The Carnival of HR – Pick A Prize

The Carnival of HR – Pick A Prize

Pulling at the arm of my jacket, my friends futilely attempted to drag me away. “C’mon Mark!“, they implored, frustration palpable as I placed yet another quarter on the rough wooden plank that served as both armrest and launching point for my arch rival, the ping pong ball. I was two dollars in and determined that this would be the one.

The money was mine, earned through a wide variety of enterprises my brother and I had launched as creative and unfettered children. We were raised with a strong work ethic in a growing subdivision. That meant construction, which meant construction workers, which meant thirsty and hungry people who just happened to have a soft spot for the neighborhood riffraff.

Of the eight balls thrown thus far, three were underhand, four were dead aimed and one was a high floater. My goldfish had died the week prior so I was not going to leave the carnival without his successor safely bagged and in hand. Rocking back, I decided that a backspun high floater was going to win the day. My fist opened, the ball rose and I waited for it to glide over three-dozen puckered orange faces. Landing on a bowl’s edge, it took a wild bounce, struck another, then a third, and landed quietly on the hay-covered ground below. I had lost, but smirked at knowing that I would try again and again as the day wore on.

Everyday we take this same journey. We throw ourselves into the air, hoping to land in the right destination but often tossed asunder by forces both within and outside of our control. That doesn’t mean we stop trying. That doesn’t mean we can’t have fun. This is the Carnival that we who work in HR experience more acutely than many of our peers. And as others try and pull you away, we want you to stay and give it as many chances as you can personally and professionally afford.

Welcome to the May 2016 Carnival of HR.

Read. Discuss. Challenge. Be a part of the conversation and eventually you too can pick a prize.

On the Strategist, the Steward and the Service Provider

On the Strategist, the Steward and the Service Provider

With our anthropomorphized phones down – their backlit faces struggling to buzz, ring and ding us into submission to their never ending quest for immediacy – we sat and greeted one another with cautious optimism. Backs straight and eyes forward, we began our conversation by setting aside all reference material in the hopes of achieving a truly human connection.

Two critical questions emerged as I wondered how to encapsulate her storied career and complex role in less than an hour’s time.

“How do you define success?”

I watched her eyes for a confident response (no break in contact and a trusted plan), a skyward glance (thoughtful consideration and a rapid assembly of considered goals) or downward stare (belying the futility of ever achieving something so grand as ‘success’). I nodded and prodded, seeking to uncover as deeply as allowed before posing my next question.

“What scares you?”

The eyes had it again. Her shoulders started to relax followed by a bend forward (suggesting intimacy or secrecy) and lean backward (exhaustion or frustration breaking the facade), a laugh and smirk quickly emerging to suggest perhaps it is safe to be a simple mortal of flesh and blood.

Encapsulated within the density of our interaction was the underlying tension in maintaining three mission critical, seemingly complimentary yet often contradictory roles.

  • The Strategist: The proactive identification and execution of solutions that explicitly align with business needs and goals.
  • The Steward: The active management of trusted assets and processes in a manner that supports strategy while mitigating business risk.
  • The Service Provider: The assurance that programs and processes are executed in an efficient, customer-centric and cost effective manner.

I asked how much of her time is allocated to each role, her response consistent with nearly every leader I’ve met in the past ten years.

  • The Strategist: 10-15%
  • The Steward: 40-70%
  • The Service Provider: 50-70%

We chuckled at the 155% mathematical anomaly, the numbers not so usual if 40 hours equals 100%.

Her lack of individual capacity, organizational elasticity and fiscal predictability was buckling under the relentless headwind of untenable expectations and unreasonable timelines. She is a multi-degreed and highly accomplished professional seeking ‘some small semblance of sanity’. And if she – the leader of one of the most critical functions in the organization – cannot find her way, how can the rest of her team or the organization at large?

That was the question I posed.

The Steward told me that she will not let the organization fail under her trusted watch. The Service Provider called out each stakeholder group with a well defined commitment to the success of each.

The Strategist wrestled with the first two to find a confident toe hold, finally settling on a reluctant truism. With a sigh and clear exhaustion in her voice, she said:

“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

I thanked her for her time and did a quick calculation.

Three personas. Two questions. One hour.

Zero mirrors.

The Amplification of Everything

The Amplification of Everything


Loud drums the deafening beat of industry, each concussive pulse calling, “automate!” – “integrate!!” – “propagate!!!” – its noise oft drowning out the necessity to ideate around the inevitable amplification of all that is the employee, the manager, the organization.

The organization says, “Define your future and let us hear of that which goes beyond work. Employee, please show us yourself – the whole human – so we might more clearly understand that which drives your purpose, your passion, and the grace of your presence.” They offer brown bags and webinars, videos and coaching that suggest you ‘Own Your Career’ while herding you into an online destination that builds an implied expectation of….

… something.


So you courageously expose yourself to the masses. Place a picture. Share an aspiration. Wish for more than you have and lift your eyes up toward a distant oasis where you just might be seen, acknowledged, encouraged, developed and rewarded. You read and re-read the mission, the values, the guiding principles, echoes of “we care….”, “we care.…”, “we care….” ever so gently crumbling the protective walls of cynicism born from that last house of false promises. You allow yourself – even for a moment – to think:

Perhaps this place will be different.

You submit, you work and you wait.

The manager says, “Be omniscient in your knowledge, omnidirectional in your management of others, and omnichannel in your delivery.  Apply data and your gut. Come with fresh eyes and a decade of experience. Consume another article, a blog, a book, a podcast, a research study. Attend a conference, absorb from thought leaders, inquire of analysts, borrow from peers. Be ready because the C-suite is now the See-Suite and you want to shine in their eyes.

