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Tom Plug

  • Programme: Human Resources Strategy for Transforming Organisations
  • Nationality: Dutch
  • Job Pre-programme: Lead Expert HR Strategy & Innovation

Turning HR strategy into stories that connect

A London Business School programme gave Tom Plug plenty of food for thought. When he acted on it a year later he found his work taking off in new directions

Tom Plug has found a sweet spot in his career. He leads Human Resource Strategy and Innovation for the Netherlands’ largest telecom and IT service provider, KPN. And he’s harnessing the power of storytelling to bring home challenging concepts to the company’s 15,000 employees. For Plug the satisfaction comes when he can see people engaging with those narratives and starting to create change for themselves – whether that’s around increasing their employability in the face of global challenges to the way we work, or adopting positive psychology techniques to realise their potential in the workplace.

It’s fair to say that Plug fell into HR. After training as a primary school teacher he started out in the early 1990s teaching adults how to work with computers. Then he became an IT professional and was offered a job as a manager. Fortunately the IT company had an enlightened approach to developing its staff and Plug was struck by the fact that this produced highly engaged employees who were willing to learn and be their best. “For me it was the first discovery that if you have a good vision on HR and execute it well then that can be a crucial ingredient in the success of your organisation,” he says.

Joining HR

Plug was hooked and in 2007 he joined KPN as an HR advisor for the business. The company was still involved in major restructuring after a period of job cuts in the early 2000s. Plug became involved in negotiations for collective labour agreements but it became apparent that new models were needed. The whole concept of jobs for life was over and it was evident that – more than ever – people had to take control of their own career paths, and not just rely on their company to steer a path for them.

At KPN, HR was busy talking to employees about the concept of “employability” – making sure your skills are fit for the future – and offering courses and training. But it wasn’t making enough headway. “We saw that not a lot of people were really taking their future in their own hands,” says Plug. “Maybe they thought, ‘This won’t affect me’ or ‘I still have time’, but we didn’t see them acting in a way to prepare for change.”

It was in 2014, while Plug was wrestling with how to communicate this message better, that he went to London Business School (LBS) to take the Human Resource Strategy in Transforming Organisations programme. His new manager had taken the course a few years before and thought Plug would also benefit from it as he moved from operational day-to-day HR to a more strategic role.

Global forces

And it was at LBS that Plug heard Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice, talking about the future of work. Her narrative made immediate sense to him, in particular that the changes taking place in the world were bigger than any company; bigger than KPN alone.

“For me it created awareness that you shouldn’t be telling the story from the point of view of KPN and saying to employees, ‘KPN thinks it’s important that you be employable’, but that it’s much bigger than that,” he says. “It’s about saying that the world is changing and you should be aware that it may have an impact on your work, on your career.

“That’s the transition to the concept of sustainable employability. Rather than an organisation saying you should be thinking about the future, the focus is more on the individual to take their future into their own hands.”

Plug was also struck by another element of Professor Gratton’s message when she told the group that HR is the function that can help companies move into the future. It set off a trigger in his mind that activated a year later when, back at KPN HQ in The Hague, someone said they wanted to explore the idea of the future of work at a departmental gathering.

Telling the story

“I told them I’d just been to London and heard Lynda Gratton and other academics and I could try to tell the story,” recalls Plug. “So I put together 10 slides and gave a short talk. Then someone in the audience said it would be interesting for their department too and asked if I could do a keynote in front of 200 people. And from that day on I’ve kept getting invitations from people who ask if I can tell it to their group.

“I know my 45 minute story won’t change the world, but in that 45 minutes I want something to start to resonate with people that this is part of something bigger; that the world is changing but you as an individual can have an impact on your own future. We all have a passion, a sense of craftsmanship, a level of vitality and resilience that can help us.”

Gaining traction

Plug has developed different versions of the presentation for employees, management and HR personnel.

He has also told the story outside KPN to the company’s partners. And he has found likeminded people at the Dutch HR service provider Randstad, which has started an initiative with several companies including KPN to think more about the future and sustainability of work in the Netherlands.

The topic has gathered momentum and KPN made the Future of Work one of its four main strategic programmes for HR. Plug is training his HR colleagues on how to give the presentation themselves. And the company is making a series of videos about major trends such as the rise of robots, globalisation and digital technology, featuring senior managers talking about how these trends translate to KPN.

Plug has also developed the Three Phase model for KPN’s collective labour agreement based on developing a “stable and future-proof labour market position” for employees by encouraging them to always think about their future, however secure their current employment position. He also believes that if people have confidence in their own craftsmanship, vitality and resilience (in Dutch the “3Vs”) and constantly invest in these assets they will be able to create security for themselves in the face of uncertain times. It’s an important HR initiative, supported by KPN’s labour unions, which will be extended to all the company’s employees.

Positive move

There’s no doubt Plug’s work has taken off in new directions. “I would never have expected all this to happen,” he says. “The week in London gave me the kind of in-depth, academic-level discussions, peers and passion that I never got in my formal education, while KPN gave me the room and opportunities to explore that passion.”

He credits the programme with having a positive impact on his career and his personal life at home in the Netherlands where he is married with two soccer-mad sons who enjoy going with him to watch local team ADO Den Haag play in the Dutch top division.

And his message – inspired by Professor Gratton – is clear. “When I give my presentation to an HR audience I always say to them that it’s time to claim your role. Don’t wait for people to ask you for your ideas and strategies, just take your role.”

Tom Plug’s recommended reading

Positivity by Dr Barbara Fredrickson

When he returned to LBS for a Global Leadership Forum, Plug was inspired by Professor Dan Cable talking about his “best self” concept. “It’s so simple and so human and has such a great impact on people and organisations, and those are the little pearls I am looking for in the HR world,” says Plug. “What are sometimes very easy, logical human things that can help you improve performance but can also sometimes help improve the person themselves.”

He’s now working with Professor Cable to see if they can implement the “best self” concept at KPN. And he’s reading one of Professor Cable’s book recommendations: Positivity by social psychologist Dr Barbara Fredrickson.

“I’m interested in using theories such as this one about positive psychology that you wouldn’t instantly connect with HR or business practice,” says Plug. “I think there are a lot of subjects that feel “soft” but are actually very important for the success of organisations that should be brought in more than they have been in the past.”


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