To find joy in work is to discover the fountain of youth. — Pearl S. Buck

Feedback for HR is Valuable However You Get It

One of the newsletters brought a link to a priceless collection of unadulterated feedback for HR. Several observations strike me on this, but you really have to take a look at least briefly to appreciate what’s going on. The title asks: “Human Resources – Friend or Foe?” – a question posed by an IT guy with an issue arguably so easy to handle properly it hardly seems it would ever lead to his conclusion – that HR is evil and should be avoided in future at all costs. His issue: he reported possible time/material ‘theft’ by an intern, but was rebuffed by HR who made him feel like the one in the wrong for reporting.

So a relatively trivial incident for all concerned escalated into a major debate that dozens of others obviously feel strongly enough about to comment on. Most articles generate one or two comments, but this attracted four pages – a hot button issue to pay attention to for sure – not so much the issue itself as the reaction about HR in general.

It appears there are multiple misunderstandings involved, along the lines of the quote I mentioned in an earlier post: “The natural result of communication is misunderstanding.” It also smacks of earlier comments about an organization that abhors coaching and mentoring. In this case the HR person clearly didn’t get his joke across if that’s what it was – a good caution about joking when serving in an HR role, at least without clarifying or recognizing some people either can’t handle jokes or just don’t understand them. Listen to suggestions

Assuming HR might actually have been criticizing him for reporting possible time and material theft as he believed, HR clearly erred and, in any case, definitely erred by not spelling out that he was right to report or at least enquire about whether there was a policy being violated. Every encounter can be an opportunity for HR to educate, coach and promote effective approaches to handling people and this was clearly a missed one.

What follows the initial post are the four pages of pros and cons, people agreeing, clarifying, advising, arguing and, most of all, taking sides. Those comments demonstrate the very wide range of views people have of HR – some sophisticated, others totally naïve.

Should every employee understand the limitations when speaking with HR – absolutely. Should HR be blamed for those? No. However, we should never allow a picture to develop of HR as the place to go with every people issue you can’t immediately see a way to handle yourself, expecting that HR will do whatever it is you didn’t imagine for yourself.

It appears we are caught in exactly this problem: people desperately want to believe HR should exist to resolve all problems in ways they feel are sensitive (ie: sensitive to their needs, not anyone else’s).

We can’t simply ignore this issue. In fact, we need to help people to understand how HR works, what its constraints are and, most especially, why those constraints exist. Definitely ask HR, just don’t begin to expect therefore HR should be the one to solve every problem.

I’m sure I was guilty of not optimizing every teaching moment in my HR role. Sometimes it just seems as if the answer is so obvious you can just jump on it and do it for the person, but HR’s coaching roles is far more effective and strategic that any “I can do that for you” approach. Providing the solution risks two bad outcomes – it gives the wrong impression, it makes people dependent and it risks missing the complexity of human preference and the likelihood that whatever you choose will not be exactly right for those unique individuals and you will be blamed.

Yes, sometimes it seems nice to have the answers, to be seen as skilled, knowledgeable and proactive rather than bogging the individual down with a lengthy explanation of how they could take steps to resolve things themselves. Yes, there will be people, like the company that hates coaching, where others will say, ‘if I’m supposed to do it myself, what’s HR needed for?’ The answer, though, is clear – HR is needed to assist people in learning how to work more effectively together, not to do the work for them, criticize them or make jokes when they clearly don’t understand the situation.

This seems, when one lays it out, to make a lot of sense – so much so, in fact, that we might be tempted to think it isn’t necessary to spell it out. But reading the comments on this ‘Friend or Foe’ post, we can easily see feedback it helps to pay attention to. We can also see some HR people need better training in dealing with issues they haven’t encountered before, because, in HR, encountering the unexpected is a daily occurrence.

We need to face the fact that announcing you are “HR” is putting a target on your back for those who believe someone else should solve every problem somehow. Why else would HR exist, they reason. Part of our job and our overall HR strategy must become ensuring they understand this isn’t the role, never was, never will be, never could be. Empathetic, helpful, yes, but in building individuals skills to solve their own problems wherever possible, not just stonewalling nor just doing it for them.

The Paradox of Positive Versus Negative Thinking

As strategists we’re constantly caught in puzzling paradoxes. A fellow searching the Internet for information on Antifragility (which I wrote several posts about last year) emailed to ask if I’d summarize my view of what individuals and companies need to do to apply these newly defined (but not actually new) strategic principles. He promises to provide an overview of what he collects from all those he’s writing to. If that happens I will pass it on as well.

