HRD Summit UK 2020: Harnessing human creativity
Talent Strategy Management

HRD Summit UK 2020: Harnessing human creativity

This year’s summit brought together more than 1,500 HR and business leaders to discuss some of the most pressing issues facing organizations and their workforces: leading with purpose, changing culture, the role of technology, and employee well-being.

Heidrick & Struggles was among the sponsors of the 2020 HRD Summit UK. Now in its 18th year, the HRD Summit UK offers the most senior HR and business leaders from around the United Kingdom and parts of Europe a platform to connect and learn about best practices and the changing workforce.

Held February 4‒5 at the Birmingham ICC, more than 1,500 attendees gathered for a series of carefully curated keynote sessions, breakfast briefings, exhibitions, and smaller meetings, centered around the central theme of harnessing human creativity.

The focus areas of the conference—the importance of leading with purpose, the core role of technology in organizational development, the growing importance of safeguarding well-being and mental health, and the role of culture in the success of organizations—are all essential to business.

Purpose-led organizations

In the past few years, the idea that a company should stand for something bigger than profit has become central to the public dialogue. Companies have been, and continue to be, on a journey to both understand and connect their stakeholders to that higher-order purpose in a way that adds value to the enterprise. The real test of an organization’s purpose is its ability to go beyond an initiative that sits on the margins of the organization and instead is lived and breathed by all stakeholders.

Our own research shows that organizations that are highly rated by their employees on clarity of purpose are 2.1 times more likely to be highly rated on energizing leadership, which in turn has the biggest impact on performance. Organizations that score high on energizing leadership have two times the performance ratings of those with low scores on energizing leadership, according to their employees’ assessments.

Some of the conference’s most popular sessions had purpose at their heart. Margaret Heffernan, entrepreneur, CEO, writer, and keynote speaker, discussed the power of giving people the freedom to deliver on the organizational purpose while building a team identity in a safe environment. Hilary McGrady, who leads the National Trust in the United Kingdom, described how her organization’s authentic purpose connects the hearts and minds of employees and inspires more than 60,000 regular volunteers. Pedro Angulo, head of leadership development at Allied Irish Bank, described the bank’s journey to being truly purpose-led.

Duncan Wardley, a partner from Heidrick & Struggles London, highlighted the following key takeaways: “It is important to find creative ways to bring the customer into your organization at every available opportunity. At the same time, the organizational purpose has to be connected to individual passions and strengths, to allow employees the space to explore how to bring their best self to work and contribute to the wider purpose of the organization.”

The role of technology

The conference explored the impact, from a people and talent perspective, of the accelerating role of technology in organizations. Author and futurist Bernard Marr gave a thought-provoking talk that broadly supports our own view: the need for workforces to improve digital literacy, and that the advancing digital age actually presents an opportunity to make business more human, rather than less.

This is a core component of Heidrick & Struggles’ work on digital acceleration, in which we focus on the human aspects of companies’ journeys toward becoming fully tech-enabled. Scott Snyder, a Heidrick & Struggles partner in the Philadelphia office and coauthor of Goliath’s Revenge, asserts that “humanizing the deployments of emerging technology, or augmenting and upskilling the existing workforce, will separate the leading companies that transform ways of working from those that simply deploy technology to gain efficiencies.”

Health and well-being

Frank Douglas, CEO and founder of Caerus Executive and the event’s official chair, and his impassioned plea on the importance of psychological safety in the workplace set the tone for another broad theme: supporting the health and well-being of employees.

A key insight for us was how authentic work on purpose, culture, and recognition can have such a strong impact on employee well-being. Our psychological and physical well-being are so closely intertwined that it is important to support employees holistically. Author Debra Corey described the importance of culturally aligned reward and recognition programs. For example, Spotify is now providing flexible public holidays (the ability to take the public holidays available in your home office whenever you’d like) to reflect its diverse workforce, and Airbnb has introduced a travel stipend where the company provides money for employees to stay at Airbnb properties, connecting them further to the brand.

Amy Turner, a partner from Heidrick & Struggles London, commented: “Employers have a fundamental duty of care for the physical and mental health and well-being of their workers. One practical way employers can promote employee well-being is by providing individuals with the opportunity to explore it through a lens of how they can be at their best more often. When we are at our best, we have the capacity to compare and process information, and we also have a stronger capacity for insight, common sense, and wisdom. We also naturally exhibit effective behaviors, including living in alignment with the values and the higher-order purpose of the organization. This will promote a more positive working environment where both the individuals and organizations can thrive.”

Scaling culture and employee engagement

A participants’ poll before the conference identified culture as a continuing focus for business and human resources directors. Of particular interest was how to create cultures that support business-critical objectives, such as diversity or simplicity, and how to effectively scale cultural change across a global enterprise, areas in which Heidrick & Struggles has significant expertise.

Heidrick Consulting partners Duncan Wardley and Amy Turner delivered a breakfast briefing focused on the neuroscience of cultural change and how understanding this could help HR and business leaders rethink how they approach programs of cultural and behavioral change.

The key conclusion was that sustainable, scalable cultural change can be accelerated when organizations address the main psychological mechanisms of change:

  • Changing personal mindsets through engineering moments of insight
  • Embedding key behavioral habits through repeated attention
  • Providing immersive experiences for teams that shift group mind-sets and accelerate team effectiveness
  • Developing systems, processes, and a working environment that hold new group behaviors in place

About the contributors

Amy Turner ( is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ London office and a member of Heidrick Consulting.

Duncan Wardley ( is a partner in the London office and a member of Heidrick Consulting.

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