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.

Nobody needs feedback

Of all the sickening management constructs that we’ve introduced into the workplace, the industry around feedback is perhaps the most pervasive and unhelpful. We are living in a world with a constant pressure and need to seek and give feedback but without really considering to what end.

A quick Google search for “feedback at work” shows just shy of a billion articles. A billion articles written about something that didn’t really exist until the middle of last century. And in that time, have we seen workplaces become happier? More productive? More enjoyable? Or have we seen the reverse?

The problem is, that over 90% of feedback is unhelpful. It doesn’t actually make anything better, doesn’t make anyone improve, doesn’t facilitate learning or enlightenment. If you don’t believe me, consider this:

What is the most useful piece of feedback you’ve received?

I bet you can think of one, an incisive and helpful moment. Now, place this piece of feedback in proportion to the entire amount that you’ve been given over your life. And quite frankly, I’d be surprised if it doesn’t fall into insignificance. You will have been given more pointless, unhelpful and sometimes dangerous pieces of feedback than helpful ones, probably to the power of ten.

The other issue with feedback is that it is, by nature, entirely subjective. And therefore is subject to bias. When you receive feedback you’re not getting the truth, you’re getting opinion. And that opinion is only one set of data. So on any, genuine, scientific basis it would be completely unreliable. There are no controls, there are multiple variables, it simply would not pass muster.Yet in organisations, we treat it as a means for development.

Here’s the thing. If you want feedback on something, or from someone then fine. Go and ask. But if people start telling you that you need it, or your organisation starts telling you that it wants to develop a feedback culture. Run like the wind. Or simply put your headphones on. You’ll end up wasting time, being confused, getting contradictory messages and choosing to believe only the information that supports your own confirmation bias – whether positive, or negative.

Feedback in organisations? Its something nobody needs to “see more of” and we could all do with “doing differently”. “Stop” the obsession with it, “Start” thinking more creatively, “Continue” getting on with your jobs.

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.