is more proactive".

This is certainly what 2012's top ranked practitioner, Dean Royles (pictured right), director of NHS Employers, does. His leadership, integrity and insight are all commented upon, particularly important in the highly complex and turbulent world of the NHS. As one respondent who ranked him first says: "Royles has provided leadership in taking forward negotiations on national issues on behalf of NHS HR, which has a potential impact on many thousands of staff and the future funding and budgetary capacity of the NHS. He has tenacity and drive, and always enthuses and motivates."

Another adds: "Royles has led the HR community through choppy waters at a time of unprecedented change."

Royles combines the qualities of both a strategic thinker and pragmatic practitioner and his role-modelling best-in-class business partnering is highlighted by those who voted for him. At NHS Employers, he works with England's NHS trusts to ensure the voice of employers is heard in health reform, as well as keeping employers up to date with latest workforce thinking and practice.

According to those who voted for him, Royles has made a big impact, "both in terms of supporting fundamental changes facing the NHS and wider engagement across the public sector", playing a crucial role in national negotiations on terms and conditions.

Communication is key to this and it is clear the sector thinks Royles has it in spades. "He does the difficult and complex and explains the trade-offs, while remaining a human being," says one voter; yet another notes his visibility and availability.

Many respondents pick up on "excellent communications", which he conducts in person and through social media.

"Leading HR professionals invariably are good presenters and have great communication skills - both of which matter a good deal for 'influence' and personal reputation," explains Culpin. "However, many are aware of the danger of using too much jargon, a criticism made frequently about HR people and initiatives. The key issue should always be about simplicity and clarity, something the highly ranked practitioners all display."

With 1.4 million employees and about 70% of the £110 billion annual budget spent on the pay bill, the NHS is a big beast. From our results, it is clear there is admiration for people such as Royles who have the big jobs in the field. Wendy Cartwright, director of HR, Olympic Delivery Authority, is straight in at fourth place in our practitioner list. As one person says, the proof of an HRD's effectiveness is the performance of the organisation they support and "this year's Olympics is strong testimony to Cartwright". Another mentions "amazing delivery of such a large and unique project".

Those responsible for HR in global, multinational environments, such as Tracy Clarke, group head of HR and communications, Standard Chartered Bank (12), Gareth Williams, HR director, Diageo (9), Hugh Mitchell, chief HR and corporate officer, Royal Dutch Shell (6) and Claire Thomas, senior vice president, HR, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) (5), are recognised for influence in complex, challenging environments.

The importance of this aspect of influence in the eyes of the HR community has risen this year, with all the above either putting in a first appearance, or jumping greatly up the HR Most Influential Practitioner ranking.

While GSK's Thomas has a lower profile outside the 1,250-employee global business than some on the list, her strategic thinking, inspirational approach and - importantly - delivery to business are widely recognised. One respondent talks of GSK always being head of the curve on HR issues, another mentions Thomas's huge impact within the business, with a strong input into overall strategy: "At the GSK senior leadership table, Thomas is ranked in the top three in terms of influence and capability".

She is seen as a driving force behind the transformation of both HR and the business as a whole, achieving cost and headcount reduction a year ahead of target and retaining a 73% employee satisfaction rating.

Her influence is recognised externally, with her appointment as a non-executive director for the Department of Energy and Climate Change in November last year, adding to her honour as Outstanding European Woman of Achievement back in 2007.

Like Thomas, Royal Dutch Shell's Mitchell is hugely respected globally, seen as providing consistent, thoughtful HR leadership, ensuring there are HR people on each business leadership team within the 101,000-strong company. "He is one of the most strategic HRDs in Europe" and "an international HR director respected across continents", note two voters; others pick up on his influence in changing a cultural and corporate mindset and management of employee engagement.

Diageo's Williams is noted in particular for his role in introducing fresh talent into both the drinks brand ("he is setting a standard for beverages in the industry, attracting people to the brand") and into the HR profession as a whole. He "runs a sophisticated international HR function", says one who voted for him, while another mentions his "far-thinking focus on 'purpose' as a key element of employee engagement".

