Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage

lynda-gratton's picture

What's the one thing you'd change about corporations?

By Lynda Gratton on May 24, 2022

To attract and retain the next generation of talented individuals, companies must develop effective ways of living their values.

What is it that you most want to change about corporations? That’s the question I put to my elective program at London Business School, and here are three deep frustrations that the 50 students shared:

Corporations don’t do as they say. We’ve all had a friend start a new job and report back, “it’s nothing like I thought it would be.” This resonated strongly with my students, who felt that corporations go to great lengths to attract them with strong value propositions; but once they join, these values are nowhere to be seen.

Employees aren’t empowered to change the way things are done. My students felt that corporations don’t give employees at all levels of the firm the ability to challenge the way things are done and propose new ways of working. This stifles innovation at big corporations and contributes to employee turnover.

Leaders aren’t accountable to their teams. While most students had heard of leaders “turning the pyramid upside down,” few of those working in large corporations had experienced this in a practical sense. They felt that traditional management structures still prevail and that leaders are rarely held to account by their employees. 

Over the course of a week, and with the help of a series of guest executives, we explored how corporations are beginning to respond to these frustrations. One example students found particularly interesting was Standard Chartered Bank’s commitment to living up to its corporate values. Marianne Mwaniki, head of social and economic impact at the bank, talked through one of their most successful initiatives.

The UK-based multinational bank states its brand promise as being ‘Here for goodsticking by clients and customers through good times and bad, and always trying to do the right thing.’

To really live up to its brand promise, Standard Chartered felt it needed to fully understand the effect of its activities on the countries in which it operates. In 2010, it became the first in its industry to carry out a comprehensive socio-economic impact assessment in Ghana, one of its key markets. The results were astounding: the bank’s direct impact on Ghana’s economy through paying taxes, creating jobs, and buying goods and services contributed around $55 million of additional value. Better still, its indirect and induced impact, mainly through companies and households spending the money it lent them, dwarfed this, amounting to $400 million, or 2.6% of Ghana’s GDP.

These findings helped Standard Chartered understand its influence on Ghana’s economy, and it showed stakeholders that the bank was truly striving to fulfill its brand promise. For my MBA class, the bank’s desire to measure its impact was a great example of how companies can do as they say, building accountability and demonstrating their values in the process.

The message is clear: to attract and retain the next generation of talented individuals, companies must develop effective ways of living their values. This is one of the many challenges the CIPD/MIX “Adaptability Advantage” hackathon is trying to address. The hackathon is now underway, with nearly 1,000 progressive HR practitioners and thinkers from around the world working to make all organizations more adaptable. It’s not too late to join.

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ulrich-nettesheim's picture

Lynda, thanks for sharing your list of top 3 things from your LBS students. On my top three list would be governance systems/mechanisms. Your students list included "corporations don't do what they say" touches on the governance domain. The governance system of the corporation is supposed to ensure that the company does what it says it will do and hold accountable fellow board members, the chief executive and the executive team if it does not. The problem is too many governance systems in corporations are not working as they are supposed to. Fundamental change is in order. The root causes of that failure are fascinating to explore. One radical new idea I have recently heard about - which is one of the few truly bold ideas I have seen being implemented - is to transfer the power to govern from individuals and positions (the Chairman, the CEO) to a constitution - a set of principles - which a collective body of organization members has to abide by. Holocracy One is doing that work right now - albeit with smaller scale organizations at the moment - but its a start with huge potential impact. You might enjoy looking at what they are doing. Thanks! Ulrich

heidi-de-wolf's picture

Trust! Trust is build by letting go of control, encouraging autonomy and embracing community spirit.

Hard to pick one, but I'll try. I think I'd have to target transparent, accountable decision making. With an emphasis on de-politicizing decision making.

The challenge is one part of this is emotional equity invested in the past, and one part of this is a prejudiced ability to make decisions in the best interest of the organization vs. an individual or set of individuals.

Corporations may have a hard time "doing as they say" in part because the various values, key behaviours, and objectives are filtered through many silos and turfs. This is then compounded when instead of accountability and transparency, there is a consistently inconsistent application of both, for unclear reasons.

I guess I'm saying, if we can't do as we say let's say so. Then let's pause, do what we can say, and do it well - in the best interest of the organization.

This may also help to empower employees, because what is being talked about as important is also being acted upon. So, in theory, there is alignment between declared priorities, resources, and the opportunity to get stuff done. Not a full solution, but better than saying one thing, doing another, and leaving employees on the sideline wondering why.

Finally, if decision making is transparent and accountable, leaders and their decisions are visible. This isn't about blame; it's about clarity, understanding, and execution. It enables conversation and collaboration. Fewer black box decisions means improvement, efficiency, and innovation are possible. Likewise, if applicable, consistently poor results can be tackled.

So long as things are kinda-understood, kinda-visible, kinda-offline kinda-online - i.e., only semi anything - the ability to collaborate, to build trust, and to adapt are challenged.

In order for people to even begin to bring their whole-selves (necessary for engagement) in to work to help find creative solutions, they need trust, access to information, clarity, and the belief that their effort will matter. In essence, to be treated not only as professional, but as adults and even, as human beings.

Black boxes - opaque and inaccessible decision making and its outcomes - are not only really effective at providing none of these, but inspire doubt, confusion, reluctance, perhaps even fear, and ultimately, create missed opportunities for substantial progress.

Macho leadership and obscene bonuses create a hirearchical culture that is counter to creativity and ownership that should be the foundation of an changing ,evolving culture. More equality and flatter management is the way forward. Small scale organisations work best.

malcolm-oneal's picture

I would agree with Linda that there is an undercurrent in the making of businesses and organizaiton returning to a view that they need to return to living up to their word. The first hurdle companies have to clear to start this journey is to realize they don't have to be all things to all employees. Focus on the core; and by that, the strategic core that enables the success of the organization. With this new focus, the real value propositon and organizaiton promises can start to take shape.

Following my former post, look here:
Employees First, Customers Second: Why It Really Works in the Market
In this interview VN says:
"I think the customers win, the question is any company that says “customer first” does not know how to deliver that promise. All I am saying is by employees first you can actually deliver your promise of customers first. If you do not put the employee first – if the business of management and managers is not to put employee first – there is no way you can get the customer first."
Do you agree?

Here is my choice:
"Employees First, Customers Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down" by
Vineet Nayar
I love it! I believe only happy employees can make happy customers. It seems so very simple and true to me now, that I cannot even understand how I did not get it before Vineet Nayar published his inspiring book...
We have all talked about customers first for ages, failing to understand this simple logic. So if I have to choose just one thing to change about corporations - this seems to me the best one. Once we adopt it - everything else will follow in the right direction.
Would love to get reactions on that.

This is the essence of what is called "the service profit chain". Unfortunately most CEO's and CFO;s don't read this stuff. I think its up to HR to make them aware


I have never been an employee (or director) of Standard Chartered but I endorse all you say. For me they are a role model of responsible governance and professional management and indeed - Gordon Brown turned to their CEO in 2008 to ask what to do in the banking crisis. It is very bad news that they have been pilloried by the US regulators - I have heard the inside story and as always there are many sides to an event.

Professionally, I am interested in the area of human capital. I have often asked students and audiences whether their top management say that they believe in the mantra "that people are our most important assets". 90%+ say yes. And when I ask "and how many of you work in organisations whose top managements clearly demonstrate this belief in practice?" maybe 10% affirm it. So what explains the abyss between the two? Something to do with Lynda's first point....