30 years in HR, part 8: what did I learn?

This is the final episode in the first series of “30 years in HR”. From Hollandse Signaalapparaten to Philips Consumer Electronics to KPMG to Aon to Arcadis. Many things were untold. Like: what happened before I started at Philips? What were my most successful projects, and more interesting, what were the disasters? Did I change my style, or is it basically still the same after 30 years? These issues and others will be tackled in the second series (episodes 9-16).
So what are some of the lessons after 30 years in HR?

1. Most people have no clue what people in HR actually do

The photo above this blog is made by Natascha Libbert, a Dutch photographer. This photo hangs on the wall in our kitchen at home. When my son brings friends to our house, they often ask: “Is that your father?”. And they wonder why my wife allows me to show this photo. It is not me, and the stewardesses are not real stewardesses. It is at an air-show, where the guests can be photographed. This is the picture my children have of my job. That I am traveling around the world, hiring and firing people,  like George Clooney in “Up in the Air”. I leave it at that, I think it is a nice image.

2. My engagement is mainly determined by the people I work closely with

Of course there are many drivers of my engagement. The company I work for. The challenges. The opportunity to make a difference. The international aspect of the job. But most important are the people I work closely with. My boss, the other people in the teams I am part of, and, most important,  the core team I lead. Fortunately I have always been able to build my own team. What works best for me: a small team with ambitious professionals with whom it is fun to work. This is probably the same for most people, but I sometimes wonder why people accept mediocre teams around them. It is very difficult to build great things with a mediocre team.

3. Do not quit your job to quick, but also, do not stay too long

The shortest period I have worked somewhere was four years (at KPMG). The longest eight years, at Aon. At Philip I worked in total 12 years, but in two big chunks of six years. In my experience my jobs have become richer after a couple of years. The challenge is to keep renewing yourself. If you can do this successfully, the reward is big. In the 30 years I quit my job two times without having a new one (at Philips and at Aon). This gave me a very good feeling. At Philips I worked too long. The chemistry was gone, and more and more I was fed up with all the negative aspects of a big organisation. I was hesitant to leave. Why leave this great organisation where I had good career prospects (I thought)? Where could I find again such a nice international job? The moment I had quit my energy came back. In a couple of months a new opportunity emerged, and only the positive memories of Philips remained. What helped me in times I was more negatively about my job was to say to myself: ” I do not have to work here…”.

4. HR as a profession is developing slow

Last week I was talking to a friend who is also approaching 30 years in HR. The question on the table was: what are the “HR laws/practices” of which we think that every organisation should implement these, as the evidence is clear that they contribute to the success of companies? Unfortunately our list was not very long. On top of our list: “Real attention to people”. This is of course very obvious. Do you need HR for this? Probably not. But why is it that in many organizations this basic HR/ leadership law is not practiced to the full extend? Talk with people, listen to people, challenge people, have constructive fights with people, and you will be more successful. Some HR practices (performance management) try to facilitate constructive conversations between people. Often the process becomes the goal, and the effectiveness can be disputed. Ask around you: how many people are really looking forward to their annual performance review (if they have one)? Selection is another good example. There is ample prove that interviews are a very poor selection instrument. When I studied psychology many years ago, this was an important lesson. Still, in most organizations, most selection processes  use interviews as the main instrument.

5. HR should be tougher

I am convinced that HR can contribute a lot to a high performance culture. But HR should be willing to be tough and persistent. In most organizations I have worked in, performance issues were not dealt with in an appropriate way. Of coure, when the performance is really poor and obvious, there is no problem. It is mediocre performance that is the issue. We blame the market. We hope next year will be better. We hope a new financial director in the team will make the difference. We do not want to be ruthless and give another chance. Often the signals of mediocre performance have been there for years. Employees see it, and wonder why management is not taking action. Main lesson for me, which I try to practice: HR step up to the plate, and take your leadership role serious. If you only consider yourself as just an advisor, you cannot be effective.

6. Big companies can learn from small companies

Often smaller companies look at the HR practices of big multinationals as Shell, GE and Philips as the holy grail.
But often these big companies are struggling. They have become so big that it is difficult to find the right human scale.
They implement global systems and procedures. They publish guidelines and committees to check if the guidelines are followed. They put people goals in the balanced scorecards of their leaders. They design rigid career tracks that should be followed if you want to be successful. Many good things, but the question is if all of this leads to the desired result: engaged people, form diverse backgrounds,  who feel connected to their organization, who feel attached to the vision and who are willing to give their best to the company. A father I meet regularly at the soccer field,  when our sons are playing has his own company with now more than 200 people. Hiring new people is important for him, and he is constantly busy making his company more attractive for new people and for the people who already work for him. Every Monday town hall meeting to inform everybody about plans and results. Every month something fun/ nice (a small party, a treasure hunt on Saturday). He does not have an HR department, but the way he takes ownership and deals with HR issues can be an example for many leaders in big companies.

There is more to say, but I will lave it at these six points. More to follow in the second series.

No more articles