Sunday, September 28, 2008

10 Ways HR Benefits Business

Hello from home base in Santa Fe! After three weeks on the road interviewing HR leaders at the top of their game for a new website I’m developing, I rolled into my driveway late last night with only one thing in mind: Spend Sunday in bed, catching up on three weeks worth of NY Times and cuddling with the cats. But then I found an email promoting another negative article about HR.

Do we really need another negative message to HR? I don’t think so. I think that charming little number that Fast Company magazine treated us to three years ago was quite sufficient, thank you very much. At the time, I wrote a response article entitled, “Why I Love HR.” (If you missed it, email me at and I’ll send you a copy.) And so it seems that the time has come for me to contribute yet another positive article celebrating the potential of HR – if only to remind readers that HR is about so much more than just avoiding stupid mistakes.

So, here we go! 10 ways that HR uniquely benefits business:

HR brings humanity to enterprise: Being a people person is actually a good thing. Hold onto that thought, even as more experienced, “successful,” cynical people dismiss your passion for the peeps. Everyone around you may be chasing the numbers, so they may have recused themselves from any conversation regarding how people will benefit the business or how business decisions impact people. That’s okay, let other people do what they do best. Just remember that business is nowhere if it’s not being enlivened by the dedication, passion and talents of high-performing employees. That’s where you come in. Once you start getting cynical yourself about the people side of your business, it’s time to switch functions – if only long enough to discover afresh how much more fun the HR department is.

HR allows cooler heads to prevail. When it comes to high-emotion, high-tension situations between employees, business leaders have two choices: Ignore it and let the courts figure it out later – to great expense both financially or in the eyes of public opinion; or let HR investigate. My advice: Let HR investigate. Now.

HR touches the future. In my interviews with HR leaders over the last several weeks, I asked “Where is the true power of HR today?” One of my interviewees responded: “HR should be looking around the corner and anticipating the talent the business will be needing – not now but 2, 3, 5, 10 years down the road.” Talent management is not too different from inventory management to a visionary HR leader. When it comes to people, just-in-time inventory management is a loser’s game. And the loser will be the business that doesn’t have the necessary talent already in the pipeline (your competitors will, you can bet on that). No one else in your organization is going to be thinking about the people side of your future. That job is yours. Run your talent supply chain that can shift and change with an uncertain future and you just may be the one who saves your company.

HR is the moral compass of business. The moral compass? Bummer! “Who wants to be the scold? I want to be liked, to be respected, to belong. Who wants to be the one to tell leadership that they can’t do what they want? I didn’t sign up for that gig!” Well, actually, you did. Remember Enron? When everyone asked, “Where was HR when these decisions were being made?” That’s you! And sometimes you have to be the one to tell powerful people the truth: That big idea is just plain wrong, wrong, wrong. The right company – the one that’s worthy of stellar HR – is going to welcome your feedback.

HR saves families. Families are held together when someone is bringing home a paycheck. Families are saved when a stressed employee can turn to the EAP to come up with a plan of resolution and action. Battered women and their children save their own lives when Mom has a supportive and flexible employer who will give her what she needs to find safe harbor. Whenever I say to an HR professional, “Tell me of a time when you thought, ‘this is why I’m in HR,’” the answers I get invariably move one or both of us to tears. Why? Because the times always involve an opportunity for the person to use his or her HR resources, power and caring to ease the suffering or fears of an employee and the employee’s family.

HR brings hope to communities. We usually think of HR’s impact on communities when a major local employer announces that it’s shutting down operations. That much is definitely true, I get that. And we’re probably going to see more of that in upcoming years. Still, when a new business starts up successfully in a town, or region becomes known for being the cradle of great minds, communities spring up, thrive, open museums, hire great teachers, start symphonies, pave rails-to-trails paths, make the sidewalks safe to walk at night, and my personal favorite: sustain great bookstores. All these great things happen because money is being made. And money is being made because people have jobs. When businesses thrive, communities benefit. When communities thrive, businesses benefit.

