We get the leaders we deserve

Many, many years ago I was sat in a room with a CEO and a number of their employees, it was a “meet the ordinary people” type affair. There was a debate about the visibility and availability of the CEO in the various parts of the business, with one of the managers saying that she would like to see them spend more time out on the floor with her team.

It’s the kind of challenge that you hear pretty regularly raised towards leaders and leadership teams. What struck me, on this occasion, was the reply of the CEO.

They went on to explain that they’d very much like to do so. That they’d love to have the opportunity to get to speak to people and interact with them. But they found it really hard to just roll up out of the blue and just start talking and people never really invited them to anything that was going on to help them overcome this challenge.

You mean, CEOs have weaknesses? Well, of course they do. We all do and just because you’ve risen to a position of power doesn’t mean you’re perfect. In the kitchens and copier rooms across the country, we’re busy identifying and outlining the weaknesses of our management teams. We’re incredibly good at diagnosing and highlighting the shortcomings, but what are we doing to help them?

That’s their problem though, you’re not paid to make them better. Right? If you work in HR, I’d thoroughly dispute this but in fact I’d dispute it wherever you work. In many ways, you get the leaders you deserve.

Think about that meeting when you struggled with the P&L for the investment proposal. How would it have felt if someone from finance had come up to you afterwards and kindly offered to take you through the numbers to make sure you were up to speed? What about the time that you were struggling to get your point across in that important meeting? What if someone had asked you questions to help you break it down?

It doesn’t matter what level you are, what seniority you are, how much experience you have, you’re going to have areas of weakness and you’re most likely going to know about them. People pointing them out is often little help, being told what you already know never is. But having people around you quietly helping you to work on them and improve? That’s altogether a different matter.

So next time you want to have a moan about the way your manager, boss or CEO behaves, also ask yourself what you could do to help them cover off that area and be better. You might be surprised by the result you get from them, and maybe also how you feel about yourself and your work.

HR can’t manage talent

A non-scientific study of CEOs that I’ve recently spoken to indicates one consistent concern; Talent Management. Fortunately, at the same time, the good people at the Harvard Business Review have provided the slightly more scientific back up indicating the same.

Which is good news for HR, right?

Because we’re all over talent. Aren’t we?

It was 1997 when McKinsey first uttered the phrase “war for talent” and whether you agree with it, or not, that’s almost 20 years to get our act together. Yet here we are, still unable to assuage the concerns of our CEOs.

So why is that?

Well it certainly isn’t due to a lack of “human resource”. During the period between 1997 and today, the UK population has increased about 6% and if you extend this to the global population, the increase is greater. So, theoretically, more talent available. Plus, if you look at increased global mobility and broader labour pools on top of this, then that should also help.

And yet not.

HR has singularly failed to address talent management and we’ve done so because of an inability to address the culture of the organisations that we work in.

Instead of tackling the underlying challenges we’ve developed process. And charts. And portfolios. Because talent management calls out for a portfolio more than anything else, that’s well known…..

When the reality is that only line management can truly manage talent and all we can do as a profession is encourage the organisational culture that allows this to happen. Which requires us to focus on the barriers that exist:

  • under resourcing of teams
  • focus on short-term goals
  • unwillingness to take risks
  • narrow perceptions of talent

The fact is that most CEOs could start to deal with their “number one concern” tomorrow, if they really wanted to and understood what the issues were. And that’s where we come in. We need to take the conversation away from the process, away from the god awful 9 box model and start talking about the culture of our organisations and empowering and incentivising managers to grow and develop talent.

Talent management and development happened long before 1997. Maybe we just need to take a look back and work out how we broke the system, rather than measure how broken it is.

These things I know…..

I’m speaking at a myHRcareers networking event this week. If you haven’t come across these guys, it is worth checking them out. One of the things that interests me is the chance to speak to people earlier on in their careers about HR, the world of work and what to expect (and avoid).

I kind of fell in to HR, as a lot of people did. And I made my way based on the good and the bad advice that I received from the good and bad managers around me. I never felt I particularly fitted in to the networking events or the branch events. They just didn’t seem to be people like me or who thought like me. I’m sure there were opportunities, I just never found them.

