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What HR can learn from the Bell Pottinger scandal

Atif Sheikh, CEO of businessthreezero

Another week, another industry, another scandal. This time Bell Pottinger gets caught out delivering insidious reverse racism to benefit a wealthy client. It begs the question – what is going on?

The voracious appetite for growth. I’m afraid this one is a macroeconomic problem. Whilst I can’t think of a better system than capitalist democracy, what it does is demand every company grow, every quarter – forever. For some reason we just seem to accept this, but how can that really work? In practice what this appetite for relentless growth does is create pressure to sell more and sell it faster. No wonder people are driven to sell things they shouldn’t, in ways they shouldn’t. In a perfect world all people would have the strength of character and depth of creativity to ignore the stuff that crosses the moral line and instead find ways to grow products that only make the world a better place. They don’t.

Imbalanced incentives
This one is totally within HR’s control. Given the sheer volume of man hours dedicated to getting reward methodologies right, it is staggering to see how many still place insufficient emphasis on two things: collective success and how things are achieved. We all know that the secret to sustainable success is by balancing individual delivery against targets with these two factors. The issue is that senior HR leaders don’t always have the courage or influencing skills to ensure we end up with this type of balanced reward system.

Ivory tower leaders
There’s been so much rhetoric about authentic leadership over the last few years and yet few have really understood the concept.  Latest research shows that this isn’t just about being the ‘real you’ and letting it all hang out. Instead it’s about being the best version of yourself.  Further research points to the notion that the most successful strategy for being your best self at work is to build strong relationships with people who represent you at your best. So if at your best you are kind, but struggling to be kind enough of the time – then find and work with the kindest person ever. All too often, senior leaders recruit and surround themselves with people who represent their dark side traits – fantastic salespeople (narcissism), outstanding deliverers (psychopathy), brilliant political operators (machiavellianism). And then to compound the problem those same leaders become isolated from the rest of their organisation – where a lot of the most creative, customer-focussed, balanced people live.

So what can HR do to avoid a Bell Pottinger moment?
Pour all their influence and personal capital into getting a balanced reward scheme in place. If that doesn’t happen, at some point you/the business will reap the whirlwind.

Actively seek out and recruit senior leaders who represent the best traits of the CEO, not their dark side psychology. Create small structures that keep the leadership teams deeply connected to people rooted within the organisation. Reverse mentoring, breakfast listening sessions, 2-way social media… whatever it is, make it happen.

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