These things I know…..

I’m speaking at a myHRcareers networking event this week. If you haven’t come across these guys, it is worth checking them out. One of the things that interests me is the chance to speak to people earlier on in their careers about HR, the world of work and what to expect (and avoid).

I kind of fell in to HR, as a lot of people did. And I made my way based on the good and the bad advice that I received from the good and bad managers around me. I never felt I particularly fitted in to the networking events or the branch events. They just didn’t seem to be people like me or who thought like me. I’m sure there were opportunities, I just never found them.

In looking back, and in preparation for Wednesday night, I thought back to the things that I’ve learnt about HR as a career and what that means.

1) Most people will have to do a whole lot of shit jobs, before they get to do a meaningful one. Most HR jobs are pretty tedious, in tedious companies, with tedious managers. You just have to realise you’re earning your stripes. Keep your head down and hold on to your dreams. In time you’ll get the opportunity to do something where you can make a difference. Remember the reason you want to, when you get there.

2) You’ll work for a lot of people who you don’t respect. The fact is that our profession is littered with more ineffective, unintentionally dangerous and damaging rejects than the QC department at Durex. That’s the way it is. Learn from them, remember what annoys you, what frustrates you and resolve to do things differently when you get the chance.

3) Nothing that you learn during your studies will help you in your employment. That doesn’t mean it is worthless; it just doesn’t help. Learn by speaking to others, listening, observing, trying and failing. You will make have less failures than you have successes, but you will remember them twice as clearly. That’s a good thing.

4) The difference between a great HR person and a rubbish HR person, is that a great person can tell you why they do their job as well as what they do. Never forget the why. And if it doesn’t have people at the heart of it, you’re a rubbish HR person in disguise.

5) This isn’t heart surgery. Nobody dies. That means that you can relax, have a little fun, be human and make people laugh. Trust me, they’ll love you more for it and it won’t cost you anything. Your reputation isn’t built on how far you can get the broom up your own arse; but if you really want to, there won’t be a shortage of people volunteering to help you with it.

A letter to Penny

Dear Penny,

I wanted to write to thank you for your letter. I realise that replying to it twenty-two years after receipt is probably considered bad form. But then, at the time, I wasn’t ready to reply. And it was only this weekend that I was going through some boxes that I came across it and read and appreciated it.

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Not missing the irony that, of course, this week people will be getting their own A-level results. And some of them will feel like I felt, back in 1992.

The strange thing about education, about our system is that we place so much importance on that very short period of time. You know, you and a few of the other teachers were absolutely right. I needed to go, I needed to get away and I needed to see what I could make of life.

At the time I was too obsessed with the opportunities that I saw diminishing before my eyes, to realise the world of opportunity that nonetheless awaited me. “But I was supposed to…” was the phrase that kept on going through my mind.

But life isn’t about “supposed to” or “should have”, life is about “can do” and “did do”. It took me the best part of twenty years to realise that. Before then I was too busy wanting to stick two fingers up to the past and show people I could be a success. I guess in some ways I’m grateful that this was my reaction to failure, rather than to get subsumed by it. Some people do.

The simple answer to your question though, is that I’m doing well. Life has been good to me, we’ve been successful and healthy and happy together. I’ve got to do things that I would never have dreamt would have been possible in that moment when I opened those results and saw the letters C,D&E. I’ve worked in amazing companies with some of the brightest people in their sectors. And together we’ve repeatedly made history.

And it makes me think that this week, like me 22 years ago, there are going to be people all over the country that are going to feel the world collapse under their feet as they look at the letters that they have on their screens (what happened to paper?)

My message to them is to, “go, get away and make what they can of life. Focus on what you can do and will do, not what you can’t do or won’t do. Your world feels limited, reduced and cruelly diminished. But your talents aren’t. You are everything that you were before and more. And you will be even greater still”.

With a bit of luck, they’ll have had teachers that cared for them, that nurtured them, that educated them. Not to pass exams, but (like I did) to help them grow. I hope they go out there and prove you right and the system wrong. I want them to be focussed, be successful and be happy.

Thanks for teaching me this Penny. I’m sorry it took me so long to realise and to learn, but maybe that’s why I didn’t do as well as I wanted. I’m a little bit slow. I hope life treated you well and I’m sorry we lost contact. Who knows, maybe the connected world of the web will rectify that.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.


PS. You’re too kind about the poetry, it was always a bit crap. But I guess I’m still writing, so that’s ok?

NB. If anyone happens to know the whereabouts of Penny Salkield, it would be my absolute pleasure to thank her in person.

Act your age

Now with an update below.

