Delivering on your people agenda

The CIPD Annual Conference on 22 May 2018 in Croke Park helped delegates explore and gain insights on how to deliver on their people agenda in an increasing complex and changing times. Delegates engaged with thought leaders such as David Ulrich and Professor Shane O’Mara, and heard great practical examples, including CIPD Award winners, Kuehne + Nagel, to show how organisations are aligning the people agenda to deliver the business strategy.

We would like to thank Willis Towers Watson, lead sponsor, and Healthy Place to Work and Irish Times Executive Jobs and all our exhibitors for their support. Find out more about our sponsors and exhibitors.

Conference highlights

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An exciting day

Mary Connaughton, Director of CIPD Ireland, kicked off this year's Annual Conference by drawing our attention to some of the key themes emerging from recent CIPD research. These themes ran right across the day, touching on what it is HR in 2018 can do to best manage ourselves, our function and our profession.

Line managers are creating barriers to HR carrying out an impactful role, so how can we better engage with them. What can we do to enhance performance, and of course, the very relevant topic of employee well-being? How the pressures of today’s world of work are having an effect on employees, looking at how HR can make a meaningful impact.


The room was then honoured to be engaged by this year's keynote speaker, Dave Ulrich, taking us through the enabling actions for HR to lead the delivery of the people agenda. As I'm sure many of you in the HR community are, I am a big fan of Dave Ulrich and listening to him talk about the seven things that create more value for HR was inspiring. I certainly sat back at my desk the next day and reflected on these great insights:

  1. Value is itself defined more by the receiver than the giver. Good leadership is not about the leader, it's about what the leader creates by listening: listening is not that you understand, it's that the other person feels understood. Find out from your business leader what they are worried about, and then decide how HR can add value.
  2. Dave proposed that the value we create is outside as well as inside the organisation. Challenge the thinking that HR is internal, it's both! Employee experience without customer experience is only partial HR, look to the customers, investors, the wider community, regulators and partners. Engage the customer, don't do a 360○ performance review do a 720○. 
  3. Three questions HR should ask: do we have the right talent, the right leadership and the right culture? With the importance of organisational culture, do our people have a sense of well-being and growth so that they can be agile? With all the talk of culture in HR discourse, for me, Dave gave a great definition: culture is the ability to shift from an event to a pattern and ultimately to an identity. Culture is not who we are as a company, but what we want to be (or are) known for by our customers.
  4. Use digital HR: utilise digital data to win! We need to innovative in the digital space.
  5. Design a great HR department! Focus on relationships more than roles.
  6. Build the right HR competencies. Focus on outcomes.
  7. Make line managers owners; support them in doing so: line managers are CRITICAL in delivery of value

Brain science

Next on the agenda, Shane O'Mara, Professor of Experimental Brain Research at TCD, explained how brain science can be used to improve business performance. There were a number of things that stood out to me from Shane's talk.

That there are two types of mind-set, the growth mind-set (our talents are malleable) and the fixed mind-set (your idea that your talent is fixed). He used a great example to demonstrate this: research showing that people being told either they can or can't get better at exercise. It actually had an effect.

Growth mind-set shifts attention to task and learning, emphasising the role of effort in creating talent. Key take away here – mind-sets can be taught!!

Linking in with employee well-being, Shane showed us a study that proves aerobic exercise increases the size of the hippocampus in the brain and therefore improves our memory. So quite simply, no frills, walking is an intervention that builds resilience against an aging brain function.

Also, stressing the importance of sleep, Shane emphasised how sleep deprivation has profound negative effects on the brain. Organisations therefore need to care more about sleep. A big lesson to be learnt by some, especially in certain industries: rest and sleep are an absolutely essential part of productivity, essential for memory and learning. Good sleep hygiene is one of the best ways to build a resilient brain... I think this is key advice for many of us!

Business strategy

The next speaker, Garry McCabe, HR Director with Kuehne & Nagel Ireland, spoke to the room about connecting business strategy to the people agenda. Garry spoke of his journey, how he was inspired by Euro Car Parks’ winning best workplace and their achievements, how communication is of the upmost importance in any organisation. Garry emphasised how communication drives trust, trust drives influence and influence drives performance.

