The Slovenia Times

HR is not compliance, it is how we win!



Prior to founding his own firm, John spent several years as a professional athlete, becoming the first Brit to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA). In 2007, John Amaechi also became the first former NBA player to publicly announce he was gay.

At the 29th EAPM Congress, taking place in Bled on 4-5 April for the first time not only in Slovenia but in Eastern Europe, he will present his incredible story about his transformation from NBA player to organisational psychologist. He promises "a little bit of science wrapped in some really good stories."

Sport seems to be a good metaphor for management and leadership. What are the main lessons you gained as a NBA player that are relevant to your career as an organisational psychologist and consultant?

A lot of things that we learn from sport are not very evident. I think we like the idea of learning from sports more than we like the truth. Sport is a business at the elite level. What I have learned from sport is that you can be in a group of people without that group of people being a team. There is a big difference between a group of individuals and a team, these are two separate things. What I have also learned is that you can be in a team for a year, and with one additional person, you can be in a group the next year. Team feels different. How you handle stress on the outside, how you handle friction on the inside is just better. Team recognises that friction is important as without it there is no movement. In groups they shatter into pieces the moment the pressure of the outside gets too much. Now that I work in business and HR, I see the same. Most businesses are not teams, but they perhaps call themselves teams.

What separates a team from a group?

The main difference is how a team handles praise and blame, and also how they communicate. Teams communicate also when they do not need too. I don't mean saying hello in a lift, but really knowing each other, the value that a person brings is not in a job description. In groups they want to know about your work and then, if they like you, they might want to go for a drink with you. But, again, only if they like you. They don't believe that knowing you is good for business, and the list of differences is of course much longer.

Interestingly you have not mentioned a leader.

A leader is not a defining factor. There are tons of leaders who are leading groups and these are often very effective, but they are not teams. And when a leader who leads a group comes up against a leader who leads a team, he gets killed.

In sports this might be true, however, in business, the trends are evident - autocratic leadership is diminishing, giving space to collaborative, open, even self-managed teams. 

In sport, at the elite level, the power of athletes is very disproportionate to what we see in companies. In a very few companies the CEO really has to listen to the most junior people. Good CEOs do but they do not have too. Whereas, in sport if you are a young superstar, leaders have to treat them better - communicate more clearly, giving them quality feedback, otherwise the player will move to another team. In business we lack this advantage; a lot of leaders still act as if it is 1950, and they will lose. They are like dinosaurs, extinct! The creatures that survived were not the strongest, but the most adaptable, that is the secret to moving forward.

What can the world of business learn from the world of sport and vice versa?

Enduring success takes a team. Building a team takes investment in each other, not system or processes. 

Is there a place for love?

You do not have to love what you do and let's face it, many people have jobs that are boring, that they could not possibly love. Although, more senior individuals however do something fascinating every day. But, what about those who join the company and what they get in their first year is just orders? How can you love that? But what you can love, what you can get authentic connection too, is your manager. So, even if the work is boring, if that connection is right, the work will get done to the highest quality. If you don't like the work and you don't like the manager, that is a recipe for underperformance.

Usually, sport (and also the arts) are perceived as being sponsored by business. Can we turn that perspective around? What does sport give back to business? 

Sport is a classic business that overpromises and underdelivers. Sport promises entertainment, role models, societal charity and principles. We should demand of business and of sport, that they deliver for people. You can do that with your bank or your football team.

Can you share proof that motivation, hope and discipline are the building blocks of every success?
All of these things are very important but, to me, it is the minimum of what I would expect. Of course, I am paying you to show up on time. Work reasonably hard, learn etc. - it's basic. It is not a secret sauce. In my opinion, the secret sauce is an environment that makes people think of themselves as competent, that makes even the lowliest of all workers feel that they can get some mastery and have control of their own life. Whether it is flexible working or delivering tasks in their own way. Creating an environment that helps people feel connected, despite the fact that they might not be noticeable. Every employee should feel essential.

