Why I’m not listening. And nor should you.

Would you buy a cookbook from someone who hadn’t been near a kitchen in anger for decades? Or learn to drive from an instructor who last saw a car when they had someone walking in front with a red flag?

How about someone teaching you to shoot, who only had a track record in making bullets? Or have your house built by a plumber?

How about a mountain guide that had never been outside of Holland?

I’m sounding ridiculous, right?

When you’re looking for advice, when you’re looking for someone to help, when you’re looking for a friendly hand to guide, when you want expertise…..when you NEED expertise. Then, you want someone who has been there, taken the blows, dodged the bullets and made it out the other end. You want someone who, themselves, has done the hard miles.

So why in the world of work do we take advice from people who have come no closer to running a business than I have to running a marathon? I could tell you how to run after a bus…but that would be the limit of my experience. And you’d be foolish to listen to me on anything further.

On a daily basis, I hear lawyers telling me how to run a business. Now anyone who has ever provided HR support for a legal department will tell you that lawyers are amongst the worse people managers since Attila the Hun hung up his axe. They are great at providing legal advice, but after that….not so much.

And how about the consultants that have “worked” in HR. The ones that when you check their Linkedin profiles haven’t actually been in any organisation of any size since Margaret Thatcher was in power.

Or they just had a sucky job in a sucky company.

I don’t want to beat up on consultants, or lawyers, or anyone. Well maybe a few people, but I’m going to shelve that now and focus on my professional persona.

For the best part of 20 years, I’ve been slogging my butt in to organisations and trying to make them a better place to be for the people who work there. From the CEO to the cleaner. For everyone. And I do it because I honestly believe it makes the world of work a better place.

So I completely resent being told how to do my job better, by people who have no idea of the realities of an organization, of my daily life, of business in the 21st century.

I don’t mind thoughts, I don’t mind suggestions, I don’t mind specific points of knowledge. I am not against collaborative working. That is all good.

I’m an HR Director, I have skills, I have experience, I have knowledge, I have expertise. Every day I hone these as I work to do the right thing for my company and my employees. I bring something to the party.

And if you work in HR, so do you.

So next time someone is telling you that you should be doing this, that or the other. Ask them….when did you do that? When was the last time that you succeeded in deploying that in an organisation? What was the result?

What experience do you have that can complement MY experience?

And if they can’t answer that question to your satisfaction, then show them the door. They add no value.

And I tell you now, I won’t be listening to them. And nor should you.


  1. Andy young · January 21, 2013

    Jose Mourinho hardly kicked a ball in anger but one of the best at leading, motivating, advising. You don’t need to be an airline pilot to run an airline business. Etc.

    • Neil · January 21, 2013

      Thanks for commenting.

      How many years did Jose spend working in and around football management and learning from the likes of Robson and van Gaal, before he took on the management of a team? Add to that the seven years as a professional player…..

      And the pilot analogy is a little weak. You absolutely wouldn’t put a pilot in charge, because they’d have no experience of running a business….you’d put someone in charge who had experience…..of running a business.

      • Andy Young · January 23, 2013

        Agree with your riposte on pilot angle Neil – fair do’s. As for the wonder that is Jose, he overcame a possible challenge that lots of footballers all too often throw at someone they don’t rate as leaders “you haven’t got as much experience doing what we do as we have” – and he was a pretty crap footballer by all accounts. He brought other qualities by the bucket load.

        My take on all of this is listen, then judge. “People who have no idea of the realities of an organization, of my daily life” as you put it, often have some great insights to share precisely because they don’t. All too often we can get too close that blurs our vision 🙂

      • Neil · March 10, 2013

        I agree. It’s about both. Fresh thinking AND organisational knowledge.

  2. Richard Smith · January 21, 2013

    What experience do you have that can complement MY experience? is a question all salesmen should be taught to be ready for and maybe they’d make more and better sales.

    Andy – I think the point is Mourinho is judged as a manager not a player so his skills as a player may, or may not, inform his knowledge of football but what he’s learn since his playing days he uses and complements with the skills of those who work with him in his management team

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      I was rather proud of that question. It’s a good one.

  3. Jakob Jochmann (@jochmann) · January 21, 2013

    All the more reason to at least make an effort and find systematicity (if not a method) in soft skills. Or try to add value to a conversation by offering hard skills. By which I mean anything, that can be measured against time, money or effort invested.

