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What long experience teaches us about HR

HR is a field where long experience can make a big difference. One reason for this is that the topic is nuanced, and humans are complex. Another reason is that it often takes many years for the effects of an initiative to be revealed; what looks good in year one may end up looking like a mistake a few years down the line. Finally, the world of consultants and HR technology is oriented towards selling products, and like any sales professional they will tend to over-hype the value of their products.

Let me share a few lessons I have picked up.


What is misleading in HR

There are two common phenomena that mislead young HR professionals: the lure of new ideas and the temptation of magic answers.

There is very little new in HR. If you are excited by an idea because it is presented as being new, then you are likely on the wrong path. For example, the idea of more ‘democratic’ management might seem like a great new idea but it’s just a rehashing of the concept of ‘participative’ management which was a big idea in the middle of the last century. If you are interested in that leadership approach you ought to investigate what has happened with the idea in the last 70 or 80 years, and if it is a good idea, what has prevented it from being universally adopted. If you don’t understand the barriers that have stood in the way of participative management in the past, you will slam into those same barriers.

Another misleading notion is that some magic answers will solve our HR problems. Almost everything we do in HR involves nuance and difficult trade-offs. Magic answers and silver bullets make good stories so that’s what we hear from the press. A seasoned HR professional knows that it’s rare for these to deliver what is promised.

It’s disappointing that the most exciting and well-publicized ideas in HR usually lead to dead ends, but it’s a lesson that needs to be learned.

What works

It’s possible to become cynical about HR initiatives however there are things that long experience has shown to work. For example, getting to deeply know the people and processes in an organization pays off. An initiative that introduces talent reviews is likely to be effective if the members of the talent review committees are well-acquainted with the individuals they are evaluating. That knowledge matters more than the structure of the review process.

We also know the importance of involving stakeholders, running pilots, and doing testing. In other words, favouring slow, careful, and steady progress instead of racing ahead will likely lead to lasting success.

We know good leaders make a difference, so HR’s investment in selecting and developing leaders will pay off. That payoff may take years to show up, so patience is essential.

How to learn HR

Many of the useful insights on good HR management come down to simple tips such as “seek to understand before seeking to be understood” and in change management be ready for the question “What’s in it for me”. You can learn a lot from reading; however, you get the best insights from talking to seasoned people and this includes front-line employees and other managers, not just those in HR. The seasoned people will share the full story, what really happened, what’s gone wrong, what’s disheartening, and what tips have worked for them.

How to think about HR

Henry Mintzberg says management is a craft. If we think of an HR pro as being like a skilled carpenter, then that might be a better mental model than thinking of them as a clever engineer.

And it may sound strange to say but the best HR pros don’t have an HR mindset. They don’t come into a situation thinking in terms of the usual HR priorities. Instead, they try to understand what’s going on and address the business needs.

Becoming a master HR pro is like becoming a master craftsman. It takes years of diligent effort and careful observation. You can become a master, but there are no shortcuts.


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