7 lessons I’ve learnt in HR

I was asked last week, what advice I would have given myself at the beginning of my career. After a little bit of reflection, I think it would go a little like this.

  1. Reward yourself
    There are a number of specialisms that you can often move in to. It is very easy early on to be lured into resourcing or learning or employment relations. But if you want to make it to the top of your profession, the one you really need to get your head around is compensation and reward. That’s the area that really requires your attention, thought and understanding.
  2. Brands don’t matter
    The best jobs aren’t always with the best known companies. It is very easy to be attracted by the thought of working for the bigger brand names, the ones that will be familiar to your friends and family, but the best opportunities will often lie elsewhere. Rather than looking at the logo on the add, look at the reviews of the company, think about the experience that you want to develop.
  3. Titles mean nothing
    When I started my career, job titles were pretty standard across companies and between teams. There were always a few areas of overlap, but it was pretty linear. Very quickly things started to change and it all got a whole lot messier. Job titles mean almost nothing. You can be the CEO of a business of one, or a Manager of hundreds of people. Think content, think scope, don’t think business card.
  4. Move around
    You will learn more by changing industries than you will ever anticipate. Explore the opportunities to go elsewhere, learn from different cultures, different models, different sectors. Show you can be successful in any environment and adapt your practice. There are assumptions made that industry experience is a necessity, it isn’t, that’s just a lazy lie.
  5. Go global
    Our workplaces, our organisations and our workforces are increasingly international. And whilst people have broadly the same constitution whether you might be in the world, the way in which they interact, the way in which they consider issues and they way in which they work together will be different. Getting experience of this doesn’t mean jumping on a plane every week, instead think about how you gain good international exposure.
  6. Have fun
    Nobody is going to die from the work you do. Well, not normally. So don’t forget to enjoy what you are doing, have fun, be playful, be light-hearted and remember that the more positivity you exude the more you will get back. People spend more time than they should at work and helping them to enjoy that experience is part of your job too. Don’t think discretionary effort, think discretionary enjoyment.
  7. Don’t dig in
    Don’t go in to the trenches when you think you’re under attack, but instead seek to understand how you can change, learn and grow. A lot of the work that you do won’t be welcomed by a standing ovation and streamers and balloons. But you need to differentiate the normal reaction from the times when you get it wrong. Understand that you can learn from other people in the business about how to do great work, not just from conferences and journals.

Six characteristics of successful HR leaders

Integrity – maybe the most important quality that a good HR leader needs to have (and one that is often overlooked) is integrity. I’m not just talking about handling the wealth of data and information that you have at your fingertips, but the conversations, the confessions, the knowledge and the insight. If at any point, your honesty and integrity is not felt by those around you, then you are going to struggle to be effective or successful.

Bravery – being a good HR leader means going out on a limb from time to time, it means having a willingness and a confidence to speak your mind, to swim against the tide and to stand alone. The best leaders I’ve seen have a quiet bravery, they don’t seek to draw attention to their stance, but instead recognise that their job is sometimes to ask the questions and hold the line that others won’t.

Generosity – one aspect of an HR leader’s work is that we see people at their worst. We hear the conversations, we see the behaviours, we experience the emotional turbulence that can occur. Being able to treat every situation, every moment and every interaction with a generosity of spirit is key to remaining objective, thoughtful and balanced. We are privileged to be involved in those moments, even if it doesn’t feel it at the time.

Perceptivity – it perhaps isn’t surprising that some of the best HR leaders I’ve met are also some of the most perceptive people. They listen, they observe, they feel. And through this, they ask the questions, see the information, feel the emotion that often other people miss. They will be the one that will follow-up with a colleague after a meeting because they sensed that something wasn’t right, or that asks the question to unlock a problem in a group.

Serenity – the volume of stuff that goes on in an HR leader’s world is often gargantuan in size and emotionally charged in nature. The ability to live with this without leaking on to those around is a key attribute for success. Nobody needs to know how busy you are, or how much you need to achieve – they’re looking to you for emotional leadership and calmness in the face of adversity. Be the swan, not the March Hare.

