…So it has been about 6 months since I last wrote in this space. I took a break because my process had gotten stale and I think I needed some white space to think about out what I really wanted to write about.
I think I know now.
My HR career began when I decided to move away from pursuing a track as a management consultant after experiences working with two very unique clients changed the way I thought about business strategy and the way managers can deliver the best results.
In the first case, I worked in a team of five on a 6-month engagement to assist a U.S. engineering startup with making inroads into a new supply chain. We were hired for the engagement to complete a market assessment for the firm and (based on the outcome of said assessment) propose a revised go-to-market strategy designed to heighten its brand awareness with prospective customers.
…The client thought its problem was that potential customers didn’t know about their product offering, but what my team found as we worked with the client was that the promotional materials they were sending out and sales pitches they were making to customers were breaking through. Instead, the core of the problem involved the two founders (both seasoned engineers) and their inability to align on the segment of the market they wanted to target. This bled into everything, from sniping about the product price point to the mix of print versus digital media to the positioning of marketing materials. Their lack of coherence was also reflected in the asymmetry of experience across their (small) sales force and the pitches they’d honed. The founders had a product they were passionate about but very different visions of the niche it should fill. This impacted the customer pipelines they tried to build, the consumer experience they attempted to cultivate, the type of talent they hired to sell their product, and the (inconsistent) ways that they trained them.
…The client essentially hired us to settle the dispute between them on go-to-market strategy, but what they really needed was to put in place a decision making structure that allowed for faster, more decisive decision making. Once they got that in place, they’d be able to begin the iterative process required to find out if they had a product offering the market really wanted.
I don’t know that we got them there, to be honest. But the plainness of the issue (and how little it had to do with the product itself – at least as a starting point) stuck with me.
A few months later, on a different, second project I found myself working on an interdisciplinary team to develop a tablet PC interface designed to provide educational resources for Indian populations living in subsistence marketplaces. The team and I spent time in India for field research purposes, collaborating with a local consulting firm to develop a product prototype and business plan outlining the financial feasibility and sustainability of the interface.
…What was interesting is that we spent months developing the interface and its functionality, only to discover once we got into the field that the product wasn’t intuitive enough for our workforce to grasp without a robust training program. We ultimately ended up needing to develop a training program, put in place a compensation and talent acquisition strategy to bring in trainers, onboard and train the trainers so they could build workforce capabilities, and put in place a performance management and review structure to make sure our program was working. The product was ultimately a success – health and nutrition outcomes improved for the pilot population, and the offering got a wider release. Looking back, doing the staffing and talent management piece of the project well is the reason our product prototype was a success as much as anything we did from an R&D standpoint.
…The second experience more than anything else is why I decided to pursue a career in Human Resources. I saw a path to touch an organization through HR that I didn’t think I could in a consultant or product role.
The thing is, though, once I made the switch I think I spent the first several years of my career focused all too often on writing consistent, well reasoned policies, documenting discipline, understanding the legal and regulatory environment involved in managing high volume labor/employment law issues, delving into nuances of contracts management and compensation/benefits program design, and focusing on building strong cases to move low performers out of organizations. This is all very, very important work, but in the process of doing it I think that I lost sight of what made me passionate about HR… that being its ability to drive operational efficiency within a business, steward over a strong culture, and enhance talent capabilities and capacity so that the organization can grow and prosper. These things have never been primarily about policies. They have always been about understanding people and the way they relate to and find success working within the businesses they support. Policies and programs should just reinforce a culture of integrity and high performance. They aren’t a cause unto themselves. They should bend and break and altogether change with the needs of each unique circumstance and time.
I don’t know how much more frequently I will come back to this space (I just don’t have a lot of time nowadays) – but when I do, going forward I would like to start focusing less on why any given HR topic is philosophically interesting and more so on how said topics drive efficiency/productivity, enhance culture, and/or help organizations build capabilities that deliver both top and bottom line results.
Help keep me honest here/hold me accountable, and as always share your thoughts and insights in the comments below.