Tuesday, May 27, 2008

10 Things I Learned From Working in HR

An earlier post from 2008:

Are you thinking about a career in HR? Are you a line manager considering giving HR a try? Or, how about a training or OD specialist, considering a cross-functional developmental assignment as an HR generalist?

A while back, when I was a training director at a large multinational, that’s exactly what I did. I was advised that if I wanted to be considered for a VP position, I’d have a better chance if I ventured outside the corporate ivory tower and took a development assignment as an HR generalist out on the front lines. After all, there was only one training and development VP job, but over a dozen HR VP jobs. The same seemed to be true on the Monster, Yahoo and job boards – about a 5 to 1 ratio.

The thinking was that even if I came back to OD/training & development, I’d be a stronger specialist, having gained valuable cross-functional experience.

At first I was skeptical. For one thing, although I never worked in a pure HR role, I had a good amount of exposure, and didn’t like what I saw. It just didn’t seem like a good fit for me. And what about my lack of HR experience? “Don’t worry about that”, I was told by my advisers. “You’ve got all of the important, transferable competencies; you can learn the technical parts” (that bit of advice from a VP that had a staff of minions to do the technical parts for her).

So I said “what the hell”, and gave it a shot. For eighteen very long, painful months. I survived – barely. It turned out to be one of the most developmental experiences of my career. Here are the lessons I learned:

1. The importance of Excel - and Access, and pivot tables. For my entire career, I had somehow managed to achieve success without having to learn Excel. Most of my work could be achieved with dazzling PowerPoint models and Word documents. I quickly learned that HR generalists need to crunch a LOT of numbers. Performance appraisal correlations, adverse impact analysis, restructuring costs, incentive plan payouts, and a staggering amount of other calculations. And – the numbers actually had to be correct.

2. HR clients expect the right answers – and quickly. There’s little tolerance for “maybe”, “it depends”, or “I’ll get back to you on that”, responses that served me so well in previous roles.

3. Work shifts from a few big projects to one never-ending series of tasks. In most of my roles, I always had 6-12 big projects that I was juggling. Every day you might push 1-2 boulders a few more feet. As an HR generalist, tasks get added to a running to-do list faster than you can cross them off. There’s no such thing as “done” at the end of a day. Some days it felt like the classic “I Love Lucy” chocolate assembly line episode.

4. HR is a 24/7 job. Hiring and firing doesn’t take time off or a vacation. You can’t leave an “OOO” (out of office) email and shut off your cell phone for a few days.

HR Generalists have to know a lot about everything. Duh. And no, the technical part of the job can’t be learned in a few months or through a SRHM self-study certification program (hey, it was better than nothing!). I gained a whole new appreciation for the HR vet that maybe wasn’t deep in succession planning or team development, but knew enough to get by, along with thirty other things I knew absolutely zip about.

6. The value of a strong HR admin, HR VP, and a supportive team. An HR admin knows about and takes care of all the little technical details involved with on-boarding a new employee, ADA, FMLA, and the EEOC. A strong VP knows how to go head-to-head with tough executives, strategically position the function, coach and inspire. Unfortunately for me, I had neither. But I was blessed with a supportive and patient team that helped keep me from drowning.

7. An effective HR pro really needs to understand the business strategy and every function of the business. For me, that was the most developmental part of the experience. It wasn’t learning how to design compensation plans or write a legally defensible restructuring plan. I had the opportunity to learn all about marketing, engineering, research, product development, manufacturing, sales, acquisitions, and strategic planning. I’ve been fortunate to work in companies where HR has a “seat at the table”, and I learned a lot of business acumen from sitting at that damn table.

8. HR can be a lonely, isolated role. It’s kind of like police work – it makes for difficult family or neighborhood barbecue chit-chat. It’s important to network, internally and externally, in order to share best practices and hang onto a thread of sanity. Or have a good shrink.

9. What it’s like to struggle in a job. This was a personal character lesson learned for me. I had always had stellar performance appraisals, promotions, and the prestige of “high potential” status. For the first time in my career I was “average”, or even below average in many aspects. It felt like my golf game. I’ll always have an appreciation for what it feels like to be in over your head.

10. Finally, I learned the value of HR and a competent HR pro. Even though I personally hated the experience, I’ll always appreciate how demanding the role is, and how critical the role can be to the success of any business.

So those are my top 10 learnings. What other “lessons from experience” would you share with someone considering a move to HR?

