CIPDs future vision for HR: Interview with Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD

Written by
Changeboard Team

17 Dec 2013

17 Dec 2013 • by Changeboard Team

Changing language of business

With the recent failures of corporate governance and culture, there has been a fundamental shift in business thinking. Instead of leaders being highly driven by numbers and accountable to shareholders, the question employees, customers and clients now want them to answer is: ‘What do you stand for?’.

This requires leaders to think differently about being able to understand the purpose of their business, how this is built into the heart of an organisation’s culture, how it impacts society and how it is a force for good.

The test for leaders is how adaptable and agile they can be in changing times rather than defaulting to their natural instincts to increase their own control, rely on cost-cutting and be risk-averse – as was the case in other periods of economic depression.

HRs call to arms raising impact & voice

Yet, with so few HR directors sitting among the executive team or on the board, the profession needs to ask: 'Where was HR when these culture failures occurred?' As Cheese puts it: “Were our voices not recognised or were we complicit because we failed to challenge our business leaders and didn’t have the confidence to knock down the door of our leaders when they were de-railing?”

He argues the number one concern now facing CEOs is ‘talent’. “If we ever needed a time to stand up and be counted as HR professionals, it’s now,” he declares.

“As HR professionals we impact people's lives. It goes all the way back to purpose and culture. That's what our profession is about. Most profoundly, we need to help our leaders create a sense of purpose and build a culture of innovation that engenders trust and allows employees to feel empowered because they understand their role and how they fit into the organisation.”

To achieve this, HR must understand the role of the board, corporate governance, business strategy and diversity. He continues: “Good HR people become trusted advisors to the board. They’re able to challenge business leaders, act as regulators as well as innovators and keep the balance of the board in check so they don’t go down a blind alley or rabbit hole. HR needs to equip its leaders with the right skills so they can lead with humility, be self-aware and understand their own strengths and weaknesses.”

CIPD vision & strategy for helping HR

Peter Cheese joined the CIPD as chief executive in July 2013. He says he chose the role because it was an engaging proposition. “It joined up lots of dots for me in terms of being able to influence big policy issues such as youth unemployment, immigration and diversity – which I’m very passionate about,” he champions.

While he admits that the CIPD has not kept pace or relevance with the evolving needs of the HR professional, he says that it’s very far from a broken picture. “We’re at an inflection point in HR,” believes Cheese. “There’s never been a more interesting time for HR to be able to influence business leaders and shape strategy.”

Anchors of CIPD purpose

The CIPD started life in 1913 as the Welfare Workers’ Association, based in York. He says: “The motives of our founders were essentially to look after the wellbeing of workers, for the benefit of individuals and the organisations that employ them, and that has remained an important part of the CIPD’s purpose throughout its history.”

“The founders of our profession cared about the wellbeing of workers and understood that employees were not ‘assets’. They also understood that a well worker would also be a more productive worker,” he says.

Cheese empathises with those who feel the CIPD had lost touch with some of its members because the professional body had not been progressive or forward thinking enough. “The CIPD had become too siloed and inward-looking. It is not sufficiently commercial and sometimes seemed unwilling to collaborate,” he explains.

“We’ve allowed HR to be renegaded to a back office function, where we feel unable to call out and stand up for the wider purpose of HR, that is to represent our employees as well as balance economic and societal interest. However, we can all be proud of a profession that can show its roots. The CIPD just needs to reshape its purpose again and have clear direction. My role is to enable that and make it happen,” he says.

CIPD tough love & reflection

Cheese explains that the CIPD has been on a journey. When he took over the reigns as chief executive, his first priority was to ask some tough questions within the professional body.

This meant going back to basics by talking, listening, challenging, understanding and asking questions of CIPD employees, of its CIPD members, branches, centres, policy makers and other bodies. He asked bold questions such as: ‘Where are we now?’, 'Where do we need to go?’, ‘What are we good at?’, ‘What do we need to improve on and why?’, ‘How are we going to improve?’, ‘How should we re-define our values’?, ‘How are we going to increase our impact and add value’, ‘What are the big policy trends and themes?’, ‘What actions are we trying to take?' and 'What are our action plans moving forward?’.

The next step for Cheese was to digest all this feedback and structure this collective thinking into language that is understandable and easy to articulate. “Everyone thinks the CIPD is a complex organisation, but it’s just about re-aligning the organisation, drawing out the big challenges, clarifying its direction and communicating the new vision by using multiple communication channels to reach all our different stakeholders,” says Cheese.

The CIPD’s core purpose as a membership organisation has been redefined in one sentence as: ‘Championing better work and working lives’.

He says: “We asked ourselves ‘what do we need to do to help HR practitioners develop their jobs? What are the missing pieces in their career development and L&D?’

“We want to position the CIPD to help HR professionals in their career, from student and graduate level – by mapping out skills progression and career paths – to providing continued professional development for senior HR staff.

This includes helping HR learn to deal with the tougher challenges they have to wrestle with, such as what went wrong with corporate cultures and how to deal with whistleblowing through to recruitment and electronic profiling. “We need to be able to facilitate these debates so we can support our members,” says Cheese.

Rallying HR

So what is the new strategy and vision? In January this year, Cheese presented the CIPD’s new vision and change strategy to its employees using a story framework in the form of a booklet with picture illustrations and simple messages to reflect on the CIPD’s history, its purpose, role and values up to the present date as well as looking to its future in how the CIPD can add value to its members.

As well as ensuring it is more relevant to HR consultants and those working in SMEs, part of Cheese’s vision is to target the FTSE 100, where only 35% of HR professionals are CIPD members. He wants to engage with business leaders to find out what their requirements for HR are. He will also investigate how the CIPD can best serve them by being able to profile their HR teams, benchmark their skill sets, find out what their missing skill gaps are and provide them with the relevant training.

He’s also set up a series of networking dinners with various HR directors, asking them about the major challenges and issues they face, and what learning and development they need so the CIPD can tailor the services and support to help them meet the demands of their boards.

As a consequence of these discussions, the CIPD’s research is now framed around three major leadership themes. These are ‘work, workforce and workplace’.


The CIPD is now taking its commitment to professionalising HR seriously by engaging with global thought leaders such as Gary Hamel, developing stronger networks, forging strategic partnerships and collaborating with a network of different bodies and associations. This feeds into a bigger ecosystem where best practice and knowledge can be shared, including Business in the Community and academic centres such as Bath and Lancaster. Perhaps most significant is its new connection with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) to leverage its content and commercial understanding. This will enable the CIPD and CIMA to work together to develop capability across the two professions, and to come up with a shared approach to measuring and reporting on people data.

New foundations for HR

“HR is great at understanding the people dynamic. While most HR professionals employ right-brain thinking, are emotionally intelligent and can relate to the psychological side of human nature, we now need to join up with left-brain thinking which involves being more analytical,” he says. “If you look at the backgrounds of CEOs, 63% come from finance so we understand we need to be much more metrics-driven and know the right measures to use.”

So why engage with the CIPD? In the short term, Peter Cheese says the dial is moving. “We’re not going to be able to crack it all at once but the great thing about the CIPD is there’s a lot of appetite for it, a feeling that HR professionals want to re-engage and a collective sense of goodwill to commit to the CIPD.

“People have pride about their profession and have at one point in their careers either interacted with the membership organisation in their journey of learning or grown up with the CIPD. We want to put the message back out there that we are the game in town. We’re laying down the new foundation stones for HR to develop, grow and secure its leadership position within business.”