Lucy Adams has recast herself as a tough-talking consultant asking difficult questions about the future of HR. We posed a few of our own – on the BBC, the tabloids and the death of the HR manual 

There was a point, in 2013, when Lucy Adams was probably the most famous HR director in the country – and arguably the best-known ever. It’s fair to say it wasn’t an accolade she asked for or enjoyed. A successful spell at the helm of the gargantuan BBC HR operation ended in tabloid infamy, after the Public Accounts Committee questioned the company’s approval of payoffs for departing executives, and Adams was publicly criticised and, in some quarters, vilified. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

On a freezing London morning, almost three years after her departure from the BBC, Adams – who enjoyed a stratospheric career with Serco and Eversheds, among others, before she joined the Beeb – is back doing what she does best: trying to push HR beyond its comfort zone.

Having set up consultancy Disruptive HR, and with the release of her highly acclaimed (and similarly named) first book, HR Disrupted, to celebrate, she is railing against a ‘parental’ view of the employer-employee relationship she believes has excused bad management, and is looking forward to a future where HR is an effective partner and creator of value for other functions. People Management asked her about what that means in practice – but we started with a trip back to less happy times.

How do you view your time with the BBC, with the benefit of hindsight?

I had the most incredible experience – both really fantastic stuff and really difficult stuff. It was the most challenging period of my career, but I’m glad I had it, even the bad bits. Without it, I might have gone on to another group HR director role in another corporate and I’d still be talking about performance management and bonus schemes – it’s so hard in those operational roles to take a step back. You finish a day of 12 hours of meetings, get back to your desk and think: ‘I should have some big thoughts.’ You know instinctively that what you’re doing might not be working, but you don’t have the time or head space.

Is that why, in HR Disrupted, you make the claim that HR ‘isn’t fit for purpose’?

I’m not sure it’s ever been totally fit for purpose, but that was less of a problem when there was a more sedate pace to business. When I was at the BBC in particular, there was this huge pace of change caused by disruptive technologies, new competitors, financial pressures, structural changes… I had this traditional HR manual and became frustrated that what I was being told – if you want to improve performance, do a performance review; if you want to improve engagement, do an engagement survey – didn’t seem to bear any resemblance to what I was experiencing.

Initially, I thought I’d had it with HR. But in the end, HR is my tribe and I passionately believe in it. I see people in HR who are working incredibly hard and believe in what they do. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it needs not just tinkering with but a fundamental rethink – our relationship with our people, our leaders and what we do.

I’m not an academic or a researcher; I’m a recovering HR director. My book is manifesto for change but it also gives practical examples. I didn’t want it to be an HR-bashing, theoretical manual. I wanted people to feel optimism.

What are the main things you’d like to see change?

If we are really able to think differently, there is an important role for HR. We had that nice lady from personnel who was seen as the support for the employees. Then we were told that we needed to cut back on that resource, outsource it where possible, and be strategic business partners with an alliance to our leaders. I think the next evolution is that we’re not allied to any particular level of the hierarchy – we’re creating an environment and experience for our people that enables the business to grow.

Where do you see that taking place at the moment?

Not always in the most predictable areas. We all know about some of the really progressive stuff in Silicon Valley – Airbnb, Netflix and Zappos. But some of my public sector clients, because they’ve had enormous financial pressures, have been forced to look at things differently. It’s not been massive programmes or HR transformations, just small adjustments and experiments. It comes down to those organisations that have huge amounts of change, leaders who get it and are curious, and HR professionals prepared to be brave and creative.

It’s partly a crisis of confidence. We desire to be helpful and make a difference but that contribution becomes one of compliance and policing. Very often, an HR director will want to move away from performance ratings, for example, and they will expect their team to be delighted – but often the team don’t want to let go, because what’s the alternative? While people might hate chasing managers to complete their forms, it gives them a role and a level of status.

Is it fair to assume the concept of a ‘seat at the table’ isn’t the best way to measure HR’s input?

We get really hung up on this. I’ve been on boards and not on boards and ultimately I don’t think it necessarily determined my level of influence in the organisation. The key difference is if you have a relationship with your chief executive where they are interested and curious. Typically, less than 5 per cent of CEOs have a background in HR, so you don’t get the same level of challenge you might in operations, marketing or finance, and that’s a shame. But my sense is that leaders are waking up to this.

What we do at the moment is measure our impact based on inputs – how many people have been on a training course, or how people are feeling in terms of engagement. I think we need to learn from consumer organisations where it’s a bit of qualitative and quantative analysis, pulse surveys and looking at inclination to buy again.

What would you do differently if you had your time at the BBC again?

I’ve reflected long and hard on that. Given that the vast majority of what we did was contractual entitlement, that’s quite hard to do anything about, and would you want to? But were there areas where I could have challenged more? Probably.

I bought into a vision of the BBC as competing with the likes of Sky and ITV. But ultimately it’s a public service organisation and I didn’t pay that as much attention as I should have.

Did you feel the way you were treated in the tabloids was unfair or even discriminatory?

Being the only female [among executives criticised by the Public Accounts Committee] didn’t help me. It got very personal at one stage and I remember my daughter calling me after one Mail on Sunday article and saying: ‘Mum, they said you’re thin… result!’ It kind of put it into context – the vast majority of people don’t read this stuff.

I got a lot of letters and calls from people I knew saying they were so sorry I was being treated this way. Equally, I got a couple of hate mails, saying I was worse than Jimmy Savile and I should kill myself. It goes away. But when you’re at the centre of it, it feels very painful, very raw.

Did it make you think twice about building a public profile again?

I did have a moment where I thought: ‘Why would I do this? Why would I put myself out there?’ But I can’t live a life not doing what I believe in – and I really believe things need to change and I’m excited about this. As long as it’s done with a level of humility and it’s not lecturing people – it’s me saying: ‘I made these mistakes and here’s how we can do things differently. 

Will you ever work in a conventional HR role again?

Absolutely not. I get a lot of calls from headhunters and it’s very flattering, but I’ve done my time in corporate life. I love the fact I am creating a business, building something. I’m learning all the time, and I love it.

I’m writing a second book – about the HR profession itself. I vowed I’d never do another one, but it’s like having a baby: when you open the box and you’ve got it there, it makes you feel so excited you want to do it again. I want to be part of this movement for change – that’s what excites me.