HR saves careers. I recognize that as a group HR likes to perceive of its power as being something on the strategic level. That 35,000 feet point of view where one HR decision has a multi-million dollar impact. But sometimes it’s just a one-person-at-a-time proposition. HR is often in the best position of noticing a place where passion is bleeding out of the organization, often in the form of a single employee who is at risk. In one of my all-time favorite interviews of the summer, the regional HR manager of a major retailer (you’d recognize the name) told me of a cherished employee who was announcing that she was quitting to go to nursing school. Well, okay, education is a good thing, but something just wasn’t quite right. She loved working for this company, that much he knew. So why quit? Something else was going on. Sure enough. It wasn’t nursing school that she was running to. It was a reassignment that she was running from. Her manager had made the decision to move her away from a department she loved to a department that she had absolutely zero interest in. She opted not to protest because she really liked her manager and didn’t want to get him in trouble. So she opted to quit the whole shebang instead. My HR interviewee, luckily for everyone concerned, had the boots-to-ground point of view to recognize that there was more to this story than just a resignation announcement. Long story short: Happy ending all around. (And, I’m sure, that fresh nursing school opening was filled by a student who genuinely feels called to the healing sciences.)

HR promotes innovation. Those who dismiss HR as being the in-house compliance police have overlooked the immense amount of creativity required to run the people side of great business. I’ve heard people say that HR is the place where all dreams go to die. After a little digging I discover that their experience has been in fact where all stupid dreams go to die. Or all illegal dreams go to die. So in my speeches and workshops I always recommend to my HR listeners to make their offices “destination yes,” where leaders can come with half-baked (or half-something else) ideas and collaborate with HR to find a way to achieve the desired result in a way that doesn’t have the SEC or EEO come sniffing after them. When you hear of a company that has managed to survive a downshift in the economy without a single layoff, I promise you, HR is behind that story somewhere.

HR brings balance to the boardroom. Now, this may sound blasphemous to some people, I recognize that. But maybe there’s something to be said for leaving the numbers conversation to the numbers people. There’s only one person specifically charged with the responsibility of addressing the people ramifications of business decisions, and, again, that’s you. I also recognize that few HR folks are lucky enough to have CEOs who are so evolved as to say, “Please, I need the people side from you, stick with that.” But, in your attempts to achieve boardroom legitimacy – if not supremacy – don’t throw the people baby out with the bottom-line bathwater. You’re the People Guy…that’s a good gig. Don’t check it at the door when entering a business conversation. That’s the balance – the value – that you bring to the group. If anyone else at the table wanted that job, they would have competed with you for it long ago.

HR gives talent a home. I’m not so na├»ve as to believe – or try to make you believe – that companies can only be innovative when they have an empowered HR team. But I think I can say with great confidence that when you have an empowered HR team, you put yourself in a far better position of being able to attract and keep high-value talent that will pioneer new products and services for you on a daily basis. A company that cares enough about its people to cultivate a spectacular HR team cares enough about its people to inspire creativity, productivity and greatness throughout its org chart.

At this point you might be thinking to yourself, “Oh yeah? Well, you don’t have to collaborate with my senior counsel on the revised employee handbook.”

And I would have to say, “You’re right.” But then I would also have to add, “You don’t deserve to be treated with disrespect in HR.” I would also say that if your major concern is avoiding stupid HR mistakes (and getting counsel to actually listen to you), as opposed to achieving your full potential in one of the most significant roles in history, then you’re robbing yourself of the potential of a deeply rewarding career.

If you work for an organization where the leadership gets pleasure keeping you hunkered over transactional HR minutiae, and you don’t like that feeling, find a company where you will be happy and treated with respect. Sticking with a company that prides itself on demeaning its people…well, that would be the stupidest HR mistake of all.

You deserve better.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Just in case you might be thinking you can't make a difference

Hello from Los Angeles!

Am staying with the ultra-marvelous Libby Gill, who has an amazing way of coaching and getting right down to the a-ha that flings possibility doors wide open. (You should have seen her in action with me yesterday morning. In just five minutes, she led me off an analysis paralysis path, much to the delight of everyone working with me on getting Engagement Journeys finally on its feet (more on that in the fullness of time). ) If you're looking for a coach or an amazingly inspiring speaker on risk taking, leadership, or branding, she's the one you want. (And read her book, Traveling Hopefully.)