Humility – the realisation that it isn’t about you is key to being a successful HR leader and fundamentally underpins all of the other qualities. Great ideas, solutions and interventions will always be owned by someone else. Thanks will often be implied and sometimes slow to come. The hits that you take, the challenges that you face and the difficulties that you overcome will go unnoticed and you have to be ok with that and draw strength from your colleagues and your team.

HR for the many, not the few

Sometimes I can’t help thinking that we’re having the wrong debate.

Scratch that.

It’s not sometimes, it’s most of the time.

We’re having the wrong debate, because most of the participants are looking at the world through a single lens:

A middle class, professional, privileged lens.

We have an obsession with the elements of work that matter most to us, but least to the majority of people. It’s the same reason that HR has such a bad reputation, because we fiddle with the inconsequential without addressing the fundamental.

The future of performance management? The social organisation? Reconstructing  the working week?

None of these mean anything to someone holding down four jobs in order to keep food on the table. And I could go on…

Headline grabbing announcements about allowing people to take as much holiday as they like. Unless they work in the support functions….or in service roles….or customer facing….

What about the living wage and the impact on regional employment, zero hours contracts and employment instability, the deskilling of jobs through technology? And I’m not talking about from a legal perspective, but a moral, ethical and cultural approach. How we tackle these issues in real time, in real organisations.

If we believe in good work, we believe in good work for everyone. We believe in creating safe and productive workplaces where everyone can contribute to the best of their ability, where everyone is treated with respect and dignity. Where everyone can grow and develop, should they want.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t be creative, far from it. I’m arguing that we should be using our creativity, our knowledge and experience to deal with the issues that challenge the many, not the few. I’m arguing that we should be targeting work and interventions that matter to everyone.

The credibility of HR is only enhanced when it makes people’s lives better and damaged when it seems to make the existence of a select group better, whilst ignoring most.

Our challenge is to ask ourselves whether we’re trying to benefit all….or whether our practice is grounded in making it better for some, which almost inevitably, will include ourselves.

Because that, would be selling ourselves short.

The myth of inclusivity

I’ve been involved in a lot of debates about diversity and inclusion recently. The conversations are fascinating and the views diverse in themselves. With one particular area of seemingly strong consensus when confronting the issues that we face;

It’s never our fault.

Of course, this is completely natural. We all like to think of ourselves as liberal minded, inclusive and welcoming people (well most of us). It’s just everyone else, they’re the problem.

Going back over thirty years I can remember my Grandmother telling me she wasn’t a racist like those other people, she even used the “Paki shop”. Whilst we can all look at this with the shock that time permits, she genuinely meant it. But this isn’t a generational thing, how many of us can hand-on-heart, honestly say that we don’t have perceptions and expectations of the opposite gender?

So if we all want this all inclusive, welcoming, meritocracy, what gets in the way?

When we talk about the culture of our organisations, we talk about the way in which people behave, the way in which people act towards one another, we talk about our values and we talk about the way in which we do things.

In HR we talk about how we can underpin the culture with our interventions; recruiting to fit, rewarding to incentivise, training to develop and structuring to facilitate. We build our organisations to reinforce the very cultures that contradict our conscious intention.

Culture gets in the way of and we reinforce the culture through our actions and our formal and informal systems. It’s rarely our intent.

The challenge we have is to get beneath intent and start to challenge these behaviours, systems and structures. Which invariably means challenging the way in which we feel naturally comfortable in doing things, how we make decisions and how we design our businesses.

Diversity and inclusion aren’t improved by tokenism, “programmes” or initiatives. They can’t be when our organisations are still constructed around an infrastructure that is decidedly “exclusive” and rewards people for conformity of behaviour and compliance to a set of unwritten rules.

The start of the path to improving organisational inclusivity is recognising that we are all part of the problem. The smallest act, or use of language multiplied a million times a week, the unintended consequence of doing something the way we’ve always done, the choices and decisions that we’ve learnt to make.

We have the power to make things better, we can choose to make a change, but in order to do that we need to do two things; accept that we are not ok and that, at the end of the day, it IS all our fault.