David balances his career in heady HR heights with being a key influencer on social media. A hugely humble man whose downtime involves giant hot dogs.
David is Head of Engagement for the CIPD’s extensive branch community which runs over 1000 events a year for HR professionals and also the regional Head for London.
The CIPD is the professional body for HR and People Development with over 140,000 members.
He is a regular keynote speaker and writer on people and the world of work, focusing on the links between behavioral science and HR/L&D – and on the impact, opportunities and risks of automation and artificial intelligence.
David’s commentary is regularly featured in industry and national media and he is part of IBM’s Futurist program, a group of selected influencers on the future of work.
He is also a Fellow of the Learning and Performance Institute and the RSA.
Active on social media, he also spends time visiting outstanding businesses to learn from them.
David, Welcome to the Leadership Interview
How do you start your day?
One of my biggest vices is that I’m simply addicted to information.
As soon as my eyes are open I’m reaching for my phone to get a fix.
I’ll look at the BBC for headlines and then head over to my Flipboard account to check out tech, financial and employment news.
What was your first job and what is the worst job you’ve ever done?
My first job after University was working for M&S.
I’ve taken something positive from every role I’ve done, but I joined there at a time the share price had fallen off a cliff and lots of colleagues who had planned to retire that year were now essentially trapped working there as their share plans had dropped.
That was a sobering experience for me and probably the worst job – because I was around so many lovely people who were often unhappy.
What advice would you give to others about furthering their careers?
Be really clear on what you value and make your choices based on that.
It is really easy to get focused on the wrong things and end up running a race you didn’t even want to enter.
Work out what matters to you and where possible craft/nudge/choose your career around that.
The best people’s careers are rarely straightforward. It will go wrong at times – that is very ok.
Who inspires you and why?
I’m lucky enough to know some amazing people working on the frontline in the police and the NHS.
I find that concept of service remarkable and really inspiring.
My best friend worked for the British Transport Police for years and when I compared what he contributed to the type of work that I do… Well, I’d be the first to agree that the economy isn’t a perfect weighing mechanism and that would be good evidence…
Do you think a talent to lead is nature or nurture?
I don’t think I’ve ever met someone where I didn’t think they could lead in some capacity or a certain situation or learn how to do it better.
However, I’ve met people with poor values so deeply embedded in what they do it’s hard to see them changing to the point where they should be leading people.
I think if you are committed to putting others first – and understand the obligations and risk that comes with that – then you will find a way to lead well.
How can a leader fail? Do you have a personal example?
I think failures of listening and empathy are most common. We are most sensitive to that which we are regularly exposed to.
I’m a better leader for – unfortunately – all the times I was tone deaf and saw the impact.
We can also fail to take care of ourselves – probably my biggest career failing involved me becoming so caught up in what I was doing I was essentially paralysed in terms of activity. I was so worried about what to do that I did nothing…nothing good came as a result!
I have also at times in my career been far too tolerant of some people and not patient enough with others.
I’d like to apologise to those people here and now. Sorry.
What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
Aside from my more obvious superpowers over the years, I’ve got better at understanding my strengths. I’ll do my best for those around me,
I won’t tolerate nonsense and I’m pretty smart for someone who occasionally does stupid things.
I’m also a pretty brutal critical thinker, which means if you really want to cut to the heart of a problem I can bring that.
I’m also possibly the most humble person you could meet, certainly in the top 3.
In terms of weaknesses, I’ve had to learn that being smart on paper is different to being smart with people and I am still, after years of knowing it, awful at looking after myself.
So my final weakness is that, apparently, I can know something for years and not act on it.
What do you find most challenging about being a leader?
I think leadership is a bit like golf. You can get ok at it, some people can get very good, but you never master it.
I find doing something that I finish each day feeling I should have done better quite tiring.
I’ve adapted to think of my career as two-year sprints to take some of the pressure off and give me outs.
Everything I will do from now will have a decision point at two years to avoid the punishment of having to fail at the same thing every… single… day.
What are you most proud of?
Where I’ve seen bad things happening in my career – sexual harassment, bullying, unethical choices – I’ve spoken out regardless of the consequences for my career.
Or, rather because for me, my career only has validity if I understand the obligation to act.
There’s a great Jon Stewart quote (and I’m a big fan) that says
“If you don’t stick to your values when they are being tested then they aren’t values: they are hobbies”.
I don’t get every call right, but I’ll never not make the call out of convenience or fear.
I’ve done things for people they’ll never know about and taken flak for things I haven’t done – and I’ve done that knowing it is the only way I know how to work.
I’ve always thought it must be very tiring working out all of the politics required to manage a career in the way some people do. I get in some tough places, but at least I know why.
Lead by serving and serve by leading.
What’s your biggest self-indulgence?
Hot dogs – giant cinema hot dogs. An Achilles heel of mythic proportions.
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