David: Perry Timms, it’s great to have you here.
Perry: Your acronym for People and Culture Essentials is one of my favourite words: pace. And it’s something that I didn’t have earlier this week, as when I had my COVID booster it knocked me out for 36 hours. Now you know, the kind of energy level that I normally operate at. So to be that depleted was not a happy place to be at all. And I think there’s something about pace that actually excites some people, but also frustrates others because they think it’s too quick and too careless, and so on. We are super busy. And if anything, the whole sense I’m getting from all of the commentary narrative and evidence is that we’ve got more work now than we ever have. My work stack is bulging and overflowing everywhere I turn. We’re in such interesting times.
David: We really, really are at the moment and there’s a real need for us to be having good quality conversation about what it means to work in the corporate space around people, purpose, culture value, and we seem to be talking about it, Perry, but you’ve been doing so much work in this space, really, throughout your career. And for the purpose of people who perhaps don’t, or aren’t familiar with your work, could you introduce yourself and talk a bit about transformational HR to connect the dots in your journey?
Perry: I’m a working class boy from Northampton, my parents were shoe factory workers. My whole Northampton story is a big part of my story. I didn’t get to university, I jumped into a role in the civil service actually, and in junior administration and working through there, I ended up working on projects. At the time, I didn’t know that was a thing you could do as a job. But I absolutely loved it, the whole sense of a complex problem and loads of tasks and people to do it. And so I got into the mechanics of it. But one of the things I realised early on, was actually the spirit of the people that are together in that venture was as important, if not more important, than all the mechanics, tools and templates you could ever use. But it didn’t know what it was at the time. As I developed, I thought, “Ah, it’s this culture thing.” It’s about engagement. It’s about all the feelings and sentiments that nobody actually talked about in the 1990s in the way they do now.
That led me into really exploring what learning was all about because I used to help build technology systems – then business changed as a result, and I was excited about the opportunities. When we started to roll things out, I got resistance, I got people who were angry about what was going on. This is good for you, what’s going on? They were fearful, they were worried about their role, they felt incompetent. And again, all of a sudden, I discovered these things, which is that when people don’t feel confident, that has a whole different name to it in terms of interactions. So that’s what really led me to organisational development, and all sorts of other things.
I can remember a point in my career where I thought, I wish I had gone to university and done something like psychology, because that door opened, and I just understood so much now about what was good, bad and indifferent about work. In 2012, I discovered all sorts of things like self-managed systems of work, progressive organisations, with technology disrupting what was around us. Once again, I got a massive sense of excitement. I couldn’t do it all in one single place, so I ventured into freelancing. Nearly 10 years later, there’s 15 of us and we stand in a very strongly identified place of humanity and, I suppose you’d say, a better work proposition. Because we’ve been able to create that, and not everybody gets that. That’s what we think is unfair, and want to try and create. That’s me in the Northampton story.
David: Fascinating. Particularly with regards to those fearful responses to change, which to me stem from three sets of losses: there’s an actual loss, a perceived loss, and a fear of loss. It’s within organisations driving transformational change, understanding those three forms of loss, and then starting to turn and convert or reframe those losses to gains, can be a really powerful way of driving transformation and exploring culture in the workplace. If you go onto any social media feed at the moment, everyone’s talking about culture, from government, big business, small companies, and within society as a whole. What does the word culture mean to you?
Perry: I know that I dare anybody to try and say there is a right answer to it. I often use words that perhaps a little bit street-lingo-style, so I talk about things like what’s the vibe, and people ask, “What do you mean, the vibe can’t measure the vibe?” Yes, you can. It’s a palpable feeling. It’s the tingle on the back of your neck, when somebody says something so profound about what they want to do with a piece of work to help somebody else that you like. This is not normal work: this is people shifting what their view of the world is and what their outcomes are likely to be. It absolutely feels to me that we must put words to the meaning of culture, because we have to create a logical framework for us.
An example: I’m doing some work with a tech company, seeing superfast growth, and they are genuinely a lovely organisation. Yet, if you jump out onto Glassdoor, you’ll see some people saying it’s all gimmicky. And that’s not my sense of it. I’ve got leaders, so keen to say, what can we do to create the optimum conditions for you at work that mean you give your best to get your best, thinking that we can sometimes be so cynical about good efforts and good intentions. I think there are still some people who wouldn’t recognise a good culture if it slapped him in the face because they’re just tarnished, perhaps by bad experience or just don’t want to believe it’s possible. But I think the culture, when it thrives so much, is this powerful force, like a centrifugal force, and a real push towards excellence. And it defies science and measurement and process and so on. I know we have a go at it. But it really is this thing, this essence – that’s how I describe it.
