Lynda Gratton: Identify your context and build everything around it

Written by
Mary Appleton

17 Feb 2015

17 Feb 2015 • by Mary Appleton

Technology shaping HR

According to Lynda Gratton, work is no longer being defined by HR, but rather by ‘context’, which is created by the emergence of megatrends and their impact on society: “Work is being shaped by technology, globalisation, democracy and the ageing workforce, and the opportunity you have to make work as you want it,” she tells me.

“We are now faced with a “hollowing out” of work – medium-skilled jobs have disappeared and are being replaced by technology, so there’s either low-paid work or specialised high-paid work, with a huge emphasis on education and lifelong learning.”

And because people lie at the heart of corporate purpose, this means that organisations must build a context to innovate and excite them – which, for Gratton, presents a huge opportunity for HR to be positioned as ‘enabler’ and ‘inspirer’.

HR has always been close to Gratton’s heart. Indeed, she directs London Business School’s ‘Human Resource Strategy in Transforming Organisations’ course – considered the world’s leading programme on HR.

Gratton studied psychology at university, and began her career with British Airways as its chief psychologist. In 1982 she moved to management consultancy PA Consulting before joining London Business School in 1989.

Over the past 20 years she has written extensively about the interface between people and organisations, examining the link between business and HR strategy, new ways of working and the impact of a changing world on employment and work. 

A need for transparency

In her latest book, The Key, Gratton makes the case for organisations to step up and connect their interests with those of the wider world. She urges companies to play a more positive role in the world by building inner resilience, actively anchoring themselves in their communities and supply chains, and leveraging their capabilities to address complex global challenges such as climate change and youth unemployment.

“To create a good future, it is crucial that those who lead corporations become increasingly transparent about their actions and intentions and see themselves as part of the wider world they inhabit,” Gratton writes.

For Gratton, ‘context’ is made up of three layers: your corporation, your supply chain, and those who support your organisation in the outer world. Successful leadership in this new era of work is about engaging with those three levels.

 “As we enter this new era of work, where change is the norm and employees and customers are seeking greater transparency, organisations must endeavour to help every employee be as good as they can be,” she says.

And at the heart of this, Gratton believes, is the ability to nurture employees’ resilience – by “amplifying their intelligence and wisdom, cultivating their emotional intelligence and promoting innovation through connectivity”. Essentially, the resilience of an organisation depends on the courage of its leaders. 

Developing resilience

Gratton suggests there are three aspects of resilience that need to be developed within organisations. Firstly, emotional resilience (keeping employees strong in the face of stressful situations), intellectual resilience (ensuring the organisation is wise about the challenges it will face in the future) and social resilience (ensuring the organisation has developed networks that will help sustain it in the long-term).

“Leaders must find a way of creating work that’s not so exhausting,” she says. “How can you help people to innovate and be creative, providing them with work that helps them to feel energised?”

Tata Consultancy Services is one example of an organisation that has developed social resilience by connecting people through technology, by launching an internal social media platform for over 300,000 employees. “[CEO] Natarajan Chandrasekaran wants everyone in the organisation to be connected – for hierarchy to be abandoned and for ideas to flow,” she explains. “The aim is to reinvent work by embedding social behaviours – currently there are 3,000 communities of people learning from each other.”

Beyond the organisation, Gratton acknowledges that working for a company that is deeply rooted in the communities in which it operates is increasingly important to talent.

“What are you doing to anchor yourself in the community and supply chain?” she asks, citing John Lewis as an example of a corporation working hard to create social good while remaining economically successful, through its Partnership approach. “For John Lewis, it’s about the community, not just the stores,” Gratton adds.

Authenticity through crucible experiences

Gratton argues that having an outward focus will distinguish leaders of the future, alongside a trans-national nature, ability to speak multiple languages and deep cognitive skill. But in the wake of the global financial crisis, where many organisations’ priorities are internally focused and short-term driven, how can leaders make time to look beyond immediate priorities?

“It’s really tough to be a leader as you’re under so much pressure to make decisions,” Gratton agrees. “But you have to understand the business model you operate in, as well as yourself and your personal narrative. For so long we’ve talked about companies as though they’re hermetically sealed, which of course they’re not. Understanding the world makes a more valuable leader.”

To do this effectively, Gratton advises you to consider questions such as: ‘How can I build knowledge?’ ‘How can I learn about myself?’ and ‘How can I learn to make good decisions?’

One-to-one coaching and 360-degree feedback can help you remain reflective. “The world of work is about power and can be sycophantic,” she says, “so getting someone who can mirror back to you what you see can be very valuable.”

She also highlights the importance of ‘crucible experiences’ in shaping leaders’ perspectives. “When I talk to leaders who are very values-driven, they almost always tell me about something that happened to them in their life that made them question their way of thinking. So we shouldn’t shield high-potential people from crucible experiences.” She argues these experiences help build authenticity and allow leaders to develop a world view in terms of what will be required in the future. 

Navigating global challenges

Calling herself a ‘humanistic psychologist,’ Gratton is known for her organisational behaviour work, and for the past 25 years her post as professor of management practice at London Business School has led her to focus on the future of work.

Much of her work on leadership has been informed through her role as chair of the World Economic Forum’s leadership council, as well as her ‘Future of Work’ research consortium, which comprises more than 50 member organisations – often competitors – that share insights. She is particularly inspired by her work with the group (“I’d be bereft without it,” she says).

It is perhaps because of this insight that she is so keen to point out the constructive role big business can play in the future of work. “Rather than seeing large organisations as destructive, they should be viewed as a force for good,” she says.

“They are made up of people like you and I – and most of us want to work for corporations that do good.” While she agrees it’s easy to knock big businesses – particularly after the economic crisis and corporate scandals – we should ask more of them. “We produced a world where climate change, youth unemployment and global poverty are real problems. But whose job is it to do something about it? You can put the onus on governments, but their agendas are so short-term focused.”

When it comes to youth unemployment, for example, Gratton wants to see more collaboration on the part of big business – and says it’s already happening.

“In India, businesses have had to step in to educate young people as the government hasn’t been able to do it. The IT industry is vital to the country’s economic survival, so IT companies have built curricula to support millions of teachers in upskilling future talent. Within sectors and cross sectors, I’d urge companies to consider working together to make a difference.”

The role of HR

So what, in Gratton’s view, is the role of HR in the new era of work and how can the function leverage its position to steer boardroom strategy? “If HR wants to have a voice, it has got to understand the business deeply. But HR has to be inspirational about what’s possible and what its view is. To do this you have to identify your context,” she argues. Gratton urges leaders to follow newspapers and thought leaders to help shape this view. She suggests there are many areas where HR could add value but is not doing so, such as technology. “Technology providers say HR is the worst function at using it.

“Being able to understand collaborative technology, the impact of artificial intelligence, and network analysis is crucial for HR – it helps us understand the way jobs get done. But very few HR people have picked up on these things.”

While Gratton recognises concerns over HR’s ability to demonstrate value, she acknowledges that, in some cases, part of the problem could be a lack of willingness on the part of the business to emancipate the function.

“A company gets the HR department that it wants and sometimes it doesn’t want skill around,” she says. “So if an organisation simply wants HR to be an administrative function, it is almost impossible to demonstrate the value that HR can bring.”

So does she think having a seat at the table is a prerequisite for success? “Absolutely,” she says. “In fact, the best HR people already have a seat at the table. And if they don’t, it’s because the CEO doesn’t want them there.”

So what should you do, as an HR leader, if you don’t have a seat? “Leave. It’s not a place you want to be in. I think HR has to be courageous about that,” she says.