HR director who made the headlines

Lucy Adams

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It's fitting that Lucy Adams sees her immediate future as a leadership resilience guru.

The HR director, who left the BBC on Friday, has endured a veritable onslaught over the last couple of years, which have seen director generals toppled, child abusers jailed, bullies outed and senior execs sent packing with princely pay-offs.

Staff blamed Adams for freezing their pay and weakening their pensions. Unions reproached her for cutting jobs and raising stress levels. Newspapers mocked her designer clothes and permatan. MPs castigated her for cronyism and wasting public money. Even a spurned ex-husband piled in with a bitter kiss-and-tell tale in a Sunday tabloid.

It's enough to tip the toughest over the top, but a composed Adams insists these events had no bearing on her decision to depart - only on the timing of the announcement.

'I told Mark [Thompson] when I first joined that I would probably do five years, and that's coming up shortly,' she tells Ariel, 'and I said I'd work with Tony for his first year. I thought that five years was probably the right time to go and do something different.'

Start Quote

I remember sitting in my first meeting and they were using the most incredible vocabulary. Some words I'd never even heard of”

End Quote Lucy Adams
Not your average exec

Adams first arrived at the BBC in 2009, making an immediate impression. Her image and accent were at odds with the typical exec, and she'd grown up away from the media.

She'd been lured away from a 'very happy' time at City law firm Eversheds by a headhunter with the BBC on its books.

'I knew then that if I got the opportunity to work here, it was definitely something I would do.'

After all, she pretty much owed everything to the Corporation.

'My mum and dad met here,' she explains. 'He was an actor and writer, who worked for Radio 4 drama and Woman's Hour. Mum was a secretary in the legal department. They met in 1963.

'I think if you're in your forties or fifties and were brought up in the UK, then the BBC really is the backdrop to your life,' she adds.

But being an outsider had its drawbacks. 'I remember sitting in my first meeting and they were using the most incredible vocabulary. Some words I'd never even heard of,' she laughs. 'I remember thinking that this was such an intellectual environment. I was used to a more earthy, more practical set-up, moving more quickly and getting things done.

'It took some time to work out how to fit in, how to influence people, how to get things done in a different way.'

Close to the clients

But as a newcomer she had licence to question - particularly when it came to an HR function bogged down with labyrinthine pay bands, grades and sensitivities.

'At first, you tend to ask why things are done the way they are. The tricky part is knowing when things need to be that way and when they're just a legacy from the past and need challenging.'

Impressed by her 'hard working' HR team that 'cares passionately' about its work, Adams encouraged them to get closer to the clients.

Start Quote

They could have been working for a paper factory or something. Few got out to see programmes being made or to meet programme makers and journalists”

End Quote Lucy Adams

'They could have been working for a paper factory or something,' she says. 'Few got out to see programmes being made or to meet programme makers and journalists. I always felt that was an issue because when you work somewhere you have to know what's being done, you have to love what's being done, you have to be engaged with what's being done. I think that makes you better at what you do.'

She set an example, visiting the likes of Crimewatch, News at Ten and Woman's Hour where she was 'overwhelmed with the professionalism, pride and high calibre' of the staff.

HR's one job

But whether the BBC could continue to attract, retain and motivate such talented people - 'HR has really only got one job and it's that' - looked increasingly tricky against mounting financial pressures.

How these would play out in relation to pay, jobs and pensions would come to define Adams' tenure, as she was tasked with delivering one gloomy message to staff after another.

While decisions were taken by the board, she took the flak from disgruntled workers whose living standards now and in the future were in danger of being compromised.

'It's perhaps convenient to blame HR,' she judges. 'It goes with the territory. But if you're in a senior position and get well paid [she earned a handsome £320,000 a year] then you have a huge responsibility to stand up and be counted. I've never tried to shy away from that.'

The tensions inevitably coloured her relationship with the unions, reaching its nadir last September when the NUJ accused her of leading a 'dirty tricks campaign' against its members. Adams took legal action and the union has since apologised for the allegations.

'In the end, the NUJ and the HR team ultimately want what's best for the BBC,' she reflects graciously. 'We don't always agree, but I think you can always find common ground.

'I've tried to handle those relationships openly, honestly - what you see is what you get - and I've had some lovely emails from some union members wishing me all the best.'