David: You’re right, they’re very difficult terms to grab hold of, but to speak of culture as a power, vibe or essence is really interesting. From an executive leader’s perspective, or others who are responsible for owning and driving the course of culture change, how might they begin to make sense of that so they can drive the necessary change?
Perry: I think they have to realise that it is like knitting fog and nailing jelly. It’s shaped by the deeds, acts, promises and sentiments of leaders. So, if a leader wants to be benevolent, generous, kind and so on, they can’t just declare it, and then sit in an office and bark out orders or sack 900 people on Zoom. That’s incongruent and, frankly, despicable. Therefore, the culture here is one of fakery. If you get a leader like, Dan Price at Gravity Payments in Seattle, who says I’m going to take a massive pay cut so that we can have a minimum wage of 70,000 US dollars. I don’t care what the world says: people are going to stay because he lives what he says and he supports people. There’s something about the congruency of declarations, and then all the consequential actions that will either create a powerful force in the way I described, or a faker as a charade, a theatre of culture. And that’s no good to anybody.
David: The talking of fakery and charade! We’re waking up to the news today of Christmas parties. Did they happen? Didn’t they happen? Both in our political leaders and within the organisational space, there’s a distinct lack of transparency: the belligerents, the allegations, and bullying, and so on and so forth. You described really clearly and powerfully the relationship between leadership, leadership behaviours and organisational culture. Conversely, when we see those negative behaviours, what words of advice would you give to our leaders to help them transform their behaviours to deliver the changes?
Perry: I think what we’re seeing in the political sphere is the worst of the worst, because it’s being excused. It’s being vindicated. It’s being denied, and it’s in plain sight. It’s a fable being acted out in real life. And so we’re incredulous about it. What it does is it breeds several different things: it breeds immoral responses to that it vindicates when people do minor misdemeanours within the whole cultural fabric of an organisation. It’s like, that doesn’t make it any better. I like the fact that that what we’re seeing now is employee activism: people banding together to call out what is not right. And it’s not a unionised collective, it’s just people who have been that stoked by it. They want to make a stand. Whether it’s about Black Lives Matter, Amazon’s working conditions, whatever it is, people are coming together and going, this is how we counteract your toxicity in more immorality and the bare-faced line is that we’ll call you out on it. Now, as a result of that, does that change things? Potentially it does, but at least it gives people a targeted approach to dealing with that kind of misdemeanour.
David: Social justice giving rise to that employee activism and employee voice is an important point. What your thoughts are about the nature of systems and processes that manage and maintain the status quo?
Perry: I do worry that we are stuck at a point in time when it comes to the policies and the activism and the representation. It’s not the 1970s, but it’s not far beyond that. I think we need to re-contract the balance of the employee voice and the expectations of managerial leadership. We need to take it to a place where we at least know what we agree on and then work on what we don’t agree on and why we don’t agree on it and we get over that particular circumstance. It still feels like arm-wrestling and chest-puffing, and all that kind of adversarial nonsense. That is not how you solve problems here. I’m a bit of a proponent of things like nonviolent communication by Marshall Rosenberg. I encourage people to frame it in a different context and use Appreciative Inquiry and get away from adversarial arm-wrestling. We’re tearing each other apart when we need to be tackling the problems in the world. That’s how I want to reframe it.
David: Powerful messages and clear challenges. I’ve worked with many organisations where we have embedded restorative justice that are traditionally hierarchical, adversarial and retributive. Within these organisations, we look at justice from a transformational triangle perspective: the confluence of leadership, HR and justice to blend restorative and procedural justice to create robust, safe and human environments. What are your thoughts about what can we be doing to create that restorative justice framework?
Perry: I love it as a triangulation, because I think you’re absolutely right. What you’ve got is a force, which is just as you’ve got a practice, which is HR, and you’ve got the discipline of leadership. You’ve got to force practice and discipline. There’s something really nice about how those three interplay to your point on who owns justice; I think justice in and of itself has to be owned by itself, its own essence, its own set, but it can and needs to be stewarded and then, when necessary, processed. I think HR can be the stewards as it helps with process – leaders are better off not stewarding as they’re too close to it, they can be corrupted, and it can become an autocratic environment. HR can stand in that space and just go, “Look, I am not saying I have the answers, but I’m creating the space where the answers will come that are just unfair for the outcome that’s needed here.” There’s also a role for HR to try and detach people, egos and personas from a situation into talking about the outcome, not individuals or personal beliefs. All too often, we point out the wrong things, and it’s too attached to human psyche and emotion. We need to try and create something where it is a space where people can go to and see that it’s all about the outcome. And if we do that, the transformational triangle is perfect.
