Innovation, Diversity and Uncertainty at #euhrevent


Permission to Experiment


I’ve just returned from 2 days in Berlin at the European HR Directors Summit. We had a strong mix of delegates (drawn from across Western Europe) some helpful and informative sponsors (who didn’t push too much and had some interesting analysis to share) and a friendly, energetic team from WTG who kept the event running smoothly.

I was there in tweeting/blogging capacity, aided by Mark and Perry, when they weren’t engaged on their well received chairing duties.

The overall event was really enjoyable. There was a good energy about it, with inquisitive delegates. Those I spoke during the networking breaks all felt that they had learned and discovered some new ideas to take back with them.

The tone was set each day by the opening keynotes. Both Dr Nicola Millard (changing nature of work) and Liggy Webb (resilience) spoke with a passion and energy that was infectious, using humour and imagery to help make their points. The audience felt involved and identified with many of the issues that they raised. I think that the impact of the opening keynote, and the way that it sets the mood for what follows, can often be overlooked when agendas are put together. The most impressive CV or academic research may be important to establish credibility, but do not necessarily create awesome from the stage. It is the ability to captivate an audience, to entertain as well as educate, illustrate as well as inform, that often makes it a success or a disappointment, and adds weight to the points raised.

There were recurring themes across the 2 days – change, uncertainty, diversity, learning, innovation, leadership and empowerment – and here are some of my takeaways:

The Age of Uncertainty

Many presentations dealt with the rapid change we are experiencing. Whilst there may have been other similar periods in the past the current combination of technological, economic, demographic and cultural shifts are impacting heavily on our work. One session from the EU Commission looked at the increase in productivity and job creation that Europe would need by 2030 – quite frightening. The four generation workforce was also referenced many times.

The recent Deloitte report on Global HR trends had highlighted the ‘overwhelmed employee’ as a major issue facing business and the conference opener from Dr Nicola Millard looked at the factors driving changes to work – disappearance of a ‘9 to 5’ working mindset, technology enabling remote working and collaboration, the end of the tradition office space – and how the ‘always connected, always on’ mindset creates distractions (or time vampires as she called them) that could affect productivity, sleep patterns and general wellbeing. “Where in your job description does it say that you need to spend up to half the day dealing with email?” she asked.

Another session talked of the need to hire people who enjoy uncertainty as the need for change grows and of striking the balance between pragmatism and perfection – “for change to succeed, perfection needs to take a back seat to pragmatism“.

Embrace Diversity

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a European conference, diversity was an issue that also ran through a number of sessions. There was little mention of the dreaded generational classifications – “mind the generation gap but ignore the millennial hype” said Nicola Millard – with adaptability and technological competence being seen as key differentiators, irrespective of age.

Whilst in the UK we often talk of diversity in terms of age, gender and ethnicity, here the main areas discussed were around culture and personality. The need to have a culture that caters for both introverts and extroverts, and to lead in a way that brings both together, maximising their skills irrespective of their different approaches, was referenced. Not everyone is the same, we all react and contribute differently to a range of situations. To build and inspire a team of diverse characters requires leadership skills that we may not always fully assess. Praise and encouragement were seen as crucial people builders – “How hard can it be to make other people feel important?“.

We also had a powerful session on leading multicultural workforces, across countries and businesses. Production and consumption, markets and commercial relationships, are now international, whilst IT systems are global. In bringing this together the key is to not erase diversity but use it to foster different viewpoints for creativity, innovation and competencies, whilst leveraging it for insights to different markets and buying habits. Leaders need to acknowledge local cultures, accept their differences and integrate (not attempt to change) the values and perspectives they bring.

Keep the Talent

Internals First was the name of a session from Credit Suisse about their ‘Grow Your Own’ programme – a sourcing strategy that supports internal mobility and direct approaches to the internal labour market. The external focus is shifted to entry level positions and then an internal market is created, with the main benefits being:

  • Development strategy
  • Maintaining culture
  • Less performance risk
  • Qualified candidates becoming harder to find
  • Helps retention

Framing is important, hence there is no talk of internal headhunting, but the campaign does bring all internal opportunities to everyone’s attention. Employees are encouraged to keep their skills up to date and visible, whilst managers are able to get the attention of internal passives. There are challenges – employees need career coaching and their expectations managed, whilst managers can sometimes also expect too much from the internal market.

One interesting stat was that around 40% of internal employes moving roles had already been contacted by external headhunters regarding external roles. It shows the importance of making opportunities visible to keep employees happy, demonstrating the variety of an internal career, or else risk losing them.

Fostering Innovation

Keeping talent is one thing, encouraging and empowering it to help the innovation process is the next stage. “Don’t just source ideas from researchers but from all employees. Innovation is the responsibility of every employee” said Olivier Leclerc from Alcatel Lucent when introducing us to their entrepreneurial bootcamps, which produce between 30 and 40 ideas every 6 to 9 months. They foster a buccaneering spirit (from ego-centre to eco-centre was one delegate comment) and involve external parties to give a VC feel and ensure that innovative ideas are viewed on their merit and not with a company bias. Some key benefits had been:

  • Diversification of the product portfolio
  • Revenue from bootcamp projects
  • Refreshed company image
  • Culture change and greater engagement

In an earlier session, Simon Watt from Mattel had also talked of inspiring an innovation culture amongst employees. I particularly liked their ‘Permission to Experiment’ ticket – encouraging employees to to experiment fast, often and without permission – and an example from their Mumbai office. This wasn’t about product but more cultural. Most new starters had their interviews during the working day, and had taken only 20 minutes or so to travel to the site. On their first day, rush hour traffic meant that this journey could take a couple of hours or more, often leading to surprise and disappointment. The existing teams noticed this and decided that they would pick every new starter up from home, each day in their first week, and drive them to and from the office, both showing them the fastest routes and short cuts, and helping integration by spending quality time with them in the car.


What is resilience? This was the opening question from best selling author Liggy Webb as she took us through the key behaviours that can help build resilient, agile and innovative workforces. Amongst the delegate definitions we got bouncebackability, tolerance, positivity, calm. She introduced us to the Doomerangs (like boomerangs but instead of bouncing back they continually re-live negativity) and the Doom Goblins (those in the workforce whose negativity and moaning drains the lifeblood front the team) whilst conjuring up more imagery with “negative attitude spreads like germs, don’t sneeze your whining on others

She suggested we ‘hug a problem and learn from it‘ and also urged “Change for the better. If you don’t like change, you don’t like life – don’t mourn the past, seize the opportunity“.

It proved an energetic start to the second day, and there were serious messages here. With the overall themes of change, uncertainty, innovation and corporate realignment there is a need for strong and inspiring leaders, and workforces who are resilient, adaptable and creative.

Perhaps it was one Dr Nicola Millard’s comments from the opening that stuck with me most through the two days – “No is a really dangerous answer. So lets say yes“. There is much going on in our working lives, from what we do and how we do it to the way in which we are contracted to do it. We have become distractible and overwhelmed, often in need of guidance and the type of strong leadership that lets us know someone has a plan and a vision.

Finally, one session looked at HR strategies and competencies, the importance of a CEO committed to the people agenda, and how to lead the way for greater transparency and clarity. It defined HR competencies for the new work environment as:

  • Leadership
  • Innovation
  • Leverage networks
  • Data judgement
  • Business acumen
  • Organisational acumen
  • Talent management acumen

We need to foster the right practices and and mindsets, and this often starts with recruitment and the ability to find the people who will best fit the business vision and culture.

Certain hiring for uncertain times…