This past week I had the great privilege of being a guest speaker at an HR certification program class taught by a great friend of FOT, Claudia Fulga. The students in the course are at all different points in their careers – some are just starting out, some have been in HR for a while and are looking to add additional credentials and information to their toolkit, and some are exploring HR topics to supplement their current career development. All in all, it was a great group with whom to have a conversation about HR. The only bad thing about the conversation was that it lasted only an hour.
While I had thought about preparing slides for the session, I decided, while I was riding the evening train into San Francisco, that instead would just speak from the gut, er, heart about my HR / talent management / organization development / consulting career journey, highlighting some of the lessons learned along the way and inviting questions and comments from the class. What I found so interesting about telling my career story was that it was in the process of actually telling it – saying it out loud – that the lessons I have learned became so clear to me. And what I found so well, liberating, about answering students’ questions was realizing just how passionate I am about what HR, as a profession, is capable of doing and being.
My first career lesson came when, right out of undergrad, I was hired as a Business Analyst for a management information systems company. I was a Soviet Studies / Russian / Economics major, thinking that I would be going into the Foreign Service; but with the demise of the Soviet Union (there, I’ve dated myself), I needed a different career objective. This MIS company had a college hiring program focused on recruiting social sciences and humanities majors who could translate “IT speak” of information systems into plain English for end users. Lesson: whatever you create for others to use, whether it be software systems or HR programs, you have to create it, communicate it, train it, and otherwise ensure that it is in the language o
f the end user, not the creator. As an HR practitioner / consultant, I am consistently reminded that I need to put myself in my client’s shoes, and design solutions and programs that they can resonate with.
In terms of question asked, there were two that, when I think back to Tuesday last week, still am me up. The first came after I made a point that HR has got to stop rolling out overloaded, HR-language laden programs that bring a manager’s workday to a complete halt. The example I used was any process that required any more than one or two approvals. The question that came was, “How does HR push back on business leaders who insist on so many approvals?” Clang, clang, clang – alarm, alarm, alarm! This question embodied the biggest crutch HR leans on – our functional and professional learned helplessness. Often, we attribute our function’s actions, or its inability to effect change, on the whims of the business leaders /executives with whom we work. My answer to the question was that HR needs to call that kind of situation out of what it is, which is a leadership issue. A few students said, “right on”; more nodded in agreement with one who said “easier said than done.”
The final question I was asked was this: how would I describe the attributes of the modern HR professional? Along with highlighting the need for HR to strengthen its knowledge and leverage of human and organizational behavior principles, to become comfortable with quantitative and qualitative data, to become technologically savvy, and to truly, madly, deeply understand how their respective organizations make money, I also emphasized what HR is not: HR are not soft and squishy, HR are not the clean up crew, HR are not order takers, and HR are not ivory tower academics. HR are, first and foremost, business people who have just as much ability to impact bottom lines as any other functions. The most important thing we can do as HR professionals is unlearn our helplessness, and rewrite our professional stories.