David: Yeah. And what’s really great about what you’re saying is that we focus on outcome, and if that those outcomes are sent back to our purpose, the organization’s purpose, we create this common purpose, which was a goal to achieve the outcome. And rather than getting bogged down in process and the procedure of risk management, we focus on an outcome and align that to the purpose. This creates common purpose; it creates connections; it gives energy pairing. How can leaders, HR and others begin to bring energy into these significantly depleted environments that are our workplaces?
Perry: Exactly. I did an interview with a terrific managing director up in the northwest, Phil Jones MBE from Brother UK, the retro graphics company. He introduced me to a term and I’ve been hooked on it ever since. He talked about us being in the age of entropy: disorder, disaggregation, chaos, unfamiliarity. We can’t just stare at one problem anymore and think, “Right, how do I solve that?” We’ve literally got a plethora of problems, we can’t even see them all happening at the same time. Now, that’s challenging. Our temptation is to try and create an entropic situation where we bring them to order and we put them in one place and think one strategy will solve that. Well, good luck with that, because it won’t; the rest of the world doesn’t respect your strategy. Now, instead of trying to create that entropy, what I paradoxically say to people is that you need to think about how you can create orderly disorder to match it. Because you need to be in multiple places, you need to have that pace, but also thoughtfulness. Now, what I have found is that when you can name, describe and frame things as a paradox, and you clearly articulate it, your energy shifts from a helplessness to “I can navigate this, I can understand this, I can compartmentalise it, but I can still connect it.”
I think the second thing is a combination of art and science. We need to look at our work as our craft: it’s unique, elegant and graceful. But we’ve also got to scientifically manage it and ask: what’s the impact I’m having? What do the numbers look like? How does it feel to people? And what does that do to them? We need evidence, contribution, fulfilment and value.
David: What are your thoughts and reflections, from a very practical perspective, to support people who are responsible for driving change who are coming up against this wall, to deal with your experience of how to help them to drive or sustain those changes?
Perry: In a conversation yesterday with a client, we were talking about change, and it was in a complex area. It’s about both ownership and emotional management: not just what do we do with systems and decision making but also how people feel about the declaration and application of change. We need to empathise, map people’s perspectives, so that we don’t just know what they will do as a result of change; we need to know how they feel as a result of change both in it and after it.
David: So, if emotional change management is based on the ability to have conversations, what more do we need to do to support in our managers and leaders to be able to ask that question without feeling that they’re making themselves vulnerable in a negative or risky way? How do we do that? Because it’s a big ask.
Perry: It is a big ask. One thing that really helped when I was talking to one particular leader about this concept was looking into, “How do I know that they’re being sincere and that I’ve got the right outcomes?” I said, you can obviously ask them questions, but also look out for gestures and noises because they’re involuntary responses. That will tell you everything you need to know whether they name the action you want them to take or not, their gestures, and their noises will tell you whether they feel relief or desperation. The leader went away and studied some of the micro expressions. When they came back, they said, “I’m going to change the way I listen to people now based on that”. It was such a good moment, because that leader now feels like they’re really in that space of listening and conversing.
David: What can HR do to remodel and reframe their systems to enable what you’re describing to flourish?
Perry: Amy Edmondson, author and speaker, uses the word “violations” in her work. We’ve got to start to think more about when experimentation and failure is actually a violation: a violation of trust, a violation of duty of care, etc. Because I think if we can name it that distinctly, then that’s what we do in terms of restorative and repairing gestures, after that thing has happened, and then we learn from that and we inculcate you know, how do we avoid doing that again.
I really like the concept of a workplace penitence. I had the pleasure of some time with Arun Gandhi Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, who told me the story of penitence. When he was a boy, he cheekily took the car to the garage to be repaired, but actually jumped off and went to the cinema, and was really late picking his dad up from a lecture. And he lied that the garage took too long when in reality he was at cinema. Now his dad didn’t punish Arun, instead walking several tens of miles home. Arun was desperately trying to get his father into the car and he said, “No, you did wrong. I’m going to create a penitence here where I’m going to suffer because of your lie.” He never lied to his dad again. I think we need something like that: a workplace penitence.
David: That’s a really powerful story and an interesting way of framing that outcome and the justice and the delivery. It’s opened up an opportunity for insight and that’s what’s powerful about penitence models with the use of forgiveness and dialogue. It makes no sense that many HR teams hold on to these rigid and corrosive, punitive based processes. They are the antithesis of HR.
Perry: I often say that HR’s role is not to be the organisational nanny.
David: In my book, I talk about the people and culture function as an independent body, working as a collaborative partner to developing a culture or transformational culture in a predictive and proactive way with trade unions, leaders and managers. What are your thoughts about that?