Monday, May 26, 2008

10 Ways to be a More Strategic Leader

1. Practice “what’s possible” thinking. Don’t limit to yourself based on previous failures. Practice using the phrase “up until now…”

2. Avoid the temptation to jump to the quick fix when solving a problem. In many cases, speed and simplicity can serve you well, but if overused, can limit your strategic alternatives.

3. Learn and practice the characteristics of strategic thinkers:
- Curiosity: You’re genuinely interested in what’s going on in your unit, company, industry, and wider business environment.
- Flexibility: You’re able to adapt approaches and shift ideas when new information suggests the need to do so.
- Future focus: You constantly consider how the conditions in which your group and company operate may change in the coming months and years. And you keep an eye out for opportunities that may prove valuable in the future—as well as threats that may be looming.
- Positive outlook: You view challenges as opportunities, and you believe that success is possible. - Openness: You welcome new ideas from supervisors, peers, employees, and outside stakeholders such as customers, suppliers, and business partners. You also take criticism well by not reacting in a defensive manner.
- Breadth: You continually work to broaden your knowledge and experience, so you can see connections and patterns across seemingly unrelated fields of knowledge.

4. Start using strategic language. If you want to be seen as strategic, you have to learn how to talk strategically. Read the latest books, magazines, or blogs on strategy and learn the jargon of strategy and big picture thinking.

5. Broaden your perspective. Being strategic requires that you know a little about a lot of things, not just having deep expertise in your narrow specialty. Learn not only about all aspects of your business and industry, but stay abreast of the world around you.

6. Be willing to take risks and fail. Strategy is one of the most uncertain things leaders do. It involves speculation, ambiguity, and creatively. Strategies will always be second-guessed, and can often be wrong. Develop a thick skin, or otherwise accept a role as a tactical leader.

7. Learn to think more creatively. See “10 Tips for Creative Thinking”.

8. Volunteer to serve on a strategic planning committee of a community organization or non profit board.

9. Understand your company’s and department’s strategy. Do whatever it takes to understand the corporate strategy and how it affects your department’s strategy. Talk with your boss and peer managers, examine annual reports and other company publications, and listen to your CEO’s speeches.

10. Learn to appreciate and respect strategy and those that are good at it. Some people just aren't comfortable with the future, big picture, creative thinking, and possibility thinking. They see it as B.S. and a waste of time. While it’s true many strategies don’t work out as planned, the ones that do often lead to breakthrough results.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

12 Steps to Boost Your Leadership Self-Confidence

Marshall Golsdsmith has a post over at “Ask the Coach”, (Harvard Business Review) addressing a question from a reader:

What advice do you have for a leader whose bosses say needs to exhibit more self-confidence while still being collaborative and authentic?

Here’s his response, along with a few ideas of my own:

I rarely encounter this issue in my work with CEOs and potential CEOs because people at the top of huge organizations don’t often have self-confidence problems. But I have had several inquiries lately about helping future leaders who need to demonstrate more self-confidence.

Let me give you a few suggestions that I give leaders who have self-confidence issues (then I’ll ask our readers to pitch in with more suggestions):

1. Decide if you really want to be a leader. Many of the MBAs who report self-confidence issues are brilliant technicians. They often find the uncertainty and ambiguity of leading people very unsettling. They are looking for the “right answers” – similar to the ones in engineering school. In some cases, brilliant technical experts should continue to be brilliant technical experts – and not feel obligated to become managers.

2. Make peace with ambiguity in decision making. There are usually no clear right answers when making complex business decisions. Even CEOs are guessing.

3. Gather a reasonable amount of data, involve people, then follow your gut and do what you think is right.

4. Accept the fact that you are going to fail on occasion. All humans do

5. Have fun! Life is short. Why should you expect your direct reports to demonstrate positive enthusiasm, if they don’t see it in you?

6. Once you make a decision, commit and go for it. Don’t continually second guess yourself. If you have to change course, you have to change course. If you never commit, all you will ever do is change course.

7. Demonstrate courage on the outside, even when you don’t feel it on the inside. We are all afraid on occasion -- that is just part of being human. If you are going to lead people in tough times, you will need to show more courage than fear. When direct reports read worry and concern on the face of a leader, they begin to lose confidence in the leader’s ability to lead.

