Episode 403 – Disrupting HR with Lucy Adams

Lucy Adams“It was fantastic, just as a sheer exercise in putting something out there and being brave and saying, these are my thoughts, what does everyone else think?”

Lucy Adams spends her days helping HR leaders reimagine their profession, and her classic work HR Disrupted and its sequel, The HR Change Toolkit, are critical to this mission.

Her message is simple: treat employees as adults. But the implications are profound.

In this conversation, we talk about how HR is changing (or not), the impact of COVID on the profession and on Lucy’s decision to write a new edition, the delight of writing and the grind of editing, and the exhilaration and terror involved in opening your freshly minted book for the first time…



Lucy’s site: https://disruptivehr.com/

Alison on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/the-alison-jones/

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: http://proposalchallenge.com/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Substack: https://extraordinarybusinessbooks.substack.com/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Write with me! https://alisonjones.com/writing/

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Lucy Adams, who was HR Director at the BBC during one of its most turbulent periods. She saw four Director Generals come and go over her five year tenure, she oversaw the move to Salford, and she coped with numerous, very public crises, including executive payoffs and the Saville scandal. Now she’s on a mission to help organisations bring their human resources departments into the 21st century and find more creative and effective ways of engaging employees.

She does that through her agency, Disruptive HR, and through her two books, HR Disrupted and the HR Change Toolkit. So welcome Lucy, it’s really lovely to have you here.

Lucy Adams: Oh, it’s lovely to be here, yes, we go back years, don’t We

Alison Jones: go back so long, and it is ridiculous that I haven’t had you on the podcast actually. Lucy is one of our earliest Practical Inspiration authors. HR Disrupted came out in 2017. Can you believe it?

Lucy Adams: I know, I know. a long, long time ago and we’ve done a second edition since

Alison Jones: We’ve done a second edition and it’s still one of our best sellers.

Lucy Adams: Oh, that’s great to hear. That’s so good.

Alison Jones: Terrific, yes. So first of all, lovely to have you here.

Lucy Adams: And it’s lovely to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Alison Jones: You’re really welcome. And I know that you have such a powerful approach to HR. I’d love to invite you just to tell us a little bit about what it means to disrupt HR and your model in particular.

Lucy Adams: Yes, I mean, I’m an HR practitioner by background and, you know, like many other HR practitioners, we were brought up to believe that HR was about helping managers and processes. There’s a lot of kind of established best in class processes that we’ve been working with and implementing for decades. We have kind of lost our way, I think, over those decades and it isn’t through lack of hard work or lack of inclination to do the right thing, but I just think there has been a big industry that has grown up that has pointed HR in a number of directions that in the end has reduced its credibility and its impact.

And so it was only after I left the HR profession, it’s very hard to disrupt when you’re at the coal face and we can maybe talk about that, but it was really only after I left the profession that those nagging doubts that I’d had when I was in the profession really materialized. And having that space and that time away from frontline HR enabled me to think long and hard about how could it be different.

And, so both books are really on a similar path around saying it can be different, it needs to be different, and here’s how it can be different. So the books are meant to be practical.

They are, the first one is particularly based around an approach that we developed called The Each Model, which is employees as adults, consumers and human beings. And that’s been very powerful and has resonated with a lot of HR professionals, where it’s about saying, you know, we can’t keep being the nursemaid or the compliance officer.

We can’t keep chasing people to do things or doing it for them or making things mandatory. We need to treat people in a grown up way and this is how you can do it and these are the benefits. The consumer part is about saying, why would I as an HR professional think one size fits all approach is a good thing when actually what we’ve got are all these different needs and wants and preferences.

So a key trend is to see how we can customize and tailor what we do to really make sure we’re having impact and relevance. And then the final piece is around human HR, because so many of the processes that we’ve adopted, it could be performance management or talent management or learning and development, or all the things we get involved with, have typically not really thought about the human being at the heart of it.

How do we improve performance? How do we develop careers? How do we help them learn? Instead, it’s been more about how do we get managers to do it, tick boxes to make them do it. And so we’ve adopted some fairly unwieldy processes that again, have not really helped our cause when we’re actually trying to enable people to do their best work. And what we’re doing is making them jump through hoops.

So the books were really around trying to find an expression of those ideas. The first one was more about the what, and the second one then looked much more around the how, how do you do it differently? Looking at things like agile HR, borrowing from marketing and sales, borrowing from a whole range of disciplines to really improve what we do.