Meanwhile, Standard Chartered Bank's Clarke is seen as an "admirable ambassador for HR in financial services", managing a complex portfolio of people and businesses, "resilient", a "real people strategist, placing people at the heart of the business as a key differentiator" and "always looking for added value from people management - great use of business and HR data to inform decision-making".

Making a contribution to the HR profession is seen by those who voted as an important indicator of influence, a quality displayed by Anne Gibson, head of HR and organisational development, Norfolk County Council (15), in her work as president of the PPMA (Public Sector People Managers' Association).

The willingness to share ideas with others in the profession impresses; it is mentioned about a number of those ranked this year, including Helen Giles (7), HRD, Broadway, and MD, Real People, who has "introduced a successful consultancy to support charity work done by Broadway".

It is also a frequent comment about four-times number one ranked HR practitioner and HR director winner of our HR Lifetime Achievement Award 2012, David Fairhurst, chief people officer Europe, McDonald's, who "readily shares with the profession".

Last year's interviews with chief executives helped to identify what 'good HR' looks like. One aspect they highlighted was energy and enthusiasm, a positive approach to solving issues. Another was being "good at looking at things from a business perspective", something third-ranked Caroline Waters, director of people and policy, BT, excels at.

"A great ambassador for the function, she combines an ethical approach with business know-how", was one comment, while displaying "evidence of long commitment to better working practices, enthusiasm for work/life balance, diversity, flexible working - against a backdrop of difficult economy and industrial relations."

Another said: "BT has the most amazing inter-generational management policies I have seen in the UK. This is an area in which UK companies in general are rather unprepared. I congratulate her for taking this approach. Bravo!"

Waters is seen as a "stalwart of the industry, secure and assured in her handling, always understated" and an "outstanding original thinker, a great representative of HR".

External roles and winning awards clearly help build the reputation of the individuals concerned, although this has to be solid achievements, rather than a reputation built only on 'conference circuit slots'.

Second-ranked practitioner, Tanith Dodge, HR director at Marks and Spencer, is noted for her contribution both to Business in the Community's staff engagement project (Workwell) and to the MacLeod working group on engagement - solid achievements both. She is regarded as "dynamic and wholly pragmatic, delivering things she promised" and as "a board-level heavy hitter" with "a strong contribution to engagement".

Speaking at the HR Most Influential event at Claridge's last month, Dodge said it was a great time to be in the profession, a sentiment with which sponsor Michael Moran, CEO and founder of 10Eighty, agrees.

"Businesses today are reliant upon their knowledge workers. HR's ability to attract, retain and engage these employees is critical to the success of a business. However, in the words of Charles Dickens, it is both the best of times and worst of times. As a profession, we have to grasp this opportunity and deliver," he says.

A number of HR practitioners on the list are involved in various roles and topics - working with the CIPD, other professional and management associations, as well as governmental and EU working groups.

HR Most Influential UK Thinkers

Unsurprisingly, the HR Most Influential UK Thinkers 2012 are also well represented on external bodies. Will Hutton, chair, Big Innovation Centre at the Work Foundation, and principal of Hertford College, Oxford University (3), is viewed as hugely influential at government level. "His involvement in major governmental studies propels him to the top. And he has not shied away or become a government lackey at all. Top-class influencer and thinker," says one person who voted for him, while another says: "He has innovative solutions to people problems."

Hutton is one of a number of thinkers on our UK ranking who have strong influence in a particular field, in this case, the economy. As one respondent says: "He always has a view and is not afraid to say what he thinks, even if it is not the popular view. I listen to his views of the economy always, in particular. He is a thoughtful and considered spokesperson for the wider people community."

Seventh-placed Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge, founder of Quality & Equality, ninth-placed Dame Carol Black, national director for Health and Work, and David Clutterbuck (15), David Clutterbuck Partnership founder and visiting professor of coaching and mentoring at Sheffield Hallam and Oxford Brookes universities, are also recognised for their influence in specific areas. Cheung-Judge is admired for her ability to make organisational development (OD) accessible and link it to HR thinking. "The best OD practitioner in the UK," according to one respondent, she "is an inspirational thinker/presenter who brings impressive experience to bear in making OD accessible, pertinent and practical. She is driven by the desire to create systemic change within the HR function and business; there is no personal agenda". Another HRD, who voted her number one, adds: "It is this integrity and the profound effect she has on the individuals and organisations she works with that place her at the top of this list."

