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Liz Ryan Headshot

Putting The 'Human' Back In Human Resources

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I went through a time after I left the corporate world where I wouldn't say "I'm a human resources person" or even "I used to be an HR person." For one thing, I didn't want to get dumped into a very fixed, rivets-on-the-corners mental box for the new person I was meeting, like "Oh. Here's an HR person." For another thing, I had drunk enough of the corporate Kool-Aid by then that my thought process was, "It's not as though I'm working in an HR capacity now. I can't very well say 'I'm an HR person' unless I actually have an HR job and a business card with the words human resources on it, at that moment.'"

Ironically, a dozen years later I berate (lovingly) the job-seekers I know who say "Well, I was a CFO, but I'm not a CFO anymore. I'm job-hunting now" -- for their quickness in dropping a brand that they have every right to carry forth into their new adventure. They still have the years of experience they gained in their old jobs. They still have the stories, the talents, the instincts and know-how they accumulated over the years. It's strange how when we lose our jobs, we begin to believe that the company we used to work for has the ability, as they hand us a pink slip, to wipe away our credibility and professional credentials, too.

But in the conventional worldview on careers and job-hunting, that's exactly what happens. When you lose the job, you lose the brand "CFO" or "marketer" or "customer service agent." You're not working, so you aren't any of those things. (I guess that means you're nothing.) You lose your mojo, because you've begun to think without being aware of it, "This job is me. This is my calling card. My self-esteem comes from here."

When I was leaving U.S. Robotics a few days after the company was purchased some years ago, my friend and administrative partner-in-crime, Amy, and I walked down the hallway together, on my last day of work. Amy pushed an office chair on wheels, laden with company-logo swag, next to me while I carried a box full of memorabilia out to my car. Amy and I had had fun together. It was a wistful moment. We didn't speak for a second. Finally Amy said "I've got it! It just hit me, who I feel like. I feel like Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking.

I'm still an HR person, but I'm on the outside of it now and so people say "You don't understand what it's like, now." There wasn't any question, over the 20 years I led start-up and corporate HR groups, what the job of an HR chief was about. The job was to get the people on the field excited about the game, and keep them that way. The job was to figure out how to make sure that great people got hired and that they got what they needed once they came on board -- from information about how to do the job to feedback on what people were doing elsewhere in the company to proper tools and training and ethical and competent leaders. Like most assignments, running an HR shop is an easier thing to explain than to do, because the minute-to-minute issues and conversations and priorities can be subtle and interwoven with one another and laden with cultural and political and philosophical weight, apart from the straight-up business issues. But at least's it's simple to explain:

An HR person's job is to create a vibrant, human culture in a place where people work. That's the job. It's a right-brained job, no matter what anyone tells you. An HR job is a cultural job. The HR chief in any organization is the minister of culture, but in order to do that job, we have to believe that there is culture and that it matters. Policies and guidelines will not get us there. Forms and processes won't, either.

Bureaucratic policies and forms, in fact, are exactly the things that will drive away what we HR people need to be cultivating: energy and clarity of purpose and cohesion and what we used to call "morale." The job of an HR leader, and every HR person, is to make sure there's pixie dust circulating all over your workplace, and I don't use that Tinkerbell word in order to suggest there's anything soft and fuzzy about the stuff. An HR leader's job is to staff the pixie dust machine, because the pixie dust is what makes the organization worth working for and what gives it life and energy. You could call it mojo, strength, good feeling, belief in the cause and the team. It doesn't matter what you call it. People who need pixie dust in a workplace won't work in a place that doesn't have it, or for people who don't see it and value it. Of course, these are the people who will have the best ideas, push the hardest for a marketplace victory, and generally live and breathe your business objectives. They'll do it when you let them participate and value what they bring you, which is pretty darned easy when you drop the command-and-control nonsense.

An HR leader's job is to remove the fear that keeps us (not just officious supervisors, but CEOs and their teams, maybe most of us) from letting the workplace be the human-powered place it wants to be.

Continue here to Part Two