December 2005 Insight Newsletter

Extending Balance Into Action

Last month’s rant about how to respond to attacks, whether personal or professional, drew interesting as well as sympathetic responses. Those who scanned the Fast Company article attacking human resources could see why it upset HR people. As noted, an attack provides value in the form of a boot in the pants for us to respond effectively. (My rebuttal is almost done and I’ll link it in next time.)

Previously the focus was on re-establishing a sense of balance in three stages: first realizing there’s no value in lashing out unprepared, second assessing good and bad – examining the facts whether in your favor or not – as clearly as you can, and third settling in your own mind that now is the time to fight back, however long it may take.

Once you’ve committed yourself mentally, you’re beginning to draw your own positive belief in yourself into action. At this stage, with balance and time to think, you can begin to assess how you can be positive in your rebuttal unlike your attacker.

Keith Hammonds’ tirade about HR begins and ends with the ultimate insult. It dismisses HR and everyone in it as useless, a waste of time. He’s in the business of using inflammatory opinions to stimulate interest. The flood of email he got was predictable – incensed HR people versus those who like to complain about it and were happy to see our ox gored one more time.

Surely there’s something more useful. Why, for instance, would a U.S. retail company pay as much as $1.3 million a year to their top HR executive if HR were useless? More powerfully, why on average are top companies in the S&P 500 stock index worth four times the actual dollar value of all their concrete assets? The extra is pure intellectual capital. Clearly the value people in organizations can add is higher than the value-add of any other component. And virtually every company maintains an HR department to assist. Why?

Keith missed his own point. On one hand he insists HR represents a huge opportunity missed. That’s the opposite of useless. If it were truly valueless, there’s no opportunity available to be missed – just eliminate it. You can’t have it both ways. He’s right on the first count. Many companies do miss the value, so the key question is: since it does have value, how can we go about improving it? His suggestions were weak. Yet it’s clear that some companies, though not the majority, have figured out how to access the potential. Isn’t it more important to light a better candle than curse the darkness?

Getting things in perspective and back in balance follows predictable stages. Seeing the key factual flaw in your critic’s argument comes first. Then you look for the positives that will eventually give your arguments much more strength.

Marshalling The Facts

Worst among his flaws, Keith blatantly encourages the dismissive attitude many CEO’s and other business “leaders” take toward HR (and by extension the shameful lack of nurturing they provide their people). The better course is to wake up those executives to demand more effectiveness and results from their HR operations and their internal leadership.

Keith’s failure is damaging. Frothy criticism is always widely read. The positive side is belated, buried and largely ignored. As with most flaming critics, he builds on widespread myths without always identifying them. HR is a puzzle to many people, especially busy line executives. It’s easy to feel our only recourse is to “hire the best talent,” give them all the attention and rewards and let those individuals prosper and call every shot while the rest of the team is supposed to blindly follow.

However hiring the best talent is risky. The failure rate of ringers brought in from outside is very high, especially without proper HR systems. Invaluable elements such as effective orientation or, to use one of the new jargon terms Keith hates, proper “on-boarding” is rare. Simply throwing people into jobs and offering monetary rewards such as big individual bonuses backfires as often as it succeeds in my experience.

Companies frequently decide to reward the wrong things. Put the emphasis on sales increases alone, for instance, and you can find people fudging their numbers, bamboozling customers and stepping on their colleagues to make a quick buck. This isn’t an HR flaw, but a failure of leadership in the organization to recognize the consequences of their first, perhaps poorly thought-out ideas. I’ve lost the argument on this one many times. It isn’t for lack of research in HR showing what works and what doesn’t. You can’t lay the full blame on HR when evidence is ignored at the executive table.

If you don’t put equal value how people are managed as you do on sales, you’re missing an even larger opportunity than rewarding individual sales people.

Turning The Tables

Once you see how invalid your critic’s arguments are and take time to pick holes in them, you feel far stronger. Anger dissipates in favor of the potential fun and humor you will find in destroying those points.

More importantly you begin to see, as in this case, that if you make the proper arguments, you can actually gain majority support over your nemesis. In this situation, to ignore HR or suggest it’s useless, is to ignore not only the people who valiantly struggle to make it worth something, but far worse. It is to ignore the legitimate interests of all people in every organization who aren’t today seen as super-stars or prima dona’s. They’re not the only ones who count. Dismissing HR is a major step to dismissing the value of people in general, to accepting the myth that only born leaders can lead.

The truth is… every individual in any organization can be highly effective. People join organizations to excel, not just make a living. To downplay the work of the one department charged with finding the best systems to encourage, train and enable every individual to do this is to do a huge disservice to every single person in every organization. Surely we can do better. If we can show how, we bring a very big team to our side of the argument – pretty much everyone in every organization.

Learning Creates Value

“…the ability to learn and to put that learning into action rapidly is the only competitive advantage.” – Jack Welch (from his excellent book winning – with interesting editorial and reader reviews HERE.)

Welch is right in every sense, whether you apply his comment to ideas, individuals, teams or entire organizations. Whether you learn by reading, talking to experts or simply mulling over the implications of the challenge you face, your learning is what creates value.

If it takes an intractable critic to stimulate that mulling and learning process, so be it. The end result reinforces the old saying, “Anything that doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Then the rebuttal becomes a positive exercise in furthering knowledge for everyone. The real question is whether you move the situation forward. Eventually winning the argument is incidental… though enjoyable nonetheless.