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Mar 24, 2014

Every situation needs unique leadership

Evolution happens slowly, but still requires consistent talent

By Dave Crisp

What strikes me most about HR strategy is the uniqueness of every situation.

There are broad "better practices," but many variations work... and many don’t. Usually the difference seems obvious in retrospect, but planning the most useful patterns seems hard. Policies, practices and styles of leadership that work in one place will be less successful in others. By the same principle, when you see an organization off the rails, it’s likely it needs to adopt other practices that it can largely copy from elsewhere, but what’s needed isn’t always obvious. It’s interesting to follow real-life examples.

There is no substitute for a human being applying sensible judgment in choosing what will or won’t work, what needs to be added or deleted from the mix. Among general principles, it is easier to say what has to go — anything that creates cynicism because it is applied to staff, but bosses don’t walk the talk when it comes to adhering to, following or supporting the same policies for themselves.

It’s less easy to see what might work and even harder to convince others who are used to old processes, either ones that have been in place in the organization for years or practices they liked elsewhere and believe should just be imported. Or, quite often, ideas they’ve heard work somewhere else that seem interesting and should be tried.

What most often seems to slip by decision-makers is the concept that all the pieces of an HR strategy have to work together, form a fairly seamless whole and provide that elusive quality of security for staff. Stability, even just having been in business for a long time, attracts people. But stability can be an illusion. Perception takes a long time to change and gets in the way of making changes for the better as well as providing a buffer against change that is too rapid.

A single major event can dramatically change things — like a "Chainsaw Al" destroying trust at Sunbeam. Re-reading a case study of its ups and downs shows how difficult it is to know from outside what’s truly happening for employees within an organization. Ultimately, it was taken over (for a number of years) by Jarden and it’s interesting to read the employee reviews of that organization on Glassdoor — not all glowing by any means, but nowhere near the positive views prior to a bad CEO’s reign of terror. Yet reading Sunbeam’s ‘history’ as they and others tell it, you’d be hard pressed to see any of the problems remaining.

The Glassdoor effect

Glassdoor, we should note, is a web tool growing in popularity as prospective employees attempt to get a read on company culture and environment.

This helpful study by Software Advice suggests almost one-half of reasonably well qualified jobseekers already take a look at Glassdoor before deciding whether to apply or accept a position. Interestingly, while many want to see at least a three out of five rating, a fair number would still submit resumés to a company with just a single star.

Again, I think this is the influence of simply being big enough to get a report of any sort, which suggests some sort of status in the market. We all know online detractors can be vocal, but wrong. Perhaps as time goes on, as more reports are filed, as more people check them, there will be increasing emphasis on companies with higher ratings to the detriment of those with lower results. Remember it took Amazon more than a few years to reach profitability and for its product ratings to assume the importance they now have, I suspect we’ll see more emphasis on Glassdoor faster than with Amazon, but still not overnight.

Changing perceptions

Even from inside, it takes quite a few years in many cases to make strong inroads into changing perceptions of an organization’s culture (and HR) for the better. One can judge how long from the example of Kimberly-Clark. Jim Collins, in his now-famous book, Good to Great, identified them as one of the steadiest and most successful companies, which he credited to the work of its humble CEO.

Collins published this in 2002 based his then recent study. Indeed the word "humble" has even assumed powerful status for describing what’s desirable in senior executives due to his book — and has started to significantly change what we look for.

Just as Collins was writing, the company was appointing Liz Gottung to head HR. She had 10 years there in HR, then 10 more as a line operator immediately before this promotion, an interesting choice. In 2006 and again in 2012 Gottung was named among the top 10 HR executives of the year for improvements that later CEOs credited for making the company much more successful (even more than Collins noted presumably), ultimately putting HR strategy into the top three things they focus on.

In an extensive interview in Talent Management online Gottung tells the story. Of particular interest to HR people is her description on page 5 — being able to get approval for a $24 million investment in talent systems when other budgets were generally frozen. She attributed that to credibility built “delivering $13 million savings in 2010, $14.5 million in 2011 and almost $8 million in 2012.”

She goes on to say this was achieved without reducing staff or cutting services, but rather better vendor deals and the like.

So even though she’d been in place since 2001 and achieved a "best HR" award in 2006, there were still many things possible as better HR strategies developed over the following six years. Those are some pretty long time frames and probably the evolution still isn’t finished if one believes any of Jim Ingham’s analysis on his HCM blog (from 2011) where he quotes her as saying her function “isn’t that well developed yet, but is on a fast journey.” I guess all such journeys seem fast to those struggling to implement them, just as we all feel incredibly busy all the time.

To the outside world this can seem like slow, almost invisible progress. You can be sure each step along the way is fitted to the existing culture, the powers that be of the moment, the unique situation of the company at the time... and still in line with the aims the CHRO brought to the table all those years before. If the company was in great shape then and is much better now, all that is worth a lot no matter how slow the evolution appears to be. To suggest that each year’s progress and steps could have been foreseen at the outset would be wrong. General principles combining effectively to take advantage of unique, developing situations results from tailoring by top notch leaders, without whom no strategy can succeed.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit
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