19th September 2014

Fixing the HR Function. 1986 in Vermont holds the key…


We’ve been reading and discussing the recent blogs on the apparently ailing HR function.  In his usual style, Ram Charam threw the first hand-grenade in the room by suggesting the HR function needs to be split in two to be effective.  It prompted everyone’s favourite HR uncle, Dave Ulrich to respond – in part disagreeing with Ram’s fundamental approach, while agreeing in other ways.  In Dave’s and many minds, the split has already occurred, with a separation of the strategic HR work from the administrative HR work.

What they both agree on is that the HR function needed to play a bigger part in making their organisations more capable and competitive. Ok, let’s stop the clock there…….is there anyone out there who thinks this is news?  A big breakthrough in thinking?  The holy grail to HR success?

1986 was an interesting year.  We had big hair, wore big shoulder pads and listened to Lionel Ritchie and Bananarama.  Ronald Reagan was the US President, and the Chernobyl nuclear accident happened.  I was at the beginning of my HR career and working for PepsiCo International Restaurants.  I’d just moved from being a Trainer into their HR function, and was fortunate enough to head off to a big HR conference in Killington, Vermont in 1986.

Now I didn’t know it at the time, but PepsiCo was if not a global, then certainly a North American leader in their HR function. They were working with Ulrich before he became famous, and using Bob Eichinger and Mike Lombardo (aka Lominger) to do research for them.  Their CEO Andy Pearson wrote the seminal “Muscle-Building the Organisation” for HBR, long before someone came up with the GE-inspired “rank and yank” concept.  In short, PepsiCo took HR seriously, and saw people as the only sustainable advantage they could develop over their bitter (though in reality, sweet) rivals at Coke.

So it’s 1986, I’m in snowy New England, riding a sleigh and learning what HR is all about – well at least whet PepsiCo HR was all about.  Up front of the room is Roger King, then the global Head of HR at PepsiCo, who came to tell us what he expected from HR.  I remember two things distinctly.  The first was that he was a golfer, and as he leant on a desk talking with us he kept shaping up his grip, working on getting his right hand further forward to stop hooking so much (I asked him at morning tea if he played golf and fought a hook – he just smiled at me).

The second thing I remember distinctly is what he talked about. Actually, it wasn’t what he talked about, more what he didn’t talk about.  He didn’t talking about organisation structure, culture, training programs, rewards, performance management, rating systems, paradigm changes, reengineering or any of that sort of thing – the stuff I thought HR was about!

Instead he talked about the businesses we all worked in.  How he wanted us to spend most of our time with the line people, in their business, asking about their issues and trying to solve their problems.  He said; “Go out and ride with Sales Reps, and ask them about their challenges – not people challenges, but business challenges.  Who are their best customers; how tough are the competition; what their best products are; where they make their most margin”.  He said go out and walk round the factories with the Plant Managers, and find out about what they do.  Ask them; “How their production line efficiencies are going; what sort of quality problems are they having; where are their production bottlenecks”.

But what about talking about all the great things we do in HR I thought?  What about talking about their people issues?  Roger’s point was this:  “There’ll be plenty of time to do that.  In fact, you’ll have to go back there in time and tell them about a performance management system you’re rolling out, a new training program you want them to participate in, or a change program you’re going to implement.  You want to have these conversations from a point of credibility and relevance, which you’ll establish if you can understand their problems first, their business issues, and have the line managers see you as primarily interested in helping to solve their problems.”

So almost 30 years on from Vermont, and Ram and Dave are saying the same things – the message keeps repeating, yet most people think the function just hasn’t taken it in, or has been unable to respond and change their orientation away from the function and towards making their businesses more capable and competitive.  That’s what it’s about.… that’s what it’s always been about.

Now, I’m not saying HR functional excellence isn’t important.  It is, but it’s not the starting point. When we developed and launched our HR Mastery Program this year, we came very much from that place – equipping emerging, high-potential HR leaders with both the right mindset, tools and techniques to reframe their thinking and be the sort of HR leaders that PepsiCo and Roger King were trying to develop almost 30 years ago.

If the challenge is getting started, here are five simple adages we teach on the program that help HR people move from the conceptual to the practical.  Call them the Vermont protocols….

  1. Learn and speak the language of business; products, services, customers, numbers, ROI, profit contribution.  Find out where the business is doing well, and where it’s hurting
  2. Pick off and solve a big problem for your line people, one they’ve had for a while.  Show them you get them and want to help; they’ll invite you back and want to support your HR agenda
  3. Do the basics well (like pay people) and don’t allow any soft spots for people to jab you in when you ask them to do things they don’t want to. Take your lumps; no special favours for the HR function (cost or headcount reduction, policies, etc.)
  4. Be great at executing stuff; do what you say you will and keep your word.  Be considered, but be urgent.  Spend less time researching and reviewing, and more time implementing and executing
  5. Don’t use HR mumbo-jumbo speak; it’s dull, pompous and alienating for most people outside “the HR bubble”.  Communication is the art of being understood

It would be great if the HR function could all stop talking about what the solution is, and just get on and do it.

Glen Petersen – CEO, Generator Talent Group

The next HR Mastery Program will be held in Sydney, 3rd thru 7th November 2014.  Information and registration: The HR Mastery Prospectus

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