HR is as HR Does

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Those of you who know me are aware that I am biased toward action. Mulling things over? Nope. Researching a little bit more after the conclusion seems clear? Not unless you can convince me of the value in it. Talking something to death? Never.

I know a lot of folks in HR whose bread and butter is generated through speaking, generating content that others purchase or receive as part of consulting packages, and whose reputations are built upon their gravitas in the HR public sphere. I think these people are great. I admire them, learn from them, enjoy their work, and become a better HR professional because of my exposure to them.

Here’s the thing, though. I am what’s called a “do-er.” If words and actions disagree, actions are always what I believe. If there’s a choice between doing something and talking about it, I prefer to do. You may think that makes me “tactical” or even “transactional” in orientation, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. My work product communicates, adds value and is left behind, as words fade into the air. It can be referred back to, shaped, revised, and molded to fit the needs of tomorrow and the next day. I continuously communicate while I act-strategically, efficiently and, hopefully, helpfully.

Action is what matters most. HR is sometimes guilty of acting in a way that’s not consistent with what we say, as a result of burnout, lack of experience, or failure to speak truth to our clients. We say that our company’s employees are its most important asset. We talk about employee engagement like it’s a priority. We even spout messages about developing leaders internally and caring about retention. Then what happens? We complain about human problems and label people like we think we know their stories. We are complicit in treating employees like they are cogs in a machine because our shareholders need a teeny, tiny bit more value. We (sometimes haphazardly) label some people with monikers like “High Potential” (without recognizing the unconscious bias we all have in making this choice) and participate in numbering them in order of their perceived value. We allow our manager clients to get away with not coaching, communicating about performance or engaging in difficult conversations with their direct reports.

Are you as frustrated with this as I am? Let’s do something. Speak less, act more. Treat employees with dignity, no matter what they have done or said, or what consequences we must deliver. Everyone tends to find themselves in crisis at one time or another, and there are no walls around the workplace anymore. Recognize people, know them and appreciate them every day. Question authority when you think your wonderful, unique and human teammates are being mislabeled or made the victims of petty, poor leadership politics. Hold your manager clients’ feet to the fire when they avoid conflict or face to face communication, and remind everyone all the way up the management chain that they own the success or failure of their front-line employees.

Let’s agree that we’ll act. Our workplaces will be better for it, and the trust level in HR will go through the roof. And, ultimately, our organizations will be more successful, which is exactly what our business leaders need from us.

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The Land of No HR

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Lately, I have been working with an organization that had little support or guidance in the way of HR, for many years. It is of a size that needs it desperately, and in an industry where extra care should be taken with workers to ensure production of a quality product or service.

I’ve been around a while, and I’ve seen a lot of team dynamics. I’ve worked with toxic leaders and dysfunctional departments. But I must say I was lulled into complacency by this team at the start and then was reminded how things work in the Land of No HR.

The first rule in the Land of No HR, is that no one knows what HR is supposed to do. So everyone is glad to see you when you get there. They have an idea that HR is basically there to save them from the mean leader who is making life hard for them and the changes in the organization that are causing anxiety and upheaval. They think HR is there is be a representative for them to take their complaints to their own managers and force them to listen.

They’re on the right track. I’m there to help them develop communication skills so they can be candid and solution-oriented with their leaders about what’s not working so they can move on to summiting mountains and slaying dragons. I’m even ready to be a mediator where ancient, fetid, ugly problems that have been festering for years are coming to the surface. And I can help leaders clarify strategy, performance, and how resources and people fit together in the plan.

I’m not there to wave a magic wand and make the challenges go away, or deliver disingenuous platitudes to feral managers who have never been held accountable for leading or delivering results that contribute to the organization’s success. In a lot of ways, I’m there to challenge, listen, empathize and push a little, and make sure everyone has the training and guidance they need. I want people to feel understood, valued and empowered, but to get there, they must take responsibility for their roles, their work and their own behaviors.

We’re working on it. By the time I move on, they will have the tools, an informed and capable business leader who understands and values an HR presence in the organization, and hopefully, a permanent HR resource in place. But the future is truly in their hands. I hope they are wildly successful!