Readers – Many of you have more experience in dealing with self-confidence issues than I do. Any of your suggestions for answering this question are appreciated.

My adds:

In his first 6 tips, Marshall covers the most important aspect of confidence, that’s being confident. However, sometimes, new leaders in particular, need to learn how to sound confident, even if they may be shaking in their shoes. We often see this when we have new managers present proposals at the end of a leadership program to senior executives. Building on his 7th tip, Here are 5 more tips on how to demonstrate confident behaviors:

1. Take a stand; express your personal conviction and beliefs. Doesn’t just be a reporter.

2. Be passionate, heartfelt, sincere, and authentic. “When the heart speaks the mind of individuals, it’s indecent to object” – Milton Kundera

3. Demonstrate commitment, often by the use of first person. Use “I” when appropriate – not as an ego trip, but as a demonstration of your own conviction.

4. Make a bold declaration, a “BHAD” (big, hairy, audacious goal)

5. Use strong, colorful, unambiguous language

Perhaps it the behaviors can be learned and demonstrated, confidence will follow!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Take your damn seat at the table

For about the last 20 years, I’ve heard a lot of whining from training and HR folks about wanting to “have a seat at the table”. We love to flog ourselves about why we stink , and to criticize our executives about having their heads up their behinds for not recognizing how important we could be.

I know, I used to do the same thing. And I also spent time “marketing” my training team, conducting phony ROI studies, and taking on any scrap assignment thrown my way as a way to prove our worth and “earn” a seat at the all important table.

Well, I’ve learned over the years that if you want a seat at the table, you need to assume it’s yours, just barge in, and take it. Grab a cookie, have a seat, pour a glass of water, and contribute to the success of the business. Executives aren’t stupid people – if you have something substantial to offer, they listen. And if you don’t – if you try to get away with shoveling fluff at them, they are quick to size you up and dismiss you. Take your cookie and go home.

For the last 10 years I’ve been hearing about the importance of leadership development and talent management. For me, that’s been an open invitation to join the party. I’ve never felt so valued and had so many opportunities to play. My team’s dance cards are consistently filled to capacity. And not just because the need is there – and it is – we are drowning in a sea of opportunity. More importantly, it’s because we know what we’re doing – we know how to develop leaders and we’re damn good at it.

By the way – that seat at the table we’re all clamoring for – it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. But that’s fodder for another post.

Friday, May 16, 2008

12 Best Practices in Executive Development

From Jim Bolt, Executive Development Associates:

The following is a list of common "best practices" used by companies to develop executives and leaders. Use it as a way to evaluate your own company’s practice and develop an action plan to improve.

1. Linked to Strategy: Our executive development efforts are directly linked to our organization's strategy. It's clear how these efforts help address our marketplace challenges and/or achieve our strategic objectives.

2. Top Management Driven: Our top executives champion our executive development efforts. We have a senior, line executive advisory board. Our top executives attend the programs as participants and also teach when appropriate.

3. Strategy & System: We have a strategy and long-term plan for executive development. Our programs and practices are part of a continuous system and process rather than stand-alone, ad hoc events.

4. Thorough Front-End Analysis: No significant executive development effort is begun without a thorough front-end or needs analysis.

5. Custom Designed: We custom-design our programs so they address our unique, company-specific challenges and opportunities, and help create and/or drive our vision, values and strategies.

6. Leadership Profile, Feedback and Individual Development Plans: We use a custom-designed [linked to our vision, values, and strategies], multi-rater leadership instrument/inventory to provide confidential development feedback to our executives. Our executives have individual development plans based on that feedback.

7. Top-Down Implementation: Whenever our executive and leadership development efforts are aimed at organizational change, our top management attends the programs first as participants. Then the programs are cascaded down throughout the organization.

8. Action-Oriented Learning: Our executive learning experiences are action oriented. Whenever feasible, we use some form of "action learning" where participants apply what they are learning to real, current business problems and opportunities.

9. Succession Management: We have an effective succession management system that ensures we have the right executive, in the right job, at the right time. We seldom are forced to hire from outside the organization to fill a key executive job opening as a result of not having a qualified internal candidate prepared.

10. Integrated Talent Management System: We have a well integrated talent management system (succession management, external and internal executive education, on-the-job development, coaching/mentoring, etc.) rather than independent stand-alone processes.

11. Measurement: We set clear, measurable objectives when we create new executive development strategies, systems, processes, and programs. Then we measure the business impact using metrics that matter to senior management, and communicate the results effectively.

