Barry Flack

Collaborator | People, Place and Technology

1. Do you remember a time when you were happiest as a child? Where were you, who were you with and what were you doing?

Belfast in the 1970s, it appeared from the history books, was not for the faint-hearted but a time I look back on it with fond memories. Why? Your biggest enemy as a child was boredom and with so much going on around us every day it felt like that was never an issue. If you add to the mix the wonderful irony that as a society at its most dangerous, we had so much personal freedom as kids to just get on and make our own craic. The sort of freedom that would have the social services calling at your door today as a parent. No such thing as organised fun but community-based, 25-a-side football matches in the streets all day, interrupted by lots of irish mammys arriving at different points shouting your name then tea and the constant arguing over scorelines and jumpers for goalposts. In the name of both Ireland or Britain ‘terrible beauties were born’ but knowing the names of every army-registered assault rifle, taking your bag and your dog to the post-riot scenes to collect rubber bullets and finding out that the marzipan stuff in the school was actually hidden plastic explosives and another day off school were strangely some of the best days of my life. And when you knew nothing else then everything was just normal, wasn’t it?.

2. If you could write a brief note to your 13 year old self, what advice would you impart in it?

Hey Barry, I know you currently resent that your parents have moved you to a bigoted, horrible little Ulster town that would give Louisiana in the 1960s a run for its money but that fire in your belly will see you head off to England and beyond later this decade and you’ll never look back. Battling against the issue of immaturity in the next few years, with the onset of early facial hair will take you to a group of mates a few years beyond you and a false assumption that a solution lies in working at the local assembly line all week to pay for enough drink to take you from Thursday evening to Sunday. You’ll hit a realisation at around 18 that this is nonsense but we’ll have to put up with a few stubborn, immature years yet before the message lands.

Whatever lands in England you’ll work your way through the highs and the lows, with a great deal of the former but you’ll never forget where you came from or what you stand for, no matter what. Oh yeah, the most important thing, if I could, I would love to tell you is not about you – I want you to make note of the date in 5 years time – 8th August 1988 and tell your wee schoolmate Seamus Morris before he leaves school that day not to stand outside those shops in Ardoyne but to stay indoors that fateful day. There’s a car full of killers armed to the teeth and Seamy, like so many others, deserve to live on and enjoy the life you now take for granted.

For Seamus and all the lost generation of children of the troubles. May they RIP.

3. What are the three books that you would unhesitatingly recommend to others? Why?

The Orange State by Michael Farrell

To tell the British people that on their doorstep in Ireland was an apartheid state, created to sustain a permanent unionist majority and which persisted for 50 years in unreported violence and misery (for the minority catholics) before the troubles kicked in. Before this book, I had a catalogue of stories from my mother’s side that were of constant discrimination and violence that nobody cared nor knew about.

The Shift by Lynda Gratton

A great book about the routes possible futures of work could take and which left the very clear impression on me that we have to stop looking at some kind of inevitable machine takeover a la terminator. We (humans) hold the key to the type of society we want to live in and how we want to use technology to our advantage.

The Barrytown Trilogy by Roddy Doyle

Magnificent trio of stories including the commitments (still magnificent without the music), the snapper (what irish da doesn’t have this awkward story about his relationship with his daughter) and the magnificent Van (in the backdrop of Italia 90 were 1 chapter literally says: “Then Ireland were knocked out by Italy”). Great laughs. Great writing from a legend.

4. Name a well-known person you admire and explain why you hold them high esteem?

John Hume – a man who unwaveringly throughout the history of the troubles, stood against violence and who won the Nobel prize for achieving peace before disappearing into the background and enjoying retirement without any need for fanfare of added wealth. A man of true principles, a leader and a wonderful antidote to gobshites our island has created like Bono and Bob Geldof, two arseholes who’ve grown in love with their own self-image.

John was taken from us this year. Dementia is a bastard. He’ll be forever remembered fondly for stopping the violence and shaping the peace in Ireland. God bless you John.

