What’s your ambition?

Do you have an ambition? I’m not talking personally – whether you want to walk on the moon, play the violin, or live by the sea is really a matter only for yourself and your loved ones. I’m also not talking about your career trajectory. I’m talking about the work that you do and the impact that you have.

It strikes me that we often make a big leap between personal ambition and organisational vision, but miss some of the most important elements in between. Most of us work every day, we attend a place of work and we do a lot of tasks – but for the sake of what?

As good corporate citizens we all adhere to the broader corporate visions and of course, we understand the role that we contribute towards them. But is there something else that falls in between? Something that operates on more of an emotional level?

For me that’s ambition.

When I work, I know what I want to deliver and I know what I want to achieve. I know what I need to do and I know the difference I want to make. It won’t necessarily happen immediately, often it takes significant time and effort. But it connects the work that I do to an overall purpose – it’s what is important to me.

I wonder what the power of team ambition would and could be, how it could help shape and form the work that we do into something that means and matters more. Not just about vision – that can feel too far away and ethereal – but something more concrete and emotionally engaging.

By its nature, ambition is big, bold and beautiful. It forces the mind to think beyond the immediately achievable, but to something that generates both sense of positivity and reward. It is worth the struggle, because it means something and it matters.

What’s your ambition? And how would achieving it make you feel?

Get a proper job

In my middle teens, I dreamed of owning and running my own restaurant. It combined my love of cooking, food and entertaining with an interest in business and management. When I expressed this view to those influential in my life, the consensus was pretty clear – get a proper job.

Many years later, I’m sure the advice was well-meaning and correct. I’m not sure the world needs another mediocre restaurateur (although it could be argued that they didn’t need another mediocre HR Director either) and I struggle to think of a day I’ve not wanted to go in to work.

I wonder how many students in college and university are also being advised about which jobs and careers are “proper” and which ones they should avoid. And how are the judgments made about the “right” career paths. What makes counting other people’s money or learning and arguing a set of created laws, “proper” and yet feeding them or building their houses somehow less…well, concrete?

Is the heart of the issue is our approach to education and skills and the perceived link to future wealth and prosperity.? “Proper jobs” are seen as more secure, better paying and require more skills. And whilst this is attractive in it’s simplicity, it is hard to see how a good apprenticeship in engineering will place you in a less advantageous position than, say, a degree in criminology.

With the additional complexity of trying to understand which sectors and roles will be in increasing demand and which will see the largest impact of automation (and in what time frame), the definition of a “proper job” becomes significantly more about prejudice and perception than any predictable outcome of future fortune.

Perhaps our biggest fault as a society has been to overlook the importance of skilled, technically able careers and replace it with the fetishisation of “management” and “professionalism”. Not only are we encouraging young people away from careers that they might actually enjoy and find fulfilling, but have also inadvertently created skills and labour shortages in many essential areas.

I may not have made a very good restaurateur, I’m at peace with that, but I certainly value those people around me that are brilliantly skilled in their work and who have a depth of technical expertise in their fields that I am in awe of. And let’s face it, in a post apocalyptic society, who would you rather have on your side – a farmer, a builder and an engineer or a banker, a social media consultant and a HRD?

Should you only work once?

How many jobs should one person have? I don’t mean in the entirety of their life, but at any one time. My default belief, probably like many of you, is one. I mean if you can’t get paid enough from one job, then there’s probably something wrong with it. Isn’t there?

As contracts change and employment practices vary to meet with the needs of consumer demands, as different expectations become the norm I wonder whether we are placing a value judgment on the singularity of employment that needs not be the case. Of course, where there is a requirement to work two or more long, unpleasant jobs to make ends meet, then this is never going to be ideal. Where contracts are exploitative or overly balanced in favour of the employer, we should seek to question and challenge.

But could good work be possible across multiple employers? It feels ironic in some ways that at the upper end of the employment hierarchy we see people aim for a “portfolio career”, where they can engage and work for a range of different employers. Yet when we see this occur in more manual roles we assume the arrangement to be exploitative. And maybe that’s because it has been, but does it need to be?

I wonder whether the debate that we need to have is not about the quantum of hours per se, not about the structure of contracts but instead about the working relationship. About the balance of power and the clarity and equity of requirements from both parties on one another. You don’t have to look far back into the history of the world to see a time where people would have one or more occupations or means of putting bread on the table. The idea of a single employer is relatively recent.

And of course, if we do see ourselves (as I believe is inevitable) go down this route, the challenges to employers, to HR functions and leaders will become increasingly complex. Where a relationship exists with more than one company, the relationship does becomes entirely different – but not necessarily bad.

Who is HR responsible for?

In the fallout from the BBC pay debate, I found myself responding to indignant comments about the “state of HR” by pointing out that I very much doubted that the contracts that were under discussion were covered by the BBC’s HR team. The debate was around the payments made to the “talent”, the actors and presenters that were contracted to the BBC. They weren’t (as far as I can understand) actual employees.

I haven’t worked in television, but my guess is that the commercial contacts for “talent” are probably handled entirely separately to the pay and wage structures that would be handled by the HR team.  A comparison would be a football team – whilst many of the big clubs now have HR Directors, they’re normally responsible for the teams that operate behind the scenes and not the players themselves. That’s why situations such as a Bosman can occur – something that would never normally happen in an employment contract.

The closest I’ve ever been is my time in publishing and I think it would be fair to say that it would have been considered entirely bizarre if I’d suggested as HR Director that I should have had some input to the structure of the contracts that were signed with our authors. But should I have had?

That’s the real question that the situation at the BBC brings to the fore. Most of us in well run businesses now are focussed on pay structures, on job evaluation, equal pay and of course gender pay reporting. But only for those “employees” or “workers” that are seen to be the remit of the HR department. In a world where increasing focus is being placed on the fairness of compensation structures should we be extending the same principles that apply to employees to other associated groups of people (I’m not entirely sure what to call them as a collective). Not necessarily as the responsibility of the HR function – simply using the same methodology.

The BBC have rightly had the light shone on them, but what about Sky, ITV, Channel 4, Amazon, Netflix etc.? And whilst we’re at it, what about the vast difference between the pay of premier league footballers versus their female equivalents? Are there justifiable reasons? Which other industries have groups of non-employees where there are discriminatory pay practices that pass under the radar because they’re not strictly considered employees?

Maybe this is an opportunity for HR to share its knowledge of remuneration and compensation management with other parts of the business. To use our expertise in handling similar situations and the lessons we’ve learnt as we’ve worked to improve the balance between our employees. If our principle concern is unfairness, it seems to me the issue goes far beyond the BBC.