Sunday, December 23, 2007

Oprah's Most Important Leadership Lesson

I seem to have Oprah on my mind lately. Maybe it’s that whole Obama thing broadcast to boredom on CNN. Or maybe it’s the fact I’m really jealous of – I mean happy for – Elizabeth Gilbert, who managed to do exactly what she wanted for a year in exotic (and fattening) places, write Eat, Pray, Love about it, fall in love and (most likely) become a millionaire. All through her writing. (I could have gone to Bali, too, you know.)

No. It’s none of those things. It’s what happened at her school this fall. You probably know what happened. There was a very serious case of alleged child abuse on the campus of her school in South Africa. If it’s true (at this point we can and should only say “if”), it’s nightmarish for the girl and heartbreaking for all those who signed up for Oprah’s vision. But that’s not the point here.

My point is actually a lesson for us all that came out of the Oprah incident: Those who have your ear don’t necessarily have your back. People kept the truth from Oprah, and your people could be keeping the truth from you.

During her press conference about the incident, she said, almost in passing, that she found out that all the girls were instructed by the school’s leadership to always have a smile on their face and never complain whenever Oprah was visiting the campus. Now I don’t know Oprah personally, but I’m thinking that it’s a fair bet that should any of her girls be unhappy about something as serious as, well, sexual assault, she would want to know about it. Happy happy, smiley smiley doesn’t cut it when you’re trying to make the world a better place. Know what I mean?

So what does this have to do with HR? Simple: Think about all the people who count on your good will to keep their jobs. And think about the last time they risked disappointing you, or even being fired, by delivering a devastating truth. How long has it been?

I’m thinking that total truth is one of your personal core values. And that’s good. But bear in mind that your direct reports may have a core value that supersedes the imperative of delivering to you the total truth. That value: Keeping their job.

Oprah has a close circle of people she thought she could trust to make her vision for the school a reality. And, as with any good delegator, she trusted that circle and turned her attention to visionary things rather than the day-to-day running of the school. But instead they filtered the reality such that it wouldn’t make her mad, sad, or enraged.

Besides the many billions of dollars, what makes you so different from Oprah? I would bet there are people you trust to manifest the vision you hold dear. And maybe you even pride yourself in gathering a small clutch of close, entrusted experts to whom you can pass the “get-it-done” ball, even giving them a fantastic, life-changing opportunity in the bargain. Well. Good for you.

Just remember, there are little lizards within us all who want to compel our brains to say to our professional decision-making faculties, “yeah, whatever, just keep our job, okay?” And when you say “okay” to your own lizard, you become complicit in choosing saving your credit rating over saving the world.

Oprah’s school staff wanted to do everything they could to keep that groovy thing going and their jobs intact – even if it meant killing the very dream that established the school to begin with. While the situation may not be as extreme in your company, your staff may be just as reluctant to tell you the devastating truth about some key aspect of your business. And, for that matter, you might be carefully editing the data that gets sent upstream to your boss as well.

Total truth – unlike other natural substances – flows both upstream and down. Make your business truth-friendly in all directions. Be sure you have a boss you can tell the whole truth to. And be sure you are the kind of boss who can hear the truth from your own people.

You may not always like what you hear. But the cumulative effect of a truthful workplace environment will make that most precious vision a reality.

If I’m wrong…see you on the beach in Bali. I’ll save a spot under a banyan tree for you.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Why I Love HR

HR puts feet to dreams. When leaders and entrepreneurs lie awake at night and spin grand castles in the air, pretty soon they have to start asking themselves where they are going to get the talent to build those castles for real. When ordinary folks dream at night about building exciting careers – or simply paying the mortgage and feeding their family – eventually they have to start asking themselves what companies are most likely to help them make their dreams come true. Two sets of dreamers at opposite ends of the employment equation. But they need each other. Where do they find common ground? HR, of course.

HR puts the world to work. Consider the billions and billions of people who go to jobs every day around the planet. Steady paychecks. Safe working conditions. Reasonable management policies and leadership behaviors. Fair prospects for advancement. In many countries, unprecedented surges in standards of living. Who’s behind that? HR.

HR works better than the United Nations. Not only does HR put the world to work, HR puts the world to work together. In most major cities around the globe – certainly in the greater Boston area – companies large and small are filled with representatives of many nations – many of them would be in armed conflict with each other on their native soil. But unified by the common mission of their companies’ profitability and competitiveness, these employees work shoulder to shoulder toward their shared goal of a better future for themselves, their families, even each other.

HR is never satisfied with itself. HR professionals know that there is always room for improvement. There is no profession so dynamic and ever-changing as a people profession – especially one that must marry the intricacies of people and business strategy. And the mere fact that HR never forgets that things could be done better is one of the reasons why I love HR.

HR takes care of its own. I don’t think there is a better, more developed, more welcoming, more elaborate network of colleagues in any other profession. Throughout the world professional HR groups and SHRM chapters and classes and seminars and workshops and monthly “hole-in-the-wall gangs” convene, complain, kvetch, kvel, and share all the insights, news, and creative solutions they can. Even competitors generously share their best practices with each other. To borrow a line from a song from West Side Story, “When you’re in HR, you’re in HR all the way.” In HR you belong. You’re embraced. You grow. You give back. You’re welcome.

HR builds communities. Communities are filled with employees, former employees and future employees. Through HR, companies partner with community leadership to foster stability, hope, growth and development for all their citizens and constituents. When there are jobs people stay. When people stay there is a tight fabric of relationships, memories, dreams and willingness to invest and sacrifice for an even better future.

HR is a stupidity buffer. HR is often the only thing that stands between terrible ideas from company leadership and its people (and its customers, and its shareholder interests). With its legal, fiduciary, strategic and human understanding of the people impact of any kind of leadership initiative, HR has the best vantage point of all the functions in a company, and has the perspective necessary to put the brakes on “stupid leadership tricks.”

HR saves lives. HR is on the front lines of all the personal battles faced by modern humanity. Depression. Addiction. Domestic violence. Illiteracy. Street crime. Divorce. Despair. Thanks to the many initiatives and support systems that HR has assumed over the last 20 years, employees have a chance to prevail over their personal nightmares and sources of shame and stress.

HR makes greatness happen. No matter what we do for a living, we all share a single calling, which is to use our talents to make the world a better, more hopeful place. But none of us can fully manifest our potential all by ourselves. Even the most talented and singular visionaries need the support of organizations to bring their genius to the marketplace. We need each other. We come to our chosen organizations with our various gifts and talents and skills. And we look to HR to sort it all out for us, plug us into the places where we can do our best work and together – as a team – we lean into the wheel and build a future for ourselves, our families, our communities, our world that matches our best dreams and values.

HR matters. And that’s why I love HR.