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Trevor Phillips: Distributed leadership is the “future of business”

A panel on day one of the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition spoke about different ways HR can create good work

Distributed leadership is the “future of business” because leaders are forced to listen to and work with their employees, according to Trevor Phillips, chair of Green Park.

“[Organisations] don’t have to be employee-owned but distributed leadership enforces accountability on top leadership as it forces them to work with people. They can’t send memos saying they’ve changed things, they have to answer to the people,” he said.

Phillips pointed to the John Lewis Partnership (JLP) as an example and shared how when he was president of the partnership council he was sceptical about its good reputation and was looking for the “feet of clay”.

“I never found the feet of clay,” he conceded, because these “values run right down” the organisation.

Phillips said “when [employees] look up [to leaders] that is not the way of the future” but good work happens when responsibility is shared.

“Good work is about creating a place where colleagues thrive… and employees have voice,” agreed Susan Clews, chief executive at ACAS.

Clews said it is an “exciting time” for how workplace conflict is being dealt with. There isn’t a higher volume of strike days than in the past but “conflict is manifesting in different ways such as sick days or not working as hard”, she explained.

The encouraging thing is that companies are listening more to what employees are saying, Clews continued.

“Companies are starting to take note that they can no longer focus on the bottom line,” she said. “Companies are starting to look at employee stakeholders not just customer stakeholders.”

Employee voice is key to rooting out and tackling conflict and organisations are beginning to realise this, she added.

Phillips said HR should be “proud of our profession in the way [tackling] workplace conflict has spread extensively across UK workplaces”.

“Conflict will always exist in any environment but how we handle it is critical,” he said. “The big explosive things have gone but they have been replaced with low level disputes.”

The challenge, said Phillips, is that when there’s conflict “business leaders often push it to the people leaders”. “You can’t just chuck it all at the head of HR when the problem is a business problem,” he warned.

When asked about HR’s role in calling out racial bullying and harassment in the workplace, Phillips asserted that racial discrimination is the D&I area that HR and organisations still haven’t tackled.

“I’ll be frank – there’s all sorts of isms in the workplace but race is the one we still can’t deal with,” said Phillips.

He explained that where all leaders and employees will have connections with people of other genders and diversity measures, people and organisations still lack awareness of racial discrimination. “We recognise all other areas… even I have a mother,” he explained.

“But someone’s ethnicity hides behind an opaque screen. We also know this is terminal.”

What’s also critical to note is that people who don’t experience racial harassment often don’t understand it, Phillips said.

“Everyone says they want to deal with it, but the difficulties people constantly run up against is what I think is racial harassment may not be what everyone else thinks it is,” he said. “And organisations can’t agree or often don’t or can’t recognise what the person who feels they’ve been harassed or assaulted feels.”

He recommended that all organisations “go outside to help them deal with this”: “Don’t imagine you’re going to solve this by getting a non-executive on the board to solve it.”

The panel went on discuss the challenges of recruiting people that fit the organisation while being inclusive employers.

Rupert McNeil, government chief people officer at Civil Service UK, explained how HR has revamped the profiles of people it looks to recruit and promote within the Civil Service, to look beyond traditional requirements around skills and experience.

“For each role there is a success profile that shows the essential elements of experience and technical skill, but also strengths and behaviours,” he explained.

Key to this is equipping managers with the skills and accountability to recruit in an informed way, he added: “You’re requiring hiring managers to be more thoughtful.”

“Another aspect to the ‘will you fit?’ question is that I think it’s been used in the past to reject people,” said Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD. “If we use fit we are using bias to pick people the same as ourselves. We have to understand we are innately biased and this cultural fit thing can be used in a way to exclude.”

He asked HR to ask itself: “When did you last recruit someone who scares you a bit?”

Phillips agreed that there’s a need to be “smart about what that fit thing might mean”. He shared an anecdote where he was participating in shortlisting candidates for a CEO role and he and the rest of the panel all “stumbled” on the fourth candidate because they were different.

He recommended that when looking at shortlisting candidates, HR must think about “what have you already got?”

“I think we’ve got into a place where we’re recruiting the 10th person and we’re recruiting them on the basis of the success of the last nine,” he said.

Phillips said HR should think about talent as a “share portfolio”, meaning they should recruit people not because they are good at things other people on the team excel at but because they’re good at something different.

“We need to think about fit not just as an exclusion thing but as a team and we haven’t got tools to do that yet,” he said. “We need to be a bit more lively in the way we think of these things.”

While inclusion is a key issue, Cheese concluded that the outlook in these areas is positive. “It’s encouraging to see the debates we’re now having – we wouldn’t be having this conversation even four or five years ago,” he said. “So that gives me great hope.”