Being passionate about the business you work in is crucial to success as an HR professional, argues Steve Foster, HR business strategy manager of consultancy Northgate HR.
We shouldn't underestimate the power of passion in business – it's what drives people to perform at their best and leads to high levels of energy, commitment and engagement. This idea is particularly relevant to the HR profession, yet, sadly, 'passion' and 'HR' are generally not words that appear in the same sentence. HR people not only have to be passionate about HR as a business function, but having a passion for the business they work in is fundamental to being a great HR person.
For the purposes of this article, I'm going to suggest that there are two types of HR people. Cold-blooded HR people ('HR reptiles') lack passion; they see their HR role as something distinct from their business, where issues such as paying people, completing appraisal forms and re-launching the car scheme are the end results of what they do, not enablers of more significant outcomes.
It matters little to HR Reptiles whether the business is a global leader in flanged widgets or a high street retailer, because 'it's all about people' and HR is seen as a purely generic activity. In management meetings, HR Reptiles usually keep quiet when discussion turns to the market for flanged widgets, believing that there are business issues and there are HR issues, but these are very different.
It's only when clear HR topics are discussed that the Reptile perks up – perhaps to update the group on the new competency model or why appraisal forms are going to be blue this year. If you don't have passion for the business you work in, you're never going to make a worthwhile contribution. HR Reptiles will only be appreciated by other Reptiles for the good HR work they do and will generally contribute less and be less valued.
By contrast, 'HR Fire-Starters' are hot-blooded types, passionately interested in what the business does, excited by its products and services. They care deeply about making the business better and they know enough about the business to make a contribution on non-HR issues – they aren't experts, but they can talk confidently about what makes a good flanged widget and how best to sell and distribute it. HR Fire-Starters don't just wait for HR issues to come along, they anticipate them and make connections to people issues. They know that most business issues have a people dimension, so if there's a worldwide turn-down in the flanged widget market, they engage management in a discussion on the implications for staffing levels.
If there's a worldwide growth in the market, they'll initiate discussion about bringing the right skills and talent on board. When it's business as usual, they’ll be exploring how to improve leadership, retain top talent and improve performance. They're just as happy talking about why the business needs to invest in a new factory as they are in traditional HR subjects, because HR Fire-Starters are more concerned about their impact on the business and creating value than redesigning the appraisal form.
I speak somewhat from my own experience on this matter. I started my own HR career in the oil industry, drawn to it because it seemed to be quite glamorous (perhaps a bit like Dallas, a popular TV show at the time). In fact, the Exploration and Producing side of the business can be quite exciting – North Sea oil rigs, helicopters, high stakes and the challenge of man against the environment. That image is not so true in the part of the business I worked in, which was more about oil refineries, blending plants and petrol stations – at least not for me.
If I'm being honest, I was something of an HR Reptile for some of my career and I’m pretty sure that I didn't contribute as much to wider business issues in a business that didn't excite me. Only when I moved to a role that held some meaning for me, where I felt some passion for what I was doing, did I become 'fired up'. Maybe that's why so many people from outside HR do well when they move to HR from an operational role – they understand the business, know where people issues fit into it and can make a clear contribution based on that knowledge.
Good HR people don't have to come from outside the function – the best HR people I have met got there because they had hare a drive to improve the business they're in and use that enthusiasm to ignite passion in others. So what are you? A reptile or a fire-starter?