Most CEOs and senior executives in large companies recognise that they need faster decision-making, clearer lines of accountability and greater overall agility if they’re to succeed in a disruptive environment. Given this entails taking a deep look at culture, talent and organisational design, it often falls on the shoulders of the Human Resources Director to make it happen.
It’s not an easy undertaking. In a poll taken at Criticaleye’s HRD Retreat 2020, held in association with Accenture, 71 percent of attendees said they lacked confidence in the ability of their senior leadership team to be agile, while 64 percent admitted that decision-making is too slow.  
Somehow, senior executives and HRDs must work together to find a way to make their businesses move faster. Andy Young, Managing Director, Talent & Organisation Practice Lead at Accenture, told the audience that “building agility and delivering transformation relies on the things that HRDs have the most impact on – vision, leadership, culture, organisation and people”. 
It requires a certain mindset and approach which have, in years gone by, frequently been anathema to corporate thinking. “Vision is the clarity about who we are, where we are going and – just as importantly – what we are not. Knowing this can support your [team’s] actions, decisions and motivations,” said Andy.  
“This is particularly effective during disruption when the traditional levers of authority, hierarchy, rules and centralised planning, are ineffective or even dangerous as firms die when they do the same thing over and over again without thought.” 
There does, however, need to be one constant within an organisation and that is its sense of purpose. It’s something that customers, employees and other stakeholders want to see both in terms of words and actions. “We cannot transform and have agile, high-performing businesses without trust, psychological safety in our teams and belonging for all our people,” he added.  
“People aren’t expecting superheroes as leaders – they just want honest and competent, trustworthy leadership.” 
The Belonging Kind 
A strong sense of identity unifies senior leaders and employees in the face of the uncertainty caused by operating in a state of constant change. Mandy Ferries, HR Director for residential property manager FirstPort, has been driving the company’s digital transformation while also supporting the leadership team in redefining its reason for being.

“Our new purpose helps us to think about where we want to get to and the actions that we have to take, as well as the behaviours that back that up,” she said. “This has helped to galvanise the leadership team behind a common purpose; we’ve now articulated our goals as a business with clarity and used storytelling to cascade it through the business so everyone understands... There’s no confusion about what we’re trying to achieve. 
“[It’s] a challenge as we’ve also been, like many others, transforming our business through digital. For the last 18 months, I’ve been leading that from a people and change perspective. Getting consensus on what we need to deliver has been really tough and we’ve had to use our purpose to keep ensuring that everyone is aligned.” 
Chris Jones, CEO of Welsh Water, agreed that a strong purpose has enormous benefits, some of which he never envisaged when he acquired the struggling utility company and created a not-for-profit enterprise 20 years ago.   
“In some ways, we were fortunate in that we had a blank sheet of paper from which to decide how we wanted to structure the business and what we wanted to be,” he said. “The business was low risk, as everyone has to pay their water bill, and therefore we had a safe income stream against which you could raise long-term debt financing – we raised £1.9 billion for the acquisition of Welsh Water through long-term bonds at very attractive interest rates.”  
The non-shareholder ownership model allowed Chris to devise a single purpose – “we are an essential service that provides drinking water and environmental protection to the public” – in what he described as a low-risk business that can plan for the long term. “The culture you can create around a business that is founded on its social purpose has got some big advantages from a people and leadership point of view. It helps with recruitment, especially with younger people who want to work with an ethically focused organisation,” he said.  
Like Mandy, he noted that it also provides context when engaging in hard-edged discussions. “If you’re trying to drive through change and you know it has a negative impact on people, it’s easier to have those conversations if they can see that the decisions being made are necessary to support that purpose and the vision.” 
It is something that both feeds and shapes the culture of an organisation. Chris added: “I go out and talk to lots of colleagues in depots and treatment works and, to put it politely, I get a good two-way dialogue. I go away knowing that it’s good that people have told me what they really think. Why is that? I like to believe it’s the culture we’ve created where everybody in the business is able to provide challenge and ask questions – it certainly helps that they can do this by framing it in terms of our purpose, which means critique and challenge are focused on what’s best for customers.” 
Matthew Blagg, CEO of Criticaleye, argued that this cultural dynamic stems from the conversations and behaviours at the top of an enterprise. “The key component for success in a leadership team is the ability to challenge,” he said. “Once you have those healthy, robust discussions in place, it means you can move to a point of real alignment. 
“In great organisations, people feel they can push back and put forward counterpoints, but when decisions are made, everyone pulls together.” 
The fundamental challenge for every business is around leadership and talent, which is why the HRD has such a vital role to play. As Andy put it: “Typically, agile organisations spend more time looking outwards, especially at customer needs and experiences. They collaborate internally across silos and externally with an ecosystem; they emphasise creativity, experimentation and continual learning, being transparent about failures and successes.” 
At the end of the day, it’s not just about having the right people, but also about creating an environment that allows them to flourish.  
Marc Barber, Managing Editor, Criticaleye 
Next week’s Community Update will profile Day Two of Criticaleye’s HRD Retreat 2020