Lucy Adams talks to the BBC as union members walk out over compulsory redundancies in March 2013 Lucy Adams justifies redundancies as union members walk out in March 2013
Firing bullies

She also commends their work towards combating bullying, after the Respect at Work Review identified it as a 'real concern' at the Corporation.

'We've gone further than many other organisations and are making good progress,' says Adams. 'We didn't just leave it covered up.'

But does she understand why staff get frustrated when some individuals, facing multiple bullying claims, get moved rather than fired?

'I can understand why staff want stronger sanctions,' she says, 'but they have to be appropriate. If it warrants firing somebody then that has to be done. In other situations it's more complex and the sanction needs to be lighter. It's difficult to talk in generalities and I don't want to get into individual cases.'

Start Quote

In the end, the politicians were doing what they felt was right, the papers were behaving in a way that we've grown to expect and I completely understand why people felt angry about severance payments”

End Quote Lucy Adams

If Adams had encountered resentment before, it would pale against the mauling - or 'televised monstering', as one paper put it - she experienced during two appearances before the Public Accounts Committee over senior manager pay-offs.

MPs rebuked her for presiding over a 'culture of cronyism' while PAC chair Margaret Hodge - who appeared to take a personal dislike to Adams - called her a liar.

Some months on, Adams is measured in her response. She believes it was inevitable that she became the focal point at the first hearing, as the only BBC representative from the time the payments were made, while Hodge was 'clearly very angry about what she felt was an abuse of public money'.

And while she accepts 'justifiable criticism' of some of the settlements where 'we could have challenged harder and exited people for less money', she maintains that the BBC had acted with the best intentions.

'I think it's regrettable that the debate wasn't more balanced,' she says. 'We were doing this to save money - and we are saving £20m a year - while the vast majority of the pay-offs (£23m of the £25m) were people's contractual entitlement.'

Lucy Adams at PAC hearing July 2013 Lucy Adams gives evidence to PAC on severance pay in July 2013
Clothes and make-up

More disappointing was the press reaction, which 'got very personal about what I wear, how I do my make-up'.

'It's very rare that HR directors make the headlines,' she concedes. 'It was tough having paps on the doorstep and my personal life paraded in the Mail on Sunday, but equally, you learn a hell of a lot about your levels of resilience and the people you can count on.'

She points to 'fantastic support' from friends, family and colleagues and the hundreds of supportive emails and calls which left her with 'a real sense of the generosity of people'.

She reserves particular warmth for her HR team, who wrote to Ariel last autumn in protest at the 'level of vitriol' directed towards a leader whose 'great integrity and honesty' they vouched for.

'I had no idea they were going to do that,' says Adams. 'I was genuinely moved and grateful.'

She'll miss them the most in her post-BBC world, where she's 'learning to run' (before a 5k in June), catching up with friends and family and watching football.

Start Quote

The BBC's such a massive experience in anyone's life and I don't want to rush into the next thing.'”

End Quote Lucy Adams
Chelsea fan

'Football is huge for me,' says the Chelsea fan, who was at Stamford Bridge on Saturday to see her side cruise to victory against Stoke. 'There are so many Premiership games, then there's the Champions League - it takes up a lot of time,' says the woman who may need to call on some of that inner steel as her team negotiates the tense tail end of the season.

She recalls spending a day with Match of the Day, sharing the production office with the likes of Gary Lineker, Alan Hansen and Alan Shearer. 'I've watched Match of the Day since I was a little girl with my Dad, and that was just fantastic,' she enthuses.

Less glamorous, but even more of a privilege, was visiting the BBC bureaux in Kabul and Gaza.

'It's something I would never have had the opportunity to do, and I'm not sure I'd want to do it again,' reflects Adams. 'I spent most of the time feeling slightly terrified.'

Time out

She will take her time before making her next career move. 'The BBC's such a massive experience in anyone's life and I don't want to rush into the next thing.'

But the torrid time experienced by the director and the Corporation over the past 18 months couldn't have equipped her better to speak about leadership resilience. 'A lot of people have contacted me about it,' she says. 'I've become really fascinated by the subject and will probably do some work in this area.'

She could be angry, defensive or bitter towards her detractors, but instead defends them - in a pragmatic rather than munificent way - as people doing their jobs.

'In the end, the politicians were doing what they felt was right, the papers were behaving in a way that we've grown to expect and I completely understand why people felt angry about severance payments,' she says.

And she leaves with unbridled enthusiasm for 'this amazing place'.

'Of course the last couple of years have been difficult, but overall it's been an incredible five years and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.'

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