I've been in California for two weeks doing initial interviews for a blown-out web version of HR Journeys (more on that later as well). And I have to take this moment to thank my initial, brave, pioneering sponsor Tom Larkin, of The Larkin Company, who is helping me get this dream off the ground. My dream: To help high-potential HR professionals -- you know, the ones who feel called to the field -- gain a full understanding of the entire personal/professional journey that comes with signing onto this life's work.

So. In the two weeks I've been here, two items have hit the news, which creates today's subject: The difference that individuals can make in a twinkling. First the bummer difference: Tucked in among the headlines of Hurricane Ike, the stock market, Freddie and Fannie, AIG, and Where's Caylee? has been the terrible news of a commuter train crash here in LA. Over 130 people were hurt; 25 lost their lives. What was the engineer doing right before the accident? Text messaging. Investigators are still reluctant to point the finger at the engineer and texting before the full investigation is complete, but it's not looking good.

A few months ago CA passed legislation banning text messaging while driving. I was visiting friends here at that time and marveled at who would be stupid enough to text while driving. My friend looked at me sheepishly and said, "I do." She's a corporate executive. Uh oh, back pedal, I told myself. But I still didn't get it. Fast forward to this trip I'm on right now, I have gotten in the habit of checking my emails while waiting at traffic lights. And, if I'm in the middle of replying when the light turns green? Well, no biggee, what will it hurt if I just drive a little slowly for a few secs until I click send?

Yesterday I was so distracted by my emails while pulling out of a parking lot that I forgot to release the parking brake and drove 35 miles down the Pacific Coast highway with the brake on. What's that squealing of metal against metal I kept asking myself as I was thumbing my Ipod click-wheel in search of a specific song among 7,000. Those darn trucks, I continued contemptuously. Then I noticed the red light on my dashboard, and realized that I'd been watching that red light for miles. Duh.

Just a little text here and there won't hurt, right? After all, we're all just one individual. How much damage can one individual do? A burned out parking brake is nothing to the burnt wreckage of 25 lives and their families. So I guess I better take that parking brake as a gift.

So here's the more inspiring take on the difference one individual can make: You probably remember the story of the 13-year-old boy with autism who swam too far out off a Florida beach and got caught up in the currents. His father went after him, and before they both realized what was happening, they were swept out to sea. Two tiny specks of humanity dressed in nothing but sunny-day swim trunks bobbing in the waves for 15 hours. The sun went down, the moon and stars came out and they still treaded blackened water under the pin-prick bowl of constellations, galaxies and satellites. Even though the father couldn't see the son after a while, they kept in voice contact by trading favorite movie lines.

One of which was from Toy Story. The father would holler into the black night: "To infinity!" And somewhere embedded deep inside the pillowy waves, a little boy's voice would respond: "And beyond" And they did that all night long.

There are so many ways to tell this story, but here's the one that especially speaks to me. A decade ago there was a young story supervisor having a very good time at work at Pixar. In a moment of genius he came up with this fantastic line. At the time it was just a fun line in a way fun movie. And, as an upstart business, Pixar's prospects were looking pretty darn good with such delights that were springing from the minds of a bunch of wacky creative types.

I know the guy who headed Pixar's HR department at the time, and emailed him the story of the father and son. And then said, "Can you pass this story on to the guy who came up with the line?"

His response: "I think the gentleman who came up with that line was Joe Ranft, Story Supervisor on most of the early big hits of Pixar but we unfortunately lost him in a car accident just before I left Pixar. He was also the voice of Heimlich the caterpillar in A Bug's Life."

Once upon a time there was a guy sitting at a desk in California who came up with four simple words that would save two lives in Florida ten years later. And, even though he's gone, his story continues.

One person can make a huge difference, in a twinkling blink of an eye.

I'm reminded of the Jackson Browne song, For a Dancer, in which he is encouraging the listener to follow his/her heart because that will lead to destiny. The concluding lines are these:

Into a dancer you have grown...
From a seed somebody else has thrown.
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own.
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you'll never know.