How HR Made It’s Own Damn Table; The Ol Skool Way.
I’ve been listening to HR lament this issue since the 1980s’. My boss never left his office, and didn’t need to. He had all the traditional HR functions that reported to him, including mine, labor relations. His peer group was the functional leadership of the 2nd largest division of a Fortune 50. During my time there, he reported to three very different divisional presidents and each of them either physically moved their office next door to him, or vice versa. Why? Here are a few reasons and his infamous statements.
“Head to the head.” Manage problems, not talent.
A full private bathroom annexed his office. It was the eighties. Covering the walls were the names, numbers, resumes, and in some cases pictures of all “the problem solvers” by function, country, region, etc. No success attributes, cross functional assignments, or “High Potentials” listed; just people, their unique talent(s), and what problems they had solved. Countless are the times I saw SVPs’ individually, collectively, or in groups following staff meetings “head to the head.” He knew where the right resources were, and leveraged his knowledge within the confines of that room to drive allocation of resources for the benefit of the company. Not for the benefit of the function or an individual, and damn sure not for some “succession” plan. So how’d he get the ‘cred’?
“Open the kimono.” Know the person not the function.
He had a 20 question system for knowing his peers, and each of their direct reports on a personal level. That was roughly 120 people. Spouse’s name, kid’s names, where they worked or went to school, what they did away from work, where they vacationed, what they wanted to do in retirement, etc. Because he initiated the conversation by “opening his kimono” close and trusting relationships were developed. They shared with each other their fears and dreams on both a personal and professional level; many of which were similar. They achieved similar personal goals, by collectively owning similar professional strategies and tactics. He knew as much about the business as anyone because they let him in as they felt that he cared deeply about them, their goals, and their families, in concert with needs of the company. They conversely cared very much for his success.
“Jesus only had twelve direct reports.” Span of control.
He personally managed census and associated fixed and variable burden, professional development, cross-functional assignments, developmental assignments, etc., by constantly challenging the value proposition of the role in the process; not the person in the role. This kept it from becoming personal, and it worked. Many process improvements, developmental assignments, and target bonuses were achieved because “Jesus only had twelve reports, and a thirteenth could have made him obsolete.”
Communication. “Sharing and Nike: Just Do It.”
Nike had just rolled out “Just Do It” and he sat there like the dinosaur that he was thinking about Plato Notes, the pre-cursor to Lotus Notes which was an early message board/email system. He saw that Nike now had a “Swoosh”, and so he was going to have a “Flash.” On Friday each of the president’s direct reports sent a “Flash” communication about the top 8-10 issues and victories to the president and copied each of the president’s direct reports. Each SVP had their direct reports provide a similar Flash to them, copying the other direct reports within the function. Upward, downward, and laterally it went. Guess what drove the agenda for Monday’s staff meetings? No surprises, everyone knew what the issues were going in. He hated technology. He couldn’t understand how a piece of paper would slide into a phone and a copy would come out on another phone as I tried to explained to him what a fax machine was. However, he embraced what he hated or didn’t like because he saw a vehicle for improved communication and efficiency.
His process was founded on simplicity. “Think of functions or organizations as organisms and what they need to be aware of, and have in order to survive” he used to say to me. “Your value will be judged not by what you say or do, but by how well these organisms develop.” Like many on that HR team, I was recruited away by promises of a cooler job and lifestyle. When I told him I was leaving he said to me “I love you.” I asked him if I ever made it to the wall in the “head” and he said “no, but you’re in the book.” Huh? A separate book of external or competitor problem solvers that identified the people he would go after when called upon. There were a number of other tactics, but that’s what worked back in the 1970’s and 80’s for him, and since then for myself and the others who were exposed to his simple brilliance.