Dame Carol Black is regarded as putting health and wellbeing on the HRD's agenda, thanks to dedication and political influence. While her work on sickness absence is seen as contentious in some quarters, those who voted for her agree it is certainly having an impact on organisations.

"Although the initial report on health and wellbeing at work is now some years old, the impact of this and introduction of fit notes are still having a major impact on the ability of organisations (and individuals) to take a more proactive approach to managing health, wellbeing and absence in the workplace," says one.

Another adds Black is "using her platform to challenge and to encourage thinking about what is called for - and whether you agree with it or not, it generates comment".

Clutterbuck is lauded for his influence in the field of mentoring and coaching, with voters mentioning his simple and easy-to-understand delivery. "He is fascinating on 'dialogue'," says one, while another loves his "humour and his down-to-earth approach on HR-related matters".

Also noted for particular work is joint 14th-placed Andrew Kakabadse, professor of international management development, Cranfield University School of Management. He has "massive influence on board attitudes to people" is one comment about him.

For the 2012 thinkers lists, we were looking for academics that had made an impact on change, development and innovation.

Our top-ranked UK thinker demonstrates just this. David Denyer, professor of organisational change at Cranfield University School of Management, jumps straight into the top spot, thanks mostly to his "outstanding work on high reliability and safety leadership" and "pioneering evidence-based management worldwide". Off all those in our UK Thinkers ranking this year, Denyer appears to have had the most profound practical effect.

"Thanks to Denyer, I have changed the way that I approach organisational change in my organisation and it has provided fantastic results, in particular to the realignment of the business, making a major contribution to our ROI," says one voter. This is a view echoed by another: "Denyer has helped us look at the way we view the changes required after major events. The perspective he has brought has influenced our future approach."

While ranked highly by private and public sector HRDs, Denyer is particularly influential in the latter. "He has been influential in helping trusts understand and develop change following incidents. His radical approach to organisations' behaviours pre- and post-major incident will surely have a great impact on the NHS," says one respondent. Another adds: "Denyer has worked with hospitals and other public services in developing models for high-reliability organisations. His rapid understanding of issues and 'deep dive thinking' make him a valuable asset to the organisations he works with."

The application of theory into practice shines through in those who make the grade in this year's ranking. Cary Cooper, professor, organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School (just pipped by Hutton into fourth place), is hugely admired for this. Described as "an iconoclast" and "far more than an academic", Cooper is "peerless in making complex issues accessible to the wider public. He brings management challenges to the widest possible audiences."

Cooper's ability to communicate to Joe Public on issues around health and wellbeing, workplace flexibility and organisation performance is widely appreciated.

As one respondent puts it: "He is fantastic, authentic and the one the TV programmes want on their sofa, as he can communicate difficult and complex views and ideas in a straightforward way."

Lancaster University Management School is well represented in this year's ranking, with Cooper's colleagues Mike West, professor of organisational psychology, and Paul Sparrow, director of the Centre for Performance-Led HR, in positions five and joint 14 respectively.

West is noted for his rigorous research, which genuinely sets out to measure the impact of different people management approaches on employee motivation and company performance. He is "one of the few researchers producing a steady stream of data linking workforce issues to organisational outcomes - always accessible, relevant and challenging to practitioners", according to one person who voted him top.

Sparrow, meanwhile, is noted for his focus on performance-led HR and as a good bridge between academic and practitioner-friendly research. "He forces HR practitioners to exercise their grey matter" was one comment about him.

In 13th place, Wendy Hirsh, independent consultant and visiting professor, Kingston University, is another who delivers solutions that work in practice, our survey shows. As well as being a "fantastic researcher", she is "grounded in practicality and always mindful of the implications and applications of her research for HR practitioners" and, for one voter, is the "most thorough and insightful researcher in evidence-based HR in the UK today", able to "articulate complex organisational problems and solutions in a way that resonates with practitioners".