In looking back, and in preparation for Wednesday night, I thought back to the things that I’ve learnt about HR as a career and what that means.

1) Most people will have to do a whole lot of shit jobs, before they get to do a meaningful one. Most HR jobs are pretty tedious, in tedious companies, with tedious managers. You just have to realise you’re earning your stripes. Keep your head down and hold on to your dreams. In time you’ll get the opportunity to do something where you can make a difference. Remember the reason you want to, when you get there.

2) You’ll work for a lot of people who you don’t respect. The fact is that our profession is littered with more ineffective, unintentionally dangerous and damaging rejects than the QC department at Durex. That’s the way it is. Learn from them, remember what annoys you, what frustrates you and resolve to do things differently when you get the chance.

3) Nothing that you learn during your studies will help you in your employment. That doesn’t mean it is worthless; it just doesn’t help. Learn by speaking to others, listening, observing, trying and failing. You will make have less failures than you have successes, but you will remember them twice as clearly. That’s a good thing.

4) The difference between a great HR person and a rubbish HR person, is that a great person can tell you why they do their job as well as what they do. Never forget the why. And if it doesn’t have people at the heart of it, you’re a rubbish HR person in disguise.

5) This isn’t heart surgery. Nobody dies. That means that you can relax, have a little fun, be human and make people laugh. Trust me, they’ll love you more for it and it won’t cost you anything. Your reputation isn’t built on how far you can get the broom up your own arse; but if you really want to, there won’t be a shortage of people volunteering to help you with it.

A letter to Penny

Dear Penny,

I wanted to write to thank you for your letter. I realise that replying to it twenty-two years after receipt is probably considered bad form. But then, at the time, I wasn’t ready to reply. And it was only this weekend that I was going through some boxes that I came across it and read and appreciated it.

photo 2

photo 1

Not missing the irony that, of course, this week people will be getting their own A-level results. And some of them will feel like I felt, back in 1992.

The strange thing about education, about our system is that we place so much importance on that very short period of time. You know, you and a few of the other teachers were absolutely right. I needed to go, I needed to get away and I needed to see what I could make of life.

At the time I was too obsessed with the opportunities that I saw diminishing before my eyes, to realise the world of opportunity that nonetheless awaited me. “But I was supposed to…” was the phrase that kept on going through my mind.

But life isn’t about “supposed to” or “should have”, life is about “can do” and “did do”. It took me the best part of twenty years to realise that. Before then I was too busy wanting to stick two fingers up to the past and show people I could be a success. I guess in some ways I’m grateful that this was my reaction to failure, rather than to get subsumed by it. Some people do.

The simple answer to your question though, is that I’m doing well. Life has been good to me, we’ve been successful and healthy and happy together. I’ve got to do things that I would never have dreamt would have been possible in that moment when I opened those results and saw the letters C,D&E. I’ve worked in amazing companies with some of the brightest people in their sectors. And together we’ve repeatedly made history.

And it makes me think that this week, like me 22 years ago, there are going to be people all over the country that are going to feel the world collapse under their feet as they look at the letters that they have on their screens (what happened to paper?)

My message to them is to, “go, get away and make what they can of life. Focus on what you can do and will do, not what you can’t do or won’t do. Your world feels limited, reduced and cruelly diminished. But your talents aren’t. You are everything that you were before and more. And you will be even greater still”.

With a bit of luck, they’ll have had teachers that cared for them, that nurtured them, that educated them. Not to pass exams, but (like I did) to help them grow. I hope they go out there and prove you right and the system wrong. I want them to be focussed, be successful and be happy.

Thanks for teaching me this Penny. I’m sorry it took me so long to realise and to learn, but maybe that’s why I didn’t do as well as I wanted. I’m a little bit slow. I hope life treated you well and I’m sorry we lost contact. Who knows, maybe the connected world of the web will rectify that.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Neil

PS. You’re too kind about the poetry, it was always a bit crap. But I guess I’m still writing, so that’s ok?

NB. If anyone happens to know the whereabouts of Penny Salkield, it would be my absolute pleasure to thank her in person.