Then a McKinsey piece turned up on innovation that sort of fits, but at the same time raises one of those paradoxical puzzles.

What I wrote after a bit of reflection turned out to be boiling this rather complex concept down to one simple idea: anticipation. Here’s how I described it for him:

“I was explaining anticipation as ‘being prepared’ (like the boy scout motto) to a group of senior executives I was presenting leadership theory to. Just as Icreative emphasized being prepared, I picked up a laser pointer and it didn’t work, so I calmly continued talking while taking two batteries from a plastic bag and handing it and the batteries to someone in the front row to replace them. Point made – I’d anticipated the problem, was prepared as a result and therefore not bothered or interrupted much, just moving on.  That’s ‘antifragility’ in action.

In the same way, during busy work periods, I’d anticipate being tired, make plans for when and how to recuperate, when to get some sleep, etc., and make that a priority so I could continue at whatever frantic pace I needed to achieve. I also twice anticipated being fired (and later on had written my own severance arrangements that allowed me to early retire and start my own consulting business). At times I anticipated being promoted, so had read and thought ahead about what I would need to know. In high school I used to read ahead in every subject, sketch out answers and so never had homework to take home as it could all be done in class by the time the class got to it, etc., etc. I was never bowled over by workload or shock as some were in such situations.

We know from happiness studies that people who are severely injured (loss of limbs, etc.) return to almost the same level of happiness as before at about the six month mark in recovery (probably give or take a few months). If you anticipate that, I’m sure the weight of depression is lighter, the recovery on the faster side, etc., with your focus on how to restore your capabilities instead of dwelling on or ruminating about the losses. It’s sort of doing the ruminating before the event makes it shorter after. That’s antifragility.

In organization terms, I believe strongly in the same things. If a company anticipates the economy might turn bad at some point, it will keep some cash in reserve. It will hire more carefully so as not to over-staff and it will have plans to retrain people to keep them, to perhaps put everyone  on 4 day weeks so as not to layoff, etc. We can see few companies did this properly before 2008, but some did and they recovered faster and lost less in the crash.”

McKinsey’s piece on innovation echoes similar concepts – the need to put time into developing a culture that anticipates competitors will be innovating at a furious pace and getting your team members – all of them at all levels – into the mode of trying, failing sometimes and trying again so they are ready with viable new ideas to keep ahead.

The paradox is whether anticipation is gloomy or optimistic. Whether you feel anticipation is a gloomy approach (imagining the worst) or an optimistic approach (imaging great new options), the paradox of whether to take the pessimistic or the optimistic view is resolved in just one approach – anticipating realistically wherever possible what may happen and taking action now to get everyone up to speed on both types of scenarios, with positive solutions for both.

I’m just not sure you can apply one without the other. For those who wish never to hear a doubtful word, only positive ones as in The Secret, this may seem bad advice, but in my roles reflection on what’s possible, both good or bad, has always been essential.

Sports Analogies And HR Practices

A regular reader pointed out this Jack Welch blog post which raises a deceptively simple, interesting question. Welch retired from CEO at GE in 2001 after twenty very successful years making it essentially the top producing company in the world. He still tours as a speaker, but also established the Jack Welch Management Institute at Strayer University to help the rest of the world learn effective leadership. (No connection to Ralph Stayer, different spelling, whose fascinating story is about turning a struggling family business into a billion dollar winner through a superior leadership style that he also now promotes.)

Welch’s question comes down to this – if we take it for granted that a sports team’s CEO should be highly focused on people, especially players, managers and coaches, with financials taking an auxiliary role, why is it the reverse in most companies were the CFO plays a huge role and HR is often virtually ignored?

Well, of course, we don’t find thousands of rabid fans looking over CEOs’ shoulders at big companies asking ‘why don’t you fire that loser and hire the superstar from your competitor, why don’t you scour the universities for the next superstars and draft them at millions of dollars a year?’ To say there isn’t intense interest in who becomes the next CHRO, sales associate or even CFO is to see the joke. Much as we take it for granted that super talent is needed in virtuallyteam manager every position for sports teams to win, we equally take it for granted organizations will be staffed by pretty average people (like you and me) who will just deliver what the company strategist, the all-important CEO, dictates. Aren’t we lucky these big complex businesses are so much easier to run than a ball team playing games we played as kids.

