HR … THE PESTO EFFECT
July 22, 2010 9 Comments
A number of people have asked me to write of my experiences running a company internal HR department after 40 years in business roles. When I was first asked whether I would do this, rather than retiring, I felt that it was a bit like asking Attila the Hun to look after the Vestal Virgins. I have to admit that it was probably the hardest job that I ever had, the two years being both challenging and frustrating, and it changed and molded many of the views that I have about people and about management.
I have therefore decided to do a series of regular pieces on HR … this is the first one.
I’ve never had a lot of time for “camp followers”… people who seem to flit through a seemingly infinite list of momentary passions. For the manically fit it can move from tai-chi to yoga to step aerobics to spinning to whatever is the latest craze to come out of body obsessed California. It’s not the changes themselves that I object to, as I understand that it is important to not get bored with the latest exercise regime as one is then more likely to stick with it. What I do object to is the religious fervor with which every new “answer to life” is greeted, the passion that the adherents build, and that they then feel the need to convince everyone else around them that this is the answer to all things wonderful in life … at least for this week.
It’s not true just for the exercise nuts. I’ve seen it with friends who went through EST, gestalt therapy, past life regression, polarity and on and on towards some Nirvana like state just over the next emotional mountain.
I have also seen it with people in HR departments. In my 2 years as Global Head of HR at SAP I often wondered whether there was some sort of global consciousness that swept across the HR world with the speed of a pandemic, as there always seemed to be the latest passion that was sweeping through the HR Community as the answer to the people related ills in organisations.
I decided to call this the “Pesto Effect”.
Ten years ago no-one had heard of pesto, and then suddenly it was everywhere. You could go to any restaurant anywhere in the world and the odds were that pesto would be somewhere on the menu.
I even saw a hot dog seller in New York who had a sign saying “Mustard, Ketchup, Pesto”.
One of the bibles of the global HR community is the “Conference Board Report”. It publishes the latest information on what are the priorities that are being addressed by HR departments around the world supposedly gleaned from their vast legion of subscribers. During my tenure it seemed to follow a sequence along the lines of “Shared Services”, then “Succession Planning”, then “Engagement”, then “Talent Management”, with a new area of priority seeming to come to the top every year, this being considered the priority HR problem that needed immediate addressing.
I have often wondered, along the lines of the chicken and egg question, about what came first.
Did the Conference Board Report canvas all their subscribers and decide that this was the “priority de jour”, or did they decide that this would be the focus of their own research for a particular year, and let the Pesto effect sweep this around the world turning it into reality ?
It does seem surprising to me that there should be this common people need in most companies at about the same time. I would have expected that each company would have its own distinct issues based on its maturity, culture, management skills, market position and a 100 other pressures that should drive an HR organisation to focus on helping management solve issues that are specific to the business needs at the time, as a way of HR adding measurable value to the Company.
Until HR professionals start to understand that there are no such things as “HR problems”, only business problems that HR needs to help management to resolve, they will continue to be relegated to non strategic, non priority positions in their companies.
I find this disappointing as I believe that whilst “Our people are our greatest asset”, or similar worded clichés, appear in every corporate mission and vision statement, it is generally untrue, and I still believe that people are the only true, sustainable competitive advantage that a company can build.
Products and services can give short term market advantage, but can be copied or bettered in an ever shortening timeline. Having people in an organisation that are committed, engaged and passionate about their company is the true wealth in a company, and HR organizations have a pivotal role to play in this being achieved.