Chaos in a Talent System

chaos

Recently, while lazily channel surfing, I watched bits and pieces of Jurassic Park for (approximately) the 372nd time. Fortunately for me they were the snippets with lots and lots of Dr. Ian Malcom action (and I think we can all agree that Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcom, not the tribe of velociraptors, is the actual star of this movie).

Ian (we’re on a first name basis) is the voice of caution in the film. As a mathematician who specializes in the branch of mathematics knows as “chaos theory” he seeks to inform the others (and the audience) how minor events can lead to unexpected consequences. As he explains:  

“It simply deals with predictability in complex systems. The shorthand

is the butterfly effect, the butterfly flaps its wings in Central Park,

you get rain in central Asia.”

In other words, understanding chaos theory means understanding that systems that appear straightforward and deterministic can still exhibit highly complicated and seemingly random long-term behavior. Something we often forget about in our organizations; especially in our talent (HR) system.

The “talent system” as I’m referring to it, means all the aspects of the employment experience that fall under the bailiwick of the HR Department. From candidate outreach to off-boarding. From work technology usage to human interaction. From messaging to written policies to the nebulousness of organizational culture. And a system, quite simply, is a collection of parts and subsystems that are highly integrated to further the achievement of an end goal. Within any system there are various inputs and numerous processes and there are also, as we know, forces (both internal and external) potentially bringing friction.

Our responsibility, as the architects or caregivers of any given component of a talent system, is to be cognizant of the fact that chaos exists; it’s neither random nor wholly arbitrary. Within any system, even when there appears to be confusion and unpredictability, there is an underlying order. There’s even a name for it within the field of strategic management: complexity theory involves the use of the study of complexity systems in order to examine uncertainty to find understanding about how organizations adapt – particularly during times of change driven by micro-events or a coaction of events.

And talent systems, even when seemingly straightforward and modeled on well-defined processes, are forever at the mercy of chaos. The most linear action is not only inter-connected, but is also at the continual mercy of the flapping of butterfly wings:

  • The solidly built employer brand and messaging to candidates can be disturbed and thrown off course during the course of the interview process once the candidate interacts with people (ineffective hiring managers), processes (so many steps… including assessments, multiple interviews and post-offer hoops-through-which-to-jump), and systems (the employment application that takes 45 minutes to complete including resume upload and the answering of essay questions)
  • The fun, lively and engaging onboarding, effectively facilitated by an effervescent HR staff member, becomes but a distant memory once the newly hired employee is working on their team and provided with contradictory information from their manager (“well yes you’ve been front-loaded with 3 weeks of PTO for the year but I won’t be able to approve any time off until you’re here for at least 6 months”)

The talent system…can collapse.

Predictable? Yes. If you’re paying attention these sorts of system disruptions are both foreseeable and changeable. Then it’s time to figure out WHY …. and focus on improvement.

Because the butterfly will always be flapping its wings.  

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My HR “Customer” Experience

employee experience

I recently started a new job (sort of; my company was acquired) and, for the first time in my working career, I am NOT a member of the HR staff.

I don’t have to worry about learning the employee benefit offerings inside-out. I’m not wondering when I’m going to have to conduct my first employee investigation. (note: at a previous gig I had to kick-off a Sexual Harassment investigation at 1 PM on Day One of my employment tenure. #GoodTimes). I’m not worried about expeditiously memorizing every policy in the Employee Handbook. (confession: I’ve been feeling so carefree that I didn’t even read the Employee Handbook, in its entirety, until several weeks after my start date!)

This atypical experience has been simultaneously rejuvenating and surreal.

I don’t have to, as a new hire, observe my HR team to discern how cultural norms, procedures, and historical precedents dictate the inner workings of people operations. I’m not privy to the decision-making that has informed “why” the company has XX number of holidays or “how” employees are socialized and acclimated to the organization.

I am, instead, merely a willing recipient of HR’s services. I’m a new vessel, fresh off the OnBoarding Assembly Line, into which the People & Culture team is pouring information and assistance. I dutifully open all their emails, follow their directions immediately (“it’s time to enroll in your benefits!”), and attend every informational session and meeting whether mandatory or not. I’m fully immersed (I love this stuff!) into the values and culture and community aspects;I was posting on a Yammer community by day 3.

I think, if I do say so myself, I’m a great HR customer.

And it’s really confirmed something I’ve long believed – every HR professional, preferably at an early stage of their career (unlike me), needs to join a company in a non-HR role. When I think about peers and friends who work in HR I realize that the vast majority have always worked in human resources. Lots of them came out of school, landed a gig in HR, and have never gotten off the treadmill.

I get it. It’s a profession. And we’ve battled – seemingly for decades – for HR to be acknowledged as a profession. We’ve grown our HR careers by switching back-and-forth from generalist to specialist roles or moving up the ladder/criss-crossing the lattice from Coordinator to HRBP to Director to VP. There are some (many?) who say “HR is my calling; I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” There are others who are content, comfortable and possess a soupcon of complacency (I get that too!) and don’t want to try something else.