5. If you wrote a ‘user manual’ for how people should interact with you, what would be the top three things they should know?

I’ll divide opinion greatly and appreciate there are many people out there who can’t stand me. Thankfully I have a wonderful ability not to GAF about those kind of people. However, get beyond the directness of my communication style and you’ll see a pretty predictable pattern of:

1. Seeing the good in people in the first instance, despite at times what people may have warned me about.

2. Allow me time for enquiry as I help, checking in that you are authentic and a match with my values or sense of right and wrong. If you are, you’ll get a highly supportive, loyal and trusted friend and colleague.

3. Cross me and I’m utterly unforgiving. You are dead to me then….

6. What personality trait has got you in the most trouble? What kind of trouble does it get you in?

My constant questioning. My career in corporate HR could be summarised as follows:

1990s – What do we do here in HR?
2000s – Why are we doing this in HR, it doesn’t work?
Noughties and beyond – Why aren’t we doing this differently?

Most HR professionals (certainly traditional corporate types) are happily rewarded and gratified in a system that makes little sense, drives stupid rituals and behaviours and encourages a lack of action rather than than the opposite.

7. Have you always had the same political beliefs? If so, why do you think you have held them so long? If not, what event caused you to change your view?

History meant that I came from a working-class family from a pretty besieged Irish nationalist background, so that stuff shapes you. You’re the rebel, the contrarian and the unrepentant fenian from one of the communities that existed in the north of Ireland. I think, since the troubles ended, that has allowed for a bit of obvious introspection and so the ferocity of belief that this fostered is tempered a lot and you become much more fascinated in what shared spaces and shared identities are in the absence of everyday conflict and war, which is what we had. In an enterprise perspective you are shaped by the people who most represent what you’ve grown up with and you do recognise the unspoken schisms that exist in industries around the haves and have nots in the UK – the great class divide, where some people believe they have greater intelligence and not access that fuels their careers. In a british society, so incapable of taking on its taboo topics, I’d love to see us open up the funnel for greater levels of opportunity amongst all sections of our community.

8. When was the last time you felt like an outsider in a group? What/How did you learn?

When I first became a freelancer I took the time to flirt around the communities that exist in the people professional space, primarily between the Social HR mob and the Social Recruitment piece. Inevitably you begin to realise their very existence at times is based on a fake view that ‘others’ are the problem, that they hold all the answers and that groupthink takes over. It’s interesting to see what are typically ‘nice’ people develop in this way but frankly I’m an outsider to it and it bores me. Turning up at another TRU event hearing the same people berate the ‘HR’ others or vice versa depresses me but I get it – it serves a purpose for them, an identity and a place to belong. The worrying thing is the lack of desire to build alliances beyond these tribes but a comfort (and a reward) to stay in the lanes.

9. What app or tech product have you most recently fallen in love with?

I’ve been an avid user of social collaboration tools for some time but of course the pandemic has seen an explosion and a lot of my communities / clients and networks are now going there as a matter of course, which is great. Why? Because primarily e-mail, and its utterly toxic set of features have been an obvious source of a poor product trying to solve so many organisational rituals down the years. Now I get it’s about people and not tech ultimately but what devious bastard came up with cc and bcc as a useful feature for building trust, respect and community inside workplaces. It’s developed into an ass-covering, discussion avoidance tool for the weak and lame in our businesses, sucking the productivity out of white collar businesses everywhere, for so long that we have a generation of technocrats who believe it’s normal.

10. What’s your desktop/mobile screensaver? Take a screenshot and attach it to your answer!

It’s a celebration of my team Celtic winning nine in a row in Scotland, an amazing achievement. Supporting Celtic has been a labour of love and I’m old enough to appreciate the success of this generation weighed against the nightmare years of the 1990s. Here we go 10IAR !