Of course, common perception is wrong on both counts. Billy Beane’s famous discovery, told in Moneyball, that led the Oakland A’s to an amazing comeback was later used by the Boston Red Sox to win the coveted World Series honors. They proved you don’t have to hire the absolute superstars to win. In fact, good team players who can do the basic work make a better showing if properly led. Prima donna’s, it turns out, aren’t the best choices, great teamwork is. By the same token if your one prima donna superstar is the CEO, you’re stuck with the same problem.

A better question might be – since we so frequently see managers citing sports analogies as guidance, why don’t they see value in the sports model for selecting and managing people as Welch implies they should?

The answer would be that many managers would like to do just that – hire the million dollar superstars… except they can’t get the money, can’t find the ‘A’ players they dream of and don’t have the time (in their minds) because they’re so busy making sure their B and C players toe their lines. It’s not their fault, of that they’re sure. They would if they could. But who or what’s in the way? They are angry that HR won’t let them hire as if they are sports GMs and, of course, really annoyed that HR won’t do the job for them the way they dream it should be. Even worse, HR won’t let them fire the losers the moment it enters their heads that would solve their problem the way they imagine those GMs are empowered to do. All this garbage about having to interview people, documenting performance, giving weak players ‘long’ periods with help and opportunities to improve and, worst of all, human rights and political correctness. I’m sure it even rankles many that they can’t video employees at work and use that to fire them – like sports teams do, of course.

Yes, I’m stretching… a bit. But Welch’s question is sound. If sports results depend so obviously on people (and money only flows in to the extent the people perform), why can’t we see that principle just as plainly in other organizations?

Yet it is just that huge pool of sports fans (dare I say male) who often seem least likely to want to work on the people side of things, who have the least patience for it. Case in point would be this series of exchanges on LinkedIn at present. Reading them it’s almost hard to believe companies still exist where it is widespread, common understanding that coaching and mentoring are not just ignored, but actively discouraged.

A colleague who wants to retire was just pulled back in by a company that ‘really wants to change the way they manage people.’ His reaction – maybe worth a try, but I’ve heard it dozens of times before and they never listen or act. Can we hope that someday, things really will evolve?

Can HR Timelines Match Business Needs

It really isn’t a question. If Human Resources can’t deliver what the business needs when they need it, there’s no place for HR except for record-keeping and payroll. It’s common for ‘burning platform’ issues to arise that HR can only react to no matter how they try to prepare. Some are inevitable, some aren’t. HR typically isn’t the origin of such challenges, but how resilient HR strategy is makes a vast difference in end results. We need broad plans that can meet multiple needs and flex depending on events.

But what about the business meeting HR needs – not, that is, the needs of the HR department as much as the needs of employees that make them more engaged, productive, flexible and valuable to the organization? Yes, those needs that HR is charged with paying attention to and supporting long term, but which also require support and participation by line managers.

In the 2008 recession, many businesses had grown fat during good times. Previous hiring of ‘a few extra’ people ‘here and there’ for a ‘project or two’ turnedemergency rush out to have created companies that suddenly needed to downsize by 25% or more of their workforces. Of course they shouldn’t have hired all those people, but when budgets are easy and competitors are rolling out new offerings, why not take some risks? HR would never be listened to counseling caution in boom times when it’s often under pressure to keep up hiring at a frantic pace, nor apparently were many CFOs urging caution then, so HR has to step up and lay off tons of people to create a chance for survival in a downturn.

But what does that do to long term engagement, which in turn drives productivity and innovation?

Even today when we know we could ramp up results by improving leadership and team function, it’s likely the push to hire rapidly will start up again, slowly at first, but gathering momentum. Fears about boomer retirements didn’t evaporate permanently with the recession. There’s evidence many delayed a year or two, but that only makes the exodus worse when it arrives. So being prepared for rapid response whether adding or laying off, is one key expectation.

As well today the trend for companies to upsize in one area while downsizing in another as business needs and strategies change has become a permanent fixture. Unfortunately we know downsizing creates cynicism and hurts engagement as everyone starts tuning their resumes even while they may not be the ones in danger and even if no jobs are available. It would seem a better strategy to attempt retraining and transfers, but many managers believe they have to have people with direct experience in the specific tasks and that it’s easier to just hire those from elsewhere, even though there’s plenty of moaning that people with the right skills aren’t available. If not, isn’t it better to spend some time and money training people we know already like and fit into the company? We need a strategy of helping them and their bosses think flexibly about learning as a solution. Why does this seem so hard for some organizations?

