The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn. —
5 Mar 2014
If you’ve been following the previous couple of posts, you’ll know they discuss a new book about changing the way organizations typically work in some very radical ways, with the one example, which the book is about, showing how it can work and produce far happier people and far better results.
Some will worry (and others no doubt rejoice) that the example in the book is a 350-person organization that operates with no HR people. Since we normally advise organizations they will probably need someone dedicated in HR once they reach 100-150 employees, this might not sound like good news for HR. My feeling is quite the opposite.
It’s widely understood by now that HR has two broad roles in organizations where it’s currently developed to present-day state of the art. What usually comes first is a clerical, administrative role that often starts with payroll, benefits enrolments and lining up postings and interviews and/or doing some or even all of them for new staff. The core issues here start with paper-heavy duties that start as clerical tasks but evolve to include health and safety, human rights, union-avoidance or managing and basic training and development. These in turn lead uphill to more complex programs for succession planning, leadership development, etc. – the core of ‘training and development’ roles.
The ideas is that modern HR continues to evolve toward strategic duties and tasks intended to first support and then, ideally, further the actual business objectives of the organization more directly. Stepping from clerical duties to strategic duties has proven challenging, with some who excelled in the admin aspects of HR not being up to the higher level role and even more organizations not crediting that HR could do this and so pigeon-holing them as useless at this and therefore excluding them from the meetings, relationships and tools needed to do it properly.
Sandwiched among all these is the official ‘shoulder to cry on’ role HR is normally expected to play by everyone at every level of the organization. In part just because the name contains the word “human” the role is supposed to take responsibility for ‘fixing’ people who are wounded, hurt, upset, caught in some policy or procedure, suffering with a bad boss, being bullied in any number of ways, or just plain have an idea that no one else wants to listen to or act on.
Actually, studies all show the first and main ‘shoulder to cry on’ is the employee’s co-worker, but not everyone ‘has a friend in the organization’ (something that has now become a measure of engagement). Those without friends or who need more than someone to listen and sympathize, feel they should be able to count on HR to take remedies further. Mostly these involve delicate matters that may have no solution or that no one has ever encountered (and therefore is likely to mess up). As sensitive, open-minded and careful as we tried to develop our HR managers to be, there is no way to prepare them for the unbelievably wide range of complex individual issues they may occasionally encounter, often ones that would try the wisdom of Solomon.
HR mostly doesn’t relish exclusive ownership of the clerical stuff, even the higher level union/safety and other complicated policy and practical matters associated with them. There are handed to them, tend to be thankless tasks that can mostly only make you look bad if you mess one up.
Much as we make fun of it often, most people choose careers in HR because they ‘want to help people’ so they more willingly take on the ‘shoulder to cry on’ roles, but with far less training and experience than needed to do them anywhere near flawlessly. Like more counselor-type workers their batting average is probably around 50% success (yes, psychiatrists, psychologists – all around the same)… but that also means 50% failure. But it helps to get at least some of these problems remedied and contributes to a sense that the organization cares, at least on the part of some employees. Mistakes in either clerical or counseling tasks causes many individuals to very personally ‘hate HR’ unfortunately, but that goes with the territory.
Ideally if HR could train managers well enough, the tongue-in-cheek theory goes, we could do ourselves out of our jobs. If managers could fill out vacation schedules, get employees using self-serve systems for payroll and benefits, answer all the policy questions or refer staff to information sources, etc., AND if they were good ‘shoulders to cry on’ themselves, with sensitive solutions to individual problems and needs, there would be no need for HR. HR itself typically works furiously to help this happen –trying to find better admin systems, train managers to listen and respond helpfully within the rules, policies, laws, etc. We really do try to do ourselves out of as many of these jobs as humanly possible to cram into line managers skill sets. We really believe that the best manager for everything is the employee’s direct supervisor, whatever level they’re at. Nothing beats someone who’s in touch day to day solving issues immediately… and correctly. Managers on the other hand ‘have work to do’ and are fervently hoping they can lay off as much of this ‘non-essential’ stuff to HR as possible. Work could theoretically run flawlessly if only it weren’t for the human problems. What the heck is HR for anyway?
And the strategy role for HR? Well, line managers would like to own some of that and often feel just as excluded as HR often does, perhaps even more. In fact, where HR is respected and valued by a CEO and seems to have a special in, there is often jealousy, fear and misunderstanding of what HR may be telling the boss. In the natural jockeying for who’s the next CEO, executives don’t appreciate an ‘outsider’ who ‘doesn’t understand the business’ suggesting to the CEO that they may be too harsh with their staff or not conscientious enough with their people or not a good leader.
26 Feb 2014
Richard Sheridan provides an intriguing, easy to read and helpful insight into a form of organizing and management style that is bound to have revolutionary impact at some level.
For those who missed the last post, here again are the key links: to the book – Joy Inc., How We Built a Workplace People Love by Richard Sheridan and his company, Menlo Innovations, and a quick orientation to the book and author via this short video.
Among the things most worth noting in the book are the stinging indictments Sheridan makes in just a few words of the most typical organization environments he’s experienced and is aware of. He puts his finger on failings that we often notice in case after case – fear and what causes it, what it produces in lost results, cover ups, project delays and outright failures at every level from massive to minor. He’s no shy commentator when it comes to identifying and pillorying today’s standard work patterns, for which we can be truly thankful.
What this raises is an obvious question. If he’s right about what’s wrong in the typical organization – patterns that result in failure in many areas including hiring, promotions and other core HR functions as well as in purely work results that lose millions of dollars everywhere we look – and he’s found remedies that demonstrably work – why would not every organization who learns about this quickly change to the new pattern he suggests? This is especially true since he lays out the recipe so clearly and simply an idiot could follow it.