11. If you were to own a bar, and you could design it how you wanted, what would it look like?

It would be a reflection of everything I have always loved about the pub scene – the sense of community (probably one of the last bastions), the characters, the music that played and the events we shared as a group at our happiest – whether it was on a cold, wet night in Glasgow or Belfast to the warmth of an exotic European outdoor bar on a football trip or the gathering of various nationalities in a London establishment where everyone on the planet seems to have congregated to smile and laugh.

12. If you could invite any 3 people - living or dead - to your final dinner party before the end of the world, who would they be and why?

Nelson Mandela

For the inspiration, the hero-worshipping and the stories of a national struggle and the people he inspired

Quentin Tarantino

For the record collection, the movies and the bizarre back catalogue of movies and pop culture.

Billy Connolly

For the laughs and the humorous outlook on life. Get yourself 3 great storytellers, sit back and enjoy the experience.

13. What's a skill that isn’t on your resume, but your former bosses would recognize as one of the reasons you are successful?

A challenger, a voice around the table who will present an alternative view. Unfortunately much of what we have valued isn’t about sensemaking (a skill that is seen as too slow and irrelevant, wrongly) in business. But we hire for conformity and culture fit because it’s more natural and easier to recruit in our image or interpret the experience at company x as a key attribute to acquire – they ‘know’ our business.

14. What decision makes you say, “What was I thinking??” when you look back on your career?

Joining functional HR. I regret it every day of my life. I hope in the next few years the function itself undergoes a massive renaissance (well actually death to be honest), away from its interfering worst to a skill and focus in business that transcends this functional ownership.

15. Who is the best co-workers or collaborator you’ve ever worked with? Now is the moment to give them a shout out - who were they and why were they so good?

My push into being more social online was down to the efforts of the excellent Gareth Jones, a guy whose consistent ability to rise above the BS of the HR and Recruitment Technology industry has always been inspirational to me. At that time, Gareth took my incessant stories of corporate woe and gave me the push to write this stuff down. I created a blog called ChangingHR and it allowed me to chastise and satirise the utter futility and craziness of so much of what I had seen, from the rituals of the recruitment headhunter to the monsters of the HR universe – the HRBP. I haven’t really looked back since.

16. Have you ever been the weakest member of a team? How did you handle it?

I worked as the ‘office junior’ in both the health service and the recently privatised BT during the 1990s. They were offices high on hierarchy, inefficiency and to be far, camaraderie and low on tech and value. A lot of time was spent learning what to avoid doing later in your career as the culture of both places were about gratifying little Hitlers lost in the maze of bureaucracy, who were obsessed with internal grades and small margins of power. I hated it, recognised early on the truly toxic nature of poor people systems and thought that building people up for the well-intentioned efforts was a better way to enjoy life in the enterprise.

17. When it comes to our work and industry: what scares you most?

The utter contempt with which the people profession is held means that our ability to influence, whilst improving, is still too limited. I’d happily never see the HR function appear again if it was to allow a more valuable position-based discussion around how to get the best out of people. At the time of most exciting change across the world of work, will we be bypassed?

18. What common wisdom in our industry needs to be debunked?

That organised work is a natural state for humans – it just isn’t. The Purpose fanatics, the alignment junkies, the Employer Branding junta and the values halfwits have all been thrust upon us to make this feel like some human venture worthy of pursuit if we had a chance. Our challenge in the workplace is about how we organize for success today, in the face of an unknown external market and the sheer beauty of people complexity. We can’t control that stuff but we can try and be free of the stuff that makes us both naturally unhappy and unproductive and instead go after those things in our brain that tends to help propel more successful enterprises – greater autonomy, problem-solving and decentralising tendencies.

19. .Do you have a secret tip, tool or trick that’s contributed to your success?

Never feel comfortable and always embrace a huge dose of humility that you can learn and adapt until someone puts you in a box. As a tip, challenge yourself to think of being in competition with your mirror image out there who is indeed doing the things you should be in terms of learning and adapting. Whilst you sit around they race on and become more relevant.

20. Who would you recommend to do the next 20 Questions With … ?

Mitch Sullivan

Thank you to Barry Flack for taking 20 Questions for The Brainfood Tribune

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