Throughout all this, HR has to find a balanced approach. Let’s hire for some spots, but retrain for others. This depends on effective succession planning and collection of employees’ interests and abilities beyond just the jobs they’re in. Again this hinges on line managers taking a bit of time to talk with their people and some sort of system for recording this information in ways we can share and understand it. All this is arguably more important than trying to put exact numbers on individuals’ performance ratings. We’ll weed out the ones who can’t be trained soon enough. Today learning ability is widely understood to be the key to organization success, but unfortunately putting that understanding into practice isn’t as well developed.

So key HR strategies for meeting timelines depend on developing a line manager culture such that managers understand and assist in engaging, encouraging and developing their people constantly. We need them emphasizing the value to both the employee and the organization of thinking broadly about possible roles, giving people a chance to work on diverse teams and projects, in part to get a feeling for what’s happening in other areas that they might have an interest in.

If this sounds do-able today in your organization, you’re in a very fortunate position to keep it developing. For many this is a dream goal. But then, what is strategy about if not setting far away, sometimes seemingly unreachable goals and then building toward them? Let’s try to get managers looking beyond just filling that urgent vacancy to get work flowing asap.

Every Situation Needs Unique Leadership

What strikes me most about HR strategy is how unique every situation is. There are broad ‘better practices’, but many variations work… and many don’t. Usually the difference seems obvious in retrospect, but planning the most useful patterns seems hard. Policies, practices, styles of leadership that work in one place will be less successful in others. By the same principle when you see an organization off the rails, it’s likely they need to adopt other practices that they can largely copy from elsewhere, but what’s needed isn’t always obvious. It’s interesting to follow real life examples.

There is no substitute for a human being applying sensible judgment in choosing what will or won’t work, what needs to be added or deleted from the mix. Among general principles it is easier to say what has to go – anything that creates cynicism because it is applied to staff, but bosses don’t ‘walk the talk’ when it comes to adhering to, following or supporting the same policies for themselves. It’s less easy to see what might work and even harder to convince others who are used to ‘old’ processes, either ones that have been in place in the organization for years or practices they liked elsewhere that they believe should just be imported or quite often ideas they’ve heard work somewhere else that seem interesting and ‘should be tried.’

What most often seems to slip by decision-makers is the concept that all the pieces of an HR strategy have to work together, form a fairly seamless whole and provide that elusive quality of ‘security’ for staff. Stability, even just having been in business for a long time, attracts people. But stability can be an illusion. Perception takes a long time to change and gets in the way of making changes for the better as well as providing a buffer against too rapid change. time passing

A single major event can dramatically change things – like a ‘Chainsaw Al’ destroying trust at Sunbeam. Re-reading a case study of their ups and downs shows how difficult it is to know from outside what’s truly happening for employees within an organization. Ultimately they were taken over (for a number of years) by Jarden and it’s interesting to read the employee reviews of that organization on Glassdoor – not all glowing by any means, nowhere near the positive views prior to a bad CEO’s reign of terror. Yet reading Sunbeam’s ‘history’ as they and others tell it, you’d be hard pressed to see any of the problems remaining.

Glassdoor, we should note, is a web tool growing in popularity as prospective employees attempt to get a read on company culture and environment. This helpful study by Software Advice suggests almost half of reasonably well qualified job seekers already take a look at Glassdoor before deciding whether to apply or hire on. Interestingly, while many want to see at least a 3 out of 5 rating, a fair number would still apply to a company with just a single star. Again, I think this is the influence of simply being big enough to get a report of any sort, which suggests some sort of status in the market. We all know online detractors can be vocal, but wrong. Perhaps as time goes on, as more reports are filed, as more people check them, there will be increasing emphasis on companies with higher ratings to the detriment of those with lower results. Remember it took Amazon more than a few years to reach profitability and for its product ratings to assume the importance they now have, I suspect we’ll see more emphasis on Glassdoor faster than with Amazon, but still not overnight.

