Interview with Barry Flack; Global HR Executive, Leader and Strategist

Interview with Barry Flack; Global HR Executive, Leader and Strategist

Fri 30 Jun 2017 | Interview

Dear HR Colleague, welcome to the second part of our interview series! This month we had the opportunity to chat with Barry, a Global HR Executive, leader and strategist. Barry has worked with organisations such as Primark, Lebara Mobile, Barclays Bank, among others where he has been instrumental in driving workplace change.

With over 25 years of experience of change in the HR field, Barry has gained a unique perspective and understanding of how complex people-related business problems can be solved.

If you’d like to be considered for a future interview in the series, or know someone suitable who would, please email

Let’s get down to business and see the lessons Barry shared with us!

1. Hi Barry! It seems like you really love solving complex people-related business problems. What drove you to HR?

It was part design and part accident! I was enjoying a university education in Belfast while trying to understand complex political problems. As a postgraduate I faced choosing between continuing down a marketing path or taking the HR route. I chose the latter with the promise of free accommodation in a tenement block in Manchester as a benefit! It’s fair to say I fell into it from then.

2. How would you explain to your grandmother what you do?

I try to build better businesses through people, workspaces and technology. To help grandma put things into perspective I would tell her that where she previously had to submit her application by writing a letter, getting off the couch and going to the mailbox to post, I have now come up with a way for her to submit it on her computer without having to go out!

3. Taking into consideration your experience, which of the following do you find more challenging: building a completely new system (i.e within a start-up) or changing existing ones (within a large company), and why?

Changing the way things are being done within a company is definitely a more challenging aspect. The art of unlearning and replacing the unproductive stuff we have inherited from a century of workplace practice is bloody hard, especially when some businesses don’t see the problem manifesting itself and have a really tough time facing the issue once it’s pointed out.

This is true especially for people in leadership positions If you’ve been in charge of something, you have traditionally got to know everything required to solve a specific problem.

The responsibilities have been now been passed down in the organisation. The unlearning process for the person at the helm of the organisation is now a much more humble process. The new problems they are faced with are more complex, and therefore the answers require a greater level of diversity of opinion, knowledge, and looking at things from different perspectives.

These answers need to come from as varied a group of people as possible. Leaders need to stop relying on the the idea of ‘I know how to fix this culture’ myself.

A really simple example would be company handbooks. A company handbook would tell you that you shouldn’t have tattoos. This made companies feel like we’re trying to control people’s actions because we wrote it down. You can’t command people. You can convince them, persuade them, or influence them, but they have to walk the path.

We spent decades over-complicating work between human beings. Our challenge now is to simplify the system without making it chaotic. We have to kick out the old command-and-control mindset.

For far too long we believed we have this allure of being the boss, writing down the rules and creating the handbook. This made us believe we were in control of the organisation.

4. How do you change a company’s culture when they might end up seeing you as the enemy? Can you understand their culture quickly? Do you manage to keep people happy and productive at the same time?

It’s a story similar to the one we’ve just had. A company gives you an organogram and tells you about very important people who are on the board and their function. You know that in one dimension they are still highly relevant for the issue, holding the budget for example.

The complexity model is in the ‘hidden organisation’; the value-creating organisation. It’s the individual who is well-networked at the head of merchandising, or the design team I would be looking to become friends with. Who’s the go-to person? Who’s the person who has the institutional knowledge? Who’s the person respected which also commands respect, connects the dots, looks up and around?

A lot of it comes down to understanding who are the value creators in the organisation. The aim is to identify all of their talents and see how you can use them to their maximum potential. If you manage to figure out how to solve an issue in one week instead of four weeks, then you’ve solved a major issue.

I always recommend a book called ‘The Art of Not Knowing’ to anyone who is looking to understand more about the leadership model in today’s business. The heroic figure who runs the business is never going to be comfortable saying I don’t know the answer’ after they reach the top. ‘The Art of Not Knowing’ is about how you create an accountable culture which allows for the exchange of information at the right place.

5. What was the last book you read? What’s your favourite book?

Organise for Complexity by Niels Pflaeging. My favourite is Ten Men Dead by David Beresford, a lot of lessons to learn regardless of your political views.

6. You have been active in the industry for the past 25 years. How has HR Technology shaped the business world during this time?

I’ve seen it move from being the technology of choice on a massive desktop with a black screen and rubbish User Interface that was so quickly overtaken by our consumer experience. Organisations have automated our rubbish 20th century practices whilst thinking we were being disruptive. Some people were surprised to find out that putting the policy handbook on the intranet didn’t suddenly make it a great policy!

As emerging technology has developed we have been led by whose vendor vision to reimagine the sociology of work, but our challenge at the moment is about piecing together an uncluttered employee experience that fits the context of each specific organisation.

7. In your view, why is the so-called buzzword “disruptive HR” misguided? Is it just bandwagoning or is there a practical reason?

It’s become a byword for progress in itself. It’s like a Hoxton hipster, a corporate accessory no different from a beard and fußball table that people have thrown in to justify a piece of HR Tech, some of which are merely prettified features rather than a re-imagining of our world of work. I blame marketers and PR people primarily!

8. In the film of your life, who’d play you?

I’ve always had visions of Robin Williams playing it, but will now have to settle for Frankie Boyle instead! I love Frankie’s irreverent style but he’s not for everybody. Sometimes you have to strike a balance without being too ‘in your face’ or threatening so comedy is always a decent way of doing that. I’ve written about this on my blog where I’ve used a more satirical tone to talk about the various caricatures I have encountered along the way.

9. Your LinkedIn mentions you’re a faculty lecturer. Do you think technology is going to give up-and-coming HR professionals a better chance at changing the world of work? Or do these new tools just help manage people instead of connecting them and building a culture?

Technology can enable, augment and create more and more frictionless workplace experiences that will delight and terrify us in equal measures (see the hype and melodrama regarding AI!). The biggest impact on the changing world of work remains what it has always been – humans who will dictate the rules of engagement, the regulatory environment and the obsession with the risk profile that has dominated us for decades.

10. What do you like to do outside of work?

I’m a father to three young demanding children aged 4, 6, 7. Sometimes I treat myself and have a sleep.

11. If you could change something about your sector, what would it be?

The propensity for HR people to stare longingly at their own souls and lose opportunities to be relevant.

12. What are you most afraid of – professionally and personally?

Becoming irrelevant is my biggest fear. So I read, connect and learn and question and remain curious. I try a lot of things and fail spectacularly in the process. Then I read some more and learn some more and go at it again.

13. A lot of the roles you’ve been involved in were interim jobs. How does an interim HR Director create a lasting change within a company culture, especially one that was already established when he or she got there?

You take the role that means you have to be the bravest person in the room when it comes to shaking it up and trying to change the organisation. You talk out loud and question harmful, wasteful, unproductive guff that people have begun to accept and they recognise there is another new way of working.

14. Explain the gorillas on LinkedIn and Twitter – are they your ‘spirit animal’ so to speak?

In an attempt to burst onto the social media scene I adopted the Gorilla in the Room as the metaphor for not talking about issues that were truly threatening and dangerous to us personally and professionally.

The gorilla is a more powerful image than the elephant one and I thought more apt to represent what I do. I came out producing my blog where I talk about changing HR, so I wanted a logo to go along with that. I had to choose between a gorilla and an elephant. The elephant is nice so I went for the big aggressive gorilla because the things I wanted to talk about in the room had every potential to kill us, and kill the company.

We wish to thank Barry for taking the time to chat with us and for his transparency in sharing many of the insights he gained throughout his career as a Global HR Executive.