Perry: We should convene a lot more to incorporate everyone’s specialities, agendas, needs and so on. Not just to sit at the table talking strategy but convening for solutions.
David: I’d like to see the business partner scrapped from the lexicon of HR with urgent effect. It seems to me to be a sensible step towards that convening and supportive environment. Do you have any thoughts about language?
Perry: In transformational HR, I reframe the department and deliberately name it “people strategy and partnerships”. I wanted to detach HR as a phrase from it, because yes, you are partnering with the business, but the business is not a real thing that people are.
David: Sometimes, regarding LinkedIn, I feel I’m part of a machinery of superficiality in this social space of just putting more content out when I know it doesn’t have a level of real impact that frustrates me personally. What more could be done to help the amazing content that’s out there that everyone’s sharing and talking about to break through and have a real impact on real working lives?
Perry: I guess if we take LinkedIn as perhaps the biggest employer in the world, then it is a massive example of what goes on in a lot of organisations with many well intended actions and useful, intelligent shares. But then some jerk hijacks it for their own sense, and just to push their own product or service, and we can’t look at it and go, spoilt. We could do more to filter content for true value on an individual level. We all curate a little bit of goodness to cut through the rubbish.
David: The more impactful social media can be on real human beings working on a day-to-day basis, then that’s where the real power lies. You recently became a B Corporation certified organisation, and I’d love to hear a little bit more about what drove you to achieve this and what impact is having so far and in your organisation?
Perry: What drove it was a genuine admiration for what it stands for. I can remember distinctly, around 2014, starting to talk about the corporation as an example of the shift that I see in business and want to see more of. As soon as we became a slightly bigger team, we certainly thought that the list of B Corp criteria for certification was actually a great way to sharpen up business focus. For example, we found there was a community kind of criteria that talked about what you give and how you help. Now, we do a lot of charity generate donations and pro bono work. Since this, I’ve been talking to clients in what I would call the “soulful organisational space” and they love the fact that we’ve got a B Corp certification, so it is a real badge of honour for a good reason.
David: huge congratulations is something that we’re we’re looking at might not have applied for a TCM as well. You were also chosen as the second most influential thinker in the HR space at the HR Most Influential 2021 awards. What does that mean to you, Perry?
Perry: I genuinely had that moment where I felt really moved. But what was nicer was those people that matter who came up to me and other messages I got because they were more pleased about it than I was. And I think that’s so lovely. That’s what it should be about.
David: As Chief Energy Officer for your organisation PTHR, you clearly bring such a lot of energy to your work. How do you keep your energy level?
Perry: I just refuse to be put off course by people who doubt that the changes we need are possible in some shape, form or size. I used to think I was a bit of a naive idealist, but it really powered me. I take a lot of comfort in those small wins and incremental change. But I genuinely feel energised by what I do, because I think I’m lucky or fortunate or deliberate enough to have found something that I think that this is why I’m here. And I get to do every day in every conversation, whether it’s mentoring somebody, whether it’s a potential client, whether it’s just a random conversation with a cab driver, when I describe what I do, and how they all pretty much respond with, “wow, that’s fortunate and lucky.” And so, I feel that every day. So how on earth can I not be energised by it?
David: Well, unbelievable. Thank you. That’s fantastic. I mean, you’re so busy, there’s so many, many hours of work that you’re involved in. Is there anything that you’re working on right now that you’d like to share?
Perry: Yeah, a couple of really pioneering things. The team and I have some lovely things to launch next year: we’re going to try and create something different for learning for career acceleration within HR and something else around self-management. I’ve got a couple of clients where I can really feel the sense that they’re turning a corner and providing a bit of a beacon for their sector. One of these is in local government – I’ve never seen such a strong articulation of the vision and the value they want to create. I’m willing them to succeed and they’re looking like they’re going to. There’s a couple of others in tech and smaller, pioneering organisations who are very much a good fit with us because they’re flat and self-managed. We’ve got some terrific projects coming up, David, there’s no sign of anything being mediocre or boring.
David: You described organisational culture as a “vibe” at the very beginning of the videocast. And you’ve brought a real vibe to this session, as well as sharing this with other organisations through your work. What an exciting, exciting, exhilarating journey to be on. My final question is who or what inspires you?
Perry: I wouldn’t say it’s anybody in a sort of lofty position, but I do admire lots of people who write books and lecture and create new paradigms and all sorts of other things. I get to talk to some practitioners who are perhaps just starting their careers and when I dig a little deeper beyond their initial responses to what it’s all about for them, they describe what I wish I’d had when I was 21 and 22. It’s people like that they inspire me when I hear about a new entrant into HR who really wants to change the game and has such good ideas. That’s inspiring.