Musings from the Front Line

One of the key differentiators of CRF Learning’s HR programmes is the involvement of senior practitioners who share their real-life experiences. It adds enormous colour to hear stories from the ‘trenches’, the things they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School. As we look forward to this year’s Becoming an Effective HRD open programme on June 3rd/4th I am reminded of the wise words we heard from Toby Peyton-Jones who recently retired as the HRD of Siemens. As one participant said “he had such a great perspective and insight into the role”. I usually passively sit and listen to these sessions, but this time I was furiously taking notes as there was so much I wanted to take down and share that would be so relevant to anyone in any senior HR role. Usually I edit my notes and then comment on them, but in this case I think they speak for themselves. Here are some of my key takeaways from Toby:

  • Don’t think of yourself as an HR person. Instead, see yourself as a leader in the Management Board first and an HR person second. If you see yourself differently you will start to contribute differently and others on the Board will respond to you differently.
  • At most senior level roles HR is polymathic; at one level HR is totally atomic but at the same time it is the most strategic and cross-disciplinary role.
  • HRDs need loads of resilience. This is isn’t about being strong but is best achieved by having a sense of perspective.
  • The job has gotten easier as I’ve become more senior, because if you have an outstanding team it’s easy to listen to them and help them deliver their brilliant ideas. The key is to coach them to think right and left of their role, not just within their area of expertise. The key is knowing which topics to keep, which you just enable, and when you need to do a deep dive into a topic.
  • What the HRD role will look like in the future will be very different to what it is today. So what you need to be thinking about today is what will make a difference tomorrow.
  • There is a good Chinese saying “There are two good times to plant a tree – 20 years ago and the other is today.” You’re dealing with all the cr*p from the trees that should have been planted 20 years ago (with hindsight) but you also need to find time to project yourself forward and think about what trees need to be planted today to enable the future.
  • Diversity is not a ‘political’ topic in a rapidly changing environment. Darwin showed us that it is a survival determinant.
  • We don’t need homogeneous gene pools, but we gravitate towards them because they are like us, they talk like us, look like us, laugh at the same things…so spend time with people who are different to you.
  • The quality of the questions we ask is the only thing that limits our future. You need to think what you can ask that will move the business forward…or move an individual forward.
  • The best way to get into someone’s world is to just listen to them. Providing insight is a matter of joining the dots. So if that is the case, listen to lots of people to get multiple perspectives and ‘collect dots’.
  • In terms of building organisational capability, the organisational culture, or ‘how’ we do things, is becoming the key source of competitive advantage. Therefore, you must have that on the agenda at the Board. So how do you change the conversation at the Board and at every other level?
  • If you want to change the culture the best way isn’t to tell people how to change but to analyse your situation and determine the ‘generative’ questions that force them to think through and discuss how to change; ‘We’re a large company but we need to act like a start-up, how do we do that?’. Culture change is a viral emergent process; it is about changing the conversations that take place and adapting the leadership narrative as that conversation develops.
  • Interaction dictates your Board’s success. You need to drive the conversation about how Board members interact; if you leave behaviour problems unaddressed in the Board it’s very difficult to be successful. Getting the environment in the Board right is something the HRD and CEO need to work on together. Your role in coaching the Board is critical, so a question like ‘what would our employees think about us as a team if they were in the room with us?’ can be a very powerful way to get the Board to reflect.
  • There’s no point in optimising processes that shouldn’t be done in the first place.
  • Take an assignment where things are going badly and you can make it better. The worst ones are where things are going well. How will you make a difference?
  • I believe very strongly that if the role of a company is just making money it will fail. Finding out what its real purpose is, is a profound and rewarding process not only for the leadership but ultimately for all employees.
  • If there is one thing that has stood me in good stead throughout my career and particularly in senior roles, it is to treat everyone as if they are ‘well intended’. It is amazing how powerful this is, particularly when things get difficult. Try it.

To find out more about our upcoming Becoming an Effective HRD open programme and the associated costs please click here. The two-module programme will focus on the high-level behaviours and skills that we have identified successful HR Directors have and display. Building on technical competence, the programme will increase the impact existing and aspiring HRD’s have on organisational performance.

Spaces are limited. To book your place on the programme please contact Melissa Bates on +44 (0) 20 3457 2640 or at

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