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Communication Requires Actually Talking

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I have a group of clients who like to use leverage. This means they will email instructions on a particular issue like they are a done deal, then tell you to move forward with their direction. They will simultaneously copy in other people not likely to agree with them, and pretend like there’s no further discussion needed.

While this does make for some laugh out loud moments on my part when I read my email, it doesn’t make for a functional, interactive and productive group dynamic when the person copied has a tantrum. In situations like this, I usually invite a leader to weigh in.

Except…sometimes they don’t take the opportunity to provide clarity. In that case, it’s up to me to recognize the need and take a stand with a firm recommendation. That recommendation is often not the last word, and the arguing continues. Even then, in some cases, a leader won’t engage to hear both sides, and make a decision to put the issue to rest.

It’s then I know we not only have a problem to solve today, but a development need for tomorrow as well. Communication requires actually talking to one another, hearing all of the details, risks, costs and benefits, and then making a decision that everyone agrees to live with and move forward under.

The decision is definitely important, and it’s up to the business to make one. But it’s also about the communication. That is something we can and must facilitate in HR.

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I Believe in a Big Candy Jar

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Those who know me understand that I’m kind of a health nut. But I love candy. Jelly beans, Skittles, salt water taffy, Airheads, Mentos (the fruit kind-not the mint ones) and any other chewy, sweet stuff you can find. I also love chocolate, the darker and more bitter the better.

My candy jar is almost always full on my desk. It’s not a weenie candy dish that will show a big gap when you take a piece. It’s an overflowing jar with a lid and you are always welcome to come by and see me to take a piece or two. While you’re here I’ll expect to hear a little about your day, what you’re proud of, what’s bugging you, and what you think about what’s going on at work and in your life.

People often remark on the candy jar, whether it’s full, what’s in it, and when there will be more chocolate. They give me a hard time and pretend to steal a piece as they hurry by and give me a sly smile. They interrupt my work to talk about things that are important to them when they are just “stopping by for candy.” And I love it.

Sometimes people will fill the candy jar. It’s never required for anyone to contribute candy, and I don’t complain when it empties. The dish makes happiness for everyone, even those who don’t eat the candy. It spreads goodwill among everyone who sees it. When they give to the candy jar, they’re part of that warm feeling too.

Every HR pro should have the equivalent of a candy jar-something colorful, irresistible and fun in your workspace that welcomes people in. Maybe yours is a bunch of funny office toys for people to squeeze, throw or shake, or tons of funny magnets, stickers and posters for them to read and have a laugh with you.

Inviting people to be present in the moment with you is a great way to enjoy work, do great HR, and make life more fun. My candy jar does that.

What’s your candy jar? Share your ideas in the comments.

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High Potential Programs: Handle with Care

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In theory, so-called “High Potential” identification programs make sense. Organizations and leadership should be aware of the employees who are most likely to become future senior leaders and who should be identified as potential successors for critical roles that may need filling. They should also be exposed to accelerated developmental opportunities to keep them engaged and prepare them for these future opportunities.

What I’ve observed in practice, though, is that these programs tend to be less effective than they are in the theoretical realm. Todd Warner recently wrote a brilliant article in the Harvard Business Review called Three Reasons Why Talent Management isn’t Working Anymore. Warner pokes holes in these programs as they are ordinarily implemented, pointing out how they tend to result in promotion of familiarity and compliance, and they proceed in lock-step according the plan instead of considering the complex contextual environment of your organization and evolving strategy, which tends to change over time. All of these issues are critically important and should be addressed when implementing any talent management and succession planning program.

There are additional issues that develop when implementing these programs that deserve some attention and thought. If leaders and HR managers consider these pitfalls, they are less likely to interfere with a thoughtfully conceived and effectively implemented program.

