February 7, 2022

Employees as Adults, Consumers and Human Beings: Disruptive HR’s Lucy Adams and Karen Moran talk L&D, HR and the Future of Management

Melissa Malec

Companies often think they’re doing HR better if they’re tracking, counting, managing and watching employees. Through working inside major corporations, such as the BBC, Lucy Adams and Karen Moran found that learning and development often take the same approach, stifling independence and autonomy in the name of quantifiable targets. 

It doesn’t have to be that way. A more open, hands-off approach can be achieved by disrupting traditional HR and L&D functions and taking a more holistic approach to talent management more generally. That’s the subject of Lucy Adams’ book HR Disrupted, and the mission of Lucy and Karen’s consultancy business Disruptive HR.

Manage things this way and you empower employees to take ownership of their own careers. You’ll see better retention, and relationships built on trust as staff are respected like service users and treated like adults.

Key Takeaways:

Hands off. Don’t try to track, measure and mandate everything. Let employees take the lead and allow learning and mentor-mentee relationships to form naturally.

Treat people like adults. The more you spoon-feed and regiment learning the less effective it is. If you have staff you can’t trust to behave in an adult way, that staff member is the problem.

Target training for staff the way you target products for consumers. Segment, guide and personalise — don’t assume one size fits all, and don’t assume compliance will be the same as buy-in.

Base training and hiring on what we know about human behaviour. Abandon clunky, process-driven systems designed to create records and turn to methods that create success.

Why did you start your consultancy, Disruptive HR? 

Lucy Adams: Both of us had been good HR people in the sense that we'd followed accepted wisdom. We followed the manual. 

But we were really frustrated and we knew that we weren't having the impact that we could have. And so, over one very long lunch in Covent Garden in London, we said, ‘have we got something that is worth setting up a business for or are we just frustrated?’

Whilst we are very different in our personalities and style, we share a common belief that HR needs to be fundamentally different, not just tweaked. We based Disruptive HR on the belief that we could turn that insight into action and actually change the way HR functions.

We now have a very clear, distinct offering: genuinely different and practical ways that HR can make a massive change.

What are the three main pillars of Disruptive HR?

Lucy Adams: We created the EACH model, which stands for Employees as Adults, Consumers, and Human beings

Employees as Adults is about moving away from the parental approach that combines the critical parent, with rules, policies, processes, and the caring parent — spoon feeding people and doing things for them. This can be very corrosive and puts HR into the role of compliance manager or nursemaid rather than creating the conditions where people can do their best work.

Consumer is about recognising that we all have very different needs, motivators, styles, preferences, and we expect those to be catered for as consumers.

So we want HR to think about seeing their employees as if they were consumers and designing products for them. 

Human is a move away from processes that bear no resemblance to how people are motivated and behave. And I think learning, obviously Learnerbly's expertise, is a classic example of that.

We know that if we go on a formal training program, we'll forget 80% of what we've learned in 30 days. Instead, we should move to just-in-time learning, modular learning, self-managed learning, to help people own it, embrace it, enjoy it — and remember it.

Why do you think it is so hard to make change happen within HR? 

Karen Moran: It's really easy to carry on the way that we have because we can trust our experiences and we know what works. A crisis is a real catalyst to make change happen because we're forced into it. We're forced to think differently. 

Lucy Adams: Leaders might dislike some of what traditional HR has made them do, but they know what's expected of them. Often they don’t want to do something new. 

I do think that's changing. We're seeing more leaders saying it’s time to move on from an HR function that’s stuck in the 1980s. But I wouldn't say they've been the majority. 

What are some of the lessons on embracing change that scale-ups and large enterprises can learn from each other? 

Lucy Adams: I’ll talk about corporates, and Karen can talk about the smaller businesses. In general, though, it’s about what corporates need to learn from startups in terms of letting go of clunky, outdated processes. At the same time, there’s an issue with what scale-ups need to not learn from corporates, which I’ll leave Karen to address.

In large corporates, there are a lot of people who have responsibility for some aspect of the process. You very rarely have one team who's in total control of everything. 

Objectives are set at the start of the year. We have reviews and bonus payments at the end of the year. Actually, most human activity in business doesn't have that annual framework but trying to dismantle it can be very difficult, and digitisation has in some ways made it harder.

Karen Moran: With smaller businesses, it's much easier. Lucy and I have both come from working in big corporates, so it’s been a shock to go in with a client and talk about doing something different and have them say, ‘Let's do it. Let's start tomorrow.’ 

For leadership in smaller businesses, attracting talent is harder. They’re looking for ways to make themselves more attractive, so unlike corporates, they are looking for new ideas.

So they're much more up for the Disruptive HR service that Lucy and I offer. 

One of the biggest mistakes small organisations make is thinking they need a traditional HR function, and this is what Lucy referred to earlier. These companies need to resist the urge to imitate the part of how successful companies operate, that actually is not conducive to success. They’ll start implementing all these hidebound processes and often my job is to say, ‘let's go back to how it was when you set up in your kitchen five years ago.’