    If a shoe salesmen (now that we’re into football analogies here) can come up with a great system that changes football tactics profoundly, so can anyone else. Coming up with solutions usually does necessitate deeper insight into the problem, but hey, if she can make a great case and even back it up with stats, we would be folly to dismiss advice by a newcomer to a field. Epiphany does strike in unusual places. If we keep an open mind and carry Occam’s razor just in case, I think sometimes listening is a worthwhile investment.

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      Listening is always a worthwhile investment. Always.

  4. TalentHayley · January 21, 2013

    Loved this post Neil. I agree HR should absolutely seek opinion on initiatives and processes from other quarters to understand how they work in the everyday context; with a view to improve that employees experience as you say, but we need to remember it is exactly that, an opinion. I have definitely experienced a distinct HR self esteem issue with consulting, surveying etc, it gets silly and convoluted when everyone is treated as an expert. I agree they are an expert, and that is an expert in their own subjective experience which is not to say that it is the most effective way or even relevant. How far is this driven though from HR not wanting to make a decision or not having the skill to justify their decision?

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      HR not having the skills to justify their decision? Does that happen? Really? 🙂

  5. Flora Marriott · January 21, 2013

    Really enjoyed this post. One of the aspects of my job I enjoy the most is the partnerships I create with external experts. I like your question: “What experience do you have that can complement MY experience?” For me, it doesn’t mean that they have to have worked in the same field as me, but it is simply that I’m looking for additional or complementary experience and skills. When the external partner/consultant has got something really different to offer, often we can combine together to do some really great work. And both parties can gain a lot from that. What I do look for is not necessarily that the external partner has the same length of working inside organisations as me, but I do need for them to demonstrate that they really understand my needs, and understand the nature of my organisation and working life within it, and can show how they can help me.

    Where I have a problem is, in your words, Neil:

    “So I completely resent being told how to do my job better, by people who have no idea of the realities of an organization, of my daily life, of business in the 21st century”.

    Yup, I totally agree. I know I have rants myself from time to time, but I feel I have the right to do so. But alongside my criticisms I also speak a lot about the joys of working from inside an organisation. Which is something that can get missed by those outside it who only see the downsides. There are so many great things about working hard as part of the large team of people that comprise an entire company. I’m open to learning about what can be done better, but I am not open when the person criticising is not doing that from a position of knowledge and experience, and when the criticism isn’t balanced.

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      Agreed. Great comment. I hate that.

  6. Henry · January 21, 2013

    Who wants advice?

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      Who’s giving it?

  7. Laurie Ruettimann (@lruettimann) · January 21, 2013

    I share this frustration from both sides: Whilst working in Human Resources, I resented the feedback and coaching from outsiders, consultants and dilettantes who had an opinion on everything. Now that I’m a dilettante who floats around in the world of consulting, I resent being told that my opinion has no value because I no longer work in the trenches of HR.

    Damned if I do. Damned if I don’t. Neither side of the HR fence is very satisfying for me. But nothing worthwhile is ever easy—or so I’m told—so I will continue to intrude upon the world of HR from every angle.

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      But you talk to HR people right? You respect their views? Or some of them….

  8. Meg Peppin · January 21, 2013


    I think it’s about quality, choices, paradigms and egos.

    I don’t think that not being salaried equates with a lack of insight and judgement about business.

    I don’t think being salaried equates with a lot of insight and judgement about business.

    I think there are plenty of consultants who either intellectualise about work or view it beneath them to work outside the csuite, whatever that is.

    I think there are plenty of internal people who like to spend someone elses money.

    The bit of me that agrees with you works part time a few days each month k in an operational role; it’s a charity so it isn’t going to make me rich, but it doesn’t do me any harm to get a bollocking occasionally if I miss a deadline, make decisions, and it grounds me in some different realities and I love the people there.

    The bit of me that disagrees with you knows the worth of the external perspective, the sounding board, the sharing of experience and ideas, the value of challenge and the acceleration to be gained from bringing another energy in, says you are mixing with the wrong people.

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      I actually agree Meg. It isn’t either or, it’s also and.

  9. mastersorbust · January 22, 2013

    Neil – a good read as ever but one question: what about academics who are challenging using structured research? (as opposed to the ‘Family Fortunes’ style research beloved by some of the Auto-Tweeters)

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      They normally challenge because their research has listened to people within organisations, they add to. Or am I wrong?

  10. Henry · January 24, 2013

    There’s another angle to this debate.
    The history of invention is written by interested amateurs.
    Innovation is rarely initiated by experts. They simply understand too well what can’t be done.
    If you want new ideas on something, get some people who know nothing about it.

    • Neil · March 10, 2013

      I like that angle and I respect it. I’m looking forward to seeing you fly in a plane with someone taking a new angle on pilotage.

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