02/02/2012 03:53 pm ET | Updated Apr 03, 2012

A New Frame for Human Resources

I sat on a panel a few years ago at a women-in-business conference. I shared the dais with a set of very smart and accomplished leaders -- women at the top of their fields. One panelist, a division president, was asked "What is your biggest obstacle to doing your job?" She answered "My Human Resources department, without question. Those people are so slow and such an impediment." I listened, down at my end of the table, with a brittle fake smile pasted on my face. "What's your take, Liz?" asked the moderator. I said "My fellow panelist, like all leaders, has the HR staff she deserves."

What is an HR team if not a reflection of the CEOs vision for people and talent? You don't like your HR people, get rid of them and get new ones. Would you blame your sales department for slowing you down in your agenda? Scapegoating of HR is a famous, lame copout for leaders who haven't found their power.

That being said, I'm not here to sing arias about the amazingly supportive and transformational role that the vast majority of my HR brethren and sistren play in their organizations. It's just not happening. That is the vision, to be sure, but it's not the reality at most organizations I'm familiar with. Over and over and over again, right through 2011 and into 2012, I hear the same stories of worthy HR initiatives scuttled, HR functions de-staffed and scaled back, and senior leaders tuning out on issues of culture, talent and spark. "Hey, there's a recession on. No time for the frilly stuff!"

The business back-to-basics agenda never seems to include noticing or acting on dysfunctional leadership teams or toxic cultures. It's kind of weird. The albatross sits on the table cracking peanut shells all over the floor, and we sit in meetings talking about whether we should require one stopover on our employees' business trips to save air travel costs, or two.

HR leaders are asked to install Talent Acquisition programs and Talent Retention programs. They spec software and install systems and build flow charts and create project plans. But the core elements that would allow for a thoughtful examination of an employer brand or enable a more slippery recruiting process, or more nimble internal communications (elements like trust, openness, collaboration, creative spark and spontaneity) are not always in abundance. That can mean that despite an HR leader's best intentions, the process changes but the energy doesn't.

And when I talk to HR VPs about The Problem, here's what they say. "We are torn left and right. The fact that my job and my team's function is constantly in play is a major issue. HR is the white canvas leaders can splash their hopes, dreams, fears and unresolved anxieties on. We're expected to be all things to all people."

I can relate to that one hundred percent. For twenty years as an HR leader I juggled sometimes contradictory personas, and the tension between the roles of cheerleader, strategist, coach, disciplinarian, judge, advocate and pastor never abated. It wasn't even discussed -- we all know the frame for HR, right?

HR is the group that keeps the company out of court.

HR people are the ones who write all the policies and enforce them.

HR are the people who are supposed to listen to you when your boss acts like a jerk.

HR people take care of benefits issues, and sign you up for training courses and issue your ID.

The HR people run the annual review process and tell your manager how much of a raise you can get.

Every manager and employee in your organization likely has a slightly different view of what HR is supposed to do. How's an HR person supposed to plow through the wall of expectations? One minute you're handing someone a tissue as you discuss an emotional issue, and the next minute you're the prison warden holding the line on some policy violation -- or on the hook to deliver another ten percent cost reduction (without sacrificing service levels, needless to say).

The CEO's perspective is critical, of course, but here's where the white-canvas issues rears its head. One month, your CEO's top goal is leadership team development, and the next, it's all about diversity. There's no cohesion to the action, as long as HR folks languish in the Desert of Framelessness.

We need a new frame for HR. Here's my bid.

You've got a CFO, and we'll call him Bill. Bill's job is crystal clear. Bill oversees the the short- and long-term financial health of the company. That's it. There's a friendly-uncle piece to the job, and a vision-setting piece and a money-cop piece and forty other pieces. There are analysts to be coddled and pension fund biddies to be soothed. (I'm joking. Love everyone.) There are forty other aspects. We're talking about high-level skills, here. It's an integrated left-brain/right-brain job. If the CFO is all about the spreadsheet and can't see the bigger scope, the company's toast.

It's the same deal with your HR chief: he or she is responsible for the short- and long-term organizational health of the business. It's pretty darned simple: there are two pieces to the puzzle. One piece is the individuals in your shop, and the other is the overall group and its subsets. You balance those two priorities every day -- for instance, when you have to decide whether Decision A or Decision B in some minute-but-culturally-weighty policy tangle sets the better precedent.

