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Win or go home

Has human resources become too benevolent?

By Ian Hendry

I was interested in the reaction of some of my professional friends to my reference to the book entitled 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. One colleague who has been through the wars made the point that, in the executive ranks, "only the strong survive and unless you have a really tough hide, the system will grind you out eventually.”

It is tough swimming in the shark tank, and as Robert Herjavec says, “Tough times never last; tough people always do.”

At the same time, I was enthralled with Cathal Kelly’s recent column in the Globe and Mail when he compared the maniacal need to win (the Spanish soccer club Real Madrid (RM) fired its manager after seven months, having lost just three of 25 games) with the tendency of North American teams to let a new coach acclimatize for too long a period.

He framed it by saying “It’s the difference between SAYING you won’t accept failure and not accepting it. They (RM) don’t waste a bunch of time talking about building cultures. They only have one culture — winning. They don’t need executive retreats and brainstorming sessions to figure out how it looks. They have standings for that.”
Certainly, corporations have their own league standings too — stock price, EBITDA, dividend rate and so on. That’s what hedge funds (think Ackman/Canadian Pacific) look at when assessing value, which ultimately translates to winning on the stock market.

I appreciate that we can debate the correlation between a corporation and a soccer club, but my point is much simpler — both are about winning, so what does it take to be a winner?

As you may know, Jack Welch wrote the book Winning. Fortune called Welch "manager of the century." Businessweek called him "an icon of American business." Warren Buffett says of Winning: "No other management book will ever be needed."

Business is about winning and an executive team should understand what it takes to win. Does HR really understand what it takes to win? Has HR, in trying to construct a positive work environment, balancing the interests of both employees and the organization, titled too far and justified the claim that some executives make that HR gets in the way.

Has HR become too benevolent? Winning is hard work. It takes focused effort. Focus is about being clear on what needs to be done and finding ways to succeed. I recall a CEO saying to a legal team "Don’t tell me what I can’t do, tell me what I can do.” It was a simple plea, asking for help in seizing an opportunity that had presented itself. It was an opportunity for the lead lawyer to provide real professional value and demonstrate his worth.

I like what Kevin O’Leary once said: “I actually think being an entrepreneur is a state of mind. If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, my thesis is that you have to sacrifice everything for some period in your life to be successful. You have to be myopic and completely focused and unbalanced in every way.”

Obviously, most people working in structured settings are not entrepreneurs. Many want safety and security and some have surprising expectations. Over the years, I have always been puzzled/amused/irritated by the types of comments employees make on surveys or around the water-cooler:

  • The notion that hard work and promotions go hand in hand.
  • The decision of some employees to coast because of perceived inequities or simple laziness.
  • The decision of some to remain silent and let an organization take the wrong path to prove a point.
  • To spread negativity because it is a fun sport to him/her.
  • The knowledge that some employees have “retired” on the job and are hiding from view.

Does any of this strike a chord? If such things exist, how can the organization truly win? Isn’t the role of HR, and leadership, to find solutions?

As much as some of the stories about Amazon shocked us, most people want to work for a winner, and Welch would say that for many it is “contagiously exciting.”

I can still remember the feeling of being part of a team that won a city championship as an 11-year-old. Winning creates excitement. I would hazard a guess that excitement might not be the word chosen to describe many departments today. Winners need that mental strength to battle through negativity, roadblocks, passivity, and so on.

As you ponder what winning means to you, let me conclude with a Welch quote: “I would call lack of candor the biggest dirty little secret in business.”

I congratulate our programming team for inviting Vince Molinaro to speak at SCNetwork on February 10th. The topic is right on the money: “Are You Enabling Mediocre Leadership In Your Company?” This session tackles this problem head on and explores why leaders can’t settle anymore and must commit to doing better.

On leaving Real Madrid, Rafa Benitez, the fired manager said, "A a Madridista from Madrid, steeped in the traditions and values of this institution, which I learned in the old sports city of Castellana, it has been an honour to work for these colours.” He knew what the job entailed and it was all about winning. The board was explicit about failure at the outset and acted accordingly.

Setting clear expectations and demanding performance is leadership. Is our leadership good enough?

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

Suanne Nielsen

Suanne Nielsen is president of the Strategic Capability Network and senior vice-president and chief talent officer at Foresters in Toronto.
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