Four rules that put the “human” back into HR

Five years ago, I spent a year living in hospitals. It was an alternative reality, where many things I thought I knew were broken and reset into something entirely different. Specifically, I learned that the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is an organisation populated by some of the most brilliant medics on earth.

The NHS is, by any definition, a monolith. With 1.6 million employees, it ranks in the top five of the world’s largest workforces rubbing shoulders with the US Department of Defense, Walmart and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Its annual budget is a staggering £115 billion.

For all its reach and scale, though, what struck me, as I engaged with more doctors and nurses than anyone would wish to in a lifetime, is how closely the NHS’s best practices reflect my own beliefs in recruitment and management. In particular, experiencing such exemplary behaviour from such dedicated professionals only served to validate a number of “rules” I’ve honed over my years in HR.

Rule 1: There is nothing the right person in the right job can’t accomplish.

Rule 1: There is nothing the right person in the right job can’t accomplish.

My son’s diagnosis of Stage 3 cancer began with the hardest words you can ever hear. Hard to live with; harder still to see beyond.

Dr Priya Ilangovan, the head of paediatrics at our local hospital, walked into the dismal isolation unit early on the morning of my very ill son’s eighth birthday. By any definition this was a grim situation.

But, instead of a white coat or scrubs, Priya – and we were quickly on first name terms – wore a shimmering sari that made the medical “greige” walls melt away. She seemed to think this “nuisance” was entirely solvable. The gravity and uncertainty of the situation evaporated with her conviction that all would be well.

At 3am the next day, my son’s stats falling, the same precise, empathetic Priya answered a new set of alarms. She stayed with us through that night, making me first believe he could be well again, and eventually – along with the staff of Royal Marsden – making it happen.

Priya has a family and a big life outside of the hospital and yet it was as if she was there just for us in the eye of our storm. Whenever I feel tired or unequal – and, as a working mother of three children, that’s not uncommon – I think of her and remember how far beyond a job description she goes every day.

Finding people who can reach such heights, and giving them the platform to bring not only their knowledge but “their best self” to any task is not easy. But nothing is more important. You build your business by building your people – and if you shape them like this there are no limits.

Rule 2: Define what it means to hire the very best and risk being unconventional in finding them.

Rule 2: Define what it means to hire the very best and risk being unconventional in finding them.

No less brilliant than Priya, but very much on the opposite side of the empathy spectrum was a neurosurgeon, clearly at the top of his game, who went on rounds once a week trailing a tightly wound gaggle of fresh-faced student doctors. Over the year I got to know one of them, who would positively exude enthusiasm and confidence – until he talked about passing his course.

The root of his doubts was the way he would ultimately be judged. He wasn’t sure it was possible to do well. The doctor would give his students very clear instructions at the beginning of the course, and at the end he would mark their performance on just one thing: the accuracy of their response to a single question.

As someone who has held an HR position in one capacity or another over three decades, I took issue with this on behalf of the young people I’d seen. Was this really a fair or acceptable method of judgment?

One day, I had the chance to quiz the neurosurgeon on the subject. The lives of these young doctors were in his hands. Where did his method account for their commitment, their analysis, how carefully they considered their approach? How could one question provide all the answers he needed to assess who was right for the job?

“Well, it’s simple,” he said, looking at me over his glasses. “We are in the business of right answers. If a patient doesn’t get better, it doesn’t matter how hard we tried. Because however bright and motivated these students are, they basically fall into two types: the very best and those who need to be looking elsewhere for their livelihood.”

That I understood.

In the design and marketing industry, we aren’t in the business of saving lives. But we are in the business of right answers. And this makes the people we hire, by definition, unique. Most jobs in life require you to attain a qualification, comprehend a series of variables and apply them with the greatest degree of skill possible.

But when you’re creating something that didn’t exist before… something out of nothing… something that is the right answer to a question maybe no one has asked before: that requires a complete package of intelligence, creativity and – if we’re brutally honest – bravery.

And although I ask more than one question in an interview, there is always a moment when I know the candidate is a Frameworker. That moment never comes about due to a CV-oriented conversation. Although titles and degrees form a basis for a candidate’s eligibility, experience and the way you’ve “always done things” are not as important as someone’s ability to think. This – and persistence – tend to be real defining features of the best people I have ever hired, so my interviews tend to focus less on detail and more on who a candidate really is.

The ability to know the right answers and the courage to put yourself on the line with them may be the rarest and most elusive commodity, but this is what the very best people in our industry – and their clients – expect every day. Everyone else, however talented, needs to be looking elsewhere for their livelihood.

Rule 3: See beyond what you can see.

Rule 3: See beyond what you can see.

I observed many doctors in my year of living dangerously, and what set the best apart is the way they look at you. My son’s oncologist at Royal Marsden, Donna Lancaster, looks at every patient with a special kind of stillness. She’s seen reams of results and analysis by the time she meets us, but it is almost as if she is withholding everything until she’s actually seen the patient. I still exhale only after she’s turned her gaze away from my son and turns the conversation deftly to the world he inhabits outside the hospital walls. Because I know then that we’re going back there.

This equally holds true for me in my many staff searches. Reviewing the portfolio of a talented designer means looking beyond what you see to the underlying superstructure, paring the work back to the minimum elegance of the problem it solves and the person who solved it. Content is beautiful not because of the grammatical logic and the free creation of language, but the caves and tunnels the writer has built behind and within it that join up into a kind of invisible map. All marketing, whether digital or otherwise, aims to be beautiful – ugly campaigns won’t succeed – but it is the purity of thinking and the way it knits together that make it work.

You can always find staff that tick the boxes in terms of qualifications and experience. But that’s not what interests me. People who can really see are what I am always looking for.

Rule 4: Freedom is the best control.

Rule 4: Freedom is the best control.

Out of necessity, my career, just like those of the nurses and doctors I met, requires structure, details and rules. The sheer volume of paperwork the average nurse handles on a daily basis is overwhelming. But the axis on which my son’s chemo turned – although complex – allowed several key points where someone made a creative decision that made all the difference. Those key judgments were based not on following rules but knowing when treatment would be more effective if they were broken slightly.

People with the right answers can do this, although it does not always live happily in corporate, “command and control” environments with metrics that attempt – and fail – to quantify the value of a perfectly executed idea. If they give it a go, they eventually chafe at the necessary structure and conformity. People with this ability need to make their own rules as much as they remake rules through their creative ideas. They operate in another, alternative reality of their own where they are free to think, not where they are told what – or how – to think.

What they need is freedom to apply what they know and take leaps when their experience or intuition tells them they can. With the right employee, freedom is actually the best way to control an optimum outcome.

In our industry – perhaps in all industries – creative “thinking” time should not be entered into any ledger as a cost because it is fundamentally an asset. Those who fail to understand that fail.

Much that is written about HR theory and practice suffers because the minute you try to commoditise a human being you devalue them. If you focus on metrics and process instead of looking for what makes someone exceptional you will find many superlative candidates – and irreplaceable employees – simply don’t make it through the door.

So whether your responsibility is the 60-odd employees of The Frameworks or the 1.6 million of the NHS, exemplary people are the aspiration. The key is the infrastructure of right answers. Beautiful solutions often look simple, and work because they are simple. But their underlying complexity is the result of an individual – and a team – who is the very best.

If you think this might be you, send your CV and the reasons why to me at


  • Culture
  • HR
  • NHS
  • Recruitment