I’ve written a lot about what’s wrong in HR and how to change it, particularly what’s wrong with HR leaders. This led me to reflect on advice I received from my manager in my first job after college. It was in the spring of 1988 and I was full of excitement! I had been an honors graduate, ranked 1st in my major, and I was one of only a handful of classmates to actually get a real paying job in my chosen field of work. I thought I had gotten the job because I was smart, capable, and willing to work hard, but alas, imagine my shock when my boss explained , “you were the only candidate who didn’t say, ‘I like people’ when I asked you why you wanted the job.”
I was dumbfounded… it had never occurred to me to relate “liking people” to working in HR. In fact, I recall telling him I liked designing, coming up with ideas and figuring out how to build them (not literally with a hammer and nails, but developing processes to take ideas to reality). I liked solving problems. I liked working with numbers, as well as, writing. I didn’t think about saying, “I like people,” because it didn’t seem relevant. It was a huge company, so I would have to work with many people all over the country, as well as, a few in other countries. Working with people was a requirement, not an option. This notion of “liking people” didn’t seem to matter.
What this rather simple revelation reinforced for me is that being in an HR role isn’t about being a “people person”. It’s about accounting for and provisioning for a company’s human capital. More specifically, it’s about optimizing a company’s investment in human capital and mitigating associated risks. Interestingly, when I accepted that role, which happened to be an analyst supporting compensation and HR information systems, the function was actually part of that company’s finance group and was certainly more supported by finance than by HR. We were integrated into the HR group later that year. However, we still worked very closely with our colleagues in finance. Frankly, the leaders of the finance function recognized the value we contributed to the business more than our colleagues in HR. That financial perspective has traveled with me throughout my career and has occasionally put me at odds with my HR brethren. For 27 years, the invaluable insight that HR is not supposed to simply be about liking people or enjoying working with people has guided many aspects of my career choices and leadership decisions.
Recently, I’ve reconnected with my former boss from all those years ago, Tom Barnett, currently at a consumer packaged goods manufacturer in Atlanta, GA. We reminisced about old times and shared how our thoughts have evolved over the past (almost) three decades.
Me: What advice would you give young professionals and managers in HR today?
Tom: HR still isn’t about “liking people”, so that part is the same, but HR needs to redefine or refine its purpose. The functions that are part of HR vary a good bit from company to company. There’s no standard set of expectations for HR because there’s no agreement on how HR should be defined.
Me: Very true. For example, sometimes safety is in HR, sometimes in operations; payroll could be in HR or finance or outsourced; workforce planning (for the few companies that really do it) might be in HR or in strategy; sales compensation design might be in HR or in sales operations and the same with sales comp administration (i.e. commission operations); contingent labor might be in HR or in supply chain or finance or outsourced. Despite the availability of “ideal” or “suggested” HR organizational design benchmarks available from almost any HR consulting firm, there is still a great deal of debate regarding how HR should be structured. I wrote about this in my last blog installment, Profile of the New Chief HR Officer (http://www.sophicpartners.com/insights/uncategorized/profile-of-the-new-chief-hr-officer/).
Tom: Young HR people might not realize they have possible career paths outside of HR. They should latch onto a function, an operational business unit or a sales group and learn the entire business from that point of view. HR people must find ways to actively contribute to that business unit’s goals. You should build a reputation for yourself that is separate and distinct from the general reputation of the HR organization. Ideally, you should take roles in and out of the HR organization. Don’t let HR be your end goal. Also, let people from the business serve in HR roles as part of their career development. This rotation will give them better insight for people decisions when they go back to a line job.
Me: How has your advice changed in the past 25 to 30 years?
Tom: I see the value of cynicism now. You should never be afraid to question or try to discover people’s motives. A lot of bad decisions are made that have negative long-term impact because HR hasn’t been bold enough or simply didn’t understand enough about the business to ask the right questions. I’ve seen HR take the easy way out too many times, rendering the function essentially useless to the business. Sometime it is necessary to challenge your colleagues in other functional areas. If you’re too busy trying to make everyone happy (i.e., liking everyone or trying to make them like you), you will make no one happy and you will also lose any chance of earning respect.
Me: I agree: I wrote about this problem of being a “people pleaser” in “The Chain is Only as Strong as the Weakest Link” (http://www.sophicpartners.com/insights/uncategorized/the-chain-is-only-as-strong-as-the-weakest-link/). What do you hope to see in the HR profession in the next decade?
Tom: I want to see more involvement from HR leaders in making decisions. We’ve come so far with automating transactional processes and with creating service centers (in-house or outsourced). We’ve created so many more efficient ways to handle the bulk of this necessary, but undesirable work. Companies need to take full advantage of this technology. However, I’ve seen too many struggles through the years using technology and outsourcing as a weapon just to get rid of HR. I call this practice “tools as weapons and weapons as tools”. I want to see the business stop viewing HR as evil, a hall monitor, traffic cop, or babysitter.
Me: Yes, we have to stop this outdated way of thinking about HR and realize that while we should strive to be as efficient as possible in every part of the business, there are some critical ways that HR can and should add value that are not embedded in a technology application or easy to outsource.
Indeed, HR is uniquely positioned to change how organizations make strategic decisions. Jeff Higgins, CEO of Human Capital Management Institute, sums it up with, “Perhaps the best argument for HR to adopt and use human capital metrics is that it puts numbers to people so that CFOs and the rest of the organization can finally begin to drive superior decisions about people and talent by using facts and numbers woven into the story that HR is uniquely qualified to tell.” (“Bringing HR and Finance Together with Analytics,” Jeff Higgins, Human Capital Management Institute, HR Magazine, November 2014, p. 44 – 46; http://www.shrm.org/publications/hrmagazine/editorialcontent/2014/1114/pages/1114-hr-finance-analytics.aspx )
I was lucky to be hired and mentored by someone who had this unique long-term insight for HR back in the late 1980s. I carried this early learning with me throughout my career and it never steered me wrong. Despite how we’ve evolved, Tom and I are both still practicing our craft and remain steadfast ambassadors for our shared mission of ensuring that HR is not just about “liking people”.
About us: Sophic HR
The Sophic HR Insights blog was started as a channel for Sophic Partners, LLC to contribute to the on-going and ever-changing dialog about the evolution of the HR function. Our belief is that business strategy and people strategy are inextricably intertwined and we strive to cultivate this understanding in today’s business leaders through alignment of the HR function to facilitate acquisition, development, engagement, performance, rewards, and retention of critical talent. We also strive to impart wisdom in tomorrow’s leaders through education in these areas.
About Tom Barnett:
Tom began his career in academia with Virginia Tech and the University of Georgia. He sees compensation as the pivotal function in HR for driving businesses. His career has been with a Fortune 50 company at the Corporate and Division levels, as well as, a manufacturing facility. He has always been drawn into the Corporate setting overseeing multiple aspects of HR.