By my reading he doesn’t provide nearly as clear an answer to the puzzle ‘why not’ as one would hope, although I think a close examination of what he says will reveal it’s about as clearly as any of us can state it, just not all in one place. It’s just as important to try to get a grip on why people won’t apply these approaches as to understand what they are and how they work. In fact, understanding how good they are is worthless if you can’t get them implemented.
Obviously habit plays a big role, as does fear – fear of change, of the unknown, of extra work required, of who will say what about the new approaches, about how to explain it all to other people, about what might be hidden traps or unforeseen negatives. It’s human to carve out niches where we feel safe and behavior is familiar and predictable from everyone around us. This has benefits. Studies show the most valuable personality trait of all or any workplace, bar none, is consistency or conscientiousness – doing what you say and doing it dependably so others know what to expect and what they can rely on from you and everyone else.
So here we are – organizations carefully staffed with good workers, for whom the primary deliverable is consistent behavior that we don’t change. Except now change is the order of the day. We need flexibility, adaptability and willingness to try new things… but not so much at the level of our daily routines, just at the level of new strategies, new products, new programs, right? Yes, we’re all familiar with those, but don’t change my work day pattern. Where will the coffee room go, will I get breaks, lunch, have to work overtime, come in earlier, park in a different spot as a result, report to a different boss or to multiple bosses instead of one, or to no one?? Ouch. We can take change all right – as long as it doesn’t change our basic approaches too much or threaten our spot in the reputation pecking order we’ve carefully nurtured to carve out our place, get our annual raise (paltry as it may be), bonus, etc.
Oh, it will be argued we deal with these things already – and so we do – just not all at once. There is a constant trickle of change, but we can mostly cope with that. When we ourselves choose a major change (new job, etc.), well we expect the upheaval that goes with that and we’ve carefully assessed that in the long term it will be worth the trouble and we’ve resolved to weather it.
Sheridan captures the visible part of the problem well early in his book. He describes his first attempts to implement his new ideas in an existing company (before founding his own from scratch). He first convinces his bosses to let him try it in his division and then, to make it palatable, positions it as a short period of new operations for his people. At the end of the trial period he announces – by one-sided management fiat – that this will be the new way of working from now on. He nearly has a riot despite the fact that, as he points out to them, everyone loved the experiment.
Later examples confirm this is typical of the way most teams and organizations react. You can almost hear the total population of managers who flood into his operation to take a look: “Yes, that’s great for them, but it would never work in our company.” Of course, that’s a subtle way of saying, “I won’t ever do this, and I know the rest of our people are like me.” I can even hear a lot of the visitors actually saying, “Well, of course, I’d be fine giving this a try, but no one else would.” They’re likely lying to themselves more than anyone else. Fear? Nothing is so scary as a huge change in how you work.
So in some respects we’re back to the same place as before. It takes an insightful CEO who is willing to try to change him or herself as well as for his or her organization to then enforce change on others in order to achieve an environment that allows people more autonomy, input, recognition, and downright freedom to succeed. It’s a difficult paradox that you have to force freedom on people or, more particularly, force a structure and work patterns that provide freedom from fear so people can blossom, exercise their creativity and innovate at a furious pace. Scary.
The burning question will be whether the exact structure and work patterns Sheridan has applied are what we should force on everyone (let’s be blunt). The answer is almost certainly no. So why read the book? Why mull over its messages? The answer is easy – because there is or are better ways of working than what’s common today – approaches that produce not only happier workers, but significantly, startlingly better results in products, satisfied customers and financially. We don’t yet have all the answers and probably never will, but looking at striking examples such as this offers one of the best ways to move all of us in organizations toward what might work better. No system will ever be without problems. Someone or some group will always have to troubleshoot, tinker, improve and help the system over its rough patches (and Sheridan doesn’t try to hide that with his version). But let us, once and for all, realize we need to get started.
19 Feb 2014
Once in a while a book comes along that requires you to examine your mental models for a long time after – in this case, especially if you’re in HR or any leader role. This latest is Joy Inc., How We Built a Workplace People Love by Richard Sheridan who holds up his company, Menlo Innovations, as a model he believes ought to be copied everywhere.
A quick orientation to the book and author comes via this short video, but the surprise it creates masks some deep thinking about organization values and practices as well as the need (or more specifically, the lack of it) for HR.
This startling story falls somewhere between the extremes of Ricardo Semler’s Maverick, which still puzzles people and elicits a lot of ‘that would never work here’ and the easily read Fish!: A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results, which has both strong supporters and vitriolic detractors.
Sheridan is clearly not just a businessman but a missionary for his discovery of a way of working that engages, involves, calls forth hard work, but offers staff input and a sense of accomplishment in unprecedented ways. He is quite explicit in his view that some form of this ought to be implemented in every workplace… and he may well be close to right. The book in full does its level best to push back at the inevitable skeptical and ‘won’t work in my environment’ reactions that most readers will almost certainly tend to feel.
Most notable for the HR profession, this is an organization that works and works very well, that is visited by many other organizations anxious to learn the secrets of its success both with results and people… its ability to attract hundreds of hard-to-source tech specialists in an increasingly difficult recruiting environment and hang onto them… all without the benefit of a single HR person despite being now a 350-person company.
This isn’t the typical ‘no-HR’ company that really has HR by another name. Dillards department store chain was the retail example when I was VP in that industry. On closer examination, despite the official ban on HR from its founder, managers at every level squirreled away a person here and there, usually named ‘Training Manager’ who actually carried out HR duties as any of us would recognize them. The ban, as in most such cases, was really on calling it HR and its services were pretty much decentralized and somewhat handicapped as a result.
