Thinking again on Recruitment

My last post on this topic was back in 2018 so, as I have been doing a lot of advertising and (attempted) recruiting in the last 9(ish) months, I thought I would put some more reflective thoughts down here.

9 months?

Yes, it has taken a while. We have basically been looking for someone since I was promoted last June. The delay has been due to various factors – including that it took a while to get confirmation of being able to hire and then I have been ill a few times (including more recently thanks to some bronchitis – yay!).

Within that time frame we have then had various attempts at hiring – interviewing a few people, readvertising with tweaked job descriptions, etc.

Variety

As was the case in 2018, the candidates applying have been hugely varied in terms of background, experience, etc.

We were perhaps looking for too much in terms of experience and qualifications but have tried to hold out for someone who has a good mix of those as well as (of course) someone who comes across well in interview, by email, via written application, on telephone calls with HR, etc.

The horrible bit

The bit that is not good about recruiting is obviously saying “no” to people. There have been a lot of candidates who probably would have been fine in role and probably would have fit in. Even applying models to the recruitment process still means you can making decisions on the minutia. There are no guarantees in this game and it was particularly harsh on some candidates in our final round as there were four or five I would have hired if building a team from scratch.

I have been on the rejected side of the recruitment process a lot over the years. It sucks. Hopefully I am a better interviewer than many people I have met…

The good bit

Learning and development is a relatively small world so I do enjoy interviewing as an opportunity to meet people and discuss roles, interests and the like. Hopefully those coming away from the process unsuccessful are not too disheartened from the experience of meeting me.

Nottingham Forest’s 2022-23 season – as an example of change management

You often see on LinkedIn, and elsewhere, people crowbarring popular culture into articles tangentially related to management, business and other “LinkedIn type topics”. I tend to avoid these but, after 23 years away from the English Premier League, the team I support (Nottingham Forest) are back in the top league so I am going to try my hand at such a post.

There are, of course, other articles out there on this topic, including this example from The Guardian.

What has been happening at Forest?

Lots of headlines were created around the club last summer as they broke the UK record for signing the most players in a transfer window (22).

This podcast covers everything pretty well in terms of why so many players have been signed.

This approach goes against the established wisdom that teams need some continuity in playing staff to keep cohesion, such as the players knowing how each other play, as well as keeping momentum from the positivity around the previous seasons. The Forest approach goes against this logic and has led to lots of jokes and mockery online, such as:

Now there are valid reasons to question/criticise the Forest approach. The biggest is that the financial outlay has been big and therefore risks the club’s longer term financial security, the gamble is that the investment keeps the team in the Premier League and therefore able to continue to reap the financial rewards. The reality is that relegation, after this level of expenditure, would surely be extremely damaging even with an owner who has been supporting a loss-making enterprise since he bought the club a few years ago.

Reasons for optimism – two key differences this year

As a fan there are two key differences this year that, I think, have been little talked about in relation to Forest but make the strategy less risky:

  1. Changes to the rules on substitutions … essentially clubs need bigger squads this season and can make more changes during a game which means having more “first team” options, rather than “bench warmers”, that can be useful tactically.
  2. The winter World Cup … having a long mid-season break gives teams the chance to go on training camps and perform other activity to improve team solidity and strategy mid-season.

Why such rapid change?

For context, a football club (at least in the Premier League) can register 25 players plus have a pool of younger plays that do not have to be included in the 25. With this context, 21/22 new signings is clearly a huge number. However, Forest had 5 key players last season that they immediately lost at the end of last season as they were on loan (i.e. temporary contracts) from other clubs.

They also lost two players who had been major figures in the last few years – the goalkeeper Brice Samba (who seemingly was not willing to sign a new contract and wanted to move back to France) and Lewis Grabban (last season’s captain who presumably wanted to remain a starter rather than become a bit part player for Forest in the Premier League).

Therefore, Forest had to sign at least 7 players.

If you think those 7 must have been ahead of another existing contracted 7 then it is probably fair to say that means at least 14 players were needed for the higher level of the Premier League. Depending on who you listen to the “lost” players can be seen as not just the 7 but actually 17:

Therefore we could argue the change is justified as the club simply lacked the resources to compete in the Premier League due to a “ahead of plan” promotion. Whilst Forest have had a couple of good seasons in recent years, promotion was unexpected, the club being bottom of the league early in the season when the manager Steve Cooper was appointed.

Therefore, the Forest project/experiment this summer transfer window has essentially been a “scaling up” exercise. Whilst numbers of staff may have changed relatively little in total headcount (in part due to the 25 player rule), the percentage of total that is new is considerable and we are seeing a major shift in competency (at least perceived competency based on historical performance).

