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Gary Cole



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Why HR professionals can’t practise what they preach


I thought it would be prudent to immediately diffuse any negative thoughts or perceptions from the HR professionals (HRPs) among you.  So firstly, let me boldly state how commonplace it is for professionals of all types to engage in some periodic indulgence of ‘I can’t practise what I preach’. 

Here are some interesting examples to help set the scene. Firstly I shall start with sales professionals, as this has historically been my career background. The truly great sales professionals out there are emotionally intelligent, highly capable listeners and have the ability to talk only about the subject areas their conversation partners have a requirement to discuss. Yet SO many sales professionals cannot practise what they preach because they like to talk first, or worst still talk over you, and can therefore be perceived as boorish and dislikable. 

It doesn’t stop there. Some NHS research in 2011 discovered that GPs were statistically more likely to over index as ‘dependent’ consumers of alcohol compared to the rest of the UK population. So when you’re being ‘ticked off’ for consuming 25 units per week by the GP, do bear this in mind. 

And finally, I have several personal friends who are teachers and some of them have been honest enough to say they find it challenging to be the outstanding parents they’d like be, after a tough week at school and working into the evenings. Their professional energy completely saps their personal focus.

The point that I am illustrating here is that all professionals find it hard to sustain high-performing attributes, and HRPs are no different. Additionally, there will always be a natural spread of high and low performers in any walk of life. I have been fortunate enough to have several of my good HR contacts contribute with thoughts and feedback for this article, so I hope you find it useful.     

It starts really close to home

Many HRPs are very capable of communicating to senior leaders outside of their teams, i.e. the CEO or other members of the senior management team. They are very good at managing expectations, advising on the pros and cons, and generally providing the levelheaded and sage advice people come to expect.  

However, HRPs can be found wanting when it comes to applying this knowledge and wisdom to their own teams. Even if we take annual appraisals as an example – you can be pretty sure the last names updated into the internal system will be individuals from their own teams. This being the case, it will have been rushed or bodged or both, which does lead us to question just how inspiring the weekly one-to-ones will be in an HR team.

“Not bright enough, not commercial enough and don't live by commercial rules*”

*This is a quote from one of my HRD contacts, so please don’t shoot the messenger! The underlying point here is that almost all organisations have gone through some kind of brutal and cathartic financial/commercial ‘shakedown’ over the last decade.

Arguably, it has left most organisations in a healthier and leaner business position. Many roles within most organisations will also have been modified to make them more P&L accountable, or at least a lot more privy to some kind of ‘cost vs. benefit’ thought process. 

It would seem however that HRPs still often lack a commercial edge when it comes to decision-making or project management.  My HRD ‘source’ was proud to tell me that both her and her team developed the necessary sharp commercial skills to be more relevant to their stakeholders and the business. And it has paid dividends.     

Love the concept of change, but don’t embrace it

There is a prevalent trend of HRPs who have become ‘silo-ed’ because HR is all they have done in their careers. In the same way that poor sales people ‘talk and don’t listen’, there is a real danger that HRPs live in their comfort zone and simply operate ‘parrot fashion’ within the existing systems and processes at their organisations. If this happens, you can easily see how trust and credibility can be eroded and could potentially cause a damaging breakdown in the relationships with key internal stakeholder groups.

When we coach teams, it is fascinating to see the response when we ask, "what goes on around here that seems a bit out of date, irrelevant or superfluous to the current needs of your business?” (quickly followed by “what are you doing about it?”).

The amount of processes, systems or cultural/historical quirks that permeate in every organisation is really quite alarming. The majority of people think such things are a waste of time but rarely get the opportunity to express this view or find others who share it in a safe environment. The HR team should be at the forefront of this ever-changing and important cultural alchemy as it can seriously hold back or boost business performance.

So why do companies still have a ‘head of employee benefits’, when others now have a ‘head of culture and performance’?  Maybe it’s because they’ve not moved with the times.

And finally …

Peter Drucker is quoted as saying: “Only three things happen naturally in organisations: friction, confusion and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership”. 

An observation many people have is that HRPs consider themselves to be the gurus of business and operational, leadership and performance management knowledge, whereas the common perception held by internal stakeholders of HRPs is that they rarely ‘step up’ and apply some of this rich knowledge in their roles.

One of my favourite modules in our training material is ‘identifying your inner Elvis’. It is rumored that Bono, lead singer of the band U2, used to arrive at charities and ask, “so, who is the Elvis around here?” His definition of ‘Elvis’ was the people that ‘made things happen around here’. He wasn’t interested in just meeting senior management.  When engaged, he was serious about doing things differently for charities like Unicef. 

So HRPs; are you a passive, beard stroking, observational business guru or are you somebody that drives positive change, inspires stakeholders and delivers outstanding business results?  

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Gary Cole


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