On performance management, moving to more meaningful conversation is key. To do this, you need planning, follow up, and to take into account the required administration. Garry noted that succession planning is the cherry on the cake to this! A good piece of advice he gave us is to make a bank of targets - meaningful, SMART targets that managers should continuously replenish!

For Garry, line managers are the panacea. They decided to look at line management in a different way in Kuehne & Nagel. What Garry said, is a good take away: when you consider what we want line managers to do, it is a lot. When you combine their other normal responsibilities with HR, it can become impossible. The reality is there is no more time. I was interested in his solution: remove some tasks from their everyday, have HR help to re-organise their 'normal' space (time, space, capacity) so that they have time to do the people stuff well, really well. We must continuously support, guide, enable and then, if it’s not working... react!

Garry's key learnings over the past few years: communication is vital, consider your context and the importance of line management. In HR we optimise/squeeze the reserve.

Employee experience

Next up we had Nigel McNeil, Senior Director of Willis Towers Watson (WTW), one of this year's sponsors. Nigel used a case study of Rolls Royce to demonstrate how WTW have connected the employee experience (EX) with both the corporate vision and the customer experience. A great question to start with: why is the employee at work? This makes us think about the meaning of work, why they are there and how do they own it and have a sense of purpose? The key is, according to Nigel, not to think about EX in isolation, but within the bigger picture. Customer experience of the company is mirrored by employee experience. Ask yourself, what is the purpose of your business?

WTW worked with Rolls Royce to develop three pillars that would allow the organisation to become more agile, profitable and simple. For each pillar they then identified the both the Give (what they offer) and the Get (what we expect).

  1. First pillar: Purpose brings passion.
  2. Second pillar: Freedom is a state of mind.
  3. Third pillar: Brilliance happens when intelligence meets excellence.

Quality of working lives

The direction of the conference then turned to improving the quality of working lives. We heard from John Ryan, CEO of a Healthy Place to Work, and from Peter Cheese, CEO of CIPD, and Alison Hodgson, Chair of CIPD Ireland.

John Ryan started this topic off by reminding us where we are right now in terms of the modern challenges we face, with the use of a captivating video on the changing world we are living in. It was a stark reminder to the audience, of the changes that are impacting the world of work and our everyday lives. Plasticity is required by organisations more than ever, the ability to grow with the organisation.

Quoting Jeffrey Pfeffer (Dying for a paycheck, 2018), modern work is harming employee health and so in turn harming company performance. John referred to some poignant statistics: 800,000 people a year take their lives globally and 615 million people suffer from anxiety and depression. John's study shows key drivers of our health that HR needs to remember:

  1. Relationships As Dave Ulrich had also stressed earlier in the day, good relationships are paramount to good health.
  2. Financial health We all need to feel financially secure.
  3. Self-efficacy Believing your decisions absolutely matter, especially about your health, job, career.
  4. L&D Surprised? I was! Your level of optimism about your own future can make you happier. If you believe that you can't grow, develop, learn, then you're right to be fearful of the future. So, John reminded HR that L&D plays a critical role in Employee wellbeing and health.

A healthy organisation is one that enables its human capital to sustainably deliver on its objectives.

To give the individual the vitality to flourish at work and beyond:

  • Create a vision, a sense of purpose, a wellness culture.
  • Promote mental resilience, again we heard this word resilience as being of great importance.
  • For HR to think about in all this, support - manager support, employee’s physical health, connections, belonging and healthy relationships. 

Peter Cheese and Alison Hodgson continued this discussion of a healthy workplace by addressing the audience. We have such an important role to play in designing jobs that are good for people. There can be a big worry over the increase in machine control. Some issues at the forefront, mental health and stress at work, as well as no progression. A headline of a recent CIPD survey, a lot of people do not see progression, they are being managed by managers that are becoming increasingly overstressed.

Some interesting questions put to the audience by Peter: should flexible working be the norm? What is the norm today? Peter believes the norm as we know will change. On flexible working: this is something we have to build in more to our workplace culture.

