The myth of business experience

There are few things that get more annoyed than people asserting that HR people need to have “business experience”. It has become one of those arguments that is too easily propagated, without any real challenge  – and when placed under scrutiny is easily shown to be wanting.

Firstly, I’m not sure what “the business” is. My instinct is that it refers to a profit or service centre, historically the heart of the organisation. But organisations are changing fast and there are functions that exist that didn’t exist five years ago and that often drive significant improvements in performance, are they the business too? The assertion is outdated and suggests an internal service model which is increasingly becoming obsolete in forward thinking organisations, where collaboration and expertise is key.

Second, it assumes that HR practitioners have no unique skills or experience and that they are simply applying  playbook in their organisational context. You hardly ever hear the same allegation levelled at finance or marketing professionals. Does a vet have to have been an animal in order to do their job? In fact, you could as easily argue that every CEO should have worked in HR. People are our most important asset….after all…..

Finally, it misses the real issue. HR practitioners don’t have to work in the business (whatever it is) to be curious about it. You don’t have to be something to understand it. Rather than aspiring for an outdated explanation of an issue, we need to refocus our efforts on the core operations of our organisations, understanding them and the role that people have in delivering success. It doesn’t mean we don’t need to improve, it just means we need to be intelligent about the improvement.

That’s how HR gets better, by being thoughtful, mindful and curious, not by aspiring to do someone else’s job.

It’s time to move on.

The four HR essentials

You can read as many competency models as you like, but from my perspective there are four characteristics that really separate a high potential HR practitioner from the rest of the field.

Credibility, Commerciality, Context and Creativity.

Credibility is about your ability to build meaningful relationships, it is about interpersonal skills, stakeholder management, follow through and influence developed through action. It is about being able to place yourself in the position of the other person.

Commerciality is more than being able to read a P&L, it is about understanding the economic context, understanding demographic pressures, it is about understanding the levers of your individual business’ performance.

Context is about your complete understanding of the employee cycle, it is about your knowledge of how things fit together within the field of people management  and your ability to think systemically about these elements. It is about being able to explain, “why”.

Creativity is not about post it notes and marker pens, but your ability to create new and meaningful interventions, it is about being open minded about solutions and being relentless to discover better. It is about the constant desire to be more than average.

It really is that simple, these four things will set you apart, they’re the thing that every leader tells me they’re looking for and they’re built on the your personal development and intellectual capability. And whilst it is simple to explain, in the heat of the moment, in the muck and the bullets it can be hard to remember.

So if you want, feel free to borrow this.

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From strength to strength

You won’t remember, nor should you, but back in 2011 I wrote about you. It was about being yourself, being strong, being able to make your decisions and hold your own in a world where people will be quick to tell you how you should be, how you should feel and what you should say. It was about never being afraid to stand up and have a voice, no matter what people, what society said was right or wrong.

You have one of those moments now. One of those times when everyone else is going left and you’ve chosen to go right. Its time to test your strength and your will and your mettle. It’s no longer about whether you wear your favourite purple jumper in the playground, but how you choose to push yourself, the adventures that you take and the places that you go.

And whilst I knew this moment would come, and whilst this is only really a trial, it feels wholeheartedly like your first step to starting something new The end of the beginning and the beginning of the end. The moment that fills you equally with joy and with fear. The moment that every parent works for, but secretly dreads.

The writing that I do now is so different to the time I first wrote about you. You realise that you’re probably losing me followers, kudos and street cred just by these very words? I know…..to you I have none of these things anyway, so what’s the big deal?

“The world is full of people who will tell you what you can’t do. Ironically they’ll also tell you what you should do. And even sometimes how to do it.  But in honesty they have no idea, they’re just scared and huddling together for the security that mediocrity and conformity brings.  Strength comes from difference.  The way you think, the way you behave, the way in which you treat people.”

And you have never once failed to surprise me in your willingness to grab the world by the neck and forge your own path, with a confidence and assuredness that I can only dream of having. You have never failed to use your strength, your opportunity, your good fortune to help anyone around you that you saw wanting. Not least that morning as you were saying your goodbyes.

I still burst with pride, just less obviously. I still hold you close, just now looking up at you. I am still by your side, just not physically. You’re writing another amazing chapter in the story of your life, one where only you really know the end. Yet as before, my only ask of you is this,

Be strong. Be humble. Be gracious. And beyond everything else. Be yourself.

7 steps to interview success

I shudder to think of the amount of time I’ve spent interviewing over the last twenty years, every role from the C suite, through Managing Director and profit centre heads to technical specialisms and seasonal workers. Every interview is different, but there are some things I universally see in good interview candidates. Here’s what they do:

1 ) Answer the question you’re asked – I want to start with this, because whilst I know it sounds a little obvious, you’d be surprised how many people fail to do so and talk about something completely different. Most recruiters won’t be fooled and we will be wondering whether you didn’t understand or couldn’t answer. If you’re not sure what to say then…..

2) Don’t be afraid to pause – Some of the most impressive interviewees I’ve seen are willing to take their time. They have the confidence to hold the room for a moment whilst they think of a good answer. I don’t have any problem with people using a couple of stock phrases to buy time, “that’s an interesting question” or “there are a couple of ways I could answer that”, but a pause is always better than a babble – every single time.

3) Seek to understand – If you don’t understand what is being asked for, say so. If a question could be interpreted in a couple of different ways, ask for clarity. You’re probably only going to have one shot at a specific interview (although I have asked people to go away and come back again in the past when I’ve felt they’ve been unprepared) so don’t be afraid to make sure you have the very best chance of succeeding. Good employees ask for clarity and clarification, so why shouldn’t candidates too?

4) Think through scenarios in advance – In most interviews you’ll be asked a variant of the, “can you give me an example of….” or “tell me about a time when…”. In advance of any interview think through a few scenarios that could represent one or two different things – leadership, persuasion, decision making, influence etc. By thinking it through in advance you can make sure you’ve got a variety of different options on using them and you don’t use your most obvious one first up and then keep on referring back to it.

5) Be positive with your language  – People want to work with people who are positive – its as simple as that. That doesn’t mean you need to bounce around the room and high five the recruiters, but choose your language carefully. Think about examples that show you acting in a positive light and especially think about this if you’re asked about scenarios where you’ve faced difficult situations or people. Don’t get dragged back in to the emotion of the moment, but rise above it and prevail!

6) Remember who you are – If you’re not right for a job, you don’t want it. We have all had moments when we’ve had to take on work that we didn’t want for financial or personal reasons. But in general the rule of thumb should always be that that interview is two ways. So don’t be afraid to be yourself, express yourself and avoid trying to be the person you think the company wants to recruit. Not only will you probably get it wrong, you’ll only be happy if you’re right and it isn’t who you really are.

7) Ace the beginning and end – Whether people like it or not we all have biases. Many of these you can’t do anything about, that’s down to the recruiter. But you can impact the primary and recency bias. Everyone will tell you to get to an interview on time and compose yourself, but this is really important – make sure you have a couple of lines planned for when you’re introduced. And similarly, close the interview well, thank people for their time, wish them a good day, whatever. It isn’t really the content that matters, just the impression. Don’t, as I once did, stand up and fall straight over – you’ll literally be taking a dive….