Director-general Richard Lambert sees employment issues as central to the CBI

Despite having no interest in journalism when he fell into a junior role at the Financial Times (FT) after leaving Oxford University, Richard Lambert went on to edit the business news bible for a decade. But his illustrious 35-year career at the paper was not without its mishaps.

“I hated doorstepping,” he said. “Once I doorstepped a financier who had been involved in a scandal, but I dreaded it so much that I went to the end of the street and lit up a cigarette. While I was smoking, he scarpered. I got into terrible trouble and never doorstepped again.”

Voice of business

Lambert has since given up both journalism and smoking, and is now the voice of British business as director-general of employers’ body the CBI. “A wise old mentor told me when I got the editor’s job that in the unlikely event of me surviving 10 years, I should quit, because everyone would want to see the back of me,” he said.

So Lambert left the FT and, after a handful of temporary assignments for organisations including the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Bank of England, he was approached last year to take the top job at the CBI. “It took me eight seconds to decide that I was interested,” he said. “The thing that I missed after the FT was really getting stuck into something.”

Many aspects of Lambert’s CBI role are similar to the editorship of the FT, he insisted. His time at the business paper has helped him in his current job.

“As editor of the FT, a big part of the job was eating,” he said. “I was eating with captains of industry and with politicians, so I got to meet a lot of people I wasn’t writing any more it was more of a management job. It was like running a medium-sized company.”

Top challenges

Encouragingly for HR professionals, Lambert sees employment issues as central to the CBI’s current thinking. He lists training, skills and education, pensions, and maintaining a flexible labour market as his top challenges. “The UK cannot compete as a low-cost economy in the globalising world, so it is important to maintain a flexible labour market that gives us a strong competitive advantage in the EU.”

Lambert said he was concerned about union calls for the Agency Workers Directive to give temporary staff full employment rights, and for the UK to give up its opt-out from the Working Time Directive’s 48-hour working week limit.

“That the flexible market will be eaten away at is a constant anxiety,” he said. “There are big concerns among our members on the Agency Workers Directive. If it is advanced in the way the Portuguese [EU] presidency seems to want to, we will strongly object. [Keeping] the opt-out of the Working Time Directive is also very important.”

Lambert backs Gordon Brown’s fledgling government to give the CBI “a sensible hearing” on both these pieces of legislation, and approves of the new prime minister’s early actions. “In terms of popular appeal, Brown has got off to a great start,” he said. “The key ministerial appointments relevant to business have all been pretty good. The talk is of economic growth, but it is early days and we need to see whether [the government] walks the talk.”

Lame response

Lambert expressed concern that the government was stalling on two major drives: the privatisation of public services and employer-led skills funding. He also branded as “lame” the government’s response to the Leitch Review, which warned last year that the UK faced a bleak future if skills levels were not ratcheted up.

“I thought the government pulled back from some of Leitch’s bolder recommendations,” he said. “Leitch said that by 2010 funding should be directed through employers or people being trained rather than through suppliers such as further education colleges. The government back-pedalled from that.”

With a general election being mooted in the coming months, Lambert said he looked forward to seeing the Conservative Party formalise its policies soon. “From all the proposals, the Conservatives need to nail down a manifesto,” he said.

But whatever happens at that election, the future is bright for HR professionals, according to Lambert.

“We are in a world now – and will be even more so in 10 years – where the difference between success and failure for companies will be the quality of their human capital,” he said. “The role of HR people is of increasing importance, and wise companies will keep that at the centre of their strategic plans.”

Lambert’s CV

  • 2006 to present – Director-general, CBI
  • 2001-2006 – Roles including: non-executive director, Euronext-Liffe and Axa Investment Management; author of a report on BBC News 24 for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; author of the Lambert Review of Business-University Collaboration for the Treasury; and external member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee
  • 1991-2001 – Editor, Financial Times
  • 1983-1991 – Deputy editor, Financial Times
  • 1982-1983 – New York bureau chief, Financial Times
  • 1979-1982 – Financial editor, Financial Times
  • 1976-1979 – Lex Column editor, Financial Times
  • 1966-1976 – Reporter, Financial Times

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