12. High Potential Identification and Development: Our organization has an effective process for identifying "high potential" talent and accelerating their development.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Fortune: The Best Advice I Ever Got

Fortune magazine asked 19 people for the best (and sometimes worst) advice that most influenced their lives. Here's a few of my favorites:

Larry Page, Co-Founder and President, Google:
In graduate school at Stanford University, I had about ten different ideas of things I wanted to do, and one of them was to look at the link structure of the web. My advisor, Terry Winograd, picked that one out and said, "Well, that one seems like a really good idea." So I give him credit for that.
Mark Hurd, Chairman and CEO, Hewlett-Packard:
Nine years after starting at NCR, I moved to a head-office job in Dayton in 1988. An NCR executive was giving a presentation; he had great slides and an even better delivery. The CEO, Chuck Exley, listened to the entire presentation in his typically gracious, courteous manner. At the conclusion, he nodded and said something brief but profound: "Good story, but it's hard to look smart with bad numbers." And as I reflected on it, the presenter, articulate as he was, as good as his slides were, simply had bad numbers. That comment has always stayed with me. You have to focus on the underlying substance. There's just no way to disguise poor performance. I've tried to follow that advice throughout my career. Deliver good numbers and you earn the right for people to listen to you.

Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO, Pepsico:
My father was an absolutely wonderful human being. From him I learned to always assume positive intent. Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you're angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional quotient goes up because you are no longer almost random in your response. You don't get defensive. You don't scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, "Maybe they are saying something to me that I'm not hearing." So "assume positive intent" has been a huge piece of advice for me. In business, sometimes in the heat of the moment, people say things. You can either misconstrue what they're saying and assume they are trying to put you down, or you can say, "Wait a minute. Let me really get behind what they are saying to understand whether they're reacting because they're hurt, upset, confused, or they don't understand what it is I've asked them to do." If you react from a negative perspective - because you didn't like the way they reacted - then it just becomes two negatives fighting each other. But when you assume positive intent, I think often what happens is the other person says, "Hey, wait a minute, maybe I'm wrong in reacting the way I do because this person is really making an effort."

Sam Palmisano, Chairman and CEO, IBM:
Some of the best advice I ever received was unspoken. Over the course of my IBM career I've observed many CEOs, heads of state, and others in positions of great authority. I've noticed that some of the most effective leaders don't make themselves the center of attention. They are respectful. They listen. This is an appealing personal quality, but it's also an effective leadership attribute. Their selflessness makes the people around them comfortable. People open up, speak up, contribute. They give those leaders their very best. When it comes to specific advice, the best was from a former boss, who told me, "Don't view your career as a linear progression." He advised me to take horizontal rather than vertical steps: to try out situations that are unstructured, to learn different ways of working, and to get outside of headquarters and experience different cultures. I've applied this advice many times - most notably, taking a decidedly unstructured job at IBM Japan and then joining the fledgling IBM services business. After those experiences, I had the confidence that I could manage pretty much anything.

For me:
One of my managers, and a great mentor, June Delano, gave me this piece of advice on decision making: When faced with a tough decision, do the right thing. Always ask yourself, "If I do this, and a reporter published a story about it the next day, how would it read?". Would I be proud or ashamed? Would I be able to justify my decision and the consequences?

How about you - what's the best or worst advice you've ever received?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Change Communication Tips for Leaders

Here's some tips for leaders on communicating during turbulent times:

Act as if it Matters· Make communications important to you personally
· Measure yourself on how well you communicate (up, down, around)
· Work on continuously improving your communication processes (written, oral, contextual, intuitive, interpersonal)

Trust in your Informal Channels· Use Open Doors to gather information on what’s actually happening (or not happening)
· “Shop Talk” is really quite accurate

More is ALWAYS Better
· Particularly true in times of crisis rumors will abound anyway, why not make them the right rumors?
· Believe in the notion that people will never say you’re overdoing it
· In Real Estate, “Location, Location, Location,” is what sells properties; in industry, “Communications, Communications, Communications,” is what sells management initiatives
· In an information rich climate, employees are more forgiving of the occasional error; the cost of not communicating is disaffection, anger and loss of trust
· If “they’re not getting it,” don’t just “tell them harder”… use asking as part of communications