Is that part of your consultancy? In your capacity as the founder of APS, what do companies and organisations usually hire you for?

People usually want a shortcut to success which does not exist! What we always tell our clients is: it is exertion, not infrastructure; it is effort, not regulations and policy. You want a better organisational culture, get your people to make better choices. Well, nobody likes that. Clients would like a list with the five things that HR should do and nobody else has to do anything about it, but that is not how change happens. If you really want to change something, you have to put the work in, nothing comes without sustained and strategic work.

Are people lazy?

Yes, people are evolutionarily lazy. When we were cave people, we knew that if you could save energy today, you are more likely to survive if there is no food tomorrow, but we are no longer cave people. We have big beautiful brains and so we can overcome the tendency to be lazy by becoming vigilant, creating and sticking to plans, and holding ourselves and others accountable.

Can you share the golden rule for being more effective? 

I encourage leaders to remember that they are giants, that they have a huge impact on the people around them. Their decisions have massive consequences, whether they shout at people or they support them - this is not the same. You can be a scary giant, which makes people want to leave you, or you can be the giant that people want to stand with, behind and in front to march towards the goal.

How important is education in our attempt to develop better, more responsible leaders for a better future? Do you also work with schools?

It is hugely important! However, it does not have to be a formal education. We need people with really good interpersonal skills, who can communicate in multiple languages, who have the ability to bring a group of people together and hold it together even under stress. The list of things we thought was important is much bigger. Education is vital. Sometimes I go to a school and every child that is not good at math is looked at as being an idiot. Everything is about people who can code or crunch data, but everything isn't about data. Even people who work with machines also have to work with each other. If you cannot communicate effectively with someone who is not as clever as you, then you are not really clever.

Can such interpersonal skills be taught?

Yes, they are just skills. Skills are like language, they can be learned. I am, for example, an extreme introvert, I like to be by myself, no-one around me. If I have people around me, that is energy expensive, but I love my job and so I pay that price. I might rather be at home with a glass of wine, but I am not because I know that collaborating and working with my team helps my organisation win!

Which HR competencies will be the most important in future?

In HR you will always need someone who understand compliance and reward systems, especially in an increasingly regulated environment. But the transition from HR to people is the big transition. HR is seen as compliance, but how do we end up with the very best people, the very smartest brains, who are aligned to the culture and standards... That ability to find, sustain and develop people is the future of HR. Handling disruption is not going to be about regulation or compliance, but about attracting and keeping the very best people.

HR is forgotten in organisations. When the crunch happens, where there are social or political problems, or difficulties of any kind, being technically brilliant is not crucial, how people are managed is what defines success. We overlook HR as it is compliance, but HR is not compliance. HR is about enabling people to operate at their very best and evolve over time.

As a leadership and performance expert, what are the main trends in HR globally? 

Everybody would say AI or technology. I don't agree. I see companies where only certain types fit in their culture, for example, I was at a company the other day that uses psychometric measures and labels people as colours, and only the "green" are suitable. As a psychologist, I don't know what that means to hire only the "greens", not the blues or the reds. What about all those big brains that express themselves differently? My worry is that HR is not going to take a full control of assessment to help the CEO not to make stupid decisions by hiring only the type of people who fit. As we lean on AI to make personnel decisions, HR needs to ensure that bias isn't baked into AI to further marginalise diverse and non-traditional communities.

Talking about "greens" only ... Apart of being the highest-paid British basketball star in America, you made headline news for a different reason - as the first openly gay player in NBA history.

I don't know whether it was a big deal or not, but at that time it seemed so. There were not many male athletes openly taking about it. I like to think that I have set a good example. I like to think that the way I talk and through the work that I do now, that I continue to be a good role model. But there are still challenges for workplaces that criminalise the LGBT community. There will be people at this conference that won't like me, just because of the fact that I am the gay person. In terms of HR, I want the best brains, and if the best brains come with the package that is LGBT, that is immigrant, or whatever other difference... whatever, that is the brain I want - and great HR should facilitate it joining (and staying in) an organisation that wants to win.

