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Five Hidden Traits of Great HR Management

Since my career began over 25 years ago I have worked as a program manager in non-profit, as a front-line agency recruiter, as a headhunter, as a corporate recruiter, and an HR business partner, as the global Director for critical business functions, as a staffing agency branch manager, and even as a VP of HR at a Silicon Valley startup. Through it all I have been a part of both highly functional and almost equally dysfunctional HR organizations. Sometimes chasing the tail of the business trying to keep up with how corporate decisions are impacting the employee population, and other times trying to lead the enterprise toward greater efficiency though employee engagement.

This career path has led me to come up with a handful of philosophies that may at times come across as platitudes, but I personally find them to be legitimate guideposts as one muddles their way through life and their career. What follows is a summary of those philosophies and what I hope is a coherent explanation of what they mean.

  • Managing Change: People are more agreeable to change when they have participated in the process rather than just have it happen to them.

  • Employee Experience: The Function of a Human Resources department is less about managing the human resources in the business and should be more about being a resource to the humans in the business.

  • Think Again: Never underestimate the potential long term impact of a seemingly insignificant action or decision.

  • Perception v. Reality: When possible, do your utmost to align the idea of “the something” to the actual “something”.

  • Demonstrated Leadership: Listening to, and taking direction from a subject matter expert, even if they are a subordinate, is a sign of management strength, not weakness.

At almost every stage of my career I found examples of all of the above done right and done wrong. While both sides of those coins left an imprint on me, the more indelible of them was always when the said philosophy was not adhered to.

Managing Change

People are more agreeable to change when they have participated in the process rather than just have it happen to them.

All too often, and especially at a time when layoffs in the tech sector are rampant, major changes are happening to people without their input. Not just across that sector, but also as many people know from the reduction of manufacturing in the US as well as the impact of Covid on service type jobs. Sometimes things happen that we have no control over and we are majorly impacted by them with little to no opportunity to influence how or why it happened. But this isn’t so much about those changes (dealing with that is for another article), it is more to address changes in the business that impact people’s roles on a day-to-day basis.

What I have witnessed time and again are organizational changes that impact the path of people’s careers and the way that they perform in their role. The dramatic changes happened to them through some sort of notification, not participation. While I would never encourage all leaders to get the approval or buy-in of all stakeholders (too many cooks) but to at least be transparent and collaborative enough to work with all of those stakeholders in a way that they feel that they can buy into the changes. That they are at least communicated to about what is driving the need and the reasons for the decisions as well as the eventual outcome. By doing this leaders can prevent employees from wasting precious time burning cycles around the water-cooler as they wring their hands about what will come next. I know, that's a dated visual, but it is the same thing as the time spent on errant covert chat strings blowing up their phones all day long.

Employee Experience

The function of a Human Resources department is less about managing the human resources in the business and should be more about being a resource to the humans in the business.

It used to be said that while sitting at your desk at work there were two calls you never wanted to get from the company and those came from either the legal department or Human Resources. Because when you get that call you are most assuredly in trouble for something. For the HR part of that, it is mostly because many companies for the longest time, saw the HR function as the first part of the statement above; “manage the humans”. This often boiled down to making sure everyone got paid on time, that they had their benefits, and that no one was harassing anyone else. Alternatively, if a person had a problem with any of those things they could pop over to HR and talk to them about it. At one company the jokes that were always made around me were about potential “HR violations”, basically stating that the only time HR gets engaged is when something bad happens. Quite the stigma.

So when I had the opportunity to build my own HR organization I consciously decided to turn the phrase around and “be a resource”. While all the other stuff is still a significant part of the function, the more visible, engaged, and high profile part of the team function was to help people have a better employee experience. In the same way the company was striving to delight its customers, HR needed to delight its constituents. While many organizations have rebranded HR to People Operations in an attempt to de-stigmatize the nature of the organization, that doesn’t really lend itself to my turning around the human resources term. As it turned out, we delivered the message of being a resource so well that my swivel chair got a very aggressive daily workout as I was constantly spinning from my desk to help the person standing in my doorway. I also like to put it this way, “be the organization that employees call when they have a problem, not the organization that calls the employee when we have a problem.”

While many organizations do in fact function this way now, it is still very important to deliver the messaging to the business that HR is there as their resource and not just to manage them.

Think Again

Never underestimate the potential long term impact of a seemingly insignificant action or decision.

My grandfather, who was a self made man and spent many years as a CEO of a large company while only having a high school education, was very fond of saying, “Whenever you take on a task first think it through, and then think it through again.” While I never worked in his business, I spent a lot of time with him in all sorts of scenarios including cleaning his swimming pool, driving his boat, or even playing in his horse barn. Whenever he gave me a task he would never hesitate to remind me to “think again”. As I got older and ran into plenty of situations where I failed to “think again” and reaped the disastrous results. So, over time, I developed my own variation of my grandfather’s adage. This came about from wanting to not only think about what I was doing, but what the consequences might be. As I came to raise my own children, who like all children take a while to understand what it means to “think about the consequences” especially when the decision may seem so trivial. On the negative side, a seemingly insignificant decision to climb a tree seems like fun, However, there may be consequences if one falls out of the tree and is then dealing with a broken arm for a couple months. (I still recommend climbing trees though, it’s a lot of fun when done safely). On the positive side, and perhaps the best example, is casting a vote. A single vote in a democracy is all that is needed to tip the scales and have long term consequences on many levels. But on a more daily basis one might also help the homeless by providing food, blankets, or socks to have a lasting impact. I have drummed this philosophy into my boys so much so that when they leave the house to go do something, even as adults now, they depart with, “I know Dad, never underestimate…”.