Sixth-placed David Guest, professor of organisational psychology and HRM at King's College, London, is also admired for demonstrating how to put theory into practice. He is noted for being wise, trusted and sensible, communicating through his weekly blogs, "always giving food for thought". He has a "distinguished track record of writing books and articles that deal with the everyday concerns of senior HR practitioners and that are grounded in empirical evidence".

This practical focus is also evident in eighth-placed Nick Holley, director of the HR Centre of Excellence at Henley Business School. Regarded as "very commercial" and also "refreshingly direct", Holley is noted for his "strong practice focus, making him a stand-out thinker" and a "thought leader who brings a business focus to HR, driving a value-added approach. He delivers excellent workshops that are short, focused and high quality."

Denyer tops the ranking for receiving the highest weighted score, but if the ranking were based on number of people who voted, then second-placed Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School, comes out top, proving her far- reaching influence.

Gratton is recognised for her many strengths, from global reach and consistently fresh thinking to her thought-provoking, entertaining speeches and inspirational approach. However, the one area in which she shines is her thinking on the future of work.

She is "always ahead of the game and her ideas can be used in business settings, which puts her ahead of many thinkers who have great but unimplementable ideas," says one fan. Another sums up the thoughts of many respondents in saying: "Gratton continues to push the needle to encourage us all to think about the future of work and what is called for - very necessary provocation if we are to be effective HR practitioners."

Gratton's original insight, understanding of dynamics and issues playing out in today's business world and leadership are all commented upon. As one respondent says: "It is always good to find a professor in a business school with an interest in making a difference - there are normally so few of them and Gratton has consistently, over the years, committed herself to this mission." Also admired for their innovative and pioneering work are Gillian Stamp, director at Bioss the Foundation (Brunel Institute of Organisation and Social Studies), in 21st place and 11th-ranked Veronica Hope-Hailey, professor of strategy and HRM, head of strategic and international management group, School of Management, University of Bath. Stamp, a "creative thinker", is described as having work that has "traction", while Hope-Hailey's work on trust has "caught the mood and feelings of the time".

"Trust is such a critical value for businesses to have today. Hope-Hailey's research has helped to provoke the HR community to think differently about this," says one respondent who voted for her.

Writing seminal books is another key quality of the most influential thinkers. Among those noted for this are: Rob Goffee, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, up from 22 to 10 with his writings on authentic leadership and managing knowledge workers; Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology, University College London (12), with his "brilliant, pragmatic blend of scientific research and common sense" and "insightful, well- evidenced, and brilliantly well-written work in tell-it-like-it-is language"; and Chris Brewster, professor of international HR management, Henley Business School, University of Reading (19), with his recent publications on international HR research.

HR Most Influential International Thinkers

When it comes to seminal texts, it could be argued international thinkers pip those from the UK - especially those from the US. It is fitting that 2012 marks the publication of the fifth edition of one such text, The Leadership Challenge, by Jim Kouzes, dean's executive fellow of leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University (joint 16) and, one place behind, his colleague, Barry Posner, Accolti professor of leadership at Leavey School of Business. Noted for their influence on leadership thinking and practice, Kouzes and Posner's seminal work, The Leadership Challenge - what they describe as 'a global campaign to liberate the leader in everyone', has been updated to mark the 25th anniversary of its publication. The fifth edition went straight to number one on Amazon's business leadership bestseller list.

US professors dominate the HR Most Influential International Thinkers 2012, with Harvard Business School professors taking the top two spots. Jumping up seven places to take the number one spot in 2012, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Ernest L Arbuckle professor, Harvard Business School, is nothing less than "one of the most powerful women in the world", according to one respondent. The accolades abound: original, interesting, excellent and a great thought leader. Her work on change and empowerment are not just influential in the HR community, but she is also influencing the global stakeholder agenda. She has also embraced social media to deliver her thoughts, with 28,000 Twitter followers. Those who voted for her regard her as a role model with a longevity and relevance that take some beating.