And yes, and I think, you know, back in 2017, I think it was quite radical. It’s probably not quite as radical now, but we’re still meeting HR people who are struggling under the weight of having to do things in the old way and very often will say to me, Oh, I’m not alone. You know, I read your book and I’m not alone. It’s not just me that thinks it’s crazy that we’re doing things in these old fashioned ways.

So I suppose in summary, … .

Alison Jones: And that’s something I remember from our very first conversation, that sense that, and as soon as you said it, it’s really obvious that every other business discipline has been disrupted, has been changed, has been transformed, and not just by digital transformation, although that is obviously a part of it. But just the way that we think about them. And as you say, Agile coming in, that the business process landscape is so different to how it was 20 years ago. And HR, not so much.

Lucy Adams: I mean, there is obviously huge amounts of disruption going on and I wouldn’t want to do any HR professional a disservice. We’re seeing some great innovations, but there is still a reliance, an over reliance on, bureaucratic processes and policies that are, that scream, we don’t trust you and so I think, you know, even with COVID in the middle of that period since the book first came out, unfortunately, we’re seeing things going backwards in many ways, which I think is really disappointing.

I mean, you just have to look at, say, hybrid working. You know, during COVID, we saw these huge advances, HR had been banging on about flexible working for years and never really made a huge amount of progress. And then suddenly there we were all doing it. It wasn’t perfect. It’s difficult, but the sad thing is that we’re now seeing organizations saying, you know, you must be in three days a week.

You’ve got to be in on a Friday and all of the real benefits of working how and when and where you’re most productive, I think are going to be lost and I think that’s a real shame.

Alison Jones: And all the inclusion benefits of that too, because it was so liberating. And as you say, it comes down to trust, doesn’t it? If we can’t actually see you working, I’m not sure you are.

Lucy Adams: Yes and I think a lot of managers didn’t like it. You know, they talk about the kind of democratization of Zoom calls, you know, you don’t have your own office on a zoom call and they had never perhaps got used to the fact that we need to manage through outputs rather than supervision. And so, their old style ways of working, their command and control approach to leadership didn’t make the transition easily.

Now, clearly there are some managers who love it and who work that way and embraced it and can see the benefits of it, not just to their people, but also to the business because they can suddenly draw upon talent from anywhere. But I think sadly, a lot of the transitional elements to enable it to happen and to make it really effective weren’t addressed. And so unfortunately we’ve got, you know, businesses with big long term office leases who are saying, well, you know, where is everyone? And I can’t see them as you say, so they can’t be working properly, can they?

We’ve also got this thing, you know, someone will say to me when I’m working with leaders, they’ll say, well, I had someone who clearly wasn’t working. And so I’ve said to my team, they’ve all got to come in. And you say, but that individual, were they ever a superstar performer or were they a poor performer before hybrid working? Oh yes. They’ve always been rubbish. So it’s like, so hybrid working didn’t make people unproductive. You had poor performers who hadn’t been dealt with, but in that classic way, where we often design around the lowest common denominator, the rules, the policies, the bringing people back into the office has been stimulated by the fact that we’ve still got some people that we haven’t perhaps dealt with individually rather than penalizing the whole.

Alison Jones: Yes, it’s so true, isn’t it? That sense that, well, if somebody is abusing this or if somebody’s doing it wrong, we’re all going to suffer because we’ve got to put that policy in place.

Now, you mentioned the pandemic, which is probably the most significant happening since 2017 and actually incidentally that’s why we’ve got a second edition, isn’t it?

Lucy Adams: Yes, absolutely. We kind of felt we needed to acknowledge it, that actually this thing had happened that had transformed the employment landscape. but

Alison Jones: fact that suddenly you weren’t traveling and you had the time to write it.

Lucy Adams: Exactly, might as well make use of it. But I think also it was, you know, it was felt, I think at COVID that it was a watershed moment, wasn’t it?

You know, there was a sense of How do we work? Where do we work? Who do I work for? That kind of sense of, Oh my God, I could have died. I’ve had all this happen to my family and here I am in a job with a boss who I don’t respect and work that doesn’t give me a sense of purpose.

So I think there was a sense, certainly when I look back at the kind of the work that we were doing at that time, where people were re-evaluating the nature of work, their own sense of purpose at work. As I say, we’ve talked about the hybrid piece, and how could work be done? I’m not sure, in the end, that it’s been as dramatic as that.

