Q&A with Peter Cheese – chief executive of CIPD

Sarah Atkinson
Stakeholder Engagement Manager | University of the West of England
8th February 2017
UWE, in partnership with Business West, runs an annual lecture series that brings top business leaders to Bristol. We caught up with Peter Cheese, chief executive of CIPD, before he gave his address: 

1. What is the one characteristic every leader should have?

I think the main characteristic that I’ve always tried to live by is to be a good listener. It’s not often a characteristic that you would necessarily think of for leaders, because you think their role is to communicate and all those other things, which of course it is, but I think particularly in today’s world leaders can’t know everything.

If our characterisation of leaders in the past was ‘they are the ones at the top’, they had to tell everyone what to do, that world is gone.

One of the most important attributes, therefore, is an ability to listen, to understand and to make judgements having listened. This speaks to the notion of a little bit of humility, which is not a bad thing in a modern leader either!

2. What inspires you?

I look to all sorts of places.

I’m a curious person and I think it’s really important no matter where you are, what level you are or what stage of your career you are at, I think curiosity is a really important thing.

If you’re curious you can find inspiration from all sorts of sources. In my job I get inspiration from some of the great leaders of the past, whether it be a Gandhi or a Churchill.

Equally I get inspiration from young people that are coming into work with different frames of reference and different views of the world, so I think in very simple terms I get inspiration from all sorts of places.

The other attribute one would talk about in terms of inspiration is your own internal motivations and drivers. This is something I’ve often been asked about and find a little curious as to what it is that drives me but in the end as I said I think it’s this notion of curiosity.

3. What do you do to ensure you continue to grow as a leader?

I think a really important thing about leadership is to understand that you are continually growing and continually learning. It comes back to my notion of curiosity.

I think every good leader at any level, any stage  is continually learning. I’ve often said to people I would stop doing something the day I felt I wasn’t learning anything. And that’s never been the case, particularly in my role today. I learn literally every day.

I get the opportunity to meet a lot of different people, talk about a lot of different things, so I’m learning every day. That is the absolute essence of leadership and leadership development – keeping an open mind, recognising and being curious about things, learning, looking for different sources of inspiration and ideas, and then forming your own point of view and sense of direction from that.

4. What was the pivotal moment when you decided to pursue this career path?

I think there has probably been 2 or 3 moments in my career where I’ve had a sort of flash of light, but I think like most people, I would say it wasn’t like I knew exactly what I was going to do for the rest of my career.

I think for young people today, coming through the world of work, things are changing so much it’s very hard to say exactly where my career might go.

My flashes were when I was leaving university. I recognised that I wanted to work in business and I could see that technology- computers - were really going to change the face of business.

I’ve always been fascinated by change, so I wanted to work in a space that brought technology and business together and I was very lucky to end up in a business, a big consulting business which today is known as Accenture, so that was a sort of flash of light.

I think the other flashes of light; I’ve always put myself forward for things to try something different. It’s very easy to not stretch yourself because you’re not confident or happy where you are, but when I see an opportunity that might be interesting, stretch me in a different direction, give me another opportunity, then I try to go and grab it.

You might not always succeed but if you don’t try you never will succeed.

I’m certainly not saying I plotted it all out from the age of 21 and I don’t think anybody (very few people) I’ve ever met thinks like that, so then this idea of seizing opportunities becomes even more important. 

5. What characteristics would you look for in a graduate employee?

I think there are a number of things

First of all I look for notions of character, what else have they done besides academic excellence?

This could be for example volunteering, social action or having done a gap year and done some interesting things and also with some understanding of the world of work.

In today’s world this is more and more important. We talk about employability skills and things like that, so those would be attributes which could define a more rounded individual.

Secondly, I would say I look for people that have got curiosity, who are able to think for themselves and are able to challenge.

We all talk about today’s post truth world and the need for people to think critically, to challenge, and to help formulate their own ideas of things. These skills are really, really important. 

I don’t think that’s an age thing, however, you can do it at any age, and most businesses today require those sorts of skills because the world of work is more unpredictable.

It can’t just be following the ‘same old, same old’ because we’ve always done that, and that’s going to be the way to do it in the future

I think the good thing about many young people today is they are more challenging; they don’t always take things for granted.

