CIPD Podcast 21 - HR and leadership

Date: 27/06/08 Duration: 00:30.24

In this podcast we look at the importance to HR of selecting and developing leaders, particularly in these economically uncertain times. Four experts discuss the issue: Linda Holbeche, Director of Research and Policy, CIPD, Professor Beverley Alimo-Metcalf, Professor of Leadership at Bradford University, Karsten Hetland, Global Vice President Executive Resourcing, Resourcing and Diversity in Nokia and Bill Griffiths who joined the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) in 1967 and retired as a Deputy Assistant Commissioner in 2005.


Philippa Lamb: Welcome to the latest CIPD podcast. In this edition we’ll be focusing on leadership and what it means for HR. The definition of leadership appears to have shifted in recent years, we’ll explore how it’s changed and what it means for leadership development and we’ll look into what it is we want (and need) from leaders, especially during the current economic uncertainty.

I’ll be getting the expert view on leadership selection and development from leadership professor Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe, plus we’ll be hearing from two very different organisations – Nokia and The Metropolitan Police – about what leadership means to them and how they’re developing the leaders they need.

First of all, I chatted with the CIPD’s Director of Research and Policy, Linda Holbeche. Linda’s an expert on leadership development, she’s also written for the topical new CIPD report on Leading Through Uncertain Times. You can find that report at or through the notes that accompany this podcast. I asked her how leadership has changed in recent years. 
Linda Holbeche: Well part of the challenge I think is that, for me, the main differences between now and 20 years ago is that there’s a really strong, growing recognition that leaders have got to do more than just run the business and manage investor relationships. In today’s knowledge economy/service economy, particularly where talent is key and where talent is still in short supply (even in these uncertain times) it’s going to be much more the leaders' agenda to build organisational capabilities like speed and flexibility and really understand how to connect with people, connect people to the organisations in ways which, once upon a time, they wouldn’t have needed to do. That’s putting a much greater emphasis on leaders themselves having skill sets that go beyond just business and strategic skills, they’ve really got to be great people leaders too.

PL: So if leading and engaging people are of such importance, what does that mean for employers seeking to identify talent for the future? I asked Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe, Professor of Leadership at Bradford University, for her opinion.

Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe: First of all organisations need to ensure that they’re not just looking for competencies, that they are looking at the way in which people actually enact their competencies because that’s what leadership is all about. So, they should be looking for people who truly believe that their responsibility is to create the relationships and the environment of those colleagues that they come across in their work that enables those people to give of their best. We’re looking for people who don’t have gargantuan egos but actually get excited about the success of others. 

PL: That’s a very 21st century model isn’t it because when I think to back to some of the totemic leaders, the kind of Jack Welch’s and GE, they didn’t think,as far as I understand it, much about how other people were feeling. It was much more about driving forward their personal vision and other people could just follow along in their wake, but you don’t think that’s relevant now.

BA-M: Well the research suggests that some of the most inspirational and charismatic people are actually quite lethal in organisations. They may come in, create chaos and then leave and they leave chaos in their wake but we know that now it isn’t sufficient to perceive leadership as being solely in the hands of those at the top of the organisation. It needs to be ubiquitous, it needs to be insidious in the organisation.

PL: Linda Holbeche picks up the issue of leadership at different levels for us.

LH: Many organisations struggle with the nature of leadership that they require. Is it just leaders at the top who can do brilliant things and inspire people to follow them or is it that plus leadership at different levels? Increasingly, the way the trend is going, it seems to me that we’re focusing much more on building leadership at all levels. The challenge, if you have a traditional mindset about leadership, is that you tend to only look for people you perceive to have high potential to reach the top and that restricts what you can do to really mobilise leadership in your organisation. I know of some organisations actually who’ve missed the trick amongst their existing workforce and some of them are actually going back and looking at people who are now in their 30s and 40s to see whether they actually do have the potential, the kind of leadership that’s required now whereas ten years ago they weren’t defined as being high potential.

PL: One organisation that concentrates on identifying potential is Nokia. I chatted with their Vice President of HR, Karsten Hetland, about the leadership challenges they face. 
Looking at how Nokia has developed its approach to leadership, what do you see as the key challenges over the next ten to 15 years, in that context?

Karsten Hetland: The industry is changing, the mobile industry is changing.  Nokia is currently the global leader in the mobile industry, mobile devices but we also see that the mobile device is used for much more than voice and SMS, it’s actually a device for services. So, entering the internet services and software is the strategic challenge for Nokia, with that follows a different way of leading. You have to be much more collaborative, you have to be even more personal and relationship orientated. You need to be able to connect not only within but to a large extent outside the company. You need to achieve not only with your fellow Nokians but with partners, with collaborators that are not on Nokia’s payroll. That’s a challenge to organise that network and to achieve in a context that goes way beyond where you have a direct line of command if you may say.