  1. “High Potential” talent management plans can alienate and drive away high performers who aren’t considered among the “chosen few” to be in the “HiPo” group. These high performers may have rightfully been excluded-or misidentified. After they leave for greener pastures, leadership tends to recognize this as an affirmation of their original choices-those who left weren’t committed, didn’t have the passion and talent that the “HiPo” group possesses, and their talent and performance fades in memory once they are no longer a part of the organization. This self-fulfilling prophecy can be a recipe for mediocrity.
  2. Perception is Reality. I have heard this come out of the mouths of managers in dysfunctional organizations, not as a warning, as in, question perceptions, and look for facts and analyze data to get true results. It has been spoken with a shrug and a sigh, as in, using your energy to promote the right perception among leadership is something we all have to do here. That is a complete waste of time and money, creates animosity and distrust among employees, and stands in the way of even small change initiatives. Just create the right perception of yourself and you will be in the “High Potential” group that is allocated greater Talent Management and development resources. This dysfunctional environment can cause even the most engaged team members to lose faith in the organization and can erase gains created by even a well-managed HiPo program. Once High Potentials are promoted, the rest of the organization hasn’t been set up to trust them as leaders. The lesson? A culture of transparency and trust is key.
  3. Playing the Game. If HR isn’t careful, instead of performing the critically important function of giving strategic advice on succession planning and developing identified employees to ready them for promotion, we will end up creating an elaborate game in which only the team members who are highly manipulative and political-minded will end up the winners. Meanwhile, team members who could challenge the status quo, show true leadership and bring real success are overlooked, lose interest and move on to contribute to someone else’s bottom line.
  4. The Extrovert vs. Introvert Continuum and Gender and Culture Differences. One of the critical elements of a High Potential employee as compared to a high performing employee is aspiration. Aspiration, ambition and striving to move up are all qualities that can be present but may be expressed in different ways by true HiPo employees, but may not be recognized consistently by evaluators. Consider the differences in your employees and how they may express themselves based on who they are.

What should a wise Talent Management and HR professional do to combat these tendencies?

  1. Widen the circle. Who is reviewing the information upon which you base your identification of high potential employees? Yes, managers will fill out the same forms, and give evaluations based on the same criteria-but if only one or two team members are charged with making preliminary identifications, then you are entrusting your organization’s future to their analysis of the collected data and their ability to conclude what it says about the potential for future success. Maybe that makes sense, since your HR team is well trained in making recommendations like these-or maybe it doesn’t, and you haven’t even thought about it. Unless you are making decisions in a blind process and based only on objective criteria like assessment scores (highly unlikely and not advisable) then the perspective of every reviewer could be quite influential.
  2. Expand the data set. Does your team think they have the right people identified? Broaden the criteria you are looking at and make sure consistent criteria are being used to identify High Potentials. Bersin by Deloitte has a maturity model for High Potential programs, and at the bottom are programs that are ad hoc in nature, with no clear criteria. Make sure your program is fully business-integrated and consistent in order to get the best results.
  3. Calibrate Initial Decisions. According to Korn Ferry, 70% of High Potential employees are misidentified by managers in their initial assessment. Two-thirds of those initially identified are actually high performers, but not necessarily High Potentials. Misidentifying participants can harm their careers and interfere with organizational success by setting people up to fail.
  4. Evaluate results. It doesn’t matter how top of the line your HiPo program is if it doesn’t deliver the results you need for succession planning. According to CEB, five out of six HR professionals are currently dissatisfied with the results of their HiPo programs. Evaluating results and changing direction when needed is a best practice.

High Potential programs can be a useful tool for identifying successors and allocating development resources for the greatest return on investment, but the potential downside risk is high if the program is not carefully designed, managed and evaluated. For more information on the criteria commonly used to identify High Potential employees, see this overview in Forbes.

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Make Your Hiring Process Real

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While working in severely dysfunctional environments back when I was a baby professional, I have personally sat in on interviews as an individual contributor and heard hiring leaders tell bold-faced lies about things like work-life balance. And I’m not talking about technicalities here, like saying “Our organization’s values statement includes work-life balance” when it isn’t actually implemented in practice. What I heard was, “Oh, yes! There’s plenty of balance here! We manage to get our work done and leave plenty of time for your personal life. And we’re flexible too, no worries!” Umm, no, and no.

