Interview: Peter Russian, Investors in People

Power to the people brings its own rewards

Peter Russian 2Another awards season will soon be upon us, and another opportunity for the winners to dedicate their victory to the people who made it possible: their employees. But how many of them really put their staff at the heart of their company?

It is a question that Peter Russian answers with a rye smile that betrays his silence. People businesses are everywhere, or so we’re told, but it seems the employees of a company don’t always rank too highly when it comes to the nuts and bolts of day-to-day operations.

Russian has been in the “people” business for years, a dozen of them as head of Investors in People Scotland, and he has become accustomed to what companies say about their employees and how they actually go about valuing and developing them.

“A lot of organisations present themselves as great places to work and being committed to developing people, but quite often they do not follow through,” he says. “There is a big difference between those who say their people are their greatest asset and those who get it and actually make it work for them.”

Even at a time when companies are swamped with offers of management training, leadership programmes and team building exercises, the “people” factor is often treated as a side issue to the main function and targets of the business.

“In some cases, the HR department will say its plan is aligned to the company’s own plan, as if this is unusual. It should be the norm,” says Russian. “We are still not at the stage where the people plan is regarded as part of the business plan.”

He points to one survey which revealed that only 19% of employees feel engaged with their organisation, where engagement is defined as being clear about their contribution and how their purpose is aligned to that of their employer. Put the other way around, it means a staggering eight in ten employees actually feel disengaged from their company.

“These are big risks for any organisation because their employees influence what happens in their organisation, how effective it is and ultimately how profitable.”

He says employers and employees should make a distinction between the provision of benefits that are a form of compensation, or what he calls “part of the transactional relationship’ – add-ons such as health care, gym membership, company car – and the benefits to employee and employer alike that come from greater involvement, sense of worth and shared values.

Russian’s IIP programme is now well-established as part of the people development industry and in view of the figures and trends he argues that its work is just as much in demand as when it was set up in the 1980s.

In that time, it has also changed, not least since the recession which saw a downturn in demand for its services. Instead of expecting companies to comply with the IIP programme, the programme is now designed to fit the companies. This shift of focus has resulted in a noticeable pick up in business. Revenue rose 7.5% in 2013, by 20% in the current financial year, and is expected to rise by between 15% and 20% in the next.

IIP is a state-backed organisation which works closely with the government and its agencies and provides accreditation for the IIP standard. But its remit gives it a lot of wriggle room to operate freely under the joint umbrella of Scottish Enterprise and Highlands & Islands Enterprise. Its board is chaired by the lawyer Linda Urquhart. It is expected to be self-funding and it does this, with the exception of a recently awarded £1 million grant to support the Investors in Young People programme which Russian launched last July.

IIYP was a recognition that young recruits are often making their first entry to the workplace and require a different style of coaching and guidance. So far 155 organisations have signed up for it.

Research shows that his organisation can, and does, help companies develop around, and with, their employees. Churn rate is low, indicating a lot of repeat business, and satisfaction levels are impressively high. Surveys, including one conducted by Glasgow university, have shown respondents are broadly positive to its contribution to their operations.

“We made some big decisions a few years ago on how we approached our own role and decided to focus more on how we help our clients better manage and lead their staff,” he says. “The research has validated what we are doing.”


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