This is not dissimilar to other industries where we are seeing needs for hiring/upskilling/reskilling to fill roles, especially in fast moving areas like cyber security. Therefore, I am going to try and apply some key management theory to the situation…

Some application of change and team theory

Perhaps the most well know team formation model is the “Forming > Storming > Norming > Performing” model of Tuckman. This is essentially the theory applied by critics, i.e. that the changes have not given Forest enough time to “form” into a team. The winter world cup break should help with this and some “storming” seemed to be happening prior to the break.

The Forest manager, Steve Cooper, is clearly a quite modern manager in the way he speaks. He regularly refers to mentality in his interviews and it would seem he refers to the importance of a shared vision for the team. Such a vision is a key part of various business management models – not least Senges’ five disciplines. Similarly learning from mistakes and other aspects of Senges-like models bleed out of Forest’s current practice.

In many ways Cooper and the management team have had some of the work done for them – the sense of urgency (for example in Kotter’s change model) was well established. They could then focus on empowering the players to achieve through a vision of how the team should be operating. The short term wins of models like Kotter are also well suited to football and the “taking one game at a time” kind of mentality.

Careful who your heroes are (especially in leadership education)

A crossover moment for me this week between one of my favourite leisure time podcasts (Quickly Kevin – a 90s football podcast) and work related topics.

The issue here, specifically, is (Sir) Alex Ferguson’s management style.

On Quickly Kevin, Lee Sharpe (one of Ferguson’s players in the ’90s) recounts how Ferguson has blanked him at events since Sharpe called Sir Alex a “bully” in his book/biography. This immediately rang some alarm bells for me given Ferguson is often put on a pedestal within the (admittedly bizarre at times) business press and leadership education industries. For example:

The reality is that leadership/management preference is highly culturally and down to personal preference. Ferguson, Brian Clough (a personal hero of mine) and other greats of sports coaching would no doubt be seen as bullies today – not to mention the various cases of subterfuge over the years in cycling, athletics, gymnastics, etc. Indeed Clough, even at his near peak, was criticised for his treatment of Justin Fashanu.

I am currently watching the US version of the Office (very late to the party, I know). As silly as it is, Michael’s attempts at humour and “fun” in the office are very indicative of the problems of culture given that we are all different and will want different things. This is ultimately why we often have a dichotomy in workplaces between dull/quiet experiences where we revert to the mean of neutrality to avoid conflict over noise, “fun”, etc. and the opposite where teams are hired based on existing relationship, personality, etc. and thus we have “bro” cultures in tech and other uniform team building approaches that actively avoid diversity (even if the people hiring do not realise it). In the later the manager is likely to be empowered to act as they wish. In the former there may be perceptions of bullying as people are beaten down to the norm.

As we are all different we then need to be actively careful in picking our own heroes – personally I mute anyone on LinkedIn who shares positive posts related to Richard Branson. For me he is an example of many of the things wrong in the world (not least double standards over the environment). Let us be careful with our heroes and listen to dissenting voices. Personally I would rather celebrate those we have worked with who have had a positive influence on us than celebrating such big names.

Backlash to resilience?

In recent years “resilience” has been one of those buzz terms that HR has jumped onto (2014 being my first major exposure to it) yet, as Donald Clark puts it, “faffing around with [such] abstract words in L&D had become an ‘obstacle’ to progress” too. So where are with resilience – is it a “thing”? Is it something to be considering as we look to improve performance?

Personally I’ve quite liked resilience as a way to describe capacity to deal with the prospect of change and other knockbacks, essentially how “bouncebackable” someone is. However, more recently it has felt like resilience has been increasingly used as a criticism and, to me, tied in with a general approach to blaming workers (at least in the US and UK). See also the similar L&D focus on creativity and the criticisms, even made at the generational level, of a lack of entrepreneurialism. My feelings here have in part been triggered by Liz Truss claiming Brits need to work harder as well as criticisms of workers for “quiet quitting” (QQ). On QQ I agree with a lot of this article, it is both nothing new and also a sign of poor management IMO.

A recent Reasons to be Cheerful pod included a section from Bruce Daisley, who questioned our shared understanding of resilience. This was a little lost at the end of a pod nominally about education given Daisley did not stick to the school focus. Indeed they challenged the usual approach to resilience and instead argued that workplace resilience should not be seen as an individual competence. They, correctly in my opinion, argued that a lack of resilience has been used as a way to criticise individuals. I much prefer his suggestion that resilience comes from a shared capacity and it was interesting to hear Nigel Paine (over on the Learning Hack) similarly arguing for less focus on individual competencies and more focus on team/organisational levels. It didn’t initially click when listening to the Bruce Daisley pod appearance that he is behind one of my other subscriptions “Eat Sleep Work Repeat“.

Resilience is often closely discussed, or used interchangeably, with “positive mindset”. In this regard I often still struggle with the concept of encouraging people to be positive. However, as often mentioned on here, I do remain a fan of the Path of Possibility. That model being part of Strengthscope’s logic and, whilst I remain slightly sceptical on their view on resilience (not least due to the focus on the individual), I do like the concept that strengths (particularly at the team level) are a way to make more resilient organisations.

