I first met Perry Timms when we were both invited to experience a new psychometric tool to support understanding of teams. Perry is an HR professional who is re-energising the profession. Encouraging both organisations and individuals to aspire to and enact better ways of working, Perry specialises in galvanising latent sources of energy for transformation inside organisations. His forthcoming book, Transformational HR is published in October. Perry and I met at the Renaissance St Pancras to talk about the future of work and his book. We apologise for the sound quality on this podcast; the microphone has picked up a lot of activity in the foyer, hard as we tried to eliminate it.
What’s the purpose of your book?
I would say that we are in a position right now where lots of things are starting to crumble and ossify and it might feel very uncomfortable and challenging, but all these things are happening for a reason. The general paradigm work paradigm is not fit for purpose. I wanted to write a provocative piece – rather than be humble and just tease people and definitely not going to assault and weaponise – but to urge in a really strong way, a cajoling way where right and wrong isn’t the framework but listening, absorbing, synthesising information – is.
How did you start your career?
I didn’t start in HR, lots of people you talk to find a way into HR and I’’m the same. I left school after 6th form and went into the Civil Service into law, and that found the easiest way to start without credentials. The whole concept of justice is one of my core things so I was interested in that. I believe society should provide free healthcare, education and legal care.
During the course of that, I discovered if you apply yourself and work hard, and have a certain energy about you, you get given assignments. If you understand how you can galvanise collective efforts, you are given projects. I jumped on centralisation projects on a manual basis, which became subject of technology scrutiny. I was there as a subject matter expert, testing programmes. But because I did that, and because I followed the system, I was asked to train other people how to do it. So I did that for about 7-8 years, always in training where people and tech collide, because I felt that was where the most interesting work was. Where tech and people come together has a real value for me.
I had got to a point where the director of the government agency and I had plenty of discussion about my future until the government pulled funding on IT. So I started to look at moving, we constructed a bit of a plan and she asked me to join her in HR. I joined learning development team, and that was a baptism of fire. With no qualifications, but an understanding of the principles, I found myself running a cultural induction programme for a merger, with responsibility for 3500 people and no budget to do it. I got resource in the end but it was painful . I had to build up my credentials pretty quickly. You need to get people to rally round you, but if you have the strength of their support, relationships built on trust, you make progress. In the end I had people batting for me, saying give this guy more resource. I have taken the qualities of relationship building right through my career.
How did you first become aware of self-management?
I was poached by The Big Lottery fund. It suited me because I like to do lots of active experiments and lots of innovation led thinking, so it was a playground. It was there I started to discover what I now know was self-organised. I was very participatory, I wanted to create a situation leadership model. I saw potential in people who didn’t want to be full time leaders. Why isn’t leadership something people can come together and do, why is it individual?
Because of the crash and political agendas, the opportunity for experimentation failed. So I became busy, and I found myself getting rebellious in a destructive way and almost deliberately broke relationships because I wasn’t being allowed to be creative enough. So then I had to think about what I had to do and what I meant to do and had been flirting with the idea of being independent but I was fearful because my entire career was in government and NGO where you have a level of comfort and not being subject to profiteering and financial markets. So going out on my own was about ‘who’s going to buy me’? But I went out, did a few partnership and affiliations to get going, and people responded well. I had a massive network of people which then became my channel for work. I didn’t even have to market. People came to me, I didn’t go to them.
What are the major challenges you find in organisations?
When I first went freelance, social media and social tech had just started to take off, there were not many learning and HR pros who understood its potential. Because I had already learned how to do it and I was known for it, my first projects were people saying – “you get social tech can you help us”. Organisations were ready to move boxed up click-through learning to more user-generated stuff.
When I went into those situations I realised there was a reason they didn’t get traction. Culturally they weren’t social organisations. They didn’t have conversations. Plugging in a platform didn’t work. You have to systemically look at who you are and how you operate before technology can give you the benefit of more collaboration. This is a symptomatic issue of the failure of corporate life to get the most from their people. That led me to more exploration and discovery about organisations that are actually social. Pioneering organisations, like Gore, Semco and you build this picture up. There is a shift happening. These were people saying ‘we are deliberately going to go contra to the norm and prove it is sustainable in the environmental sense and also in the people sense’. I’ve always wanted to stand for rehumanising, and socialising the work agenda. That’s what people bring me in to do. To reorient the nature of their organisations, to become social, dialogue based, open and transparent.
