Mobility in an age of disturbance – collaboration and the art of speaking up

Putting people at the heart of business is increasingly seen as the key to success. Ruth Holmes asked Margaret Heffernan, keynote speaker at the CIPD’s Annual Conference, what this might mean for mobility.

Mobility in an age of disturbance - Margaret Heffernan
In his opening remarks at the CIPD’s 2016 Annual Conference in Manchester in November, the organisation’s chief executive, Peter Cheese, referred to what he believed was “a crisis of trust in businesses” and voiced his determination that the HR profession was going to have a "strong voice" in making work a force for good.Mr Cheese’s words came just hours after Donald Trump declared victory in the US presidential elections after running on a controversial, but successful, anti-establishment ticket."The last 12 months have undermined many people’s trust in business, with too many scandals, such as those at Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, BHS and Sports Direct, demonstrating the need for business to properly value all their workers and employees, and to take their wider accountabilities to all their stakeholders more seriously," he said.With Brexit and the likelihood that some companies may seek to relocate businesses and employees to mainland Europe and beyond – as well as the anti-free-trade rhetoric that looks set to be at the top of the US presidential agenda in 2017 – these are interesting times for HR and mobility as they seek to rebuild relationships and trust in the context of change."The challenges we face in the world of work are not new," said Peter Cheese, "but they are now more important to tackle than ever before, in light of events such as Brexit. We cannot freeze in the headlights of uncertainty, but instead must embrace the opportunities that these challenges bring to drive real and lasting change."

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Both HR and mobility, in the months ahead, are likely to need to be even more agile, to learn and adapt to changes in the context of securing better working lives and regaining trust and integrity – for example, through paying even greater attention to employee wellbeing, diversity and inclusion with the aim of creating more effective organisations.

Responding to disruptive influences

For all the uncertainty and turbulence that is the character of operating environments today, there are constants and lessons to be learned from previous experience. Following Peter Cheese’s opening address was influential entrepreneur, CEO and author Margaret Heffernan, who delivered the keynote speech to 1,500 delegates representing 40 countries.Ms Heffernan has played a definitive role in helping to shape the fast-changing media and technology sectors that are significant influences on our work, business and everyday lives. Given her experience and influence in rapidly evolving and disruptive sectors, she was able to take further the key themes of Mr Cheese’s speech and add her personal insights and experiences to the key message of making work better and a force for good.Setting out from her award-winning perspective and a career that has crossed borders in the UK, the US and the Netherlands, Ms Heffernan described her view of the vital importance of collaboration, innovation and creativity in the new world of work.Speaking before the CIPD conference and in the context of more global and connected workplaces and today’s crisis of trust, the popular and widely followed TED Talk participant explained her take on the current crisis. "What my book Wilful Blindness showed is that our biggest institutional failures derive not from information that was unknowable, but from insights and knowledge that were widely shared – just never talked about."If we are serious about building institutions that do better, that see every person in them as part of an early warning and early opportunity system, then we have got to create cultures in which it is easy, safe and rewarded to speak up."That means leaders have to be prepared for challenge, be prepared to listen and to see changing course or strategy as leadership, not failure."

Forging relationships, testing views

Supporting this observation, Margaret Heffernan explained her and others’ belief that the future of work relied heavily on social capital – the inclusive relationships, shared values and understanding that enabled people to work together.To illustrate this point, she described in one of her latest books, Beyond Measure, a scenario familiar to most of us on HR and corporate mobility teams. A company assigns a highly thought-of executive to lead a new venture in an overseas territory. Yet when they get there and are settled in post, the individual and the team they lead fall short of their potential.As we know in mobility, not least from the high assignment failure rates, the reasons for lack of success are manifold, from insufficient family support to a poorly managed assignment life cycle. For Ms Heffernan, the answer for assignment failure probably also rests in corporate culture, of which the outcomes above are symptomatic.Culture is the "secret sauce" of organisation life, she notes in Beyond Measure. It is also the source of its troubles. When a project or overseas assignment fails, losses count or revenues slide, most people will assert culture as the reason and apportion blame to it.Given the widespread focus on what is measurable and reportable, this is an irony for Margaret Heffernan. When quantifiable events go wrong, people blame culture, which is much less readily quantified. Nevertheless, this observation draws attention to the importance of the small, everyday interactions and barriers between people, geographies and departments, as well as begging the question why and what are we measuring?Here, everyday exchanges and relationships make the difference between success and failure, and call for the creation of a "just culture" – one characterised by all information, intelligence and insight being shared in the open so that people and teams can make the best decisions.

Building a just culture

Asked what it took to build a just culture where everyone had a voice, Margaret Heffernan explained that respecting hierarchy and a reluctance to speak out of turn or share information and views were ingrained, particularly when avoiding conflict."This is a big question," she told me. "But, first of all, it is critical for leaders to appreciate that fostering social capital yields real rewards. Trust is more efficient and creative than hierarchies and bureaucracies. If we seriously want innovative organisations that can adapt to new and emerging challenges, then we need to foster the creativity that demands."There are many ways to kill creativity, and we pretty much do them all. Great ideas are no respecters of hierarchy or job descriptions. So, if we want organisations that can keep seeing and seizing new opportunities, we need to be prepared to down some of the tools that served us in the past."

People first

In the context of mobility, and referring back to the highly able executive moving from a European HQ to Hong Kong and how he was unable to deliver on his potential, Ms Heffernan recommends prioritising relationship-building if assignments are to go well."I think the point of this story is that without social capital nobody can achieve very much of any importance," she said."The kinds of work we do these days require more information, expertise and insight than any one person can have alone. We depend absolutely on our ability to collaborate."But collaboration doesn’t work well without high levels of trust, reciprocity and generosity of the kind that social capital represents. You can’t move people around like widgets and expect them to operate well. You wouldn’t actually even expect widgets to do that."That means you need to invest time in developing networks and developing the skills with which people can do this seriously. This requires that people appreciate that success is not a solo activity but depends fundamentally on the people and relationships around you."

Changing the habits of a lifetime?

Clearly, such an approach means an element of learning to overcome ingrained behaviours, especially when it comes to speaking up, giving feedback and dealing with hierarchies. Does Ms Heffernan agree?"First, I think everyone needs serious training in conflict resolution,” she said. “We have got to learn to manage conflict well."Most of the organisational silence that has typified institutional failure, from the banking crisis to BP, VW and GM, derives from people’s fear of raising issues that will provoke arguments, which the individuals themselves do not know how to manage."As far as safety nets go, the salient feature of a just culture is that it is one where anyone identifying a problem or an opportunity can do so safely, that punishment will follow only those with malign intent. A culture of safety is fundamental if you want people to say what is on their minds."

Facing the challenges head on

As a new year rolls round, heralding a new presidency in the US and Article 50 being triggered in the UK, significant changes are promised in the months to come.For Margaret Heffernan, success or failure in 2017 and beyond will be a product of how we work together as individuals, teams and organisations to resolve these changes. “We need people who look not for alibis, but for opportunity. We are faced by big, difficult challenges."These won’t be vanquished by a few supermen or superwomen; they are far too complex for that. They will only be addressed and overcome by a great coalition of talents prepared for the hard work of argument, experiment and failure that is the necessary route to innovation."

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