30 years in HR, 10 lessons

After having worked 30 years in HR, I wrote a little booklet (“30 years in HR”).
What were some of the lessons I learned after 30+ years?

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

In our kitchen there is a picture on the wall of a Dutch photographer (Natascha Libbert), with a man posing between three stewardesses.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. Today I am my own boss, and what I miss most compared to the corporate life is being part of a world-class 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. What helped me in times I was more negative about my job was to say to myself: ” I do not have to work here…”.

4. Human Resources as a profession is developing slowly

Recently I was talking to a friend who is also approaching 30 years in the Human Resources arena. The question on the table was: what are the “Human Resources laws/practices” of which we think that every organization 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 the 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 fullest extent? 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 proof that interviews are a very poor selection instrument. 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 human resources professionals should be willing to be tough and persistent. In most organisations I have worked in, performance issues were not dealt with in an appropriate way. Of course, when the performance is really poor, 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 decide to 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. The main lesson for me, which I try to practice: HR step up to the plate, and take your leadership role seriously. 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 Human Resource 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 install 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, from 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 friend has his own company with 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 a human resources department, but the way he takes ownership and deals with human resource issues can be an example for many leaders in big companies.

7. Change is difficult, and will remain difficult

The ability of people to change, is continuously over-estimated. Human resource professionals often fuel these expectations. How can we transform poor people managers into empathic coaches? (Preferably in one week). How can we transform obedient employees into entrepreneurs? (Preferably obedient entrepreneurs). How can we transform high-level technical experts into global account managers? (Take your time, the results are only expected next year). Human resource professionals should temper high expectations. Old habits are very difficult to change, even when there is a burning platform (e.g. all the fruitless efforts to tackle obesity).

8. HR to change from followers to leaders

The times are ideal for human resource professionals to have a big impact on the organisation. But HR professionals should step up to the plate. Organisations are struggling to create the conditions where people can flourish and give their best to create an exciting future. Organisations are struggling to accelerate from hierarchy to network. HR, with their knowledge on people, organisations and change management, is ideally positioned to take the lead in realising the necessary changes.

9. The social media revolution has just started

In 1994, 20 years ago, I had my first experience with internet, and in 1995 I got my first mobile phone. In the last years the use of social media has accelerated. Organizations are wondering how to use this development for their benefit. Tackling the challenge with traditional approaches (“We need a Social Media policy”, “We should ask Communications to develop a plan”) is a dead-end street. Again, big chance for HR, as recruitment and marketing are areas at the front of social media usage.

10. Let’s finally get rid of “One size fits all”

“One size fits all” or the socialistic approach to HR are difficult to get rid of. HR often has its roots in “Rules & Regulations”, and with these roots it is difficult to promote diversity and segmentation. HR can learn here from other disciplines (as marketing and advertising). Modern advertising agencies develop several versions of their marketing material and test on-line what works for what group. The yellow version might work for women over 50, the red version for men who own a Harley Davidson etc. Then they use the different versions to approach the different target groups. How can HR transfer these lessons, e.g. to learning and development, or career management?


The book “30 years in HR” is available as free e-book via iTunes.


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