Interview with Nick Holley

Nick Holley – Director of Learning at Corporate Research Forum

Hi Nick, can you give me an overview of your career to date? What’s your story?

My first job after university was as a futures and foreign exchange broker at Merrill Lynch.  I spent ten years there and to be honest I didn’t even know there was a function called HR!  I left to change careers and did a full time MBA at London Business School where I met Professor John Hunt who became a mentor and introduced me to the wonderful world of OD.  I spent 17 years in OD and L&D roles in large organisations but in the end I got fed up working in large global dysfunctional highly political companies and left to start a portfolio career. So for the last ten years I’ve been running my own consulting business, researching and teaching around HR at Henley Business School and teaching and orchestrating leadership programmes for DukeCE.  Last year I added another element to my portfolio working as an Associate Director with CRF, the leading European HR network where I’m helping to establish a learning business.  I’ve known Mike Haffenden, the founder, for 25 years and I love working with someone who shares my passion for commercial HR and who hates corporate bull sh*t as much as I do.

What are you currently working on?

As with any portfolio lots of different things:  I’m involved in several programmes with DukeCE in various countries, writing a series of articles on the principles of great HR, supporting the development of a new approach to performance management with a Scandinavian bank, running an HR programme in Oslo for HRNorge and designing and delivering our first CRF programmes for HRBPs and HRDs.  I love the variety and the chance to have an impact on so many lives, plus having some fun and balancing my work with spending quality time with my Danish wife (my kids have fled the nest to New Zealand and Denmark – not sure if that’s feedback?).

What’s been the biggest OSM (Oh S**t Moment) in your career so far and what happened as a result of it?

In the early 1990s I was Head of OD at the recently privatized electricity utility National Power.  I had just read Prahalad and Hamel’s book on the Core Competence of the Organisation.  I found it fascinating so had started creating core competence networks and other great new initiatives to build on their ideas.  In 1993 I attended an EFMD conference in Copenhagen where Paul Evans from INSEAD spoke.  I will never forget his phrase ‘the world is full of solutions looking for problems’.  A light bulb went off in my head.  I was doing this work because it was intellectually fascinating, but how was it really contributing to a business where the key goal was reducing costs?  I was adding cost and complexity and it was a real wake up call.  Ever since I have always had a passion for starting with the business issue and then working out how HR can make a difference not starting with an HR initiative and then doing a post event rationalisation to justify it.  HR’s purpose isn’t to do HR ‘stuff’ but to build the capability of an organisation to deliver its strategy and create sustainable value for all its stakeholders.  We should start with this not with what we find interesting.

You’ve been doing some great work with CRF and I’ve enjoyed reading your posts on the ‘Principles of Great HR.’ Can you talk a little about how the ‘Manifesto’ was created and how the principles were developed?

The manifesto came out of Mike Haffenden’s idea to pull together all CRF’s research and conversations over 24 years into a statement of what we believe great HR is all about.  We crafted it through lots of conversations with our colleagues Stephanie Bird, Gillian Pillans, Mairi Bannon & Richard Hargreaves, all of whom have a common passion about commercial, business focused HR.  We all believe HR is becoming more relevant but if it is to meet the challenge it needs to become far more focused on delivering business value rather than doing HR for HR’s sake.  This in turn prompted me to reflect on my own 27 years in HR as a practitioner, researcher, consultant and educator.  The two sets of conversations led me to the ten principles.  The key is the manifesto and the principles have emerged over years of immersion into the real world of business and HR where I have experienced the best and the worst of HR but what shines out are the people who think of themselves as business people first but who are proud to wear an HR hat.

With the HR Profession, it can feel like the ratio of conversation to action is a little out of balance. We often see the same debates and topics re-surfacing year after year. What do you think we can do to stop this and become more action orientated?

I think we need to stop holding conversations about HR and more about the business.  I am often asked to talk to organisations about the latest trends in HR.  My response is you are asking the wrong question, what you need to be thinking about are the latest trends in business, in technology, in demographics, in economics, in politics, but not just the general macro trends but also the trends in your industry and the impact they will have on the organisational capability you will need to compete in the future.  Only today I was asked to come up with set of good HR metrics.  Wrong question!  You need the right metrics that track whether your HR initiatives are making the desired impact on your business, so not HR process measures, but business outcome measures.  There cannot be a generic set of HR measures only measures that are relevant to your business.  If we focus on the business, not on intellectual conversations about HR, by definition the conversations will result in action because they will be totally relevant to the business.

There’s a lot of talk about the fourth industrial revolution and its impact on the future of work at the moment, what’s your take on it?

I think we are at a potential inflection point. The impact of the Internet of things, social media, block chain, AI, robotics, cognitive computing etc has the potential to profoundly change the competitive landscape for the majority of businesses.  The problem is most incumbents are trapped in the innovator’s dilemma of having so much capital both financial and intellectual, sunk in the status quo, that they become the victims rather than the drivers of disruption.  This will have a profound impact on the survival of so many firms and therefore jobs and careers.  In this environment perhaps HR will no longer stand for Human Resources but Humans and Robots!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career?

Don’t be attracted to the people who share your passion they might not be the right people.’  I have had a tendency to like to be liked so in the corporate world I would work with the people I liked and who liked me.  Julian Gell, one of my wisest and best bosses, gave me this feedback and said “Nick you have to work with the people who matter because they will have the biggest impact on the success of the business.  Sometimes they’re not very nice and they don’t care about your agenda.  That’s your problem not theirs.”  Ever since then I have learned to work with people that matter to the success of the business, on their agenda in their language but also be willing to challenge them when they’re doing the wrong thing.  Especially as a consultant and coach they really don’t care about you they care about how you can help them achieve their goals and targets.  They welcome challenge because often they don’t get it from their own people (I wonder why!).

You’re a very progressive person, what drives you and how do you keep motivated?

I’m driven by several things but to be honest more than anything else by my family and my wife, nothing matters more than that.  I’m driven by variety.  I’m easily bored so I like to be working on several things all at once and I’m not that keen on repeating the same things over and over again.  I’m driven by making a difference to the people and organisations I work with so it’s not just having fun (fun matters to me as anyone who knows me will know) doing things, it’s that they actually make a real difference.  To be honest I’m also driven by killing sacred cows and challenging the accepted wisdom especially in HR because so much of it is based on gut instinct and a very different model of HR to the commercial model I believe in.

If you were given £5,000 to invest in a HR Start Up business what would it be and why?

I’m not sure I’d invest in an HR start up.  After ten years working in the City I’m not an investor I’m a risk averse saver.  Over ten years I saw most people lose their money because they began to believe their own press.  I learnt that humility and discipline matter more, as an investor so I don’t believe I could predict which start up will be successful.  I am also concerned that most HR start ups I see are driven by an HR centric view of HR that is about process efficiency and automation.  Very few are focused on HR’s purpose, to build capability and create value.  Show me one of those and I might invest £50!

Thanks Nick, always a pleasure to talk to you and you raise some great points for us all to consider.

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