Even from inside, it takes quite a few years in many cases to make strong inroads into changing perceptions of an organization’s culture (and HR) for the better. One can judge how long from the example of Kimberly-Clark. Jim Collins, in his now-famous book, Good to Great, identified them as one of the steadiest and most successful companies, which he credited to the work of its ‘humble’ CEO at the time. Collins published this in 2002 based his then recent study. Indeed the word ‘humble’ has even assumed powerful status for describing what’s desirable in senior executives due to his book and has started to significantly change what we look for.

Just as Collins was writing, the company was appointing Liz Gottung to head HR. She had 10 years there in HR, then 10 more as a line operator immediately before this promotion, an interesting choice. In 2006 and again in 2012 Gottung was named among the top 10 HR executives of the year for improvements that later CEOs credited for making the company much more successful (even more than Collins noted presumably), ultimately putting HR strategy into the top three things they focus on.

In an extensive interview in Talent Management online Gottung tells the story. Of particular interest to HR people is her description on page 5 – being able to get approval for a $24 million investment in talent systems when other budgets were generally frozen. She attributed that to credibility built “delivering $13 million savings in 2010, $14.5 million in 2011 and almost $8 million in 2012….” She goes on to say this was achieved without reducing staff or cutting services, but rather better vendor deals and the like.

So even though she’d been in place since 2001 and achieved a ‘best HR’ award in 2006 there were still many things possible as better HR strategies developed over the following six years. Those are some pretty long time frames and probably the evolution still isn’t finished if one believes any of Jim Ingham’s analysis on his HCM blog (from 2011) where he quotes her as saying her function, “isn’t that well developed yet, but is on a fast journey.” I guess all such journeys seem fast to those struggling to implement them, just as we all feel incredibly busy all the time.

To the outside world this can seem like slow, almost invisible progress. You can be sure each step along the way is fitted to the existing culture, the powers that be of the moment, the unique situation of the company at the time… and still in line with the aims the CHRO brought to the table all those years before. If the company was in great shape then and is much better now, all that is worth a lot no matter how slow the evolution appears to be. To suggest that each year’s progress and steps could have been foreseen at the outset would be wrong. General principles combining effectively to take advantage of unique, developing situations results from tailoring by top notch leaders, without whom no strategy can succeed.

Action versus Thinking

Action versus thinking? The answer should be obvious. It’s one of those critical challenges where it shouldn’t be ‘either/or’ but ‘both/and.’ To act without thinking is even worse than thinking without acting. But what seems so easy to say apparently isn’t at all easy to apply. In today’s much more complex work environments, achieving the best results is going to take integrating both in everything we do.

In her enlightening book, Quiet, Susan Cain discusses how introverts, who enjoy, spend lots of time and get good at thinking, tend to be systematically undervalued, even treated as second class citizens, especially in business. The subtitle, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, spells out her core view. Her main point – introverts prefer to work in their heads – thinking – and extraverts prefer action, engaging people if at all possible to mobilize as soon as possible, perhaps even before really thinking through what is needed.

Extraverts as a whole, she argues, don’t trust introverts –as Shakespeare has Julius Caesar say: Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look, he thinks too much.Introvert Caesar turned out right when Cassius joined in the assassination plot, but can we really blame that on his thinking too much? Did that indicate the dictator needed people around who just followed orders lest thinking produce reasons to rebel? Many a CEO probably wishes for that, but today just following orders spells disastrous lack of innovation.

I’d put off reading Cain’s book since I’ve dealt with “the problem” of introversion, as we all seem to see it, all my life, found many ways to turn it into results and, yes, discovered there are advantages. Certainly there are times when I envy those who more easily slide into conversation, make small talk when I don’t seem to be able to and use their slimmest connections with passing acquaintances to develop business or learn interesting stuff I might miss. But I found lots of work-arounds as the book notes that many do.

I also discovered, as Cain points out, there are many combinations and shades of personalities that make people unique and labels difficult to apply meaningfully. You can be introverted, but not shy (fearful of interactions), you can be introverted, but highly action-oriented – that’s me – I like to spend time thinking, but when faced with a ‘just do it’ situation, I, too, can go off on a tangent too quickly at times. Making diverse personalities work well together is a key element HR strategy needs to include.

The fact remains we tend to categorize people by latching onto one aspect of their personality and making assumptions about what that means for the whole person – a dangerous and prejudicial way to operate. All too often input is ignored because we just don’t expect that particular person to have anything valuable to add.