Although it’s obvious there must be at least some clerical ‘HR’ at Menlo – people getting paid, someone working through time sheets, etc., it’s easy to imagine not much else. It’s clear they follow some basics – not hiring illegals, not asking inappropriate hiring questions, etc., – those are things that experience elsewhere would have taught their founders and things any reasonable employment lawyer and entrepreneur guide would counsel. One can certainly picture a company getting set up to function as they do with an external HR consultant providing a few basic guidelines via a review of their intended practices, after which ‘no HR’ could theoretically work as a principle.
What makes no-HR workable of course is the skill of the managers themselves in instituting and maintaining people-positive practices. In HR we constantly say our role is to do ourselves out of a job by training and coaching all managers to be ‘their own HR’ and this seems to be a practical possibility in the set up Sheridan outlines. This is perhaps the most important lesson of the book – what a highly effective leader would follow as management practice, just how effective that can make them and how little help they need if they behave well.
If nothing else, this is a book that should be read by all managers with a view to learning how to keep staff highly engaged, keep problems from developing and keep lawyers, unions and HR from “meddling” in day to day operations.
Nothing necessarily precludes a company run solely by ‘good managers’ with leadership properly distributed among all levels of staff from running into one-off problems – health and safety, union issues when you fire a person who doesn’t fit or like the environment, but claims to have been trying to start a union or similar possible challenges. In fact it’s refreshing that Sheridan lists some of the issues they haven’t fully worked through. That shows they are on their toes with respect to such matters. Whether HR is needed to resolve these or buffer these or if there are even solutions at all are other questions.
Other key questions include whether this style of operation can scale up further, if so, how big an organization it could fit and whether at some size HR becomes an absolute requirement no matter what style is applied? Chances are anything much larger would have to be set up in sections probably not much bigger than Menlo is now. Would there then be issues of equity between locations and a need for HR or something like it to iron those out? Would the units best be linked via broader, cross-unit succession planning, etc.? Sheridan alludes to how this organization style might be retrofit over existing styles unit by unit, but most likely then there would need to be overall coordination, training and teams that assisted migration of the style to other units… all of which suggest something like HR operations in play.
Above all the overriding question would be where to source leaders who would willingly implement this style and who would be able to bring or develop the skills to do it? That is perhaps the most challenging barrier of all to broader application. Hidden behind this are questions about variations of this that would or wouldn’t work and why. Sheridan is very specific about his ‘rules’ that make this work, but one has to imagine there could be variations that would still retain many of the benefits.
Whatever the answers, it looks like this produces some very useful examples that will generate more questions for quite some time to come – until more organizations try these ideas and we start to see where the limits lie. What seems important to note at first glance, however, is that the ultimate key function of HR may well be to develop the leaders and leadership environment that produces the energy and results this book suggests are available. But will we be able to sell it to senior managers… or even staff? And whatever the answer to this, it most certainly indicates that traditional organization structure, including HR, will be around for a very long time to come and that hybrids that include some of these ideas along with robust HR operations will continue even beyond that. So we can put aside any fear of being out of jobs and concentrate, as usual, on what we can leverage here to improve our own organizations.
12 Feb 2014
It’s great to see the messages about modern HR strategy getting out across the world. Not so far away but in a traditionally different business environment, a U of T, Howard University graduate, Dr. Kwame Charles led a session with CEOs for his home country’s HR managers in Trinidad and Tobago. He writes about it in admirably clear terms in their Newsday Business Magazine, putting the case simply and eloquently for a collaborative effort between HR and CEOs that would benefit any organization anywhere.
Certainly he endorses the point we’ve made repeatedly here – that HR now fully recognizes its role isn’t just HR, but “to be business leader[s] with HR expertise.” Then he goes on to quote one of the panel CEOs as saying about the need for senior leaders to support their HR operations, “We must be leaders worthy of HR.”
We can hope that sentiment is shared by a growing number of CEOs everywhere. Of course that particular CEO happens to be one of the still relatively few to lead an organization after serving in HR himself, but this is a key way understanding of the critical nature of the function will ultimately spread.
I have to admire Newsday as well for keeping the author’s headline intact – “What CEOs want from HR and what HR needs from their CEOs” – so it makes the point this is a two-way street. Newsday resisted attention getting tendencies we see so often such as to make it just ‘what CEOs want’ or worse to turn it into the sort of ‘HR doesn’t get it’ version so many others choose.
The T&T HR association had Dave Ulrich as keynoter for their conference previously and Dr. Kwame notes Ulrich ‘holds a similar view’ on some of the key points. True on some points, but it would be great if he were as pointed and clear as this. HR is making significant strides toward what Ulrich recently wrote of as his “Dreams” for the function. He definitely says HR is making progress, though he’s labelled this about dreams because he still feels much is distinctly in the future. I’m not so sure there hasn’t been more progress that he gives credit for.
There are certainly areas, as I’ve also pointed out previously, where HR can do more. One of Dr. Kwame’s CEOs notes there are tons of data we could be using better to clarify, focus and improve many areas of how people are managed in our organizations – using ‘big data’ and statistical evidence to ‘create value.’ What Ulrich and others seem to consistently miss is the emphasis I like in Kwame’s Newsday report – that this is a two-way street. We’ve heard for years now how HR has to step up to the plate, change, learn to do things differently, etc. But a relatively unmentioned requirement is the support from the organization to act on aligned HR strategies. These call for developing new leadership styles and better numerical measures and none of the will happen without other senior executives getting on board.
When are we going to see the flood of articles saying, as this does, we need to collaborate on improvements in how we work and handle people if we are to succeed long term as organizations, as nations and as societies.