When I was pretty much thrown into the job of HR manager in 1984, I was simultaneously exuberant and appalled at the number and gravity of the issues hitting my desk every day. I'm talking about domestic violence, drug use, AIDs in its first, awful stages, mental illness, theft and physical violence, in a workplace with 450 employees and a wet-behind-the-ears HR manager. I spent more time on the phone with my EAP advisors than with all the company executives combined. It was the Wild West, and every day I got lessons about one-on-one communication, teams, conflict, fear and trust. Those were the real lessons I learned as a fledgling HR person -- not the left-brain stuff, the constantly-shifting rules and practices. I noticed that people put a lot of stock in that stuff, but it changed every two minutes.

I picked up the HR laws and the forms and the regulatory bodies in six months or so. I learned that it's more important to know where to step back and call the experts than to try to memorize (or God forbid, act on) the employment laws myself.

But HR colleagues in other companies kept telling me, "It's a Systems job. HR leadership is a Systems issue." I'd bite my tongue. Systems? Yes, certainly. We used all kinds of systems, in the service of getting great people in the door. In the service of building teams of people who are excited to be together, and having those moments and hours and weeks of socio-intellectual spark, energy and trust that you get when people get energized. When you hit that point, not only do the business markers naturally fall into line but work takes on a different place in the team members' lives. I believed my job as HR manager was to get people way past the point where some business transaction defined how their work fit their lives. That's the magical stuff that I learned as a young HR person. The laws and forms and policy crap is just flotsam and jetsam. It doesn't move our companies forward. It actually holds them back.

If we can see the HR function through the frame "Those guys make sure the environment is healthy, so the best people come here and stay here" then we take HR out of the disciplinarian role, forever. We take them out of the Fake Fun Dispensary role, too, organizing field trips to Dave & Busters instead of ironing whatever kinks in the energy flow are keeping the team from chugging along. That's a mission.

I can't imagine doing anything else in an organization. HR stuff is the only stuff that interests me, but that's because it's marketing, it's selling, it's product development, it's process control -- it's a people-colored view of the overall organization that helps to shift the conversation about everything from business to art to life and community. How could that not be the most fun job around? How could any leader relegate HR to slashing travel costs and fighting unemployment claims?

What do people think companies run on, anyway? You can read the energy as soon as you walk in the door, in any retail store and any chrome-and-glass HQ. You can feel it. You can't hide that. We are animals. (If you've given birth, I don't need to tell you.) We don't need to spend money taking photos of our employees and plastering them on the walls with shiny-happy testimonials to the awesomeness of the big company they work for. You don't have to do that if the energy is good on its own. If retitling your HR leader the Minister of Culture is too new-agey for your taste, call your HR chief the VP of Energy and call it a day. It's fuel, that people energy that you get to tap when you treat people like valued collaborators and give them tough problems to chew on. It's renewable energy. But you knew that, already, because you've read this far.

Our organizations are human-powered, and the employers who figure that out or always knew it will win. Their HR people already spend their time reeling in talented people and celebrating the team they've got. They've figured it out: any power that comes from authority ("I can make you comply!") is fake, flimsy and pathetic. It's the opposite of power. Integrity, vision, honest communication and a worldview that values people over profits gives HR leaders true power in their organizations. Their CEOs find them, and vice versa.

Working in a talent-focused environment (where the culture celebrates people, not just on paper and in recruiting videos but every day, in the clinch) is the nirvana state for HR leaders, and I'm eternally grateful to have experienced that kind of environment. I didn't realize, at the time, how exceptional it was. Nowadays, I preach the Minister of Culture gospel. I don't believe the Kool-Aid that tells HR people their department won't be viewed as a Serious Business Function unless they man up and stop talking about wussy employees who don't want to work hard.

We all deserve a new frame for HR -- employees, leaders and HR people themselves. (And CFOs. Let's not forget Bill.) The old music is dissonant. We know the limits of left-brained, by-the-book management when living human beings are involved. We need a new theme for HR, and now's not a moment too soon.