At 89 years old, second-placed Chris Argyris, emeritus professor of education and organisational behaviour, Harvard Business School, is less visible today, but "still a voice of reason is an increasingly crowded field", according to one comment.

"Argyris remains one of those whose early work is referred to almost as much as his later work in HR studies, and is an underpinning part of HR learning," says one who ranked him in their top three. Another points to his tried and tested ideas and usable theory.

Academics with timeless and practical theories stand out in the international list. In at number three, Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn professor of management studies, McGill University, is noted for his contribution to management, change and motivation that continues to be an inspiration to managers. "It is always worth listening to his views," says one who ranks him top.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, Thomas D Dee II professor of organisational behavior, Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, a new entry at number four, has produced books and ideas that are "timeless", while Edward Lawler, distinguished professor of business and director, Center for Effective Organizations, Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California (up one place to six) has a track record in "distinguished practitioner-friendly research", always rooted in practitioner needs.

Pat Wright, previously at Cornell and now Thomas C Vandiver Bicentennial chair, Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina (up from 19 to 11 this year), is noted for "translating academic insight into high-performance HR", while Denise Rousseau, HJ Heinz II university professor of organisational behavior and public policy, Carnegie Mellon University, who jumps straight into the number seven position, has made an "immense" contribution to understanding the psychological contract. Indeed, in one voter's view, Rousseau is "the only individual worth voting for on the list of nominations". Another added: "Excellent work in trying to impact on the landscape of the management field by championing the idea of an evidence-based international collaboration to operate across boundaries."

But the 2012 list also features academics pushing thinking into areas that the HR community deems of increasing importance, especially in the area of psychology. New in at number eight is Patrick Flood, professor of organisational behaviour and head HRM and organisational psychology group, Dublin City University, just one noted for his forward thinking.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, distinguished professor of psychology, School of Behavioral and Organisational Sciences, Claremont Graduate University, and co-director, Quality of Life Research Center (12), has been influential for his work on flow, the theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of 'flow', a state of complete absorption with the activity at hand.

Richard Boyatzis, professor, organisational behavior, psychology and cognitive science, Case Western Reserve University and HR at ESADE (new at number nine) is "emerging as a leader in this field", while his discussion on emotional intelligence remains fundamental to development of leadership theory.

Meanwhile, Martin Seligman, Zellerbach Family professor of psychology and director of the Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania (new at 13), is noted for his influence in the field of positive psychology and its application to the workplace, making it a tangible issue that organisations can, and should, address.

Surprisingly, experts in leadership are not as prominent in the 2012 ranking as in previous years. In addition to the already mentioned Kouzes and Posner, leading the charge is Bruce Avolio, Marion B Ingersoll professor and executive director, Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking, Michael G Foster School of Business, University of Washington (20).

Meanwhile, on the CEO agenda, talent is right up there and the top influencer in this field is Peter Cappelli, George W Taylor professor of management, Wharton School and director, Wharton's Center for Human Resources. He jumps the highest number of places this year, from 17 to five.

Those who voted for Cappelli admire his bravery in taking a contrarian view and challenging US-centric views on leadership and management practices.

He is seen as the "best talent guy worldwide", thanks to his work on supply chain thinking in talent management.

"Cappelli has produced some relevant, leading-edge theory around the changing employment relationship and managing talent in a time of uncertainty. His book, The India Way, is used widely as a blueprint for driving strategy and competitiveness in the new emerging global order."

With uncertainty, change and agility the new norms in the world of HR, this final remark is a fitting summation of the challenge those on both our Most Influential Practitioner and Thinker lists face.

Being ahead of the game, grounded in the business, adaptable, practical and, above all, having energy and resilience, mark the best out. The good news for those on our rankings is that research by Kristin Sommer from Baruch College and Martin Bourgeois of Florida Gulf Coast University shows that when people think they are influential - or at least believe they have a decent amount of influence on the people around them - they tend to be happier.

As another US author, Elbert Green Hubbard, famously said: "He who influences the thought of his times influences the times that follow."

Those on our HR Most Influential rankings surely do just that. HR

• For more information on this year's rankings, the methodology and photos of the night, please got to www.hrmostinfluential.co.uk