5 Feb 2014
After writing a series of posts recently about how HR is seen negatively by inevitably being caught in the middle on many issues, I’ve come to peace with the idea there will always be a steady stream of ‘hate HR’ articles and we shouldn’t mind. It’s the nature of the job. We can build on it by ‘being better’- better than average perceptions, better than we were yesterday, better than our critics.
But HR shouldn’t be contributing to the flood of negatives as often seems to happen. Yes, we need to be better, but the fact is quite a few HR departments – dare I suggest the majority – today are doing good work. I liked what I read in the Wall Street Journal from Rubbermaid: a newly hired HR leader emphasizing growing people, empowering them and building the right environment – and being backed up in this by her CEO talking about building the capabilities they need as opposed to rounding them up from elsewhere.
Lots of jobs are tough and not respected by everyone. HR definitely fits in there. What remains to irk me is the stream of HR people within the profession or ‘helpers’ (consultants, people selling ‘solutions’ and more), who seem to focus on the negative all too often. People in the know ought to be more supportive, but with products and programs to sell, we can’t count on it – so we need to start promoting our own value. This is as important a part of HR strategy as is what we are doing in practice for our organizations.
Yes, there are right and wrong ways to do HR, just as there are right and wrong ways to do finance and accounting. We don’t see hordes of accountants and accounting consultants routinely writing about how poor most managers of accounting are in organizations. We see them promoting better methods and systems, but not suggesting in-house accountants are all unqualified, dumb or out of touch. We don’t see “I hate my accounting department and all the accountants in it who should all be fired” and we don’t see accountants from other companies suggesting this is the norm to be avoided or improved on. But then accountants aren’t perceived as the go to people to solve every person’s personal problems in the organization, hence they aren’t condemned the moment some person feels they didn’t get their way.
In fact, accountants are so comfortable that ‘they’re OK’ they are turning toward HR with suggestions that we should let them set HR strategy. A banking journal proposes HR measures to be implemented. Everyone wants a hand in our puzzle apparently – and why not? If collaboration is the name of the game and we want non-HR managers engaged, bring on the debates – but let’s have a little collaboration the other way – how about some budget money to fund the research, measuring and programs everyone wants, eh? And perhaps HR should have some input to finance strategy. If the CFO can’t explain why the bank’s investment strategies “seem unduly risky, but really aren’t” to us supposedly financially challenged HR folks, should we perhaps conclude the risk is higher than the CFO understands? That would apparently have been a novel but potentially valuable idea for the banks that subsequently went in the dumper.
I ask myself if I keep my HR operations headed in the right direction and promote them as ‘in touch with the business,’ if I make sure my up-and-coming HR people are informed and trained on how the business makes money and how financials track that, if I make sure my strategies are tied to company strategy overall and support the efforts of line managers, can I be sure I’ll be seen as the exceptional HR leader and valued inside my organization if nowhere else as contributing significantly? Very likely yes… as long as I deliver payroll accurately and on time, keep the unions at bay or get good negotiated settlements, keep Human Rights off our backs (and junior managers from making the mistakes that bring on trouble), develop comp programs everyone likes (oops, that’s a tough order when everyone is convinced they’re worth more than the next guy). I should also be saving money on benefits, attracting the brightest candidates, speeding them into open vacancies, keeping our brand out there on social media, making sure we’re seen as socially conscientious, ensuring great succession and workforce planning and improving our performance appraisal systems which no one ever likes.
Let’s say I’m doing all that. Will I still need to agree with writers, bloggers, commenters, CFOs and everyone else who pumps out the criticism of other HR departments? Is there a benefit for me to agree with them to show how different our department is? I don’t think so. I have at least two other options. I can keep quiet and just keep everyone informed about what I’m doing, keep my ‘customers’ happy, keep in touch with their changing needs and likely solutions OR I can actively jump into the discussion in defense of HR and how far it has come since such outdated comments used to apply and offer some great examples, which incidentally I’ve incorporated in our operations.
We can start pointing out positive stories and inventive ideas for improving HR that people are trying, like Motorola’s cooperative branding effort that clearly depended a lot on HR to work. If everyone from CEOs and CFOs to marketers want in on HR, let’s invite them as long as they bring the goods to make it work and not just half-baked ideas they think “HR should do.” And let’s keep everyone clear that consultants don’t all have the magic answers. Maybe it’s not just ‘time for HR to take Google’s approach’ as John Sullivan insisted in one of the articles linked in the last post, but to take on whatever creative approaches come with funding. At the very least we can show the world we are listening, as well as running a pretty good HR department, and all we need is some more support to go even further.
29 Jan 2014
Readers will know I’m a proponent of HR exerting more leadership in the use of Big Data – that means all the data we can get our hands on about our operations and people and the statistical systems to connect it and make it meaningful. We gather mountains of information on performance, training, succession planning, goals, aspirations, survey results, health, safety and absence records and tons more….
The idea of people analytics as one driving component in HR strategy is definitely something I promote, BUT most HR departments don’t (yet) have the systems, resources, trained data crunchers, budgets or support from IT, finance and others to do a fraction of what could theoretically be studied, quantified and discovered if all the data were to be used. In my dreams I imagine a day when HR will have such resources, but I’m wise enough not to be holding my breath for any time soon except in the case of one company: Google. But we don’t all have to be Google to take some very big steps.
It’s significant that Google is one of the top 5 richest big companies in the world and among the top innovators. Consequently as impressed as I am with Google’s achievements in measuring and using data to direct HR policy, I’m not convinced every organization can or should try to emulate them, at least not to the extent they do it. Very, very few will be able to afford 3 PhD statisticians in HR nor afford the trained executives to know how to direct them. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay close attention and make intelligent decisions about what we can copy or can’t.