PL: So far we’ve talked about why and how leadership has changed but what of the leaders themselves? I chatted to Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe about the age-old question of whether leaders are born or bred.

BA-M: I think we’ve got to make the distinction between what we refer to as distant or heroic leaders. I mean Mandela, Roddick, Branson... 

PL: Charismatic.

BA-M: Charismatic, those kind of leaders. Those are distant leaders. The distant inspirational leaders, it’s been part of their life experience. I don’t think you are born a leader and you can’t do anything about it. On a day to day basis every day kind of leadership. I’ve seen substantial evidence of people who even I have thought there is no way that this person can become more engaging, more empathic, more sensitive of their impact who have shown significant changes in their behaviour, so you certainly can develop ways of becoming much more effective in terms of engaging leadership. 

PL: An interesting distinction there between the global megastars of leadership and the leaders organisations need at all levels to grow and prosper. I asked Karsten Hetland for his view. 
Do you take the view that the best leaders are born or can anyone be trained to be really excellent in that role?

KH: In Nokia we have an attitude that you are not necessarily a leader within only one function, you can swap between functions over the career and hence we also then see leaders being able to actually do a tremendously good job in various functional areas so I think the answer must be leaders are very much developed and encouraged throughout the context of where they thrive and work.

PL: What do you see at Nokia as an effective, as a good leader? What’s your definition of a good leader? 

KH: We are a technology company and as such biased towards the engineering community, not necessarily very skilled in relationships and managing people but through our continuous underlying effort making clear that people processes and relationships are very crucial to our achievements.

PL: And that brings me to my next question which is how do you identify people who will be potentially good leaders for you? At what stage in the organisation do you look for them?

KH: Actually we look at potential good leaders at various stages but more systematically so when they enter the managerial ranks and then we follow leaders closely through leadership reviews, talent reviews and certain programmes. Nokia, with it’s approach, is quite an egalitarian company, so we don’t put young leaders on a pedestal very early on in their career but we have a systematic approach to it and as time passes we see a certain selection pattern emerge.

PL: The Metropolitan Police has over 50,000 employees serving London’s community, they have a very clear and broad view of what leadership means to them. Their Director of Leadership Development, Bill Griffiths, explains their approach and where it starts.

BG: I think the nature of policing is actually a leadership type of role. People expect men and women in the frontline of delivery, actually meeting the public, to exhibit leadership; they're in charge of situations and so on.

PL: As you say, in practical and operational terms it’s an immensely complex organisation and I think we can all readily understand the challenges that that would present. Conversely, the hierarchical nature of The Met I suppose, in some ways, makes the leadership issue a simpler one, I mean it’s very evident to people who is and is not a leader. At what stage do you start training people to be leaders? Where do they have to be in the organisation?

BG: Well I think we start training them the minute they walk in as a recruit because as I think I alluded to, the nature of policing it requires leadership skills because you’re working with people, you’re getting the best out of people and those same skills equip you well on the street.

PL: With so many organisations looking to identify leaders well beyond the very top of their business I asked Linda Holbeche about the implications for leadership development budgets. 
So this is very interesting isn’t it, as you said, the definition of leader and what you actually require of your leaders, that they don’t necessarily need to lead your entire organisation they just need to lead elements or areas and on that basis I take it that you would say that, however limited your training budget is, you should be looking at spreading it throughout your organisation rather than focusing it entirely on your most senior people.

LH: Yes I do because the recurring theme seems to be that you can invest a huge amount of money in developing your potential for the top leaders but actually when it comes to it very often those people leave before they’re ready or before you need them to step into the position. I think it’s a wise organisation that does attempt to spread its spend on leadership.

PL: We’d be interested in your thoughts about the appropriate level to pitch leadership development at and how you divide up efforts and budgets in your organisation. CIPD members can debate the issue in our online communities, for a quick link to the discussion go 

Next I talked to Linda about how to make the most of leadership development activity.

LH: Increasingly organisations are looking at encouraging and enabling people to share learning with their colleagues. Now all that may sound like a load of think-tank activity but actually it is quite clear that what Jeffrey Pfeffer described as the knowing-doing-gap a few years back is very much a problem for UK managers, and particularly those at the top, that there is a gap between what good ideas might work and how they’re applied in practice and actually giving people space, legitimate space, to share thinking with colleagues and beyond, to network with people who really are at the leading edge of some of the thinking that’s relevant to their organisations is important.

PL: That’s a strong point isn’t it because I noticed from your latest research into leadership that UK organisations are big users of external coaches, bigger than overseas organisations in general. What you’re saying, if I understand you correctly now, is that we may be missing a trick on using the expertise within our own organisations first and actually drawing on that and sharing that. 

LH: Yeah, absolutely and I don’t know why it is that we have favoured using external support so much. It could well be that in the past HR itself hasn’t focused as much on the leadership agenda as it might have done.