I think no doubt there were people who made life choices. We were just talking before we started the podcast about the fact we both moved to get some greenery. We were both city dwellers and COVID… now we’re not, post COVID we’re not. But I think on the whole I’m not sure it had the transformational effect that we believed it might do back in the days of 2020.

Alison Jones: There’s something about a hype curve in there, isn’t there? But I think over a long period of time the impact is still huge. What other changes more generally. I mean, I love that you talk about the reevaluation. It’s also, they talk about the great resignation. It actually, it felt more like a great reevaluation, didn’t it?

Lucy Adams: Yes, exactly

Alison Jones: What other changes have you noticed in the way that I guess, employees expect from or respond to HR and the way that HR professionals consider themselves within an organization since the first edition?

Lucy Adams: I think there’s a number of factors. So, I think there’s one of the first things to say is that, you know, budgets are squeezed, HR numbers typically coming down. So, the fact that HR used to be able to have a personal relationship with many of their leaders and employees, I think gets harder and harder.

Alongside that, obviously we see a lot of HR services being outsourced or being done, perhaps now increasingly through AI. So you have a chat bot rather than a personnel officer who you might be able to talk things through with. So I think there’s a whole raft of changes since the first edition that have impacted.

We’ve talked about the COVID piece AI. Digital and the fact that employees can access information in different ways. They can talk to each other in different ways. So I think that’s been a big piece. We also had in the middle of obviously the COVID piece we had the kind of Me Too, Black Lives Matter, I think that sense of those big geopolitical aspects, we’ve had the Ukraine war, we’ve got, obviously, right as we’re talking today we’ve got the tensions and wars in the Middle East, and so I think there is an increased sense, a heightened sense of anxiety.

There is a heightened sense of what should I expect from my employer? What do they owe me in terms of my own well being and my own peace of mind? And I think that’s put demands on HR that in some ways we perhaps haven’t answered in the way that we could do. So I think there is still an inclination to look to HR or their managers as a kind of parent figure and say, you need to help me. I’m suffering. I’m struggling. I need answers. I expect you to provide them to me.

And I think HR has responded in certain ways where they’ve tried to give those answers and they’ve tried to do the well being initiatives and they’ve created staff forums and they’ve tried to give people what they want.

But at the same time, I think there are also the, what I would see is perhaps slightly smarter HR people who are saying, this isn’t our role, we cannot. make them well again. We cannot make them less anxious. However, what we can do is to create the conditions where they can own this for themselves. So they…

Alison Jones: …treating them as adults again, isn’t it?

Lucy Adams: Absolutely.

And we saw this during COVID, some HR teams bent over backwards to put on, you know, zoom yoga and free Fitbits. And actually we know that for well being people require to be treated as adults, to have autonomy about how and when and where they work, to feel that there is a level of care and that they are listened to, but also that a lot of the rubbish and barriers that people have to deal with at work are taken away.

And I think sometimes if we spent as much time getting rid of the onerous systems and processes and making it difficult for people, we could create a much more stress free environment. So I think there’s still an inclination for HR to step into that nursemaid, that desire to help and it comes from a good place, but ultimately I think the more that we can treat people as grown ups and ensure that they have access to the right information, that they understand that they are listened to, that they are heard, and that ultimately it’s for them to own their career and their well being with support.

I think we’re seeing healthier HR teams, healthier HR organizations as a result.

Alison Jones: Love that emphasis on taking away the impediments so that you’re enabling people to do their own…

Lucy Adams: Absolutely. So we’ve got, I think it’s PepsiCo has something called a shredder, which means, every so often they just go out to their people and say, which are the processes that just get in the way? And keeping an eye on that, because I don’t think these processes come about because people think, oh, let’s put this in place and make it difficult for people. Organizations evolve and things happen and they react and then suddenly you’ve got more processes and policies and barriers to overcome than you had. And the more we can take away, and I think our role as managers needs to focus as much on that as what we do to them.

Alison Jones: Yes, brilliant.

I want to talk about writing as well, Lucy. What do you enjoy about it? Or what frustrates you about it?

Lucy Adams: So I’ve discovered that I love writing short pieces. What I’m not great at is the editing. And I think anyone thinking about writing a business book or, if you have written a business book whether you kind of relate to this or not, it would be interesting to hear.