Graduates often say (and I’ve recruited graduates for many years) ‘just because you’ve always done that, it doesn’t mean to say that we’re going to do that’, and I think that’s right. 

That ability to be curious, to be a little bit challenging, to have an opinion, and to seek out different ideas,  they’re all part of what I think is needed in any successful employee in any organisation today.

6. What advice do you wish you had given yourself as you were leaving university?

I would say don’t be afraid. I think when you’re young and it’s all a bit uncertain, you’re learning and you assume everyone who’s more senior than you must be way wiser.

I’m not preaching the idea that we should challenge everybody. Of course we have to understand there are certain rules and constraints to what we do - but I think don’t be afraid of your ideas, even if they’re different or if you’re younger and think that they don’t have validity.

Nevertheless, the ability to communicate that is really essential.

That’s something I learnt and wasn’t always very good at when I started in the world of work.And yet it becomes more and more important as you go through your career.

Not only your ability to think different thoughts and bring together different ideas, but to be able to communicate them effectively and to influence others are very, very key skills that I wish I had more of when I was young.

7. What role do you think universities can play in identifying the skills that are required for the future workforce?

Universities, of course, have a huge role in helping to expand people’s minds.

Higher education is an amazing opportunity to explore different things, not just academic but other things as well, and it’s so important that young people take that opportunity.

Certainly as an employer or a business leader that’s what I would look for. I would be looking for graduates who’ve taken those opportunities, expanded their minds, learnt how to learn, learnt how to think, how to think critically and learnt how to communicate.

I think places like the University of the West of England provides those amazing opportunities because they also provide that connection into the real world of work. It is one of those great virtues of what we now refer to as the ‘92 group’ that the connection with the world of work is very strong, and in today’s world it’s something that businesses are more and more concerned about.

8. Here at UWE Bristol we run a pioneering entrepreneurship course where the students start their own businesses. You are involved with Junior Achievement Young Enterprise Europe, can you tell us a little about that and why you think it’s important we support the development of young people?

Young Enterprise is a programme that gives opportunities to young people to set up projects (little businesses) to learn business and entrepreneurial skills, and then they are tutored and mentored by business leaders.

The real exciting part is when they all come together and compete against each other so you have these marvellous award ceremonies where I’ve seen some of the most inspiring things.

Young people standing up on stage and talking about the businesses they’ve created, how they’ve grown those businesses, the passion and ideas that sit behind them and most importantly the learnings they have taken from it. That’s what Young Enterprise is all about.

I got involved with their board about 5-6 years ago and helped to shape the strategy and promote some of these ideas.

It’s a wonderful way in which young people can, in a fairly safe environment, build a little business, learn entrepreneurial skills and basic business skills, which I think are immensely valuable for their ongoing careers whatever they do.

9. Following the recession and during this time of uncertainty in what lies ahead, how important is it for businesses to stay focused on the development of their staff?

The context of work and the political world is growing more and more uncertain, so if we weren’t paying attention to how we look after our people in the past, then we need to pay more attention to it now.

There’s a very old saying people are our most important assets, somewhat hackneyed, but they genuinely are.

Part of the challenge is that business over the last several decades hasn’t always treated people like they’re the most important assets. We’ve tended to create work environments that can be rather command and control, rule bound and all those other things which don’t get the best out of people.

In a world where there is more uncertainty we need to be able to create high performing organisations where everybody can contribute because we can’t all determine it from the top.

The need to get people engaged, hear their voice, connect them, support them, and build diversity in our workforces are important for so many reasons.

Firstly, it creates a better business, because you’re going to get more innovation and more ideas. You’re going to build more agile and responsive businesses.

Secondly, you build more responsible businesses and my goodness that’s important today. We’ve got to rebuild trust in many of our institutions and businesses, and more responsible businesses which are making the best of their people asset help to do just that.

Someone told me a long time ago that there are only two things you have in business: one is people the other is money.

We spend a long time worrying about the money; we now need to spend more time worrying about people as well.

This series of free public lectures brings top level business leaders to Bristol. The full schedule for spring 2017 is now available. If you have any queries please contact events@uwe.ac.uk. Discuss these events on Twitter using the hashtag #BristolLectures. View content from Peter Cheese's lecture here.

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