Overall, resilience is likely to stick around as one of those areas where HR/L&D develop it as topic which will land better with some audiences than others. Indeed there will no doubt be ongoing debate, off-the-shelf learning, etc related to this. I suspect it will be one of these rather evidence-lacking areas that are used to get people to reflect rather than having a noticeable impact on performance. However, as part of a wider set of development including encouraging people to focus on what energises them at work it will likely remain part of our shared terminology and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Lessons from being ill for a while

First things first, this post will probably be even more of a mess than normal. 

Part of the reason for this is that the post is going to be a compilation of some voice notes I’ve left myself over the last couple of months but by the time I edit/publish it not all the dates/timeline will line up.

These notes are a reflection on an illness I’ve had in the last month (the voice notes being down to the fact I couldn’t type very easily).

Bit on the illness

Now it must be said up front, it has been a relatively minor illness thanks to modern medicine. Many articles online would suggest that there should be no (major) lasting effects, and it is certainly not been life threatening by any stretch of the imagination.

However, it is fair to say it has taken longer for me to recover than those articles suggest, and it is certainly the most ill I have ever been.

On reflection, it has really reinforced for me the nature of learning from experiences and experienced-based learning being so valuable compared to, say, learning theoretically through reading or activities. If I had simply read or even watched videos of some of the information around this illness there is simply no way I would feel like I now do about the illness compared to having the lived experience. See the NHS article, for example, on such eye infections

So, first things first, I did the classic thing of having some symptoms that I thought would just go away. In my case this was a badly bloodshot eye that was increasingly sore, and I did not do anything about it for three and a bit days. Here I can blame my mentality of not wanting to bother medical professionals as you know they are so busy. I have always had the mentality that unless you are really sick, you do not go to the hospital or doctors or anything else. Here I under appreciated the gravity of the situation.

This mentality will probably have to change now I have been through this experience, by far the worst illness I have ever had with certainly the longest I have ever had off work sick. Even as a child, I do not think there was ever any time I was ever off school or sick for any anything like a month or so, like I have been this time.

Lessons from this then? 

  1. If you know you are poorly, seek medical assistance, do not try and “ride it out”.  
  2. Try and pre-empt, in future situations, some of the problems. So, for example, the antiviral drugs making me very sick. I could have pre-empted that by perhaps asking if that was going to be likely as the 2nd doctor I saw did give me some medication to help with the vomiting. 

Illnesses and the nature of work

In the greater scheme of things this is a relatively minor illness, and I am very much at the bottom end of the age range of people that normally get troubled by this. How much I have struggled with it has reminded me how lucky I have been up to this point in my life, in terms of illnesses and injury.

The fact that we know so many people are not so lucky is another reason for, as I’ve written before, the need for HR to be focused on the humane side of work. That idea being taken from a CIPD event a few years back, which in hindsight I am increasingly appreciating. Even with the need for recognising people needs related to COVID, I wonder how many HR departments have really taken on this focus? Have we simply reverted to hire and fire HR models, especially with inflation and recessions putting pressure on organisations globally?

There are, of course, other health issues we could support better – sleep obviously is a key thing and I bang on about sleep a little bit on here and on Twitter

Back to my illness and light sensitivity in both eyes is now a major issue, for example even impacting how easy I can walk down the street. While before, when the virus was in my eye and face, it was obvious to people in the street that something was wrong with me now it is much more a hidden illness/condition as I (hopefully) continue to recover.

Yet again, how we can make our workplaces more inclusive – such as with points like the below? 

  1. Acknowledging that people are dealing with a lot of stuff, day-in, day-out.
  2. Catching up, even after only a month off, can be a big ask. And obviously there’s other situations with longer spells away, not least paternity and maternity leave. Dealing with e-mail inboxes and Teams notifications must have become much more time consuming and daunting issues for returning staff in recent years. 
  3. Operating at 100% all the time is not realistic for knowledge work (and not for many other fields either). Did Don Draper have the right idea with lots of rumination, drinking and disappearing from the office for days on end?

So, here’s hoping all organisations are considering this kind of thing – not least with Monkey Pox fears (and COVID continuing).

Conclusion

Sitting in dark rooms for days on end isn’t fun. Coming home early from holiday because my symptoms changed, not fun. I suppose this post is in part:

  1. the learning points I mentioned,
  2. just a wider call to action and
  3. just a bit of venting off my chest.

Also, just a huge shout out to everyone who has helped in the last few weeks – not least the medical professionals involved, colleagues/friends and family.

Also, much empathy with the amazing people who live with constant sight and other health issues. The experience has given me a much more realistic view on just how difficult life must be for some – from silly things such as me walking into the parking meter directly outside the eye hospital itself through to realising quite how screen-based my lifestyle is.

All in all, a very eye-opening experience [sorry not sorry for that bad joke!].