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The unsung heroes of HR

The academics and practitioners who make up our HR Most Influential rankings, sponsored by Open University Business School, are leading the way in what could be uncertain times

It’s a whole year, incredibly, since the 11th HR Most Influential (HRMI) lists were unveiled. And what a year it has been.

With many still reeling from Brexit, then came the shock of president Trump. We’ve also seen a snap general election and a surprise hung parliament result.

But the uncertainty many are feeling goes far beyond unexpected events. People often say every year seems to pass faster than the last. But – in an age of ever-advancing AI and automation, rapidly evolving employment arrangements, and a still volatile business world – this now rings truer than ever.

So what does an unpredictable, fast-changing world mean for influential HR? “For me there is something about agility and being able to shift an HR strategy to realign it to the group strategy in a world that is constantly changing,” says Sam Allen, managing director at Sam Allen Associates. “If there’s a dramatic change in the market or in employment requirements the agility should be there to be pragmatic rather than carry on down the same route.

“Flexibility and agility are amped up even more than before so you need to be prepared to go through version 1.0 and 2.0 of your plan at any given moment,” agrees Anna Penfold, consultant at Russell Reynolds. “That is very challenging for many because most fall into the bracket of being good at the longer-term stuff or good at delivering the short term. It’s hard to find someone who can oscillate between the two.”

For Penny Asher, director of executive education at The Open University Business School (OUBS), this increasingly requires an HR professional unafraid to think outside the box. “Brexit and uncertainty don’t change the basics, but they do require us to be more innovative and be prepared to take risks and try different things,” she says.

Allen agrees with Asher that, as important as an HRD factoring volatility and uncertainty into their approach is, the fundamentals of what makes impactful HR remain largely the same. “One of the key measures for me about what a great HRD looks like, is if you could sit through the board meeting and not know what discipline they represented because they are highly commercial and ultimately focused on delivering short-, medium- and long-term strategies,” she says.

Most influential practitioners

But it isn’t just about operational excellence and successful outcomes in an HRD’s own business. Now in its 12th year, our HRMI ranking has been designed to identify and celebrate individuals who contribute to the profession as a whole, challenge people’s thinking and sense of what’s possible, and freely share ideas and experiences.

To do this HR magazine decided last year to more strongly define what constitutes HR influence. Off the back of research by Ashridge Business School, and research carried out with a group of HR directors, HR magazine devised eight factors of influence (see below) covering not just track record of successful outcomes, but external influence, other responsibilities besides HR, developing others, and sharing with the HR community.

This year we once again applied these criteria, working with a group of expert headhunters to forensically apply them to a longlist of FTSE 100 and non-FTSE HRDs. The top practitioners in each industry form the HR Most Influential sector lists. From these the overall top 40 practitioners were chosen based on scores against each of the eight criteria. You can see these opposite, but do also visit the website to explore the full rankings, including sector lists and profiles.

For Angela O’Connor, CEO of The HR Lounge, the people on these lists serve as inspiration that there are plenty in HR seizing the chance to make an impact on people’s lives. Ours is not just an era of uncertainty from an operating point of view, she says. Never has there been a more important time for HR to take ownership of the fear people will be feeling.

“Many employees are feeling they don’t know what the future holds for them,” she says, citing stress in relation to technology overload, changing career paths and family arrangements, and employee relations as key areas HR must lead on.

“My advice to HRDs is anticipate the agenda: Brexit, low pay, zero-hours contracts…” adds Martin Tiplady, CEO of Chameleon People Solutions. “HR could become the function of the moment if it were to grab that agenda. Those in the ranking are very much doing that.”

Which brings us to our top 40 and those taking the top spots this year. You may have noticed a public and third sector theme in our top three, proving the very challenging, strategic and often innovation-demanding nature of HR in those sectors.

“Working in the public and third sector is not easy,” confirms O’Connor. “[Organisations] have to perform in the spotlight of the media and have salary thresholds that would not allow many private sector operations to recruit. There are always issues of cost at play and difficulties cannot be dealt with by a blank cheque. The public sector is accountable and the pressures in some areas are immense.”

Look a little closer at our top three and another trend emerges. Taking the very top spot this year is an HR director who, though recently taking on the role of civilian HR director at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), has also worked across the private and third sectors, most recently as director of people and OD at the NSPCC. Siobhan Sheridan “absolutely epitomises” why cross-sector experience can be so powerful, feels Penfold.