Inclusiveness is also one of the trends. 

Inclusion is about the idea that people who are different can contribute. And this is how you win. When we face a problem that has many different faces, it pays to have people who can clearly see every aspect of the problem and can help describe and then defeat the problem, that is the benefit of diversity!
Where people have different minds, you have lots of different ways to consider how to solve the problem. What does a disruption mean if every day there isn't a new problem, challenge or opportunity that we have never seen before, and so we need inclusiveness to see more options.

At the EAPM Congress, taking place 4-5 April in Slovenia, you will lead a lecture titled 'Forever young: What is you second career? What is your passion? How do you re-invent yourself? '

We don't have to re-invent ourselves. The idea behind reinvention is that we can do it if we want too. If you feel trapped, if there is something you want to explore, you can do it. My case is proof - if you can play professional sport and then get an advanced qualification in psychology, there really is no excuse for anybody! We should all be learning all the time. HR is about helping people to grow, adapt and learn - and HR leaders should be doing the same thing. You cannot expect your direct reports to act in a way that you as a leader do not. This can be a radical shift in career or go to different sector, or just simply learn something new every year. Transformation is a bit of a frightening word. There are small things that also matter. I have a file in my office where I put all the stuff that I read - articles, research and even social media posts - so that my team can read what I read and we can talk about it. There is always an opportunity to learn and grow together.

How many people are in your team?

Ten, and they are all very different.

And finally, the slogan of the EAPM Congress is #loveHR. Why do you love HR?

When I told my mother that I would play in the NBA, there were days I thought that it was impossible and she would tell me: "The most unlikely of people, in the most improbable of circumstances can become extraordinary." That to me should be the slogan for HR. That's why I love it!

The central points of the EAPM congress are: culture, agility, competence and the future of management. How would you connect them? 

Culture is about bringing it all together, under an umbrella, to bring success, but that cannot happen if people are not competent. But then the agility and the future of work part are completely combined. The future of work is radically different, for example, geographically displaced teams that never come together will require a great deal of creativity and dedication from HR. The HR challenge is how to build a high-performance culture, based on a future world of work, that we cannot even see or predict right now.

That is the knowledge that HR should bring to the C-suite: How to encourage people, how to lead teams, that is often what is missing around the CEO table.

Should we have more people who know about people in order to build a better future leading the world? Why are there not more HR leaders in CEO roles? Are they too modest?

I don't know if they are too modest, however, the majority of senior people think that HR is not that important, or at least undervalue it. We cannot just blame HR leaders for not making the transition to CEO. If you go to a head-hunting agency as a HR leader and say that you want to become CEO, they will say to you: No. I have a pool of candidates who are more business focused - and they really mean former CFOs and other "non-HR", those roles will have the advantage.

What are the audience going to hear from you in Bled?

A little bit of science, wrapped in some really good stories.

Luka Dončić is a Slovenian professional basketball player who plays for the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, and is famous and respected in Slovenia. What are your observations?

I saw him playing a few times and I am not surprised. He has an interesting set of skills. He is not good at lots of things but he is good at a few things, and there are some things where he is exceptional. 

It seems simple. He is a good example of what we all have a tendency to do with talent. We look at people and we imagine we can set their limits. 

This is why people love watching him, they are not talking about him because of where he came from. The fact is he looks like he shouldn't be able to play. He is a white man, who doesn't jump, doesn't look very quick. People underestimate him. If he wasn't like this, we would not be talking about him, everybody would say, "of course he is good." And this is what we do with talent when they walk into the interview. HR must look over and realise that perhaps we can't tell just by looking as to how good someone might become. Luka is also on a team that gets excited by his success. Team members do not care if they get less shots or praise because of him, they are excited when he gets "hot" and starts making shots. He's not in a group, he's on a team!


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