But I find that when you’re writing something that’s a little bit more like a takeaway meal, a blog, you know, something that’s going to be kind of read, discarded, and onto the next, then you can be quite free. You can, you know, it doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be something that is, yes, a little bit more disposable, I suppose.

And that feels quite freeing. And I enjoy that writing. I enjoy having the idea, structuring it, putting it down and it’s done.

Alison Jones: Walk on and do the next one tomorrow.

Lucy Adams: Absolutely. And I really enjoy that. So I enjoy the taking an idea, distilling it, structuring it. And so the parts of the book that I enjoyed was that, you know, what would be the structure of it? What would I have within each section? What would be the kind of key pieces that would go in there to support that particular argument?

But of course, that’s only a tiny bit of writing a book, isn’t it, Alison? As you know! You then go into the edit, and I think anyone, and I’ve done the two, and I suppose I really should be thinking about doing a third now, but it’s always that bit that goes into my mind, and I think, the edits, the edits and I’m not great at that, I’m not great at that minutiae, because it has to be perfect, it has to be spot on, and you know, that moment when you get that first published copy in your hand is both so exhilarating, but also so terrifying as you’re going through it.

You’re thinking please don’t let me spot a typo. Please don’t let me spot something that I wish I hadn’t put. And I think actually the good thing about doing the second edition was I had to go back to the first one in detail, in a way that you probably don’t do ordinarily. And actually I was really happy with the vast majority of it. And that’s because of the edit.

That’s because we went over and over and over and said, actually, you don’t need all of that in there or, that example doesn’t really work or, it was that stripping back and that’s what makes it a great finished product but I enjoy…

Alison Jones: …hard to do for yourself as well, isn’t it? Getting that team of people around you who are, you know, the sort of development editors and everything, they’re just so valuable.

Lucy Adams: And also there’s bits about the edit that I didn’t even know existed. So, you know, the kind of copyright piece and the edit with the, going through all the sources in detail and the references and making sure that they were all still valid and that we had approval for certain things, looking at the typeface edit and just, you know, the font edit, I mean, all of that stuff, the layout on the page, all of this is just because I don’t publish books and don’t know anything about it.

You need those experts, you need those people who do this day in, day out and they will make it easier for you. Not completely pain free, but they will make…

Alison Jones: Sadly, we can’t take away all the pain.

Lucy Adams: No.

Alison Jones: What surprised you once they were out in the world? Because you were doing this work for a long time, weren’t you?

Lucy Adams: Well, I was doing it for a couple of years and I had no idea actually what having a book would do for me. People had said it was a good idea and I felt that I’d got something that was different to say and there was enough there to fill a book. You always worry, is there going to be enough? And I think that there was.

But the difference it made in terms of, you know, I make my living through speaking engagements and delivery of training and selling products and services to HR professionals. And the book has driven so much of that new business. People will still, to this day, reach out to me I think I put them through to you, somebody in wanting it translated in to Indonesian.

And, you know, you suddenly get these contacts from people who say, I’ve read the book. I loved it and can you do some work with us? And so it was fantastic, just as a sheer exercise in putting something out there and being brave and saying, these are my thoughts, what does everyone else think? And that takes some courage, I think, you know, it’s nerve wracking, but the reaction was so positive and also has really helped drive the business.

And I’m not saying the business wouldn’t have got to where it is eventually, but it definitely made it happen more quickly. It created connections globally that I hadn’t anticipated. It was, and you know, if anybody has got, you know, you’re trying to sort of make your way as a consultant or you’re trying to put yourself out there as a business leader, having something that is valued as a business book, I can’t speak highly enough of it.

It was just really surprising.

Alison Jones: It’s really good to hear, and I think you touched on a couple of things there that really looped back into what you were saying earlier about the, almost the pressure of writing a book and that is uncomfortable, there’s more weight, more significance to it than just writing a blog post and moving on.

And that’s because it matters in a way that the blog posts and so on don’t matter.


Lucy Adams: They disappear, they stay there, but they kind of disappear into the ether. It’s time bound, whereas the book is always there.

Alison Jones: It’s got longevity, it’s got substance, and it really is your ambassador almost in the world, isn’t it? Which is why we…

Lucy Adams: …and it’s your manifesto, you know, so people would say they wanted me to come and talk to them because they’d read the book, because they knew what I was about. And so having that as a calling card, as a way of saying, this is what I stand for, this is what you’re going to get. Now, of course, you then have to go and build relationships off the back of it, but ultimately it is your manifesto.