Dr. John Sullivan, always full of opinions, made some good points in two blog posts about Google HR analytics last year and produced a good list of the analytic successes Google has reported in that area. But some of the comments that appeared after the article were instructive. Google still isn’t perfect by a long shot in their HR practices, nor would their approach work everywhere, and some of Sullivan’s comments were a bit unsupported as were more in the second post. I agree the largest part of their success is mostly attributable to their people (as is true in all companies – whatever level of results are achieved – people are driving them), but whether this equates to perfect HR is another question entirely.
I agree with his comment that the companies with the most innovators will win, but disagree with his targeting of HR as maybe not staffed with people analytical or skilled enough in math to do their jobs the best way possible. HR needs math and systems experts, for sure, since it is an area lots of people chose thinking they could avoid those tasks, but HR doesn’t need ONLY those, which is sort of implied, any more than all marketers need to be personally competent to do survey building and statistical analysis.
If life were entirely mathematical, we could close a lot of university faculties. If you have these capabilities, great. If you don’t, you probably need to pay attention and add some to your list ‘to develop’ and find some helpful seminars, reading or conferences, but don’t count yourself out of the game. Common sense goes a long, long way and, as a former math teacher, math course developer and applied math student before entering HR, I can guarantee you that 99% of the math you need is basic arithmetic that you learned in grade school. One just has to get over the fear that it’s too difficult and pay attention. I’m not kidding – 99% arithmetic! And systems knowledge? Most systems have become easier for users. We’ve all learned Word and email and VPNs and more, so again going further will be easy the less you fear learning and the more you hire a few good, relatively inexpensive experts who can help provided you can lead them (and I mean lead – coach, etc., not ‘tell them how to do it”).
One of the foremost skill sets HR needs is the ability to sell, to convince, to influence senior and line managers throughout the organization that we already know answers to a great many HR strategy questions without doing our own massive statistical studies. The skills of selling, convincing and influencing, by the way, are not mathematical though having some good numbers certainly helps. They are political, social, psychological and human – philosophers, lawyers, politicians and others don’t all need advanced math as much as no fear of arithmetic. How many mathematicians to you know who are expert at articulating and selling ideas? Numbers really help and you need to put some on the table and explain them to the business leaders who probably don’t understand them either. It’s your ability to take such information and make it clear and meaningful that helps more than gathering the numbers themselves.
Which brings me to a key issue that I keep pressing – we have quite a few numbers available that we consistently overlook and don’t promote – but we also don’t need our own numbers for everything. If you read or listen to this interview with a senior Google manager (former CEO of an acquired company) (also mentioned in my last post) who learned to lead better via short courses at Google, you can see very clearly that what he learned wasn’t at all about numbers, nor was it newly discovered by their statisticians. Their work helped prove to senior Google engineers that this sort of training was needed. My argument in a company would be – “Look, Google proved it, do we need to reinvent that wheel – or should we believe what they and everyone else says – it can work in any company, so approve the training for right here!”
Google is pleased to point out that they defined the training details to suit themselves, but the sort of definition the discovered is stuff a good HR trainer or consultant can dig out through interview and needs analysis (the same basic analysis that Google did with extensive numbers). The problem many HR departments have is not that they can’t build the proper training or tell what it is, it is that senior management teams hesitate to fund it… without “proof.” Well proof now exists.
22 Jan 2014
Having time to read takes one through fascinating pathways that illustrate how much management, leadership and HR thinking is changing among those in the know.
Last week a retail newsletter I keep up with out of interest in a former job pointed to a lengthy annual report by Deloitte that has massive, useful stats on who’s big in retail and “etailing.” Even more startling was a very short item buried on page 11 about challenges for retailers. As you’d expect, keeping up with technology is a major one.
Almost in passing they identify the other in a few added words: “Primary among these is the overwhelming amount of unstructured data to be managed and organized for use…. We will also need to reinvent how we humans process and use data.” Got that? “…reinvent how humans….”
Then they post a very small chart listing five weak “Conventional Business Approaches” (hierarchies that discourage creativity, cultures that don’t reward risk-taking such as throwing out the current business model, capital investment that doesn’t reward continuous improvement, legacy systems and established infrastructure and business models that block innovation). Next to these they list seven “Unconventional Approaches [needed] to Address Change” (entrepreneurial structure, flexible teaming and collaboration, fast failure and learning strategies, being responsive and adaptive, crowdsourcing and sharing ideas, listening/engaging with customers and employees and innovation with focus and purpose).
In less than two paragraphs they outline this as if it can be taken for granted. And it should be. We’ve seen the impact of the new model often enough and the weaknesses of the old, yet buried here is also recognition that only a minority of businesses are changing, otherwise we wouldn’t still be talking about the flawed model as the ‘conventional’ one. Take note that every single ‘unconventional change’ we need is a change in how we manage and lead people. Remember this is just a toss-in item in the midst of a long stats report, yet it is a ‘taken for granted’ view of what the most effective companies are striving to do.
If we keep taking this stuff for granted, but don’t do anything about it, poor us! This is just one industry, but their comments and the lack of action could be said of virtually any industry you want to name.
Flash to another interesting article in the Washington Post hailing the fact the new CEO at GM, Mary Barra, is one of a relatively few CEOs who have HR experience. The columnist quotes a big name recruiter/CEO/Board adviser who notes three things: 1. How and why this is unusual, 2. How more Boards are working on partial remedies (albeit for not quite the best reasons yet), 3. Recruiters still don’t think HR is a typical place to look for CEOs.
