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Steve Martin’s advice rings true for HR

HR pros can become so good that ‘they can’t ignore you’

By Ian Hendry

It was really beginning to get on my nerves. Within the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork), we have several groups of CHROs who periodically network together, and one such group decided to discuss two recent Harvard Business Review articles.

One by Cappelli, “Why We Love to Hate HR…and What HR Can Do About It,” and another by Boudreau and Rice entitled “Bright, Shiny Objects and the Future of HR,” were tabled for debate. The underlying premise here is that most organizations do not hold a very positive image of HR. We allegedly focus on “administrivia” and we lack vision and strategic insight.

Likewise, we focus on the mundane over the transformative.  When corporate performance is poor, organizations lament that the people are to blame, and that it is HR’s fault. When business is good, no-one needs HR. When I railed against this unfairness, a good friend of mine, who just happens to be a CEO, casually remarked “Where there is smoke, there is fire.”

A sage response I thought, so I pushed him to assess his own executive team on being transformative, as an example, and he opined that only 50 per cent of his group demonstrated that capability. So, as I thought about this capability and who possesses it, and who doesn’t, I looked for simple clarity on what being transformative actually means. Transformational leaders identify the need for change (how many leaders resist change?), create a compelling vision that is exciting (how many just instruct others as to what must change?) and then execute with a team commitment to succeed (how many threaten what will happen if failure occurs?). If you care to, do the calculation in the organization in which you work. How many executives are truly transformative?

Many of our children recently headed back to school or university, and I’m sure as good parents providing direction, some of us may have given an indication of our expectations, which were likely a little more demanding than “just do your best.” From past years, we’ve likely been informed by our students that a “C” grade was OK, because most of the class were also getting “C’s,” but that did little to appease us. In fact, we might have, less than politely, advised our beloved students that a comparison to the rest of the class was irrelevant.

Our children have the opportunity to be better than the rest. I hope my point here is becoming obvious. I awakened to the fact that I need to heed my own advice. And perhaps you do too? It does not matter how ineffective other leaders are, HR has an opportunity to stand out from the crowd. For myself, I need to step up and step out from the rest. This is a personal challenge. Moreover, I realized that my annoyance with the repeated criticisms of our professional competence was wasting my emotional energy. It would be better to accept the challenge of changing perceptions, rather than comparing ourselves to the lowest common denominator.

Recently, I was at a fundraiser and Steve Martin, the comedian, actor, author and musician, was being interviewed. A young man from the audience asked him “How does a young person break into show business?”

Martin responded by saying he felt he did not have a good answer. In his mind, there is no magical way and no agents have the time to bet on “no-names.” However, his next sentence proved to be so simple, yet powerfully insightful. He suggested that any aspirant take every opportunity to work on her profession. “If you want to be an actor, take every opportunity to act — wherever and whenever you can — paid or unpaid.” In other words, continually hone your skills. Reach the point where, in his words, “you become so good, they can’t ignore you.” Steve Martin is now 70. He said he does not look back on his past work and only looks forward to being better than before.

How organizations looked at HR in the past is somewhat irrelevant. Changing perceptions is a tough road to hoe. Do we care enough to change those perceptions, or, is being part of the large majority good enough? It is a matter of personal choice, is it not?


© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Ian Hendry

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