It’s a phrase I hear often in my daily work-life… “we’re a people-based business”, “we know people are our number one asset” and (my favourite!) “I’m at people person”. Don’t get me wrong - I’m certainly neither disputing the sentiment (though always stress that some people can be a liability!), nor arguing against the view that good people should, and often do, sit at the heart of many successful organisations. My career has been based on sharing the learning and practice of exactly that principle –Zig Ziglar’s famous quote says it best… “you don’t build a business, you build people and then people build the business”.
BUT… at a time when leadership in practice is so firmly in the spotlight across the network, I think its valid to ask HOW do we demonstrate that people do indeed sit at the heart of what we do?
I’ve spent a lot of time supporting and evaluating different sizes and types of organisations, including, more recently, CSPs, and have just gained even greater insight to a range of partnerships through the Quest assessment process. My learning and reflections have not been formed through this lens alone, but have been formed over a number of years working with, and for, some genuinely high (and mediocre) performing teams.
Through these experiences I have developed strong insight into the key success factors which enable organisations to achieve and sustain high performance levels. Whilst by no means an exhaustive list, the following consistently emerge as common practices in successful businesses:-
- Having and communicating a clear, articulated and shared purpose
- Steering the business through authentic and purposeful leadership
- Ensuring business review and planning which balances short and long term horizons
- Building a workforce capability framework
Many of these we all can tick off, and I’ve seen many great examples of strategic business plans across the network which clearly articulate the overall ambitions of the partnership. They’re often filled with well-crafted visions, inspiring missions, defined core values, targeted marketing and engagement plans, detailed financial plans, robust risk plans and are often supported by comprehensive operational/delivery plans.
But notice anything missing?.... What about people plans?
All too often, we seem to either ignore, or forget, the development of a people strategy or plan. Buy why? We’d all agree that good people performance can make the difference in us realising our visions and achieving our planned outcomes and impact, yet all to often we don’t actually make plans for how we will achieve this. So should we?
First let’s be clear on what is a people strategy/plan?
The primary purpose of a people plan is to outline the relationship an organisation will have with its people, and, make clear how it will best utilise them to fulfil their overall strategic goal.
It’s about recognising what its seeking to achieve and articulating how it will ensure its people capacity can match this. It isn’t all about transformational change – yes sometimes it can be, but equally it can also be about capturing the elements already in place.
But what the best people strategies do have in common is ensuring they support all that the organisation does to attract, recruit, develop, retain, support and reward their individuals and teams to meet their future goals and aspirations. And the critical part is that last part…. ensuring it is aligned to your overall strategic priorities to give it purpose and focus.
The next inevitable question therefore is WHY have one?
I often hear “Why write down on a piece of paper what is intrinsic to us? Our approach to our people is embedded in our culture, its organic, I don’t need to write it down to make it happen!” And it’s a valid challenge. We certainly shouldn’t be wedded to plans or see them simply as the end in themselves. But as the Eisenhower adage goes ‘plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”. I’d argue that, as with most strategies, it isn’t just about the piece of paper – strategy doesn’t exist without action. But planning can be a powerful tool to demonstrate intent… and empower you as leaders to make sure your organisation transparently achieves your goals.
Most recognise the value in defining an overall strategic plan, often launching it with glossily produced brochures. Crafted well they can help position an organisation in a busy market, focus practices internally, help gain buy-in from stakeholders, potentially reach new partners, engage key influencers in a shared purpose, demonstrate impact, and ideally determine what success will look like.
And the same can be applied to a people strategy.
They can help people in an organisation, no matter how big or small it is, understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, where they’re trying to get to, what they have to achieve to get there, how their skills will be used and developed and, importantly, how their success will be measured and celebrated.
The benefit of a people strategy is that it can connect the dots between your overall strategic plan and your people.
In order to engage individuals, develop collaborative leadership and motivate, develop and grow teams it is vital they can see/feel/describe ‘whats my part of this jigsaw?’ and ‘how I am helping to achieve it?’. Without understanding that its difficult to ask them to work collaboratively across boundaries with other organisations.
A people strategy can help make that link; defining to its teams how e.g. their organisational structure, designed job roles, recruitment practices, learning and development systems, review processes, engagement tools and culture will help their leaders understand their needs. And putting plans in place to ensure the tools used match their needs.
But WHO should define it?
Defining how people will be led, managed, reviewed and developed surely sits at the heart of the role of an organisation’s leaders?
This isn’t about writing a HR function’s plans and therefore shouldn’t be seen as the responsibility of a HR function. With many organisations either outsourcing their HR needs or utilising host organisation’s services, some stress they have neither the capacity, nor expertise to develop a people strategy/plan. We frequently debate the need for designated posts versus embedded accountability across all team members for such areas as insight, equality and marcomms. I’m confident though, there would be almost universal recognition that shaping how the organisation values its people is not the responsibility of any one function … it is shared across all.
A great people strategy should be unique and meaningful to the personality of the organisation. Just as your overall strategic priorities should meet your local challenge, so should your people plan. It should be relevant, reflecting the current and future state of play, and making sure that your people practices are in line with your goals.
It therefore surely has to be considered, developed, driven and owned by the organisation’s leaders – with systems in place which enable the voice of all people in the organisation to play a meaningful role in shaping it.
And finally HOW does collaborative leadership fit in?
I have seen some great examples of people driven practices… behaviour and competency frameworks, peer review appraisals, values-based recruitment processes and team development plans to name a few.
So it isn’t about starting from scratch. Leadership, whether we name it as co-designed, collaborative, culturally centric, collective, generous, ego-less, is in evidence, often in abundance. But at its essence collaborative leadership isn’t an organic but a systematic approach. With its success “based on creating an environment of trust, mutual respect and shared aspirations… with a culture where structure, processes and systems improve our ability to work across organisational boundaries” (Oxford Leadership).
Therefore, I’d challenge the sector to ensure it explores not only leadership thinking, but also defines how it demonstrates its commitment to collaborative leadership through its people practices.
When we say we have values in place, place them high on the agenda and explore and evaluate them in team meetings. When we use competencies in job profiles to recruit the right people, make them part of the review and appraisals process. When we review training needs don’t just tick boxes in an analysis spreadsheet but create whole organisation development plans which meet the skills gaps. When we say we champion having an inclusive workforce, specify exactly how flexible working practices are supporting an agile and diverse approach. When we have developed talent, share the story and celebrate its success. When we say we will listen to our people let’s not rely solely on an annual survey to tell us what our people feel, but develop workforce groups, people leads and feedback systems which capture the motivations, behaviours, needs and ideas of our teams in a timely way. And when we plan for our future, lets ensure our strategies focus on our key strength – our people.
As CSPN noted about the upcoming convention, ‘developing the thinking culture and practice of collaboration requires some fundamental shifts in mindsets, behaviours, relationships and skills’. Yes its complex. And the ‘soft stuff is often the hard stuff’. Though arguably it’s also disarmingly simple. People matter. Put them at the heart of your organisation and they will build it.
Get in touch if you want to explore this area more!