Has HR Become Cool?

Who would have ever thought that HR would be as celebrated as it is today?  

Over the past year or so, at least 6 HBR (Harvard Business Review) title articles were about People/HR, from “It’s Time to Blow Up HR”, to “What Makes a Great Leader?”, to “You Can’t Fix Culture”, “Diversity”, “Managing the 24/7 Workplace”, and “Collaborative Overload”.  If you include “The Softer Side of Negotiation” and “How to Really Learn from Failure”, we are talking about 8 magazine covers in a year.

I went back as far as 2011 to review the HBR covers, and it appears that this has the been the most HR-centric year in that 5-year period.

What could this mean?  To be fair, maybe nothing.  Back in 2001, when I was at HBS taking a class called Leadership & Organizational Behavior (LEAD, for short), I constantly heard the refrain, “It all comes back to LEAD” — from the case speakers, alums, etc.  In other words, all business problems stem from people issues and can be solved through leadership behaviors and practices.  And perhaps, back then, I didn’t equate Leadership with HR.  And now I do, because I consider it HR’s responsibility to foster an environment that promotes leadership development, give people tools to tackle team dynamics challenges, and be the resource on organizational design and incentives.  In close collaboration with a company’s executive team, of course.

Another interpretation of the recent HR-focused HBRs could be that HR is having a “moment”.  I see this every day, and credit the rise of start-ups and start-up culture as the catalyst to HR’s recent popularity.  In the past 1-2 years, I’ve had MBA and college students from the top universities reach out to me to find out how they can “break into” HR.  Ex-consultants who see this trend and who want to have more people-driven impact also ping me about what they can do to re-fashion themselves as HR professionals.  Start-up CEOs confide that they are seeking a “non-traditional HR leader” who hasn’t tread the typical HR path at big companies.  They want nimble problem-solvers who balance empathy with business strategy.

In general, I think this “intellectual gentrification” of the HR space as being an excellent thing for employees everywhere, but I think it’s a mistake to equate traditional HR experience with “not start-up material”.  I have found that the most effective and impressive HR leaders in the start-up world tend to be those who have spent their formative years in more corporate HR settings — GE, J&J, Avon, Pepsi — and then have successfully made the transition into the more ambiguous world of smaller companies and start-ups.

I fear that, in a CEO’s quest for a “non-traditional” HR person, some companies may put their most important asset — their people — into the hands of an inexperienced person who “likes working with people”, but who otherwise doesn’t know enough about HR and may not have the diligence required to learn.  This is a mistake, and is completely the antithesis of the “people are our priority” slogans that companies like to tout.  It also highlights a pervasive belief that “anyone with a brain can do HR.”

I am not going to purport that HR is incredibly complex, but as someone who came to it through a non-traditional route, I will say that just “having a brain” won’t get you far enough to be truly impactful.  Sure, you can learn the complexities of FMLA regulations and ACA compliance, but you also need to be able to communicate clearly, with nuance, and know when to say what and how.  You need to be able to understand people by reading their body language and listening closely.  You need to identify patterns of behavior; patterns in data; and know when it’s time to do something.  And so much more.  It is possible that someone can learn this by doing (and I can think of a few success stories), but generally, I’d prefer working at a company whose People function is led by someone who knows what they are doing through their own experience, not by asking other people.

<<Side note:  I would also suggest it’s better for people who are interested in entering the People function to work under experienced leaders at a few companies before they strike out on their own to lead the function elsewhere.  Gaining exposure to different leadership styles, approaches, and company cultures will only broaden your understanding and elevate your capabilities beyond what you could learn on your own in the same period of time.  That’s just my opinion.>>

What’s my point in all of this?  HR is cool, because every single thing we do impacts our own worklives in addition to the lives of all of the people around us.  (What could be cooler than that!?)  My other point is that — because HR is becoming known as cool — there will be more false positives and false negatives that company leaders will need to sift through in their search for a qualified HR leader.  Don’t assume that the traditional HR person won’t be a good cultural fit, and don’t assume that that smart whippersnapper can step into the head of HR position without any experience.

In a few weeks, I’m speaking on a panel, sponsored by Udemy, about the “Evolution of HR in Business”.  It’s both flattering and incredibly humbling/intimidating to be asked to speak on such a topic, and I’ll try my best to represent the function well.  That being said, I am looking forward to the day when HR isn’t regarded as the ugly-duckling-turned-cool-kid who has been invited to sit at the cool kid’s lunch table.  Because HR is and should have always been as intertwined with the business as Strategy, Operations, Marketing, Sales, Finance, etc.  I’m glad that this is becoming much more mainstream now.

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