The muddled excuse for #3 is interesting – that HR is already part of the CEO job description (to be the chief HR person and worry about talent). What this misses is that, even more important than worrying about great talent and how to get it, is the problem of how to keep great talent motivated, engaged and innovating, which requires CEOs who build or support the right kind of organization environment – the seven things Deloitte notes, for instance, which we see are not happening much. Talk about speaking from both sides of one’s mouth: we think CEOs already worry about talent… but we note they don’t do the right things about it and we aren’t trying to fix that by placing people who would. People are most important, but we will continue to recruit and appoint people we know don’t know the best processes.
Then take a look at Harvard Business Review’s discussion of Google’s Project Oxygen, which we’re covered before (but Harvard hadn’t done its thing at that point): How Google Sold Its Engineers on Management. Project Oxygen, of course, was the model-breaking statistical study that identified the eight most critical leadership skills, with tech skills last in order on the list and coaching at the top. (The full article is reachable with a no-cost registration as well as purchase.)
We’re reminded of the complexity of the study (which required three PhD stats experts to crunch) and the value of being able to do it on your own organization (so you know exactly the context and components of the eight factors). However, as the article points out, these factors have been known for a long time and are known to be common to all organizations. Yes, we may want to tweak coaching to fit our business and Google discovered in detail how it could, but the core elements of coaching are known, the core elements of pushing for results, delegating initiative, not micromanaging. All the eight are known and plenty of help is available to adapt them to your operations if you need help. All Project Oxygen really adds is proof positive that the most exhaustive statistical dissection of the value of leadership will once again reconfirm what we know (but in most cases don’t apply).
The other excellent point in the article is a simple comment by just two people. One Google manager is described: “A seasoned software-engineering manager and serial entrepreneur, [he] had led teams for 18 years before Google bought his latest start-up. [Emphasis mine – in other words he was a CEO] But he feels he learned more about management in six months of Oxygen surveys and people ops courses than in the previous two decades.” Google instituted a training program of just six days in three two-day modules over six months.
The second example, a senior sales manager acquired from Oracle (where you can be sure there is a bad example to follow as per previous posts), is quoted: “I raised my favorability ratings from 46% to 86%. It’s been tough but very rewarding. I came here as a senior sales guy, but now I feel like a general manager.”
If all it takes is a six-day course, why isn’t every company on the planet copying this and gaining the proven benefits? We’re not talking likeability, but palpable financial results as well. Google itself pegged better leaders as two to three times more successful – that’s 200% to 300% better, not just 5% or 10% – in measurable results.
Why? Because people at the top think they already have the skills and they aren’t paying attention to the exploding body of literature that says otherwise.
15 Jan 2014
Breaking routine and a new year always provide new insights, but it can be tough to distill those into useful bits. A friend asked about two HR strategists’ high level ideas – that HR should be values based and that it should focus on long and short term organizational health rather than allowing itself to be bogged down in administrivia. Both noted these describe the vision and, in small ways, the trend for most HR operations, but that they require a receptive senior management and organization culture to survive.
Earlier this month I read a pitch directed at executives to convince them to change companies soon. It pointed to statistics showing 57% of all managers wish they were somewhere else, not so much on a beach, though I’m sure that would figure somewhere, but in another company where their talents were more recognized, appreciated and utilized. That’s a startling figure, but a moment’s thought confirms this is what most engagement surveys suggest. Since ‘all managers’ includes lots who are not at the very top of the organizations or divisions, it’s not surprising their feelings aren’t totally different from rank and file employees.
57% is a pretty scary number. If your leaders are keen to be elsewhere it’s a fair bet they aren’t doing a great job motivating their staff. It’s hard to believe you’d find as much unhappiness in companies that do their best to adhere to clear values and take steps to maintain a healthy environment. But wait. How many executives do you suppose arrive home to dinner to tell their loved ones what a great day they had, how their colleagues are brilliant, caring, helpful people who eagerly embrace great projects, put their full efforts into them and share credit will all involved? I’m sure this sounds like the conversations you have at home, right? But do all those other execs you work with tell their family and friends such positive stories?
I’m kidding of course. I may be in a minority, but I found the best and most common stories I’d bring to dinner often started with comments like, ‘you won’t believe the stupidity I encountered at the office today… I can’t believe how selfish [naïve, uncooperative, mean, resistant to logic, good manners, supportive behavior – you fill in the words...] this or that person was.’
Now, I’m a nice guy. Really. I don’t just say that, other people often do, too, especially my mom when she was alive. It’s just somehow a story about what went right at the office today just doesn’t sound too interesting. But tales about what went wrong?? Oh yeah! That we can all talk about at length only stopping when we’re interrupted by someone else with a story they’re sure tops ours.
So are we prep’ing ourselves with negative intentions? Are we purposely seeking and amplifying the bad attitudes and behavior of our colleagues just to garner interesting dinner conversation? Are we just a bit disappointed when a coworker does something well or nice? Is it a form of schadenfreude, what some describe as "making me feel glad I’m not you?" We often measure ourselves against others or become quite aware that others are likely doing this, so it behooves us to discover others’ flaws so we know what we should avoid and how we are ahead in the great race.
More important for HR and strategy, whether or not we have these negative reactions ourselves, can we help others avoid the pitfall as well? Can we build organizations in which we’re all in it together, with everyone benefitting when things go well and therefore eager for more? All of a sudden one of the more controversial questions in the Gallup Q12 measure of positive work culture – ‘do you have a best friend at work’ – doesn’t seem so farfetched. If you enjoy going to work with at least one person, perhaps you can enjoy others… well, maybe not everyone, but lots?
There’s no question this is a sort of upward or downward spiral – a virtuous or vicious cycle – that type of challenge. If you can see the value and appreciate the contributions of one person, perhaps you can focus on what others add, but if you start to feel those you work with are… well the old poster I hadn’t thought of in years popped to mind and, sure enough, it’s still there all over the Internet these days – captioned: “It’s hard to soar with eagles when you’re surrounded by turkeys.” I couldn’t believe it when a coworker actually posted a copy of the poster with turkeys in our office – insisting it was a joke, of course. Right.