“Increasingly there is more transferability of change skills among people who have led major programmes around transformation in HR, whether in the public, private or third sector. I think that’s more applicable than ever before.”

“We don’t have all the answers and we need to realise that and be open to ideas wherever they come from,” agrees OUBS’ Asher. “HRDs’ ability to push those boundaries will mean they’re influential.”

“Siobhan doesn’t think in a sectoral way and many could learn from that,” says Tiplady. “If you were to paint a picture of the classic HRD it wouldn’t be Siobhan and yet she has enormous stature; she just oozes stature whenever she speaks and offers herself freely to others in the sector. Being a bit wacky matters sometimes; she comes up with the gems nobody else thought of.”

In the number two slot is someone with a similarly diverse background. Althea Loderick, strategic director for resources at Brent Council, has enjoyed roles across both local government and large national public sector organisations, and within a private sector consultancy. Like Sheridan she’s unafraid to say things as they are, says Tiplady. “She’s one of those people who can speak strategically very simply,” he says. “And she’s definitely a role model.” Having now taken on a remit much broader than HR, including regeneration and finance, she’s not taken the route of moving “away from HR as she gets more senior” but “does the opposite and talks to others about how powerful good HR can be”, says O’Connor. “She is generous with her time, advice and support to the HR function,” she adds.

Taking the number three spot is group HR director at the BBC Valerie Hughes-D’Aeth, another HRD with cross-sector experience. She manages to find the time to give back to the community via mentoring and speaking despite the constraints of heading up HR at such a high-profile, much-scrutinised organisation.

“There are few leadership roles in the UK that have such high standing, such high prestige and are so high risk,” comments Penfold. “And she’s steering the ship very adeptly through pretty choppy waters.”

Most influential thinkers

And so to our HR Most Influential Thinkers and the crucial role these individuals can play in helping shape HR practice. To compile the list HR magazine asked for reader nominations and invited a panel of HR directors to debate a longlist of names in relation to our six criteria of thinker influence (see below).

A key theme that emerged was practical relevance and applicable solutions. Top HR thinkers “are real in how they speak, what they say, and how they present” one of the HRDs on our panel comments. “There is no confusion and importantly their work speaks to the everyday and not simply in theory.”

This is reflected in particular by some of the less academic inclusions in this year’s list – Matthew Taylor for his work on modern working practices, and David MacLeod and Nita Clarke who were praised by the panel for their continued work embedding their Engaging for Success study.

It is also reflected by a few stalwarts of the HR thinker scene making a comeback – Patrick Lencioni and Simon Sinek for example. In an age of uncertainty and disruption, certain themes and ideas have naturally come back to the fore, most notably authenticity and values-based leadership.

These themes are certainly central to the work of our number one thinker this year: Herminia Ibarra, Cora Chaired professor of leadership and learning at INSEAD, and author of Act Like a Leader. Also central to Ibarra’s work is applicability. “You can have lots of fancy models but the things that matter in the end are how you relate to people, and being authentic as opposed to the leader you’re told to be,” says one HRD panellist.

“Lots of people aren’t talking about the gig economy,” another comments in praise of Ibarra’s work on this topic. “Great, very relevant, on point,” another states simply. “Very easy to understand and down to earth.”

Coming in at number two is someone who one panel member describes as “timeless”. Founder of Quality & Equality Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge has worked tirelessly over the years to ensure HR is transformed for the better at the coalface. “She spotted early on that HR could be very narrow and that broadening to organisational development (OD) was very beneficial,” comments one HRD.

“OD is about making the world a better place, not just what you do in business. It’s about that very humanistic approach to think about the sociological, economic and environmental impact you have… Mee-Yan has a real generosity of spirit; she wants to see others develop and grow.”

The third spot goes to someone one HRD panellist described as “sort of conquering the world” with her work on body language. Indeed associate professor at Harvard Business School Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on the subject is the second most-viewed TED talk of all time. Again, it’s an example of work on authenticity coming to the fore, with one panellist commenting that she’s “very relevant in today’s world”. Another reveals that they couldn’t wait to read her next book on bravery, bullying and bystanding.

This was a common theme among all this year’s HR Most Influential Thinkers, and indeed practitioners – the sense among our panellists that they couldn’t wait to see how their ideas develop over the coming year. These may be uncertain and volatile times, but these lists hopefully serve as inspiration and a reminder that there’s a huge opportunity for impactful and influential HR to lead the way.

For the full HR Most Influential 2017 rankings visit: http://www.hrmagazine.co.uk/hr-most-influential/