Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Do You Get It?

The rant began before the second glass of wine was served. I recently was dining with two marketing executives when the pair started venting their frustrations about how HR was missing the point. One person paused midway and said, "Now Kevin, understand that we like you and you 'get it;' our issues are with those HR types that don't."

I think that was a compliment, but I didn't feel great about the tone of the discussion. I've observed business executives dividing the HR community into two classifications: those who "get it" and those who miss the point. Those who get it find themselves in the highly sought-after business partnership. Those labeled otherwise find themselves on the outside looking in.

Getting it is necessary to be a strong HR contributor. It means a leader has a firm grasp on the business, appreciates the line leader's agenda as primary and views HR work as secondary.

Three fundamental skills of HR leaders who get it:

a) They put business first.
I try to stay grounded in my role to contribute to the business first and serve my HR-learning role second. "Win, have fun and make a buck" was the slogan of one of my GE mentors years ago. His quote still resonates with me as a reminder that my job is to help the team win customers, not produce shiny new HR initiatives for their own sake. I've always been curious about business as much as the development profession. I am a constant student of investor reports, internal financial reports and business plans. Moreover, I try to start every conversation with line leaders by discussing their business: what's new, how's the new product working and how do they see the numbers going this quarter? Business first, then we move on to the HR agenda.

b) They work the map.
In my early days at General Mills, I did not have a feel for the business or how to navigate the organization. These were "new guy" challenges to overcome if I was going to have an impact in the organization. I read all the business material I could find and bought a sea of coffee while learning from every available finance and marketing manager I could befriend. I also studied those who were successful creating change in the organization. They seemed to possess an unofficial and invisible organization chart to guide their actions. In addition to learning the map, these high influencers introduced me to the concept of executive presence. When the path to organizational change placed them in front of senior executives, they had a crisp, confident and relaxed style. As I grew in the job, I found it easier to at least fake being confident and relaxed. The "crisp" part took some time as I had to temper my enthusiasm to explain everything I knew about a topic when given the chance.

c) They exercise balcony judgment.
The HR role is partly that of a trusted adviser. One of my favorite learning stories is about the new apprentice asking the old mentor how to acquire good judgment. "From experience!" said the mentor. When the apprentice asked how to acquire experience, the mentor wisely said, "From poor judgment!" Using poor judgment to create learning experiences is a recipe for career derailment rather than success, but the scar tissue of hard-fought battles is part of the professional journey.

Learn from others' battle experiences. Seek out top performers and wise counselors to share what they've learned over time. Accelerate your judgment capabilities and solidify an impressive support network at the same time. Finally, gain perspective by reflecting on what's going on and what can be learned. A friend of mine calls it "getting to the balcony" to oversee the situation, rising above the noise and distractions of the moment.

Like it or not, many leaders will divide their perception of HR into two camps: "gets it" or "doesn't get it." The former is a much more rewarding and fun place to be, but it needs to be earned. Make investments in your business acumen, organization influence and judgment. At the very least, it makes for better dinner conversation.

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