A Missive to Human Resources (HR)

I built a very successful marketing career based on a three-word mission statement that I picked up from Chris Greendale, back when I was a product marketer at Ingres.  Chris always said that marketing exists to make sales easier.

I loved those three words.  I embraced that simple concept.  I made it my reductionist mission statement.  I taught it to every marketer I knew.  I loved it because it just made so much sense — if you derived a startup from scratch you’d first hire a developer and then salesperson.  Only after you had a bunch of salespeople would you then hire marketing, with the purpose of making the salespeople more effective.

Across my career, many people — ironically often from sales — challenged my “make sales easier” mission statement.  “It’s too tactical,” I’d hear.  Or, it “completely overlooks the strategic value of marketing.”  Not so, I’d counter.

  • Does picking a corporate strategy where we can win key market segments help make sales easier?  You bet it does.
  • Does designing better products for the target customer make sales easier?  You bet it does.

Simply put, while “make sales easier” might at first blush sound tactical in nature, the clever marketer can make sales easier in both tactical (e.g., lead generation) and very strategic ways.

Once, when I was thinking about human resources (HR), I wondered if I could come up with a similarly effective, reductionist mission statement.  I landed upon HR exists to help managers manage.

Like “make sales easier,” “help managers manage” often generates instant push-back.

  • Shouldn’t HR be focused on employee experience?  Yes, but don’t all employees work for managers, and isn’t it true if all our managers are doing a better job at managing, won’t our employees then have a better experience?
  • Doesn’t HR have an important legal and compliance role?  Yes, but don’t our managers want us in compliance?  I suppose it’s a bit like a police force motto of “to protect and serve,” but frankly I’d rather have the police define themselves as protecting and serving the community than any likely alternative.
  • Shouldn’t HR be focused on organizational development or talent management?  Yes and yes.  And helping managers to develop their teams and/or recruit talented new members is all part of helping managers manage.

Finally, it begs the question, shouldn’t HR represent the employee point of view, the vox populi, to the company?  My answer is no.  If I want to know what the average employee thinks about the company, I can run a survey.  In fact, I’ll probably ask HR to run that survey.  But I do not view chatting, jawboning,  or gossiping with employees as a core HR function.  Why?

  • Because when HR people enter the gossip chain, they are no longer an observer of the story, they are now part of the story.  Their opinion is just one in a sea of opinions and to assume that simply by virtue of having HR printed on their business card, that they can somehow be impartial aggregators of truth is not realistic.
  • Because I do not want to pay people to stir the pot.  Every company has issues, problems and challenges.  If you allow HR to define themselves as employee advocates or the keeper of the public-voice flame, you are, in effect, asking them to go stir the pot.  I greatly prefer chartering HR with a “help managers manage” mission which often translates to “help managers get stuff done” and then, when people/conflict/cultural/managerial issues come up they are not doing so in a vacuum, but in the specific context of what’s blocking progress on key organizational goals.

As I told marketers, “the more time a salesperson has to spend with you, the less you should care about his/her opinion” because the best people want to be out selling, not chatting with marketing.  I’d argue the same logic holds true for employees in general with HR.  As CEO, I want people focused on getting stuff done.  I care enormously about “soft issues” when they impede the organization’s progress on key goals.  When framed, however, against one individual employee’s views about how a company theoretically should work, well, I care less.

One sometimes difficult concept to grasp for support staff is that help is defined in the mind of the recipient.  HR staff, particularly those who come with a legal/compliance bent, may think that rejecting a poorly done performance improvement plan (PIP) is helping the company.  From the manager’s perspective, that’s not help:  showing them an example of  good one would be.

Alternatively, telling someone 10 reasons why they can’t terminate someone in the short-term isn’t help.  Sitting down and helping them understand the correct process and helping to make a PIP would be.

The more you are a cop who says no, the less you’re helping.  The more you are asking managers what they are trying to accomplish, devil’s advocating their viewpoints, and then helping them accomplish what they want to do, the more you are helping.

In the end, help is a way of approaching things.  So, HR, stop thinking about what people can’t or shouldn’t do and starting thinking about

  • How can I help managers hire great employees?
  • How can I help managers understand how their employees are doing?
  • How can I help managers — often in a very applied way — execute the annual review process and decide of annual raises for their team?
  • How can I help managers manage-out employees who aren’t succeeding?
  • How can I help managers develop their talent so they can move up within the organization?
  • How can I help managers become better managers overall?  Better interviewers?  Better feedback givers?  Better priortizers?  Better communicators?
  • How can I help managers live and communicate the core values?

Remember what’s sometimes called The Great Lie:  “we’re from corporate, we’re hear to help.”  How can you change this so that “we’re from HR, we’re here to help” instead becomes The Great Truth?

13 responses to “A Missive to Human Resources (HR)

  1. This one brings me back to a wise man once telling me “Marketing exists to help sales sell.” Indeed HR exists to help managers manage (and acquire talent). And also to bring in 9,651 whole crabs when the normal company lunch just won’t do…

  2. Just catching up with your blog again.

    My rule for engineering is “make customers happy”. Or more precisely, “solve more problems than you make”. Of course, that could apply to nearly anyone, but engineering is primarily about solving problems, so the net must be positive. I have seen a lot of products that are net negative (Oracle, Verity, Autonomy, Windows).

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  7. Dave, it would be awesome if you’d share your three-word missions for all your functional areas!

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