In a business sense we must always be aware of the impact and consequences of what we do. I often coach leaders on saying “thank you” to their employees. Those two little words that one can utter without spending a dime or planning some grand appreciation event, or developing an elaborate rewards program, can have even longer lasting consequences than most leaders realize. I have encountered a number of leaders who only like to show gratitude sparingly and for very great accomplishments. Their thinking is that once they thank someone that person will think that they can sit back and relax now that they’ve been appreciated. What those leaders often fail to realize is that the “thank you” is a motivator. It feels so good to hear that most employees will respond by driving themselves harder in an effort to hear the “thank you” again.

The “seemingly insignificant action” might also be displayed in going that extra mile for a customer or colleague, enabling them to grow and achieve at a higher level because they were inspired and motivated by the decision or action.

Perception v. Reality

When possible, do your utmost to align the idea of “the something” to the actual “something”.

The example I most often use for this one is Thanksgiving dinner. Thanksgiving is a US holiday that often brings the entire family and extended family together for an extravagantly crafted meal often centered around a large roasted turkey. This beautiful setting is perhaps best depicted by a painting by Nornan Rockwell titled “Freedom From Want”. His painting and what I described above is a Thanksgiving that resembles the idea of “the something”. However, as many of us know, Thanksgiving can be a very stressful time for families. Not only are there issues of food insecurity for many families at all times of the year, but many other families respond to all being under one roof with a certain amount of dysfunction and rising tensions between family members. Not to mention all of the dirty dishes to wash and leftover food to put away. That is the reality of the “actual something”

Another commonly used example of what we often cite as one of the oldest HR jokes in existence. The joke goes like this, An executive dies and has to choose between heaven or hell for how they will send their eternal reward. After spending an amazing time in both places that seem to present their own beautiful versions of paradise the executive chooses hell. When they arrive hell is not the beautiful paradise they experienced the day before, and instead appears to be more like what most of us would expect - a fiery and desolate wasteland. When the executive inquires to the devil about what changed between yesterday and today, the devil replies, “Yesterday we were recruiting you, but today you work here!”

From a business perspective we often hire people with grand plans about what they will be doing and the job that they’ll need to perform and sometimes there is even a facade about how efficiently and well operated the business is run. But then the reality of working there doesn’t always live up to the hype. New employees find that there are not systems in place that they expected, or the objectives of the role changes dramatically shortly after they start. It is our role as professionals in the business to do our best to make sure that the interviewing experience and the expectations that we set are as aligned as possible so that the idea and the actual something resemble each other.

Demonstrated Leadership

Listening to, and taking direction from a subject matter expert, even if they are a subordinate, is a sign of management strength, not weakness.

At one point in my career I was managing an issue of legal compliance in the face of rapidly adjusting US government policy changes. The backstory about the policy was an integral part of why the company had to make some serious changes to address the issue. The Director I reported up to came to me with a request for a summary so they could present it to the VP. The message was, “Tell me what I need to know to present this to the VP.” I had offered to go into the meeting with the Director, my immediate manager made the same offer, both of us subordinates, but the answer was, “no, just tell me what I need to know.” The information was tough to condense, but I got it down to a handful of slides that I felt was enough information to raise all necessary flags for the business to support what action we needed to take and the executives could make informed decisions about what to do next.

Not fully comprehending the impact to the business, the Director had an admin reduce all of the information to one slide “highlights” and that’s what was presented at the meeting with the VP. The information came off as more afterthoughts than action items. There was no expert in the room to emphasize the importance of the issue or the urgency of the situation. Ultimately, several weeks later, a recently hired executive who was impacted by the policy changes went to the CEO to inform them of their plans to leave the country pursuant to our compliance with the new policy. The news hit the executive suite like an explosion. Everything rolled downhill (as well as hit the proverbial fan) as it became clear that the Director did not know enough to answer the questions coming down from the VP and CEO. While we had done our best to brief on all the pertinent info, even though the Director was armed with all the information, only a subject matter expert can really field all questions with accurate answers as well as speak to the nuances of what those questions and answers mean on a larger scale. It seemed as though this apparently inexperienced Director was more interested in seeming like they knew all of the details about everything under their purview rather than relying on their team to have the bases covered with their expertise.

Whenever I have been in a role with leadership responsibility I endeavor to give my team every possible opportunity to stand out to the rest of the executive team. If something needs to be presented that I do not have expert level knowledge in I will bring along one of my team members and have them present to the leadership. Even when presenting to the CEO.

I firmly believe that strong leadership can, among other things, be demonstrated by giving your team both the freedom and opportunity to own a part of the business by becoming an integral asset to its success. By guiding them and allowing them to build their knowledge base, and then to demonstrate that to the highest levels of the organization and to not be threatened by it, is good management.

So, as we face an ever-changing landscape of what it means to have a job, produce work, engage with others at every level of both our personal and professional lives, it is important to have some guiding principles to help us along the way. As one of the business leaders who I admire a great deal used to say, “Let us not be the ones responsible for putting up roadblocks for our employees to work around to get things done, let us rather set up road signs to help them to better achieve and exceed their goals and those of the business.”

I have used all of the above in both professional and personal settings with mostly very successful results for my team and for the business that we supported.

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