Lucy Adams: You often hear, ‘we need to get some process in place and then we'll move to the more innovative stuff.’ We then say, ‘don't do that. Leapfrog that process phase and go straight to much more sophisticated, more agile approaches.’  Because leaders will cling to process and find it harder to dismantle it.

How do you see L&D being aligned to your EACH model?

Karen Moran: We're definitely seeing a trend towards employees owning their own development rather than the company carving it out for them with preset career pathways. That’s the Adult part.

HR departments’ L&D functions are having to think more like marketers, treating their people as Consumers. They’re looking at how they can market programs and make it exciting and appealing for their people to learn.

The Human aspect is about avoiding things like mandatory training if you can and letting people do what's right for them rather than them having to sit in classrooms or do exams.

Lucy Adams: At Hubspot, the CRM operator, if you've got a mentor that you rate or there's somebody doing great stuff that you want to learn from, you can just take them out to lunch, expense it, no questions asked. Or if you see a book on Amazon you can buy it, expense it, no questions asked. 

That’s Adult-to-Adult people taking responsibility for their own learning, and presuming trust. From a Consumer point of view, it's me making a decision on the best way for me to learn, the right resource, the right type of person. 

From the Human perspective, I'm much more likely to learn and remember because I've chosen it. It's me driving it and owning it. 

Karen Moran: Spotify is another example. Their L&D team says: ‘we are gardeners in a greenhouse. We water and fertilise to enable and strengthen our people.’ 

How do you think the role of L&D is changing within the broader HR function?

Karen Moran: Before, if the business came to you with a problem or a challenge, we would look to come up with a process — a policy, a procedure, training manuals.

Now, in hindsight, I understand why schemes like that are destined to fail. 

Intel has an informal mentoring scheme. They don’t label people as mentor and mentee, but they support those relationships when they form naturally. 

It's a behavioural shift that involves learning to let go. I used to love my LMS as it gave me control and oversight into what my people were doing. It added a level of comfort I didn’t want to let go of. Not having that control is a bit scary, particularly if you get asked for a report.

But actually, it didn't mean anything. We need to learn to be more comfortable having a hands-off approach.

Talent management always used to be about creaming from the top and high-potential programs. What Lucy and I see is that talent management is about managing everybody’s talents.

What are your thoughts on the benefits of personal learning budgets?

Lucy Adams: We're not going to be police officers or nursemaids in L&D. 

For instance, Culture Amp says, ‘here's a budget.’ (I think it's about $15,000 a quarter.) ‘We're not going to manage a process. We're not going to sign it off. When the money's gone, it's gone.’

You've got to agree as a team how that money is going to be spent. If it's work-related learning, you'll put 10% of your own money in, and if it's social learning you put 50% in.’

There’s that Adult-to-Adult aspect, and it’s a highly effective way of encouraging people to learn. You're going to see some much more adult behaviours coming back to you.

What advice do you have for business leaders to nurture an environment of trust?

Lucy Adams: Over the last few weeks, we have seen some amazing things around trust. First up, people are working from home. All those managers who said, ‘I don't trust my people to work from home’ — well, that's just been blown out of the water: productivity has gone up.

We've seen the most amazing creativity, amazingly kind, selfless, heroic behaviour, in some cases, from people in even the most junior frontline roles — delivery drivers, shelf stackers, road sweepers.

I just don't see how we can ever go back to a place where when and if they do return to the workplace, people will say, ‘I don't trust you to work from home,’ or, ‘I don't trust you to use your judgment.’ 

The lesson is to be really careful who you employ because the people who are behaving badly during this period are the ones who were behaving badly before.

Karen and I talk to HR directors and leaders all the time who say, ‘I've got some people in my team who I don't trust,’ or, ‘they're not capable of working in this new way,’ and you're going to really struggle while you continue to have them in your team.

The final question that we like to ask all of our experts is, what's the one key learning that you'd both like to share? 

Karen Moran: I trained about 15 years ago to be a Myers-Briggs practitioner, and it was actually a bit of a light bulb moment for me to understand that the way that I learned was different to what I thought it should be. 

That was a real confidence boost for me at the time because it made me realise that I should embrace the way that I learn rather than feel that I'm inadequate because I don't learn as others do. 

Lucy Adams: Mine's quite similar in that, while I quite like academia, can I think of times when I've deployed the skills, the knowledge that I've learned on a course?

Probably not. And I think actually the way that I have learnt the most has been where I've messed up really badly. When it's painful, then you think, I won't do that again, or, why did that happen? 

Quite often, when Karen and I are doing keynote speeches, we will talk about anecdotes where we did some stuff in HR, which was just a disaster. And you see the nods in the room, you see people laughing, and you know they can identify with that. It's a much easier way of getting the message across than it is standing there and telling them what they should be doing. 

Disruptive HR is a London based agency providing HR consultancy services that can help HR professionals to drive innovation, creativity, collaboration and productivity.

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