The message is clear, relentless and pervasive – You. Must. Do. Better.

This is the amplification of everything.

What It Feels Like To Be An HR Buyer

What It Feels Like To Be An HR Buyer

Let’s suppose you’re an HR buyer. You’re experienced. You’re competent. This isn’t your first rodeo. And as much as you believe that logic and process will dictate what you buy, there are several emotional impacts that will absolutely factor into the bets you make.

The following list is derived from the work of the incomparable David Maister* as applied to our corner of the buying universe. HR service providers, it would serve you well to keep these ten items in mind as you prepare for your next pursuit.

What It Feels Like to Be An HR Buyer

  1. I’m feeling INSECURE. I’m not sure I know how to detect which of the finalists is the genius, and which is just good. I’ve exhausted my ability to make technical distinctions.
  2. I’m feeling THREATENED. This is my area of responsibility, and even though intellectually I know I need outside expertise, emotionally its not comfortable to put my affairs in the hands of others.
  3. I’m taking a PERSONAL RISK. By putting my affairs in the hands of someone else, I risk losing control.
  4. I’m IMPATIENT. I didn’t call in someone at the first sign of symptoms (or opportunity). I’ve been thinking about this for a while.
  5. I’m WORRIED. By the very fact of suggesting improvements or changes, these people are going to be implying that I haven’t been doing it right up till now. Are these people going to be on my side?
  6. I’m EXPOSED. Whoever I hire, I’m going to have to reveal some proprietary secrets, not all of which are flattering.
  7. I’m feeling IGNORANT, and don’t like the feeling. I don’t know if I’ve got a simple problem or a complex one. I’m not sure I can trust them to be honest about that; it’s in their interest to convince me it’s complex.
  8. I’m SKEPTICAL. I’ve been burned before by these kinds of people. You get a lot of promises: How do I know whose promise I should buy?
  9. I’m CONCERNED that they either can’t or won’t take the time to understand what makes my situation special. They’ll try to sell me what they’ve got rather than what I need.
  10. I’m SUSPICIOUS. Will they be those typical professionals who are hard to get hold of, who are patronizing, who leave you out of the loop, who befuddle you with jargon, who don’t explain what they’re doing or why, who …, who …, who …? In short, will these people deal with me in the way I want to be dealt with?

Behind every HR buying decision is a human (or more likely, a group of humans), so always keep that in mind.

HR buyers, what else would you add to this list? Your comments are encouraged, so let’s keep the conversation going.

(*Source: David H. Maister, Managing the Professional Service Firm, 1993)

The Power Of Seven Simple Questions

The Power Of Seven Simple Questions

Seven-QuestionsAlthough Bacon once said, “Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom“, I’ve found an increasing tendency in business to allow forceful and unstructured extroversion to loudly and clumsily persist and thrive. Unfortunately, we live in a world where noise is often confused with progress, success or intelligence. In my opinion, it’s the introverts who have it all figured out, for it’s within those quiet in-between times that the sparks of insight can truly catch flame.

This is why I so truly admire the brilliance of a well-placed question.

A few words in length, the seven base queries below – obvious in retrospect – have resulted in hours of honest and unfettered discussion. Regardless of your role, domain, market or audience, these may just reinforce your own power of quiet observation:

Q1) “What does success look like?”

This is a wonderful conversation starter, particularly in a group setting. It’s open ended enough to allow each participant to make it their own, often building on the prior respondent. More importantly, it casts the mind forward to a time when the notion of “better” may truly come to life.

Q2) “What scares you?”

Fear – more specifically, unspoken fear – can be the archenemy of progress. The key is to pause through the uncomfortable silence that follows this question, so wait patiently until someone breaks the verbal logjam. The one-two punch of success and fear will provide the channel through which all must carefully navigate.

Q3) “Is ‘do nothing’ an option?”

Although tricky, this can be quite effective. Sometimes you’ll receive a raised eyebrow that asks, “Are you serious?? Of course not!” But in patiently waiting one can typically capture the source of the emotional exhaustion that comes from the unending current state.

Q4) “What are the inhibitors to success?”

Barriers may exist at every turn. Whether dollars, naysayers, technology or the inherent resistance to change, culling out the roadblocks one will encounter on the journey offers you a fighting chance at a real breakthrough. This is a great question to pose one-on-one to each key stakeholder.

Q5) “How are decisions made?”

With a concise understanding of the cultural, personal and communicative nuances you can begin to define what needs to be captured, cultivated and conveyed on the road to success. Although perhaps more process oriented than the others, this prepares one for the possibility of a multitude of check points, socialization sessions and stakeholder reviews.

Q6) “What is the deadline?”

At this point in the conversation, a question like this often draws a sly smile with a single word, “Yesterday.” “But seriously…” follows with a clear and concise timeline (if one should exist). Whether aspirational or explicit, an understanding of when one is expected to attain the future vision is paramount to success.

Q7) “How can I/we help?”

This is your closer. After everything else has been put on the table, the notion of help can be incredibly comforting. Moreover, this is when assignments are doled out and next steps are memorialized, so ensure your expected outcomes are clearly defined and captured for follow-up.

I’d encourage you to try all or some of these the next time you enter into an internal or external conversation. A word of caution – try desperately to avoid the draw of ego-centric connective tissue during this process. In other words, when moments arise where you can obviously “sell” yourself or your value proposition, fight the urge to do so. Your job at this stage is to take copious notes and listen, pure and simple.

Brilliance often lives in the space between simplicity and silence so why not embrace them both. And once you do, come back and share your story so we can collectively learn from your experience. I look forward to your thoughts.