The HR Directors Business Summit 2016

I was lucky enough to Chair the HR Directors Business Summit in Birmingham this year, and privileged to meet many inspiring speakers and delegates from all parts of the people profession. It you want to take a vicarious look at the event – you can find it on Twitter using the #HREvent16 hashtag.

Aside from the thirteen captivating keynote speakers I also managed to attend brilliant sessions from seventeen other speakers and spend time at the awards dinner celebrating the success of some of the smartest people in the business.

Trying to wrap up hundreds of sessions and an entire three day conference in a blog short enough to maintain interest will be challenging, but here goes…….

HRD Speakers 2016

Day 1 Started with misplaced fear – as Howard Webb, one of the the most famous (and respected) football referees in the world took the stage and spoke at length about gut instinct, trust in those around you and how critical help from others is to continued success. This theme around helping, and the duty of our profession to help those around us would continue throughout the conference.

Something that also struck me was the phrase ‘anonymously competent‘ Howard used, clear that ‘anonymous’ was something he wished to avoid, but competent was not. A similar sentiment to that expressed by one of my personal heroes, Commander Chris Hadfield who refers to competence as the highest achievement for an astronaut. Not exactly in line with the HR “Exceeds Expectations In Being Excellent” mindset within performance management.


The wonderful Marshall Goldsmith then joined the conference and shared much wisdom, including the observation the best companies express zero tolerance for behaviour violations and that we all have responsibility for changing and learning behaviours. “Life is easy to talk, difficult to live” was a phrase that I’ll find difficult to forget, and the statement of equality – “We’re all going to end up equally dead” is not likely to leave me any time soon. The overall message? Be the best you that you can be, learn, and make a positive and active difference in those around you.


In the early evening, the author of Resilience, Liggy Webb took to the stage to walk us through an agile model for people that was not a buzzword – tying in some of the most pressing issues of the profession with an easy to remember acronym of Adaptable, Genuine, Innovative, Light and Enduring. It’s tough to argue against any of these traits, given that we’d all like to see more of them in both ourselves and those around us  – and amongst her other wise words were those connecting the effects of change to that of grief. As one conference delegate noted, people are not resistant to change – they are resistant to badly managed, poorly communicated change.

Our final speaker on day 1 was Selina Millstam, the head of talent management for nearly 130,000 Ericsson employees worldwide. Defying convention she set about presenting a vision for the future where managing people was centred around finding purpose, charitable understanding and working together for mutual benefit. Her formula for personal development appealed to me greatly – Gifts + Passion + Values = Calling. Purpose became one of the most talked about subjects amongst delegates from that moment on.

Day 2 Found me in awe as Dame Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley took to the stage, a wonderful inspiration who after being sent to the UK to avoid the Nazi holocaust refused to accept that her talents for mathematics, computing and business could be constrained by the established male dominated culture of the day and founded an IT company. Predominantly staffed with women, amongst it’s other notable success her company was responsible for programming the black box on Concorde. Now retired, she is devoting her time to philanthropy – and it seemed to me at least, dispelling any myths about feminism,  boundaries and limitations.

My top two takeaway’s (and there were many) were her statement “I am not a feminist, I am a humanist who is totally convinced that every single person can make a difference” and the passion she brought to bear when speaking of challenging the culture of the day. Her memoir – “Let IT Go” is nothing short of amazing. Buy it now (and support autism research by doing so).


Then came Zappos head of People Operations – Hollie Delaney. Straight from Las Vegas and with a huge smile she led the audience through a brief history of what makes Zappos culture work, and how holocracy is shaking things up. I was surprised when I asked the audience how many had heard of Zappos when only half the hands went up – for people working in HR, on culture and engagement – not knowing the Zappos story would be like an IT professional not knowing about Microsoft.

I’m guessing that there will be many more people ordering “Delivering Happiness” in the next few weeks, and my principle takeaway from Hollie was that holocracy is challenging, but it’s all about distributing authority to those with the right skills to get the jobs done. This is a stretch in many organisations – but in the fictional world of the Avengers, and in the real world of the space program or formula one racing teams, competence and skill are more important that management position. Taking an organisation structure typically reserved for crisis management and applying it to everyday work practice is inspiring.


One of the biggest themes of the event was then introduced by John Vincent, his quote “It’s the CEO’s job to be a wellbeing warrior” was one of the standout statements of the event – and bringing Wing Tsun pioneer Julian Hitch to the stage to demonstrate that fighting and winning are not the same thing provided an excellent aide de memoire. Equally his advice to not get stressed about choosing an outcome that you don’t have the resources to achieve resonated well with the audience – as did his excellent taste in footwear.