Should I have offered to walk this candidate out to the entrance after the meeting and told her the truth? Yes. But that would be ruining any chance for my own work-life balance since I was working in “survival mode” as my manager called it, and with two team members currently missing, I needed some new sucker to take the job. That makes me a terrible person out to save my own hide, but I’m not sure what anyone expects in that situation, where you pit team member against team member and put them on a tropical island without enough food or tools. “Survival mode” is fine when it’s really just in emergencies, but nobody has the fortitude and motivation to do their best work that way all the time. The organization had made a choice that it was worth the turnover to keep lean. I’m not sure they were right, but that’s for another day, another post.

In the years after that, I had a very different experience with a much more enlightened employer. I had been looking for a new opportunity and wasn’t in a hurry. The role was very demanding, but exciting too. When I heard about the salary range, I wasn’t dazzled, but the work was cool enough that I wanted to know more. I had a great call with a recruiter, and was next scheduled to speak with another person in the role I was being considered for.

She helped me put the brakes on pretty quickly. “This is a job where you can expect to work 60 hours or more per week consistently, every week. And then sometimes we work through weekends if there are deadlines.”

She continued, “And you should expect to travel 50-75% of the time, depending on client need.” Hmm…this was not previously mentioned by the recruiter. Travel is fun, but not all the time, and it’s certainly something I would need to know in order to realistically evaluate the opportunity.

“You also should know that you will be held to billable hours and sales goals.” OK. As a recovering lawyer, “billable hours goal” is code for “we will work you within an actual inch of your life.”

I revisited the salary range, thought through the other details, and it was very clear that I wasn’t willing to be worked within an inch of my life or expected to spend most of my waking hours there, even for exciting work, for the salary they were offering. If I wanted to do that, I wouldn’t have left the legal profession.

What if my interviewer had been a coward, like me? The organization would have gotten some good work out of me, that’s true. But alas, it wouldn’t have been a long-term gig. Telling the truth about the job gave me, and the organization, the right result. It wasn’t a fit. Wise hiring leaders and talent acquisition professionals know that painting an accurate picture, warts and all, makes for not only good hires, but the right hires.

Think about your own recruiting, interviewing and hiring processes. What incentives is your organization creating among those involved in the hiring process (recruiters, interviewers, yourself) that aren’t in alignment with your business and hiring strategic goals? Are you being frank with job seekers about what you have to offer?

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What Work Can Be

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I’ve been having a lot of conversations about work with people I respect and admire lately. I just returned from the Colorado Capital Conference in Washington, D.C. last week, where I learned about and discussed the work of the U.S. Congress. I also talked with fellow Coloradans about their work, their lives, and the things they care about. It was an opportunity of a lifetime, not just because I was able to visit the floor of the senate and hear from our nation’s leaders, but also because I came away with a new faith in our system and trust in our Colorado congressional leaders to work together in a bipartisan manner for the good of our state.

When I returned, I had a great conversation with a neighbor and friend I greatly respect and look up to. She was feeling invigorated by a recent career change, and entering a time of great passion around her career as she approaches age 60. I recently made a big transition in my career this spring, and I found that we fed off each other’s energy in discussing our plans. When I walked away, I felt even more excitement about my work, and gratitude for the opportunities I have now to do work I love in HR, be in my community of Boulder, and interact with intelligent, caring people of integrity that share my commitment to making work better.

Sometimes I forget that not everyone shares my core belief that work brings meaning to life. In the past, our grandparents worked hard for the same company or organization for their entire careers, and were “rewarded” with a pension in retirement. Like many other working people my age, I joke about never retiring, because none of us will ever truly be able to afford it. But the real story is that the people I know who have deep passion for their work don’t ever want to stop working. The new “gig” economy is taking root just in time for us to envision our later working years in a way that fits with what we want and need for our changing lives.

As I examine what I truly want from my work, I realize that I yearn for more than just an exchange of brainpower for money. That, at its basic level, is what work is to most of us, and what it’s been to me at some points in my career. But if I have a choice, I want more. I want to do work that not only just helps people, but furthers an organization I respect and trust. I want to be part of something bigger than just me. At its best, work can feed the spirit and contribute to our feelings of worth, belonging and our place in the world. All work has value, and there is justified pride in a day’s work well done that is appreciated by and performed for an organization that treats its workers with respect, that is deserving of their trust.

Work can be more to all of us: more satisfying, more rewarding, and adding energy to our lives, not exhausting it.

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