On the other side of the ‘thinking-acting’ puzzle is work by researchers such as professor Marc Hurwitz of Wilfrid Laurier University who runs FliPskills consulting. Hurwitz studies brain process, neuroscience for organizations, a newly emerging, very popular area of enquiry. He points out that creative thinking and critical thinking can’t easily be done at the same time. One requires at least a slightly positive mind set while the other works best with a slightly negative (‘prove it to me’) mindset typical of most executives most of the time… but not true of everyone all the time.

The key to success is we need to understand our own prejudices and biases and when we need to make an effort to get past them. We need to be able to slip from one orientation to another so we can brainstorm creatively in one meeting, but come back to evaluate our work critically later on, before we run off with too optimistic a plan.

… All of which is to say, we need more thinking going on behind the scenes than ever before. We need introverts on our teams who ponder and come back with better ideas or reasons why something won’t work –and we need to listen more carefully when such people contribute, or perhaps better to say, we need to encourage them to jump in when they feel awkward or unwelcome at times, because otherwise we won’t get the thinking elements we need to refine our action plans for today’s complex world.

Can We Teach Strategic Thinking?

It used to be taught that as you rise to higher levels in organizations you do less day-to-day work and dedicate more time to strategic thinking. Canada’s management guru, McGill/INSEAD professor Henry Mintzberg, pretty much laid that to rest quite a few years ago with his seminal study of what CEOs do all day long.

Senior executives are found, in study after study, to be busy all day with many relatively basic tasks, interrupted on average every 4 to 10 minutes with questions when they aren’t in relatively routine meetings, chatting with customers, staff or other stakeholders. Great gobs of time dedicated to ‘thinking’ just don’t exist. So how does strategic thinking happen if we’re all occupied problem-solving and ensuring basic work gets done?

The answer is we have to learn to think in deeper terms as we work, not instead of work.

There’s a potential problem with this. We now know multi-tasking is really shifting from one task to another and back quickly. Trying to do several things at once is a pretty good formula for disrupting focus and slowing work down. In fact, studies show it takes five minutes of so to get back on track after an interruption, so there are good reasons for trying to set aside time to work on important projects without people dropping in or allowing yourself to break off for phone calls or email instead of always allowing that steady stream of interruptions every five minutes as many do. Can we productively do strategic thinking while doing other things at the same time?

Developing habits helps smooth things out. As with every piece of advice, the key is balance, not total adherence to just one way of approaching things. Sometimes you’re just plain busy. You need to simply get stuff done and handle whatever the day throws at you. But there’s often more room for control of time, yet we aren’t prepared for that. It’s nice to feel a moment to catch your breath Pondering or solvingbetween problems, but what then?

First you need a transitional habit – how to get back on track after interruptions, for instance. One way kills two birds with one stone. Keep in mind some question you’ve been puzzling about. Broader creativity works best when interrupted (hence the common advice ‘to sleep on it’ for problem-solving).

Solving problems can be creative if you test out new ways of getting different results, but all too often a day is composed of solving the same sort of problem in the same sort of way over and over. That in itself should suggest, in the spaces between crises, that a better way is needed – someone else should be assigned this stuff, staff should be trained differently or directed differently or encouraged to solve these on their own… and now we’re thinking strategically, which is simply to say we’re trying to invent some new way of getting better results faster, more smoothly, etc., by moving into previously unknown, untested territory.

Moving your thinking in this direction is strategic in two ways. First you’re strategically trying to solve your own problem of how to organize your time most productively (and we all have needs for improvement). Second you’re thinking in terms of the larger organization – how many others face this, are bogged down, held back or left out of the loop? How can the organization get the best from them, too?

How many executives put off thinking about how to improve things like this ‘until they find time?’ Many seem to wait until they explode from overload or run into a session at a conference with a stock solution they hadn’t heard of. Those spur of the moment efforts rarely are best. Instead we can recognize that every situation is a chance to at least think a bit more about how to solve the present problem better next time, how it might be possible to test a new way to handle it in the very next instance instead of simply jumping to do whatever it is, we will eventually reach a point of implementing a new approach.

If we can get everyone practicing to develop this habit, innovation and progress become the culture and are reinforced in all areas and at all levels. In short order productivity increases dramatically. Engage!

The Role For HR in the No-HR Organization

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, leadershipsolving problems 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.

Testing Your Faith in Leadership

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 fromare we too old to learn 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.

Testing Your Faith In HR

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 nevercollaboration 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.

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