Wellbeing in all of it’s diversity would continue to be a dominant subject of conversation.


What can I say about Jon Ronson? The author of (amongst others) “Men Who Stare At Goats”, “The Psychopath Test” and “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” entertained and horrified the audience in equal measure – challenging all of us to recognise that senior executives are four times as likely to be psychopaths as the rest of the population. His brilliant presentation gave everyone cause to question perceptions of the penal system, and also those who seem only to have the desire to win……”If you take all empathy from people, you are ONLY left with the will to win.” Hmmmmmmm.

Oh yes, and he also taught us that when dogs are anxious they yawn, and to never, ever wear a pin-stripe suit.


Closing the second day was one of the stars from the BBC’s “Apprentice” – Pamela Uddin has taken her exposure from the show and become a champion for disabilities in the workplace. Standing in centre stage, she told us of the indignity of a photoshoot where the girl ahead of her was told to be more like a vegetable – a dyslexic interpretation of “approachable”. I will confess of my prior ignorance for the nuances of many disabilities and my lack of understanding – and there is no doubt that Pamela’s bravery in publicly discussing her dyslexia, dyspraxia and stammer was inspiring. Her observation that 60% of self-made millionaires are dyslexic dispelled some myths, and her statement that everyone should provide an environment that allows unique gifts to shine was one of my favourite quotes from the conference.

Rohan Gunatillake started day 3 by bringing mindfulness to the heart of the discussion. His calm on stage was infectious  as he described advertising as a constant distraction and a need for us to renegotiate our relationship with technology. Explaining the critical nature of being ‘in the moment’ with the environment brought to mind a conversation I’d had with Julian about martial arts. Julian explained that without mindfulness a the heart of his practice, then there was no chance of success – being in the moment enabled total focus.

Rohan ended his session with three things that we all should take notice of – 1. Keep Learning, 2. Help People, 3. Be Mindful. Hard to argue with that – and I’m looking forward to reading his book “This Is Happening”.


Kai Kight and his violin were next to the stage. In my years of bringing speakers onto stage I have never observed such an absolute absence of audience noise as his music mesmerised the auditorium. An engineer by education, his passion was always his music, and it was hard to argue with his sentiments about dispelling limiting beliefs, and using perceived weaknesses or threats as strengths and advantages. In common with many of the most inspirational speakers,  his focus was firmly fixed upon unleashing purpose and passion. “With the right circumstances we can accomplish anything”.


Two theatrically trained speakers closed the conference – with the UK’s leading voice coach and author Caroline Goyder taking the stage to share some of the methods she uses to help her clients communicate with gravitas. She gave a masterclass in the importance of balancing ethos, logos and pathos – also described as character, content and emotion – by leading us through a political leadership content where the audience rated prospective prime ministers for their communicated levels of each. We were left in doubt of the importance of communication, and working on our skills in that area.

BT’s Futurist Dr. Nicola Millard immediately took up that theme in her closing keynote – highlighting some of the work being done to help our face to face loving inner neanderthal to communicate more effectively using technology and proclaiming that both Dolly and Dilbert were dead (proving Marshall Goldsmiths point from the start of the conference) – but in reality proclaiming that working in a cube from 9 to 5 was no longer the standard environment for office workers, a challenge for some younger people who have yet to find their ‘coffice’ or don’t have a home office. Again we were drawn to technology relationship as Nicola admitted being half cyborg and outsourcing half her brain to Google…..

HRD Cloud

HREvent Wordcloud

So where does this leave the humble people professional? I was struck by the level of new thinking that was being discussed by the delegates – the new perspectives and the curiosity. If there was only one thing I could take from the conference it would be learn. As a former IT professional I felt overlooked or undervalued if I did not attend at least one conference per year – I took a very dim view of those staff who did not, and my managers were likely to challenge me as insular if I wasn’t asking for budget to go.

The world of technology changes so fast that those responsible for it must keep up to date – but the world of humans is changing faster, and the business need for the right development, talent acquisition, management and support is increasing. If you’re reading this and wishing you had been there, then please find yourself a conference or a peer event to attend – HR professionals should be visibly leading in learning and change.

To paraphrase Mahatma Ghandi, be the change you want to see… your own organisation.

HRD Lego 2016

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