What are the strategies and techniques you use?
There are two avenues. 1. The HR Team bring me in and they are desperate to get more progressive and dynamic ways of running businesses. They hear about Google and Spotify and they don’t know where to start. What can HR do to create a bit of cultural revolution to become more adaptive as an organisation?. 2. A business where the leader, the senior leader has that agenda and they will somehow find me to come and help them see how they get traction on that., how to mobilise that.
What kind of companies have you worked with so far?
On of my first projects was a cruise company where there was an internal digital transformation programme where there was realisation they needed expert digital partners. They brought me in as a bridge between HR and tech. Anyone looking into that would have said I was being unfair to my HR colleagues, they were applying traditional processes. You have to break this before we put it together again. They were thinking that a training programme was the solution; this is how they have to rewire their way of working and thinking. It’s not about training, it’s about a million conversations. Developing a greater understanding of how digital and HR should come together.
How would you describe your role?
Organisational design and development to socialise the nature of the company. I’ve seen where people have plugged in a social tech programme, really adopted it, and generated great conversations. Many people can’t be bothered to use this tech at first but when they don’t they feel I’m missing out. Ask ‘why are you worried? What is it about the way you work that it doesn’t fit? The way we have constructed work is for it to be this inbox-led silo sport. When social tech really flies in a company, you hear and feel ‘thank God it s not just me and my inbox’. The only social space is meeting – which is about jousting and arm wrestling. The better companies are where agile and scrum mentalities exist, they don’t have situational power, they have control over that part of the process and then let it go. Don’t have the dominant source. It’s like a daisy chain. I try to have conversations with clients to see if their appetite and intent is aligned to those principles. I they are, I will co-create with them..
I don’t go in to own a programme, push it and run it I plant seeds, find agents. Create the coalition within. When my work’s done I know they’ll carry it on. I learned that in retail and hospitality. You find some cohorts, work with them, then they can carry the torch and carry it on. I did some of this work with a big water authority. 4-5 people really got it. I give them warmth and leg up with their colleagues, and bumped into them some time later. By this time they had 6 new projects on the go. I was just a catalyst to give them some belief.
How would you describe yourself?
I have messed around with the title Chief Energy Officer. I go into companies and create an energy source for those who want to take it on. It’s a cheer leader role. I create something more than hopeful motivation energy, it’s belief, attention to learning, continuous improvement. I create an energy built around a number of factors. I will lend them every tool I’ve ever come across. It’s providing things that when the energy is there, there is an outlet. They’ve had some kind of Jolt, or Voltage in their exchanges.
What kind of language do you use when talking to clients? How do we find people who are ready to act, how do we communicate the art of the possible?
If I positioned it as this systemic change thing, or helping them to transition to a teal organisation. They will say thanks but no. They’ve heard about holacracy and already decided they don’t like it. My solutions aren’t necessarily the things I need to go over the top with. I play it back to them. What I saw and sensed and felt was this. I give them choices. You could do 1 or 2 or 3, so that they have a graduated choice of how radical they want to be. They’re not scared by that.They don’t know how to bridge back from the future, the culture isn’t there to take massive leaps.
I do use manager-less, self-managed and I get back that’s ok for 200 people tech organisation but we’re 60,000 people globally. You have to remind people that organisations are a fractal structure, they are inter-related circles. Stand back, look at this and think, we can do some of this where it’s right. It isn’t a leap, it’s evolutionary. It needs to feel like an eco system, a rainforest, floribunda. What nature says is the best way. I ask Where is your energy to start this? Not capability, not product, not experience. Where’s the energy? Might come from a group of researchers, not the new graduate innovation team. Don’t assume the cultural stereotypes.
If people want a sense of purpose, contribution, I express that there’s a lack of wholeness. Itf i’s all oppressive, KPIs, money – I am curious about why they’re not seeing ‘what am I here for legacy’. I try to build the language between things.
Sometimes I have to suppress a little bit of my own desire. Once they start the conversation, if I sense they can really, really go for it I might have to hold back if they’re not ready. It doesn’t mean that I have to inflict that upon them. I have to tailor myself own energy to see where the best place is to get something.
