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Putting theory into practice: Trust

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Bath School of Management's Veronica Hope Hailey and BBC Worldwide people director Kirstin Furber talk trusted leadership

If trust is the essence of a long-term relationship, then it’s highly appropriate that the one between the University of Bath’s School of Management and BBC Worldwide (the main commercial arm of the BBC) focuses on the importance of trust for successful leadership. Bath School of Management dean Veronica Hope Hailey first started working with BBC Worldwide and its people director Kirstin Furber in 2013, and between then and now the organisation has played a central role in three of her reports.

Taking part in the research has been valuable in reflecting and learning from other companies, says Furber. Here, Hope Hailey and Furber reflect on their working relationship and the lessons they have both learned along the way.

Kirstin Furber: The media industry is about constant change. In 2013 we’d just got a new CEO [Tim Davie] and had done a big reorganisation from being a product to a regional business. The world is more competitive; we’re living in a digital age and people are consuming content in different ways. We needed to think about creating a culture where people can do their best work, and what that means in terms of attracting and retaining talent, and trust.

Veronica Hope Hailey: BBC Worldwide was one of my case studies, and it was apparent there was an interesting story going on: exceptional leadership and exceptionally high levels of trust. It was a combination of having an iconic brand and a change programme being led in a trustworthy way. One of the really interesting things is that it’s BBC Worldwide; so you’ve got an iconic brand that symbolises trust, but it’s worldwide. So the challenge is how you nurture a culture of trust where geographic proximity is not an option.

In a highly distributed organisation, how people trust senior managers and colleagues, particularly when they can’t see each other all the time, becomes critical to delivering products or services and keeping the brand alive.

KF: Trust is core, and it goes back to leadership. In a global, 24-hour business you cannot be everywhere all the time to check every box. You’ve got to have trust. You need leaders who are trusted by employees and leaders who are trusted by each other to develop a very clear vision. Everyone in our top 100 needs to own the strategy and staff need a framework so they can work at pace.

VHH: We are still in the midst of a trust crisis – look at VW and BHS. When I first started this research I thought we would be picking up the aftermath of the financial crisis and things would steady themselves. This has not been the case. I’ve wanted to show positive cases where organisations are managing to retain trust, and where leaders are revered for their trustworthy leadership. Rather than spend our time bashing leaders and organisations, let’s focus on these people doing something different.

KF: [In business] you can become very internalised, [taking part in the research] allowed me to take a step back and look at what has worked. It’s really important for HR professionals [to take that time to reflect].

One of the things that came out of the research was the importance of our leaders being really authentic and giving messages in their own words. That was very important for us when we came to landing our cultural ambition, because if employees don’t believe their leaders believe what they are saying [it won’t stick].

Having the leaders give the messages in their own personal way is what landed, and it made their teams feel more confident about owning the messages themselves. I have been mindful of that with any subsequent change, and we’ve embedded it into our talent programmes for emerging leaders.

We also had a programme where we had live 360º feedback, which you could only do with a lot of trust. We need to grow our business through feedback.

VHH: It’s [about] having a generation of leaders growing up in an organisation used to having honest conversations, being robust about listening to others and being resilient enough to take feedback.

Kirstin’s role in BBC Worldwide is one of ‘expert facilitator’. She’s very important in the senior team, but she’s more like a stage director. Her job is to stage manage a cultural change programme.

Kirstin’s role is a nuanced one and she is able to sense when a change needs to take a slightly different direction: she’s not an HR director with a predetermined plan. There’s a clear strategy, and a clear end game, but there’s a degree of improvisation going on; responding to where the organisation is and where there are opportunities.

KF: We work in a business that’s constantly changing so you have to be adaptable. If you don’t have senior leaders who know where they are going – leaders who are authentic and real – and an open and trustworthy communication plan, it would be very difficult.

VHH: The stage director is HR playing an appropriate role. In the last 25 years HR has been so insecure about itself that it’s almost overcompensated by insisting it is extremely strategic, centre stage, and in some cases being overly bombastic about its role.

Here, HR is aware of the context of the strategy and is playing an appropriate role in delivering it. That means sometimes HR is centre stage, and sometimes it is backstage delivering a higher role than just getting HR noticed.

KF: I lead our people strategy, but it’s very much owned by the executive team. As an HR person you have to be yourself. In large organisations with thousands and thousands of people that might be difficult, but it’s something that’s very important to me. You navigate by having an opinion.

HR at BBC Worldwide is about driving the business, so you have an opinion about driving the business and how to translate the people questions. We’re in the world of employees taking much more ownership of their destiny, so we are having different conversations, and you need to have an opinion.

We have employees delivering modules in our learning curriculum, so HR is more backstage. I encourage, and provide stuff behind the scenes, but it’s about how the employees want to do it.

VHH: Some of the most powerful people understand that sometimes power comes from a backstage role; they know when to serve and when to lead. You don’t often find the leadership style that allows you to do both in HRDs: often they are either good at being backstage or they want to be at the front.

In sophisticated HR you have a more nuanced understanding that the role of the HR function is to deliver a higher purpose, not to inflate the importance of HR strategy.