Three CEOs walked onto a stage…

Sounds like the beginning of a crap joke huh? Sorry, it isn’t – but I hope you’ll read on anyway.

I missed the Crossrail session at the CIPD conference last week, which is a shame as by all accounts it sounded and looked good. During the conference, CEO for Crossrail, Andrew Wolstenholme was quoted on Twitter remarking about how few CEOs were speaking at the conference, and certainly his presence was an attraction for people.

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That night over dinner, the lack of CEOs at the conference was bemoaned, and someone suggested something along the lines of ‘Wouldn’t it be good if we could get your CEO to speak, and yours, and yours…’, hence the title of this post.

I suggested that rather than obsess about CEOs it might be interesting to hear from someone who in an hierarchical sense is closer to the edge. Having had a few drinks, I offered up the role of bog cleaner as an alternative (role, bog cleaner….oh never mind). My suggestion did not meet with approval. ‘Why?’ ‘Why would you want to do that?’ ‘Why would that work?’ What I had to offer in return was something along the lines of, ‘Well everyone’s got their story to tell’. I mumbled on a bit about people close to and at the front line experiencing a different reality and having an equally valid tale to tell. I did not make the point very convincingly and I think it’s fair to say that at the table, I lost the argument.

Putting the red wine to one side – as evidenced by Andrew Wolstenholme, there is real power in having a CEO take to the stage, and rather than have her or him accompanied by more of the same rank, instead why not add layers and depth to the tale through a mixture of disciplines and voices. The approach wouldn’t work for a lot of organisations, many are too coercive, and simply too afraid of the truth difference for this to be any more than a showcase of the unreal (and we’ve all seen enough of those kind of talks, right?).

I can vividly recall my biggest internal disagreements in big business were with the upper and very top echelons of management, simply because I relayed observations and facts to them that they weren’t used to hearing. This situation is not unique, war stories abound of how the big bosses typically get told what people around them think they want to hear, and it remains rare for a CEO to invest the time to go and discover what’s going on at the front line for themselves. For the right organisation however – one which is happy to share failures and successes in the spirit of learning – I think this could be a bold and powerful move.

Of course I may be wrong about this, I often am, so why not ask the audience? One of the ways the CIPD, and indeed other organisations could deepen engagement with its membership at conference could be to ask the members to choose a few of the conference sessions in advance. Maybe have an open invite for submissions and vote your preferences onto the stage?

Or should we now just shift our focus from case study addiction (and yes – I know – there are some great case studies out there, and they’re in the minority), to CEO addiction instead? What do I know? After all, I thought it was a good idea to involve the bog cleaner front line.

Update. Since publishing I’ve spotted this piece about diversity over at XpertHR. One of the threads is about speaker diversity which has some relevance to this post so I thought I’d join the dots.

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

11 thoughts on “Three CEOs walked onto a stage…”

  1. Great post Doug and I wish I’d been at the table to support the bog cleaner debate!
    I agree – adding some depth to whose on the stage would be a great addition I think. As a profession I think we can at times be guilty of focussing on and developing process at the expense of outcomes. Having this depth on the stage would bring some great insights (and potentially uncomfortable truths) about the impact and outcomes that our work (and that of the CEO and other functions in the organisation) has on the business.
    Let’s start a campaign!

    1. Thanks Gary, I like your point about developing process at the expense of outcomes, and I think the campaign has already started – well done!

  2. Isn’t there a lovely story about a president asking a cleaner at NASA what he did and he said ‘ I help to put a man on the moon’. Great idea for the CIPD to be more proactive about what we want to have at the conference (and will pay money to go to).

    1. Hi Julia – yes, there is that lovely story, and it is a very old tale too. I believe it relates to President Kennedy in which case it’s over 50 years old. Don’t get me wrong, I like an old tale as much as anyone else – and it’s a shame I can’t think of a newer version to add to it. That implies, to me at least, that there is much to be done in this space. I hope the CIPD spot the suggestion and at least consider it.

  3. How about having someone who’s been out of work a while speak? Imagine the thoughts and perspectives they could share about the job market, selection processes, and candidate experience? Should be highly relevant for HR folks who care.

    Or maybe a panel discussion with the CEO of a company, several people the company has laid off, plus a few high performers who were at the company and left for better opportunities? They could discuss things like culture, employee experience, leadership, development, etc. – it’d be really, really interesting to hear the three potentially very different perspectives of the same company.

    1. Great suggestions Broc – this is the kind of thing that I believe will happen now that we’re on a roll. Love it! At one of the early ConnectingHR Unconferences we had a GradLab. A bunch of well qualified university and college graduates told us stories about their struggles to find work. It was powerful to listen and then afterwards we all spoke about what might be done differently. Youth unemployment here in the UK is a big big problem. Good stuff from you as always – Cheers!

  4. For far too long HR have been too wrapped up in HR and its challenges. The opportunity they have is to really be the eyes and ear for their company on all levels. So wouldn’t it make total sense to hear from Marketing, Finance, Operations, Sales and …well the bog cleaner!! How can HR really say they are Business Partners if they don’t fully get what business does on every level. I am a real fan of HR as I see what they can offer, their real value – but frustrated that they don’t always grab the opportunity and CIPD should lead the way on this.

    1. Thanks Heather – I agree with you about HR joining the dots, making connections. I think the CIPD are making steps in helpful directions, so to that extent they may be leading the way – and that should encourage others to do likewise.

  5. I ran an event on the back of the MacLeod report a few years ago. I had a Chairman, a CEO, and HRD and a PR director. It was very well received and a very successful event.

    The HRD got the lowest feedback score. Enough said.

    1. As someone who has endured more than their fair share of:

      Out of touch chair people, and sincere, engaging chair people
      Mind numbingly dull CEOs, and switched on, bold CEOS
      Bureaucratic HRDs and meaningful, energised HRDs

      I suggest the experience at your event was pot luck – nothing more nothing less.

      Cheers – Doug

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