But…

… how can we, the individuals in charge of designing and nurturing the environment for employees to be successful, truly understand the “employee experience” if we’ve never…well…EXPERIENCED “work” as an employee?

How many HR professionals have ever:

  • been subjected to their own HR-devised Attendance Point Policy?
  • had to navigate Benefit Enrollment without fully understanding the difference between co-pay and co-insurance?
  • held off on making plans as they’ve wondered if the company will close early on December 24th, like they have for the last decade, because HR refuses to memorialize it as an official “company holiday” (even though it sure seems to be one).
  • tried to figure out WHAT, exactly, “performance calibration” means and HOW in the world it seems to be the only explanation provided when annual performance increases are announced?
  • wondered how transfers and promotions happen for others yet they never seem to even get an interview (or a response) when applying for an internal move?

It’s the quintessential dictum isn’t it? “Put yourself in their shoes.”

Personally, I think I look quite styling in my new pair of pumps loafers flip flops.  

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There’s Nice. And Then There’s NICE.

service

Last week a video was posted of a customer’s drive thru experience at a Popeye’s here in Louisiana. It captures one of the most joyous service experiences ever; even without considering the customer also got to leave with some delicious chicken.

Ms. Cynthia (just “keepin it real over here!”) needs to be promoted to the customer service hall of fame.

But Ms. Cynthia’s exuberant spirit and warmth (I just want her to envelop me in a hug!), while registering at a 15 on a 10-point scale, is fairly representative of what I often experience in service interactions. Whether at the gas station, grocery store or a restaurant there’s a natural human element to the simplest transactions. At the corner gas station the patrons and store clerks always catch up – “how’s your daddy doing Mr. Jimmy?”. A quick trip to grab some snacks and adults beverages on game day often includes a discussion about plans – ”now you have fun today baby! Who dat!” A trip for an oil change will lead to a group discussion amongst the mechanics and customers in the waiting room about everyone’s favorite seasonings, preferred ingredients (artichokes always a plus IMO), and methodologies for a crawfish boil.

When we moved to Louisiana I was initially taken aback at how interactions seemed to be on a whole new level here. I was accustomed to “midwest nice” which was all about efficiency and (stern) politeness. Were people friendly in the midwest?” Yes. Was it customary to help others? Absolutely. Was it ingrained to apologize (“Whoops! Sorry!”) when one happened to bump into a fellow citizen in a crowd? You betcha. But the “niceness,” I decided, felt different here.

And I become more cognizant of it whenever I return home after a trip to the land of my birth.

I recently spent a week in Wisconsin and experienced surly staff at a restaurant when I went to pick up dinner. (After I had to practically climb over rude patrons sitting at the bar to even reach the server and get her attention). I found myself being the only person in the checkout line at the grocery store who said “hello” to the cashier who then, after not making eye contact, mumbled a reluctant “oh… hey” before glancing back down at the conveyor belt.

Do I have shitty customer service experiences close to home? Of course I do; I run into my share of sullen service workers. But, in general, I give them a modicum of grace and don’t question why they are cranky. At all.

But the Ms. Cynthia’s of the world? They do exist and we need to celebrate them

You already know.

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HR’s Biggest Problem? The People Hiring HR.

hiring HR

The worst thing (probably) about your company’s HR Leader is the person who hired your HR Leader.

In fact, I would love nothing more than to banish, forevermore, the CEOs, Business Owners, COOs and CFOs who recruit, interview and select their company’s HR leader.  OK …not all of them need to go; there are quite a few who understand the value of great HR. But, alas, there are far too many organizational leaders who cannot grasp (or refuse to grasp) the fact that a smart, competent and creative human resources leader can bring value to their organizations.

Rather they want an HR policy cop who will quietly handle compliance, write and enforce policies, and (probably) manage payroll. They want a person who will chat with the benefit broker and the staffing agency sales representative. They want someone who will have the difficult conversations with employees who cry or dress inappropriately or don’t show up to work or have body odor problems. 

When the need arises to hire a new HR Leader, the job description is written and/or updated. Undoubtedly cut and pasted from somewhere else, it evolves into a lengthy laundry list and, at the direction of the Big Boss, includes nonsense like “will be responsible for company culture.”  The job post cites a preference for PHR/SPHR or SHRM-CP/SCP certification – simply because the Big Boss saw that listed on another HR job post on Indeed. There are buzzwords galore (gleaned from an article the Big Boss read on Fast Company) and phrases like “cutting-edge strategic HR,” and “transformative work” and “culture of engagement” are sprinkled as liberally as salt on the rim of a margarita glass. And, depending upon industry and/or geography, there may even be a glamorous job title that incorporates the words “talent”, “culture” and/or “people.”

The job is posted.

As resumes roll in the Big Boss reviews them (without actually understanding what they’re reading) and schedules interviews – often moving candidates into the “yes” pile based primarily on previous titles. (“She was an HR Business Partner at Behemoth Corporation, Inc; what’s that? I need someone who has held a Manager or Director title only.”).