I’m no extrovert… people who know me will tell you. I can stand up at a conference and speak, I can hold the attention of a board room, I can even manage to make people laugh… and again. But my preference is for conversations in smaller groups. It is just the way that I am.

My son is very like me in this respect. Or so I thought.

At the beginning of the year he got his grades and his drama mark was….well it was ok. Not bad, not good, just pretty average. James is academically strong, he is bright. He is also a good sportsman, not the best, but a good team player and a member of the cricket and rugby squads. He isn’t an actor. Or so I thought.

On the back of his grades, he announced that he was going to join the drama club. He wasn’t happy and he wanted to improve his grade. The only person more shocked than us was his drama teacher. Because he isn’t like that. Or so I thought.

Last night, we sat and watched the end of year performance. It was a Little Red Riding Hood mash-up with comedy, timing, one liners, interplay and significant dialogue. And there was James playing one of the major roles. Maybe not the star this time, but he was on and off stage throughout and with many, many lines.

And he rocked.

He was confident, his timing was impeccable, he was humorous and his delivery was word perfect. This was not my son.

But of course it was, and I was wrong.

Independently he had assessed his strengths and weaknesses, he had the courage to identify where he needed to develop and he had the balls to go and do it. He didn’t say, “its not me” he didn’t say “I’m not an actor”, he didn’t say “I’m not like that”.

He said, “I’m going to show you that I can do anything I set my mind to”.

He didn’t say, “That is just the way that I am”.

Now there’s a thing.

We’re adults, we know everything. They’re kids, they know nothing. Or so I thought.

What if we all set about tackling one thing that we know we’re just not that good at?

Update: So, he recently auditioned and has just landed the role of Bugsy in the full production of Bugsy Malone. I’m proud, but more than that I’m amazed at how much you can achieve when you put your mind to it. Well done that man, we can all learn from children.

Seeing things differently

For those of us that work in HR, being kept in the dark is nothing new. Only last week, in Hamburg, I really was in the dark……for the best part of a day.  When I look at a meeting agenda and it includes the phrase, “experiential session” that is normally sufficient to get me reaching for the Blackberry and the “urgent” email that requires my immediate attention for, well about as along as the session is going to last. But on this occasion, there was no escape.

The experience was created by Dialogue in the Dark, a social enterprise which brings together the sighted and the visually impaired and essentially turns the tables. For several hours, you are immersed in darkness and complete tasks and everyday routines with the guidance of visually impaired coaches. As they say of themselves, “Blind people are the “sighted” ones in this environment and can demonstrate their capabilities better than their sighted colleagues” and I can tell you, in my case that was absolutely the truth!

As I say, I’m not always the keenest on interventions like this, to quote someone far cleverer than I, “team building is for suckers” but as it goes, this experience was really something out of the ordinary and after a weekend of reflection, here are the things that I’m still mulling over.

Listening is hard when there is so much “noise” – So we all say we know the value of listening rather than talking (ok….well apart from you at the back, but if you see me after class we can pick that up one on one).  But when you really NEED to listen, you become aware of how much noise there is and most of it is coming from humans. We talk too much, we make too many statements, we don’t ask enough and we don’t really listen.

Trusting people is tough – This isn’t about trusting people in business, this is about trusting people with your wellbeing. We didn’t get to see or meet the coaches before we were working with them (as a visually impaired person wouldn’t get to see you or I before we offer to help them). They could have led me into walls, tripped me up or got me to pour boiling hot water over myself (yes, we made coffee in the dark) from an initial position of wanting to just do it all myself, I had to let go.

Touching reassures – When you are in the dark, when you can’t see an inch in front of you, when you don’t know which way to turn or where to go, feeling a gentle hand on your arm means the world. Am I being metaphorical? Yes and no. Touching is not wrong, just be careful.

We’re not hitting home – Or alternatively, we send too many half packets of data and rely on the receiver to decode. At one point, one of my fellow delegates informed me that there was a step ahead. As I took an exaggerated comic step up, I learned to my expense that it was a step down….thankfully my face broke the fall. He was trying to help, the information was sent with the right intention, just not the right content.

You can nudge as well as stride – In the collaborative tasks there were two types of leaders, the striders and the nudgers. The thing about striders is that they assume you’ll follow and when they realise you aren’t, they are too far ahead to make amends. Nudgers may seem to lack the dynamism, but they bring everyone home together.

Did I really get all of that out of one day? Well I guess with these things, you always have the lingering thoughts, they just sometimes need to be brought to the fore.  Dialogue in the Dark was really different, it was really valuable and perhaps most exultingly they are working withschools and children as well as adults. It doesn’t exist in the UK at the moment, lets hope someone is farsighted enough to change that soon.

*I apologise unreservedly for that last line…..