Monday Interview: Peter Russian, Investors in People

About £30 billion is spent every year by organisations around the world on leadership training, and though unwilling to be drawn on an exact figure, Peter Russian reckons a “significant amount” of that money is going to waste.

Peter Russian and IIP have turned their focus on the young. Picture: Jon Savage
Peter Russian and IIP have turned their focus on the young. Picture: Jon Savage

It seems an odd admission from a man who has spent pretty much the whole of his career in management consultancy, but the chief executive of Investors in People (IIP) Scotland cites figures to back up his point. For example, the number of people reporting “high engagement” – a solid affinity with their employer and strong enthusiasm for their work – has remained fairly steady at about 20 per cent for the past 20 years, despite the billions being spent on leadership development.

“You would think for the amount of investment going in, we would see a better return on that spending,” says Russian. “But there has been a lot of ‘jumping into’ leadership development without any understanding of what the objectives are.

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“The ones who are not doing it well are simply doing the same things over and over, rather than making progress to reach a certain level and then saying OK, where do we go next from here?”

Now entering his 12th year at the helm of IIP Scotland, Russian says some still don’t appreciate how an empowered workforce under effective management contributes to the bottom line. While a director of human resources (HR) naturally takes ownership of training and development, others such as the chief executive and finance director must buy into it as well.

“You pick up an average business plan and look at the strategic objectives – there are generally eight or nine strategic objectives – and somewhere around number eight or nine, usually just before the corporate social responsibility statement, it says ‘We are going to put people at the heart of our organisation’.

“Saying it in that way totally misses the point. It should run throughout your strategy – your people weigh upon everything you do as a business.”

Though born in Edinburgh, Russian’s family moved down south when he was two. Raised near Oxford, he received a degree in public administration from what was then Sheffield Polytechnic before eventually working his way to director of development in the London offices of Investors in People UK.

He was 34 and newly wed to his Scottish wife, Nic, when the post for chief executive of IIP Scotland became available. With family still living north of the Border, the opportunity to combine that with a new challenge was compelling.

One of the things he has noticed since then is that when it comes to employment and workplace relations, policies in Scotland are being developed in ways very different from those in England. This is most evident in the workplace review published earlier this month, which was commissioned by the Scottish Government and chaired by Jim Mather.

“There is a divergence of interest of the UK versus the Scottish Government,” Russian says. “From the UK level, there is less of an interest in what happens in the workplace.”

This more proactive stance has kick-started Russian’s newest campaign, Investors in Young People (IIYP).

Launched in July, IIYP is the first programme of its kind to focus solely upon youth recruitment and development. It aims to address the gap recently highlighted by the Prince’s Trust, which notes that more than 800,000 young people across the UK remain unemployed even though more than half of all businesses are struggling to fill vacancies.

More disturbingly, a report earlier this month from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a centre-left think tank, warned that even full-blown economic recovery will not solve the UK’s youth unemployment problem. Much of this is down to a “striking mismatch” between what the young are training for and the types of jobs available.

In Scotland, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that less than 30 per cent of employers recruit directly from education. “We have got this scenario where if you go up north, there are huge challenges being faced by the oil and gas industry in particular, which is struggling to find enough recruits, and then on the other hand we still have this group of people where unemployment remains a significant problem,” Russian says.

In light of this, IIYP has looked to those companies that are best at training up young people to create a framework that other businesses can emulate.

They include Ace Winches in Aberdeen, Glasgow construction group GMG Contractors, Easthall Park Housing Co-operative and Glasgow air conditioning specialist B-DACS, all of which have already been awarded IIYP accreditation.

The response so far has been positive, with some 120 companies signing up for initial briefing events in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. The aim is to have 100 organisations accredited in year one, with that number accelerating to 800 within three years.

Given the current strategic focus on youth unemployment, IIYP has received £1 million from the Scottish Government to fund the programme through its first two years. For Russian, it’s another “clear sign” of where priorities lie.

“We have provided something for government that answers a lot of questions,” he says. “Once again, it goes back to what we were talking about with the different levels of commitment of the Scottish and UK governments.”

30-second CV

Job: Chief executive of Investors in People Scotland.

Born: Edinburgh, 1968.

Raised: Near Oxford.

Education: Public administration, Sheffield Polytechnic.

Ambition while at school: To do something with a purpose.

Car: Mercedes C-Class.

Favourite mode of transport: The train, absolutely. Just in terms of getting things done and productivity, driving is a waste of time.

Kindle or book? Book.

Can’t live without: Holidays.

Favourite place: New York. It’s the excitement, and the variety – it just feels like the centre of the world.

What makes you angry? Rudeness.

Best thing about your job: It is the variety of the people that I work with, and the fact that it is an overwhelmingly positive proposition.