The actual interviews are chock-full of affirmation, to the eager and interested candidates, that HR is important and valued. The Big Boss states a fervent desire to employ an HR leader who is pro-active and business savvy. Inclusive and affirming culture? (check!). Sufficient budget? (check!). Access to technology, systems and tools? (check, check and check!).

The position is filled.

Now sometimes, especially in small or growing companies, the Big Boss moves Sally from Accounting into the position “because all the employees like her and she’s a people-person.” (The Big Boss figures that anyone can learn HR; how hard can it be?). Or they hire Steve from outside the organization because he’s got HR experience and they tell him they want him to design a best-in-class (!!) HR department.

But then Sally, who IS great at relationship-building with people and understands the business and existing workplace culture and rapidly learns and absorbs HR fundamentals/knowledge is stopped from practicing great HR…by the person who hired her.  They refuse to provide her with access to professional memberships or adequate learning resources. They wonder why she insists on enhancing the existing HR tech stack and feels the need to implement an ATS when e-mail and spreadsheets have worked perfectly fine for years.  They don’t understand why she can’t continue to manage the Accounting Clerk who runs payroll and handles A/P. They give her a “Manager” title while the other 5 department leaders have “Director” titles.

Or Steve, who HAS solid experience in human resources and comes into the organization with stellar ideas for running an innovative HR shop, is stopped from practicing great HR…by the person who hired him. All those promises and sexy buzzwords? Nothing but empty glitter. Poor Steve has found himself walking into an HR role that is lacking both a budget and decision-making ability. In fact the Big Boss believes that while Steve should handle the dirty-work the managers don’t want to do (those pesky performance and discipline discussions), his expertise and advice on actual/factual HR matters is neither sought nor heeded.

So see? The problem is not with Sally or Steve – it’s with the CEO, Business Owner, COO or CFO who doesn’t care about HR excellence. The Big Boss (oh hell…the whole leadership team) believes that HR’s purpose is to merely make sure no one gets sued, hurt or upset. They’re content to let HR handle benefit enrollment, choose company swag (t-shirts!) and plan the employee holiday party. 

Of course they’re wrong.

We know that great HR Leaders are advisors, talent managers, partners to managers/leaders, and executors of operational excellence. When unleashed to perform their best work, they’re champions for driving the change that leads to improvements across every facet of the business.

And if THIS Big Boss doesn’t believe that…no wonder Sally and Steve leave to find a Big Boss who does.

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Join the Club. Or Not.

club clubhouse

I’ve tried to like Clubhouse. I really have. I joined on January 1 of this year, dutifully invited other people and have popped in to assorted rooms on a variety of topics a few times each week.  

I don’t like it.

Apparently I’m in the minority (of the minority; more on that later). Clubhouse has 10 million weekly active users and is ranked #5 in the Apple App Store under the Social Networking category. In January the app was downloaded 2.3 million times and 30% of all downloads have happened since then.

Look; I love checking out new tech and new social networks although I have never been the sort to “force” myself to become an active user just because it’s the newest thing (reference my early-adopted and very very very inactive Snapchat and TikTok accounts). And Clubhouse, for all the buzz, just annoys me on a visceral level.  

  • Exclusivity.  Between the invite only aspect of the beta rollout and the fact it’s only available to iPhone/iOS users, it feels like yet another access tool that pits the haves vs. have-nots.
  • Data Security. Clubhouse collects users’ contact lists as the only way to send invites is to share your contacts. Furthermore, the transmission of data and discussions to both an unaffiliated Android app and, potentially, the Chinese government, raises some serious concerns.
  • Designed for “Influencers.” We’re in the age of the self-anointed celebrity; a world in which IG likes and viral tweets are, for far too many, their raison d’etre. Clubhouse, with an eye towards monetization and revenue, has built the app with this in mind.  (and if there’s anything worse than “thought leaders” it’s “influencers”). Even in this nascent stage I have found the posturing and self-promotion of far too many Clubhouse users to be absolutely vomit-inducing.
  • Trolls and Grifters have Arrived. Back in September, the conversation in a room devolved into anti-Semitic stereotyping. Ali Alexander, in hiding (and raising money!) after organizing #StopTheSteal that kicked off the Jan 6th insurrection at the capital, still has time to host Clubhouse sessions.

And to boot, even aside from those items listed above, I just really don’t get the appeal of the entire experience. Oh sure; there are similarities to podcasts but this feels different. Like everyone is trying too hard.

If I want to hang out on yet another conference call and listen to folks pontificate I can convene a meeting at work or join a SHRM webinar. If I want background noise while working I can fire up my Spotify or run some HGTV shows in the background. If I need to get in the mood a la Jeffrey Toobin I can certainly find a better way.

Am I still “in” the club? Yeah I am. I’m the wallflower at the 7th grade dance trying to figure out why-exactly-in-the-hell everyone is so amped up.

I don’t get it. And doubt I ever will.

*****

Oh. And if you want to try the NEXT next thing – you can get in on the beta of Space or wait to join @TwitterSpaces. which is moving fast.

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