Sometimes I get embroiled or used as part of a ploy. HR wants something transformation but the board doesn’t. They send me in to frighten the board, then the board comes back to the HR director and gives them what they asked for just to get rid of the ‘frightening guy’. I feel I’m doing a service to the HR director. Language is so important. You can terrify people. If they feel it is overly intellectualised, they resent it because of that.
I like to use the word Philosophy – that gets people to stop and think. If you use Mission and values – people think they know what they are because they’ve been around for a while. Use Philosophy, they start thinking more deeply about what you might mean. A company I’m working with now is looking at ‘the talent agenda’, whereas if we have a conversation about how to shape a talent philosophy, asking what’s our philosophy about how we do that, choosing to say we’re going to be philosophical not mechanistic about it, we get something more human.
I’m using agile for projects in HR but I don’t use the terminology. When I start introducing user-stories I have to show them – it’s like this. I suspect we will create our own language code. A user story in HR doesn’t make any sense. Characters, characters journey does. I’m quite unfazed about bastardising the language of agile to help HR people.
What are the challenges of working intuitively?
it’s a very new way of working for many people. Because it isn’t neatly part of a systemised approach, they think they are not achieving anything so you have to remind people how far they move. Have we decided this? Have we done that? They don’t ‘feel it’ because it’s not in a regimented process led system. It forced me to realise that people need to be reminded of the obvious.
It’s a bit like Art. You look at painting; you think it’s nice or not. You don’t see the mental gymnastics, the different versions before the final one. If it was a science experiment, there’s a process. When there isn’t a process, people become reactionary and feel unsafe. When you take people to a place of design or artistic interpretation, like storytelling, you get different reactions. They’re not following the lazy neural processes. They like the feeling of discovering something uniqueness about themselves as individuals. We manage Individual and collective tension. I use jazz analogies a lot. In a band, you have your solo virtuosity but everyone still works together to make the music. In jazz you might have a drummer and a base player thinking ‘where is Miles Davis going with this? ok I will follow it.’ and the magic comes. Kevin Kelly said in The Inevitables. we’ll all be remixers.
What do you think about HR professionals stepping up to lead?
I see HRs current map, a lot of people would feel it’s dangerous and I’ve got to step out front now. They genuinely want people to be looked after. They recognise that their protection of the many means they have to hold a covenant. I’ve urged that to be the case, be bold, stop apologising for being in HR. I’m said myself “I’m in HR but don’t hold that against me.” The title doesn’t help but it’s a shorthand we have and understand. IT has become digital without it anyone noticing. HR will disappear, we’ve already got People Directors, People Performance & Development, People & Programme Support, People Strategy & Partnerships but we shouldn’t get hung up about it.
What else helps?
A key question is are you a company for good? The Sustainability agenda and developments like B Corporation have helped a lot of people to realise that one dimensional stories are no longer good enough to attract the best. The best people will flock towards those purposeful environments.
Customer experience has happened for a reason – when we buy a product, get it serviced or maintained, we need to know we will be looked after, listened to and care about. When we are cared about, looked after… when brands are going over and above, that’s what we look for and that’s what we need to do in HR. There’s no such thing as an toxic organistion, there are toxic people. We need collections of good people, with good intent, and good application.
Companies don’t operate in black boxes, today they operate in glass boxes. The Google Memo could have given Google an enormous headache. It was instant, viral, massive. Instead it has started a debate about how DO we look after people with differences. Who’s standing for that. I now pay attention to Merck, because the CEO stood up and was counted over Charlottesville. I think they must be half decent as an organisation because of his actions.
Believing in organisations is no longer a product of marketing, it’s about real experiences, real tales, real behaviour. Uber – we know the story of disruption, we also know it was led by a man out of his depth, and we now think of it as sexist – not nice. HR’s current mindset and model of operating won’t know how to utilise that as much as it should do. We do need to recalibrate and retune into that and become a bit more vocal about shaping company decisions. Instead of leadership talking about how HR has a lack of business credibility, we should be talking about how little they know about people and organisational design.
Perry is CEO of Perry Timms HR, Chartered MCIPD, Future of Work TEDx speaker, author of Transformational HR, a certified WorldBlu Freedom @ Work Coach, authentic Soulboy + Northampton Town fan! If you would like to find out more about Perry’s work, you can find him here:-