Peter and Alison emphasised the need for HR to understand the great need for overall social support and cohesion, this certainly was a big theme for me and something I am going to take away. With this comes employee voice, engagement. Of course, the opposite is disengagement and often a detrimental culture of expectations... I sent an email, why did you not respond?

The room was then completely taken by a dramatic role play which brought this topic to a very real place. A woman in the audience acted out a very real-life problem. Myself and I'm sure much of the audience were very taken by her performance. Her grandmother had gone missing again. Caring for her beloved grandmother was taking its toll on her. She highlighted how her colleagues and her sense of belonging in her workplace helped her. Work is such a profound part of life summarised Peter Cheese.

How banking is changing

After a delicious lunch and some fantastic networking, Greig Aitken of the Royal Bank of Scotland Group (RBS) re-engaged us by talking about how the face of banking is changing. It was a great talk on how companies are responding to changing needs.

Greig looked at the different generations; I was intrigued to see as a 'Gen Y', I am part of 59% of the workforce, aspiring towards freedom and flexibility. Again, this theme of flexibility, as Peter Cheese also highlighted. There is a need to start the conversation in Ireland. Important sometimes to remember what it is the customers and employees of different generations seek. For Generation X (born 1965 to 1976), work-life balance is an aspiration.

Greig spoke about measuring what actually matters in order to progress, don't track everything that moves, measure what matters. He emphasised that measures should be assessed regularly and reported at a team level. Evidence based approaches can be of great benefit to the organisation.

He highlighted the range of people measures in RBS that have been found to directly relate to business performance. The RBS Group’s approach to creating a great place to work focuses on the future organisation: building a healthy and engaged culture, digital HR that is simplified, building capability and great people leaders and managers.

Leadership panel

Paul Candon, CEO of McCabes Pharmacy Group, Fiona Tierney, CEO of Public Appointment Service, and Senator Joan Freeman, founder and former CEO of Pieta House

Joan on HR: There needs to be love, care and humanity. Before we help anyone, we need to acknowledge and identify our own feelings and perceptions. Joan spoke about her personal journey and for anyone that has walked Darkness into Light, her words were powerful. Joan said that we have a problem in employment circles when it comes to discussing mental health. We can be too afraid to say the wrong thing. What stood out for me from listening to Joan?

  • HR should always think about how does an individual wants to be treated. In the case of bereavement, each person requires a different compassionate approach. Look for signs of isolation, disengagement...and listen. 

Paul Candon on HR: now as CEO, Paul values HR as a top business priority. The value of HR and people drive him. Down to the simplest of things like having meaningful conversations with his staff and listening. The ability to really communicate and listen, a resounding theme this year!

Fiona Tierney spoke of the importance of line management in the civil service. They have a hugely engaged and growing workforce, so fair, open merit-based recruitment is of the greatest importance to Fiona. Fairness and value are at the core of the people working in the Public Appointment Service. A distinct sense from Fiona that the culture they are proud of is reliant on their motivated, value driven and caring workforce.

Closing keynote

After a truly inspiring masterclass with Dave Ulrich, Sinead Kane, a fascinating speaker, talked to us. Sinead is a double PhD Doctorate, Double Guinness World Record Holder, visually-impaired athlete and qualified solicitor. She brought energy to the room with an empowering talk on how to use adversity and resilience to stimulate growth and potential. Sinead spoke of the hurdles that she overcame in the face of adversity.

I took away a few things from listening to Sinead: you need to know what goals you want to achieve, you need to have the mind-set to do so. Manage your time, your relationships, create discipline. Sinead bounced back thanks to energy and communication.

  • Be adaptable- our minds tell us one way to do something, but with our hands behind our back, the solution will come if we are adaptable!

A fantastic conference that has left us with lots to think about, as Mary said in her welcome, there are gaps to be filled, and this year’s speakers have certainly provided the HR community with plenty of tools, hints and tips to take away and digest. Thanks CIPD Ireland!

This report was written by Kate Siberry, Voltedge

See photos from the day