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.

Simplicity in practice

For years I’ve been banging on about the unnecessary complexity of the modern workplace. And whilst it is reassuring to hear more and more people talk about the need to make things simpler and, “more human”, I’m more concerned than ever that we just don’t understand what that means.

It means doing less – which probably means smaller teams and lower budgets.

It means stopping – which probably means losing elements of perceived control.

It means thinking differently – which probably means losing people.

It means a new alignment – which means creating a new purpose.

And this is why it is easier for people to stand on conference stages, write articles or sell services, than it is to achieve as a practitioner. Because these changes go directly to the heart of the way in which we operate and have operated for years. They go to the heart of everything we have been taught is right and told to value.

In many ways, the world of “management” is very like the world of diet, health and wellbeing. Full of fads and initiatives that are layered on top of one another, each promising to be the answer, when deep down we know that the problem itself is one that never used to exist – until we created it ourselves.

We celebrate the ditching of the performance review – when that is simply a symptom of a problem that we created. The desire to differentiate and measure individuals within a group.

We champion the need for candidate and employee experience – presenting the treatment of people with dignity and respect as revolutionary or new.

Understanding the solution, means looking beyond the symptoms to the root causes. In the same way that faddy diets don’t deal with obesity and can instead contribute to the problem. We need to take a systemic and focused approach that recognises the multiple complex drivers, that recognises our contribution to them and starts to unpick and unwind, rather than layer on top.

To put it simply, we are the problem and we are also the solution; but only if we choose to change.

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.

Relationship matters

Have you ever had a relationship at work? When you think about the amount of time that people spend in work, the role that it plays in our lives, it would seem almost inevitable that relationships would occur. Yet for decades, organisations have been uncomfortable with the idea.

Early in my career, when a relationship occurred between two people in the same unit or team, one was required to move to a different part of the business and if no alternative job was found they were dismissed for “some other substantial reason”. It always seemed slightly perverse to me and had the added consequence of disproportionately impacting on female employees (invariably the junior employee and therefore the one most frequently easier to redeploy). A few years later I was in a position to remove the policy.

Like many of the aspects of our work, a seemingly simple solutions papers over a world of complexity and, I’d argue, potential opportunity. I was quite surprised recently to learn that many organisations still had policies and procedures for managing relationships in the workplace. Which feels slightly arcane and counter to our drive to connect workplaces with human emotion and behaviour.

(Now at this point, I should be clear that I’m talking about consensual relationships – I am not talking about abuses of power, harassment or any other untoward behaviour, which are a completely different topic and one for another day).

Let’s assume that two people fall in love whilst happening to be employed in the same workplace. Are they really going to not fall in love because of a policy? It seems highly unlikely. So we have to assume that this will happen. Now, let’s assume that we say that they can’t be employed together whilst in a relationship. Well there you are either forcing them to lie, or for one or both of them to leave – which means potentially the two people YOU hired as being necessary for the organisation are now gone.

So we go for the middle ground and we say that you have to tell us if you’re having a relationship, but that it is ok. Which feels convenient, but what about if you don’t want to talk about your relationship status, because you’re a highly private individual, you’re lesbian, gay or bi and uncomfortably about this being known at work, or you’re having an “additional relationship”. Are you really going to declare that?

The argument goes that we need to know so that we can be aware of conflicts of interest or potential abuse of power. But do they only happen in sexual relationships? Have friendships never led to anything untoward? So should we have a policy on friendships in the workplace too? That would put an end to the Gallup Q12 for a start.

Like most things in the world of work and culture the solution starts with an “it depends”. And we know that “it depends” makes for bad policy making. My personal view is you’re better off accepting that these things happen, develop a strong and effective approach to “dignity at work”, build trust, transparency and openness and manage problems by exception.

I discussed this recently with others for The Bottom Line. You can hear the recording here.