HR skills aren’t transferable
In the coverage of the BBC redundancy payment enquiry, something stood out for me. It wasn’t about the importance of HR being the moral compass of the organisation, I’ve written about that before. It wasn’t about the fact that behaviour not words drives culture, I’ve covered that too.
It was a question that Justin Tomlinson MP raised regarding a statement made by Lucy Adams, the HR Director, in an interview that she gave back in 2010. The exchange went something like this:
Q183 Justin Tomlinson: Lucy, going forward, how important do you think human resources skills will be in ensuring that licence fee payers get value to money?
Lucy Adams: In relation to severance arrangements?
Justin Tomlinson: Yes.
Lucy Adams: What Tony and I have done in the last few months is put in place a range of governance arrangements, policy changes and communication to make sure that things are better understood. So in many ways, because room for exceptional payments has been closed down, room for payment in lieu of notice has been closed down, and room for anything above the cap has been closed down, it will be an easier role for managers because there will be very little room for manoeuvre.
Q184 Justin Tomlinson: But you have had to use your HR expertise and skills to ensure that those systems are watertight.
Lucy Adams: Yes.
Q185 Justin Tomlinson: Do you remember your interview with the CIPD-an organisation “leading HR into the future”-in 2010, when you were quoted as saying that you are not an HR person and you do not have a traditional HR background? Do you have the skills to put those systems in place?
Lucy Adams: I have been a senior HR director for over 10 years now. What I was referring to in that interview was that, first and foremost, I am not somebody who is isolated from the business that I am in. I believe the remainder of the quote was, “I’m first and foremost a business person”, and that was to point out that you can have people who understand policy and best practice, but who do not get engaged in the business. I am very keen to be involved in all aspects of the BBC.
Q186 Justin Tomlinson: Have you ever run a business?
Lucy Adams: I have not run my own business, no.
Q187 Justin Tomlinson: You are not a business person. [and then continues questioning]
Now I wasn’t there and these notes, albeit official, are still uncorrected. But they raise a really interesting point about “business skills” and “HR skills”. It also comes back to a favourite topic of mine, “commercial HR”.
When I interviewed for my current role 5 years ago, I described myself as “a business person who understands HR”. I was wrong. I’m actually a “HR person who understands business”. It isn’t semantics, it is an important yet subtle shift in emphasis.
It isn’t possible to just “do” HR without any skills or experience, you can’t just learn it, there is no other complete transferable skill set from any other profession. Organisations are systems, and the HR interventions that are properly needed to support them are systemic in their nature. You need to understand the range and complexity, the feasible, the impossible. Too many times Adams refered to “custom and practice”, the last vestige of the lazy or unskilled, as if that somehow explained everything.
As I get further into my career, I appreciate more the experience that I’ve had – both good and bad – and how it helps me to see different things in an organisational context that other parts of the organisation don’t, and shouldn’t be expected to, see. The best part of two decades worth of experience can’t be absorbed overnight.
The problem with positioning yourself as a “business person” or arguing that we need more “business people” in HR, is that we belittle the skills and experience that organisations desperately need to run effectively. And these are the skills and experience that only those who are genuinely interested in building their personal competence in HR can provide.
You don’t understand how to build successful compensation systems, how to develop organisations, the hard wiring of recruitment to talent to performance to results, the importance of a good employee relations agenda or how to successfully develop leadership cultures by watching from afar. You’ve got to be in and amongst it.
Of course everything exists in context and we need to understand the other areas of business too, so does everyone who works in an organization. But we are HR people, not business people. And that is something we should celebrate, not shy away from.