So I got to asking myself where this fits in HR strategy? How should we deal with this challenge – ignore it as I did in that former job, even though I was the boss, accept it as a joke? Or should we make a big case of it to emphasize the right attitude we expect people to bring to work? Either way seems to hold perils. One solution might be get people walking a mile in others’ shoes. I liked this post from Bob Sutton, whose books I’ve reviewed before. Many of his margin-linked lists of ’12 Things I Believe’ and ’15 Posts People Like’ are humorous and worth the read.
Ultimately I fell back on an idea I’ve had all along, that the best solution is to build a work team and work environment in which people are truly valued for what they bring, their diverse attitudes and skills. The key seems to me to keep them engaged on projects that stretch and interest them. Surely we have enough real challenges in all we do that we can find people who are energized by the game of trying to find real solutions.
If we keep in touch with people we can figure out what turns them on at work. If nothing does, if the game is no longer fun, it’s time for them to search for something that will be. It’s doing no one any good struggling to keep them. When the conversations they take to dinner, lunch, even breakfast are about dumbness of colleagues, the company, their work, we’ve lost the battle long since. Instead it should be about what they’re struggling to solve, what possibilities they’re working on that could improve the part of the world it touches and who they’re hoping to meet and learn from. It’s values like these that HR can bring to the table, which could make a huge difference, but which management teams often overlook as they stick to their often rather poor opinions about staff.
8 Jan 2014
We noted that HR is in a Catch 22 situation. We can’t eliminate people who don’t like HR. In fact we often shouldn’t since some of them help innovation and it’s hard to tell who’s who. For the same reason we can’t stop them talking. We also know consultants looking for proof things need changing and reporters looking for horror stories and great headlines both seek out and publicize what they take to be “HR failures.”
So, what can HR do? A few things are obvious. First, we can accept there will always be a steady stream of ‘why we hate HR’ stories and people recommending getting rid of HR. We can stop reacting with shock or letting these get us down, or worse – into apology mode. We can wear it as a badge of honor that if HR is doing its job properly there will be two sides to be heard on every issue. When we hear only the negative from observers, we know they have almost certainly missed half the story.
Second, we can refuse to contribute support for pure horror stories without counter analysis and clarification. All too often when these come up, HR people seem to jump forward to agree there are lots of terrible HR departments and that “HR has to change” as if there were clear solutions that every HR department should apply and many are too dull to.
We need to become HR champions first and foremost without becoming defensive, but in the interests of helping people understand the proper role and exceptional contribution that HR can and often does make if it is supported and aligned with overall strategies which, as we all know by now, is the way things should be. We don’t need a whole lot more HR people suggesting other HR people need to change to align with overall strategies, but simply that this is recognized by everyone (with a brain) as fundamental.
OK, HR is a tough job and someone has to do it and take the blame. But where are the other champions? Surely no matter how tough and complex the challenges, senior teams ought to be able to agree on some approaches that are better than others? Isn’t aligning with overall organization strategies, for instance, one of these? HR researchers attempted recently to show there are HR standards by which organizations can be measured to help investors decide which companies will succeed best – proof that HR is important and can be done well. Yet HR organizations themselves seem to be battering away against these, citing the old objection that ‘it’s one more thing for companies to pay for and waste time on stuff that’s unproven.’
Complex perhaps, but hardly completely unproven, though when I pointed out an article that annoyed me from John Boudreau of all people, normally a supposed champion for HR, a colleague wrote suggesting he and others are right to say there’s no proof.
No proof? We’ve now had 40 years of research proving certain approaches in HR work best and that developing certain types of leaders can be extremely valuable for organizations, sometimes raising results three to 20 times or more. My stream of previous posts has routinely cited such proofs or near-proofs. More appear daily in business and HR news. In the last weeks, there have been headlines like “When morale jumps, stock prices soar [for companies]” and an article in Forbes about how much is lost or gained from disengagement or engagement to name just a couple at hand this week.
The objection will be that much of this is anecdotal, situational, etc. Sometimes that’s true, but definitely not always. Even then where are the counter articles showing valid proof these things have NO impact or are bad for organizations? The ‘why we hate HR’ horror stories are highly anecdotal as well, but who levels that objection? Instead we seem to accept ‘I hear this from everyone’ as if that were a) true or b) reliable and definitive.
A great many of us have experienced the heady success of a team well led and know there are certain leadership attributes that can be trained to make that happen, for instance. Are we simply wrong? Are we imagining all this? Is it blind luck? We’ve seen certain types of leaders fail repeatedly and can predict who and when quite often. We see another type succeed repeatedly and can predict a good many of those. Sure the earth still looks flat, but how many times did Columbus have to sail around it to prove otherwise to the ultimate satisfaction of most. Success in financial terms should be the measure and there have been plenty of studies of that citing great HR practices, detailing what they are and linking the excellent results they produce.
Part of the problem is the supposed intangibility of the matters HR deals with compared with the supposed concreteness of systems like finance and IT where we are sure we can tell what’s useful and reliable and what isn’t. Sure, like the reliable financial methods that led to the 2008 meltdown of so many economies – highly reliable finance strategies no doubt, until they weren’t. Still we don’t see too many articles suggesting that finance systems should be eliminated in organizations. We often see suggestions to outsource routine accounting, payroll, etc., but rarely is it suggested the entire function should be done by outsiders.