PL: If you’d like to know more about the research Linda referred to there, The Global Leadership Forecast published by the CIPD with business leadership consultancy DDI, you can find out more in the notes for this programme at

Next, I was interested to know more about how you secure buy-in for leadership development in an organisation like The Metropolitan Police. I asked Bill Griffiths to tell me more.

BG: Well we’ve got four values and underneath those values sit 46 specific behaviours. What we believe is that it provides is a set of parameters, a touchstone, for people to refer to when it’s difficult. 

PL: What are your four core values?

BG: We take pride in delivering quality policing. The second one is about building trust by listening and responding. The third value deals with respect, so respect and support each other: work as a team. We’re trying to raise our game in that respect and actually be more altruistic in the way we work together. The fourth value is learning from experience and finding ways to be even better. Now all of that adds up to what I call values based leadership.

PL: What sort of response have you had from longer serving members of The Met to this new approach? Has there been a degree of cynicism about it?

BG: Of course. I’ve got more than 40 years with The Met and I’ve seen it all so-to-speak and because of that I think I determined – with the approval of The Commissioner (it was his vision after all) – that we’re going to do something that’s a bit more long-term. It’s not an initiative as such, this is about the fundamental of delivering decent service to the people of London.

PL: But you’re working with the people you’ve got, how do you overcome that resistance?

BG: I’ve been very very pleasantly surprised. You do get a lot of folded arms in the beginning and ‘I’ve seen it all before’ but when you actually explain and tell the story of why we’re doing it this way I’ve yet to see anybody who’s actually remained resistant.

PL: An encouraging example there, of engaging people with the concept of leadership development. A key aspect of effective leadership is whether we’re engaging with all our people and I was interested to know whether men and women lead differently. I talked to Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe.

There’s been an enormous amount written and said about the differences in the ways that men and women manage and lead, what’s your feeling about that? Based on the enormous amount of experience and research that you’ve done, do you see generic differences between the way men and women tend to approach leadership or is it a myth?

BA-M: Well according to the research that we conducted recently we did find that women in general are rated significantly more engaging than are men in general, irrespective of whether the person rating them is male or female. I think we should be more concerned about the fact that we don’t have enough people from a variety of different minority ethnic groups in senior positions. But leadership research has been influenced by the fact that it’s been studied in the main by white men studying white men so how are we going to get more women, people from a variety of different ethnic groups into senior positions if the people who determine the criteria are from a specific group and if the assessors themselves reflect that white, male population? Research also suggests that we tend to look for people who are similar to ourselves.

PL: Recruit in our own image? 

BA-M: Exactly. We have really got to look at recruitment processes in organisations, the criteria, the sort of assessors and how can we enrich the pool of talent from whom we select people for the most senior positions.

PL: I picked this issue up with Nokia’s Karsten Hetland. What’s the gender divide on leadership at Nokia? 

KH: Well we are a technology company, we are heavily biased towards male engineers but it is improving – I don’t recall the actual number right now with regards to females in leadership. 

PL: Is it something you see as a priority?

KH: Yes it is, very much so and you see as female leaders are approaching the executive ranks there are fewer and fewer of them and most likely because it is a rather demanding context also to be a leader in with the global reach, heavy travelling and so on. 

PL: So there’s the difficulty around work-life balance you feel for women? 

KH: Yes work-life balance in certain periods of your life but this is something that we are actively addressing and it is a high priority to us the wellbeing of employees at all levels. 

PL: The ability of leaders to sustain motivation and engagement in the workforce is critical, not least in a time of economic uncertainty. Finally, I asked Linda Holbeche about the specific challenges for HR in supporting leaders during a downturn.

LH: It’s the reality of the times but as you also said it’s reality all the time really it’s just particularly acute now. I think in some ways HR recognising that a key element of their role is to support leaders in a number of practical ways through these challenges is their role. It’s not just about developing leaders for tomorrow but it’s very much about being the eyes and ears of particularly top leadership, keeping a finger on the pulse of how the morale of the workforce is, guiding senior executives where communications are needed and actually getting on and providing the framework for those communications. Really being prepared to, if necessary, shelve for the time being some of the improvements in HR practice and policies that are not absolutely critical right now and much more being out there, being with teams, seeing what the issues are and supporting people on the ground with the challenges that they’ve got. 

PL: Whether your leadership development challenges are affected by these uncertain times or not I hope you found this quick look at the whole subject of leadership useful and interesting and I’d like to thank all our guests for taking the time to talk to us. 
Remember, you can find the notes accompanying this programme, including links to our new report on Leading Through Uncertain Timesand The Global Leadership Forecast research we talked about earlier in the programme at 
There’s a new CIPD podcast at the beginning of each month. We hope you enjoyed this one and that you’ll listen again next time. Until then, goodbye.


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