You’re putting it out there. And yes, I’m so glad I did.

Alison Jones: So I want your best tip, if you don’t mind, for somebody who’s not there yet, somebody who’s sort of still maybe started or thinking about starting their business book. What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?

Lucy Adams: I think being really clear on who your audience for that book is, and not just in terms of a demographic, but conjure them up, give them a persona, give them a name, give them a little bit of a backstory, and you know, who are they? What do they do for a living? And then almost the clearer and more specific you can be, when you’re then writing, you’ve got that person in your mind, what is it they want to hear? Because we can all get a bit carried away with our own ideas and the sound of our own voice, and we all like to feel that we’re terribly important, but I think the advice that was given to me about having that person in your mind, and of course there’s going to be other people who read it who don’t fit that persona, but the more you can write for them, the better it is.

And I think that, that really kind of held me in good stead. I think I had a very, very, I started off with, you know, well, all HR professionals and all leaders but actually, no, it was somebody who was frustrated with the HR profession. They’d probably, and I can picture her now, you know, I know who she is and hopefully she’s come on the journey with me, but it was a very, very specific idea of that persona.

And I think that really helped with the writing.

Alison Jones: Yes and it works on so many levels because it means that your writing is going to be more, and the case studies you choose, the language you use is going to be right for that person. But it also gives you a sort of a warmth. It becomes more conversational because you’ve got a real human being in mind, just not an abstract idea.

Lucy Adams: Absolutely and weirdly, I think the people who contacted me on LinkedIn and email and so on would often talk about the fact that they felt they knew me, that there was a relationship there. And I think that’s absolutely because it was written with them in mind. So that was really helpful advice and that there’s loads of other bits and pieces, I’m sure, but that was the thing that stuck with me.

Alison Jones: That’s an absolutely top tip. Thank you. Brilliant.

And Lucy, I always ask my guest to recommend me a business book as well. As you know, have you prepared a recommendation?

Lucy Adams: I have, I’ve got it in front of me. It is a well thumbed copy of Wilful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan. I just, whether it’s because she’s female, that kind of helps, but I could watch, listen Margaret Heffernan talk about anything. She has the most brilliant turn of phrase. She is a phenomenal storyteller.

And what you’ve got in this book is the most amazing research and fantastic detailed case studies, data, insights, but wrapped up in stories that you just get, you become immersed in. And in the end, we love stories. I don’t like reading business books that are filled of too much data and insight and research that is overt. I’m happy to be spoon fed it if it’s, you know, a spoonful of sugar and all of that, if they’re telling me a story. And it’s one of the few books that I have just read cover to cover. Couldn’t put it down, like a novel, couldn’t wait for the next chapter.

And I don’t often get that sense with business books. So I think she’s a phenomenal business leader. She’s a phenomenal thought leader. I can’t recommend her highly enough.

Alison Jones: Yes. Amen to all of that. It’s brilliant. And her writing style is so, it’s sort of graceful and muscular at the same time, isn’t it?

Lucy Adams: That’s a beautiful way. You can tell you’re Alison. Graceful and muscular. That’s a brilliant way of putting it. Absolutely sums it up.

Alison Jones: Writes an angel. Yes, absolutely brilliant. And it’s a great example as well of a book that has a really strong concept at its core, then delivers it beautifully through and builds the evidence and gives you the kind of so what and yes, fantastic.

Lucy Adams: absolutely.

Alison Jones: I’m a huge Margaret Heffernan fan too.

And so if people want to find out more about you, more about Disruptive HR, more about the books, where can they go Lucy?

Lucy Adams: Yes. So they can check me out at disruptivehr.com. All of the contact details are on there. The books are on there. We’re actually looking at our website cause it is a bit hard to find, but you can usually find them if your tenation is enough, or they’re on Amazon.

Alison Jones: Or indeed anywhere you buy your books.

Lucy Adams: Absolutely. Apologies. I should have done

Alison Jones: Other bookshops are available.

Lucy Adams: Other bookshops, yes.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Thank you so much. It was great to have you on the podcast. Sorry it’s taken this long.

Lucy Adams: Oh, it’s just lovely to see you and how it all, you know, the publishing house are just going so well. Fantastic. Lovely to talk to

Alison Jones: Fantastic. Thank you, Lucy.

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