Personnel Today interviews Linda Holbeche: Human resources must be ‘experimental’

Linda Holbeche, research and policy director, CIPD, says the profession could be more strategic, once it has mastered the basics.

Linda Holbeche, second in command at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), wasn’t always destined for a career in HR. She spent seven years teaching languages at a London secondary school back in the 1980s, and even made it to head of sixth form before quitting life as a teacher.

She somewhat reluctantly recalled one summer where she had to teach teenage boys to row on the Thames. “That was a good enough reason to leave teaching,” she said. “After that, I got a job at American Express improving the employability of youngsters. But I was equally interested in the research part of people development – and wanted the chance to have a positive impact on leadership, management capability and organisational behaviour.”

Replacement for Duncan Brown

Holbeche, a Personnel Today Top 40 Power Player, is a relative newcomer to the CIPD, joining in June this year as a replacement for Duncan Brown.

During his time at the CIPD Brown significantly raised both his and the CIPD’s profile by becoming the main media spokesman on people management issues. He left to become a director in HR practice at consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers earlier this year. “Brown is a hard act to follow,” she said. “I wanted to work with him, not after him – how do you follow that?”

Through her role as research and policy director, Holbeche said she would build on the practical tools and guidance already in place to help HR managers succeed, and encourage them to be more proactive and “experimental” when making decisions.

“My role is to help leaders to be more capable, give managers a sense of direction and purpose, and to help reduce organisational boundaries,” she said.

“I want to work with HR professionals – those driving the economy in creative industries, financial services, biochemicals industries – where the people element is really key to competitive advantage. I want to tap into stuff that’s emerging in management capability, accountability, skills and communications to help HR find its experimental edge.”

Roffey Park Institute

Holbeche has gained a strong foundation in researching what makes people tick, having worked as director of research and strategy at Roffey Park Institute for 12 years.

During her time there, she worked on public and private sector projects to help organisations develop. Holbeche said the people management and development profession was fundamental to unlocking individuals’ potential, as well as to building organisations that can achieve sustainable high performance.

Holbeche is also a well-known author on the subject of motivating people her Butterworth-Heinemann titles are highly acclaimed, with her book Motivating People in Lean Organizations shortlisted for the Management Consultancies Association book prize.

“The management and development of people is an essential element in delivering effective business performance,” she said.

Get the basics right

But Holbeche warned that HR must build up trust and respect before attempting the long-term strategic stuff. It’s a phrase quite a few HR leaders have used over the past few months – HR must get the ‘basics’ right (payroll, recruitment, retention and so on) before trying to think strategically about what is best for their organisation.

Chris Bones, principal of Henley Management College, called for a focus on transactional activities at an HR networking event earlier this year. David Fairhurst, McDonald’s HR chief, told delegates at last month’s CIPD annual conference in Harrogate to “get the nuts and bolts of HR work right”.

Holbeche also championed effective basic HR practice, but only so the function can develop. “You don’t have the licence to do anything else if you don’t get the basics right. Once HR has the core tools in place, and they are working, it can look at how to develop an advanced practice that is accessible and straightforward. It can be more experimental,” she said.

That’s where Holbeche says her role comes in. “I will be working to demystify those things that may seem simple from the outside, but are actually quite tricky. How do you work with leaders to make them work better, for example?” she said.

But Holbeche is well aware that the concept of being more ‘experimental’ – of taking more risks to advance people development practice – may not rest well with some professionals who are fed up with being blamed when the day job goes wrong.

Just last month, one in four civil servant sackings brought to appeal was found to be unlawful because of a failure to follow standard dismissal procedures. The Civil Service Appeal Board was forced to reinstate 12 people and pay compensation of £628,632.

Holbeche admitted it was hard for the profession to take risks. “But HR ought to be capable of getting the basics right and a lot more besides. I can see why HR might sometimes be caught in a defensive mode – always getting blamed for things and attracting bad press. But HR can create good news stories by having that experimental edge.”


  • 2007- present Research and policy director, CIPD
  • 2005-2007 Director of leadership and consultancy, Work Foundation
  • 1993-2005 Director of research and strategy, Roffey Park Institute
  • 1991-1993Management development manager, American Express
  • 1984-1991 Head of sixth form, Ealing Green High School

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