One recent article I enjoyed was this by way of example: Stop Wasting Time On HR Reporting. Sounds like HR messing up again, doesn’t it? If you read through you see the schizophrenic nature of the thesis, which boils down to ‘we really need good HR reporting, some of it isn’t.’ They go on to say HR systems need support, investment and serious work to become more useful and need to be integrated into all parts of the business with HR becoming a strategic partner’ throughout. They also note this may actually be happening, with more systems and reporting being done, but perhaps some of questionable value.
Now did that justify the headline? Maybe just one more word would have helped: Stop wasting time on weak HR reporting. I guess that would have taken too much space? Well, no, there actually was plenty of space if you look. I’d be first to point out there’s lots of weak HR reporting due to lack of investment, lack of interest in its value at high levels in organizations and lack of ability of HR to move resources to it. Am I going to apologize to anyone for this? NO. I’m going to challenge senior management teams to ask themselves what they need to do about it. Have they asked their HR people what would help? Who’s actively disengaged from these important needs of the business?
These are just some of the arguments for seriously questioning the stream of negativity about HR. I’m sure you can think of many more. Yes, HR proof and application are complex and have a long way to go for anything like 100% acceptance, but getting rid of HR isn’t an option nor should it be if we want our organizations to grow and prosper.
13 Dec 2013
The last post noted reasons why the stream of articles like ‘why we hate HR’ will never cease. It relates to people who are actively disengaged in our organizations, but perhaps not in ways you’d first expect. Two core problems are beyond HR’s scope – the taste for conflict stories in most reporting or Dilber-like satire and the need for consultants to always publicize what’s wrong in organizations so they can sell their ‘better solutions.’ On the latter, it’s easy to show a finance system just won’t keep track of some useful variable for instance. That’s not an emotional attack on anyone, but when it comes to HR, it’s not so easy to point out what’s missing in soft skills. Instead you often have to suggest the soft skills are being done poorly by some person and try to find examples or anecdotes to illustrate that – one reason for wide distribution of horror stories.
We can’t stop consultants and reporters from dragging out such examples, nor can we eliminate the grouching from our organizations when you calculate the numbers of staff we deal with who don’t get things entirely their way and how many are ‘actively disengaged.’
That term ‘actively’ in front of ‘disengaged’ says they will spread their stories far and wide whether we like it or not. So some companies feel we should try to eliminate them. Quite a few organizations try to make that policy without really aiming at it directly. Those are the ones that promote the idea of eliminating the bottom 10% every year. Recent surveys suggest there are fewer companies using this approach today, but still others who are just switching to it – Microsoft just announced dumping it while Yahoo took it up. Jack Welch, as the link notes, was initially a big proponent, but decided it was wrong later on.
One might think, since many surveys estimate the ‘actively disengaged’ segment of many workforces to be in the order of 10%, there would be a logical connection, but a few minutes thought ferrets out reasons why this may not be so. First we now know that renegade thinkers are helpful to organizations, at least companies that listen to what they have to say. Diverse teams are more productive. Diversity means adding individuals who see things from different points of view, not getting rid of them. It doesn’t necessarily mean doing everything they come up with or would like you to do. They, too, have to learn to deal with opposing viewpoints, but many are vocal in their upset when they don’t get their way.
If HR is to promote effectiveness, we have to encourage and try to protect a certain amount of dissent, different views and actions intended to make those views heard, listened to and put into action. One doesn’t have to look far to hear people say, ‘better to act and ask forgiveness than try to get permission.’ So a policy that encourages managers to eliminate what they believe is the ‘bottom 10%’ risks many of them eliminating the very dissent we now want to foster. Who exactly are the bottom 10% can be a very subjective decision. If we don’t want it to be, we need guidelines and a robust performance appraisal system – among the very things HR is criticized for trying to put in place.
Given that HR is always complex and challenging and someone is almost always unhappy whatever the action taken, it is guaranteed there will be a steady stream of detractors always ready with negative tales. Since we rarely get the other side of whatever horror story is told by a disaffected or former employee (and it’s probably too complex for a reporter to explain anyway), it’s not a surprise that we have a stream of undefended slamming of HR.
Let me hasten to say that most employees (the actively engaged, engaged and even the disengaged) rarely need much from HR. They get their pay and benefits and an occasional answer about these plus the universally disliked annual appraisal. Their only experiences from the outset may very well be at least somewhat negative – the resume they submitted that was never acknowledged (c’mon HR, we can automate that at least!). So they’re a bit inclined to believe the horror stories, but most don’t waste any time thinking about it. They generally assume HR is a mix of people like their own departments – of good and bad – and they ignore most of what they hear except for the overall negative tone.
OK, so if most employees don’t like appraisals, surveys, recruiting practices, problematic policy answers and most other interactions they have to have with HR or decisions that are blamed on HR by managers who don’t want to take responsibility, can we achieve either of two possible solutions? First, can we outweigh the bad with good – great training, coaching, career management, super pay and benefits, etc.? Not likely a 100% solution since much of that depends on HR working through line managers at least for budget support, much not controlled directly by HR whether we like to face it or not.
Second, can we fix the irritants or eliminate them? Again not likely since, in most cases, they are either not directly controlled by HR or are the inevitable result of people rubbing against people. In the recruiting process, HR could acknowledge resumes, but it can’t ensure the interview they set up with a potential boss will go well, be free of bias, have the outcome the candidate wants or that a speedy decision will be made and communicated well with understandable reasons. Somewhere in these complex processes things are extremely likely to go less than superbly. They still have to happen. There is no other option than for HR to try their best and yet recognize it may not garner kudos. Departments can iron the bugs out of financial calculations and reports or even IT systems and projects, but they can’t be ironed out of HR tasks because almost every candidate wants something a bit different. Even if we could theoretically perfect a system that would suit one person, it most certainly would not suit all others.
So, what can HR do? That will have to wait until next time.