Conversations make a Difference

· Face-to-Face communications play a crucial role during times of uncertainty and change
· Listen generously and speak straight
· Display a willingness to address challenging questions, listen carefully, and respond quickly to sensitive topics

Be an Investigative Reporter Yourself
· Get out there and find out what’s being said, heard, forwarded
· Give people an opportunity to be listened to
· Be seen as a person who understands what’s happening, who is cognizant of feelings, who doesn’t have all the answers, but who is willing to listen and learn

Facilitate the Flow

· Your job is to ensure the optimum flow of information (up, down, around)…not to control the flow valve… and it’s not a “check” valve with a one-way flow either
· Communicate what you know, when you know it…don’t wait until every detail is resolved
· Communication is a shared responsibility…help others to do more rather than communicating for them
· Tell the truth…when bad news is candidly reported, and environment is created in which good news is more believable

Friday, May 2, 2008

Tips for Helping an Employee Find a Mentor

Here's 6 tips for helping an employee find a mentor:

1. Look for individuals who are able to understand and shape the employee’s long-term professional goals (e.g., someone who has a similar background or who is currently in a position the employee might like to have in the future).

2. Consider people who are influential within the company. These individuals know how the organization works and can help your employee navigate the system.

3. Think about someone who possesses a higher level of functional experience than the employee. Sometimes individuals outside of your company or outside the chain of command, such as someone in a trade organization, are the best mentors.

4. Look for someone with a skill set that is broader than the employee’s. While you want the individuals to connect with each other, you also want the relationship to help your employee grow and develop in new ways.

5. Defining how the relationship should work can help both the mentor and your direct report. For example, how often should they meet? What types of things should they discuss? What are the rules for confidentiality?

6. Ask your employee what they want to get out of a mentoring relationship to help you find the right fit.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Leadership Development on a Tight Budget

There was a question over on the ASTD discussion board that inspired me to write this post.

Pam asked: “I am looking for ideas to provide training with limited resources (space, money and staff)”.

It’s a great question. I’ll bet there’s a lot of small, one-person training departments and even big, global companies that need to run a lean organization that are looking for ways to train or develop leaders on the cheap.

I’m fortunate to presently work for a company that invests heavily in employee development. I’m fully staffed and resourced with all kinds of executive support and commitment. Given that, we’re still “fiscally conservative” – and I’m pretty frugal myself.

I had a different experience at my last company. I was responsible for employee and leadership development for a company that went from 80,000 employees to under 50,000 in the eight years I was there. The training department went from over 150 worldwide to under 20. So, I had to learn how to make do with “limited resources”. It was like living through a training and development depression, and those “doing more with less” habits are hard to break.

So here’s 10 methods I’ve learned to develop leaders (or employees) “on the cheap”. Please comment if you have other ideas.

1. Take the opportunity to educate leaders on how leaders develop. Share the classic Center for Creative Leadership research that shows the developmental impact of job changes, stretch assignments, and other people compared to formal training programs. Teach leaders how to write a good IDP (Individual development plan) that includes a variety of activities, not just costly training programs.

2. Use a web conferencing tool WebEx , or GoToMeeting. I’ve found just about any leadership development topic that’s taught in the classroom can be learned just as effectively using web conferencing. You’ll save on travel and time.

3. Start an internal coaching or mentoring program. Train volunteers on how to coach and mentor, and make them available to your high potentials or some other targeted audience.

4. Start a book review process. Get groups of managers together, assign a book, and facilitate discussions around content and application. 

5. Purchase an online library of training programs. Alright, not necessarily free, but relatively inexpensive when compared to expensive classroom alternatives.

6. Develop your own training materials. There’s so much good information out there these days, find it and take advantage of it. Or do your own internal research. Find out who’s the best at something, documents it, and teach it to others.

7. Use internal subject matter experts. Sales reps love hearing from top performing sales reps, managers from experienced managers, etc… They don’t have to be polished trainers. Panel discussions are another way to share internal expertise.

8. Teach managers to clarify performance expectations with their employees and provide feedback on a regular basis. A recent Corporate Executive Board study found that of all the possible things a manager could do to development employees and improve performance and engagement; these two activities had the highest payoff. And they’re free!

9. Start learning networks, or learning teams. Kind of a grand rounds approach to learning, like in the medical profession. Leaders (or engineers, sales reps) get together to share common problems and solutions. “Getting together” could be live or virtual, through discussion boards or blogs.