Everyone continually tells HR people that they need to become more strategic, that “HR needs to get a seat at the table”.

Author: TUBS (own work); vie Wikimedia Commons

I have been hearing this admonition for decades, and yet beyond the advice that HR needs to get closer to the business, there is little real understanding of what this should entail from either side of the discussion.

I have always believed that HR organisations have to make the difficult transition from just being a Business Partner to becoming a Business Player, a Player being someone who is part of building the strategy rather than someone who only helps to implement a strategy built by others. (see HR … Polite to Police to Partner to Player posted August 26, 2010).

I also strongly believe that it is impossible today to build any business strategy, which can actually be successfully implemented, without “people” being at its core. One of the most critical elements of any successful strategy is always whether the culture (sum of the behaviours) in the company is in line with the strategy. For example it makes no sense to build a strategy whose success is based on creating a large, strong, loyal partner ecosystem if the company culture is one that sees partners as “a necessary evil of vultures that live off our success” (actual quote from a CEO). You need to change the attitudes and behaviours first to ensure that they support rather than oppose the strategy. While most companies struggle with doing this alignment in a way that ensures that they have at least some chance of succeeding, and the obvious fact that this is an area where any HR organisation that is worth keeping can add significant value, it is very rare that HR is actually asked to be part of ensuring that the strategy is executable from a people perspective.

Author: Theunixgeek (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

So if this is so critically important today, why is it not happening ?

I think that the single core problem is that it is virtually impossible for most HR professionals to achieve this strategic status, despite it being at the heart of business success.

Firstly, very few business executives give their HR Organisation the chance to even try. Most CEOs in today’s tough business environment have a critical challenge to address, being “How do they cut the costs of running the company, so that they have enough money and resources available to go about changing the company to be able to meet the future ?”. HR, like IT, is seen mainly as just being part of “run the company” and so are being squeezed more and more as a part of cutting down on overhead costs. If HR cannot position itself as being an agent for change, it will never be accorded a position reserved for strategists who can add value by helping to “change the company”. It is a serious cleft stick for HR Organisations. At the same time as they are being told that they have to cut their costs and their manpower, they are being told that they have to become more strategic and more valuable to the business.

Secondly, the sad reality is that very few HR professionals would actually be able to fill the role of a strategist even if they should be given the chance to do so. Very few HR people that I have met over the last 40 years have any serious understanding of the underlying characteristics of the business that their company is involved in, and even less understanding of general business and market fundamentals. Even when attempts are made to try and educate HR people in their understanding of the business, it is rarely more than at a very superficial level.

Thirdly, even in their core areas of HR responsibilities, most HR professionals struggle with converting from theory to practice. The theories of key areas such as recruitment, engagement, succession planning and performance review and management are well understood and keenly discussed and debated by HR professionals. However, for example, very few recruitment strategies deliver future talent for the organisation, being based almost entirely on either selection from the best of what the recruitment net happens to land at that time, or the enticement of people from competitors who are currently in a similar role to the one needing filling. The first may bring in the best of what has been found, but not necessarily what is really needed, and the second “musical chairs” game may meet today’s need but is just playing-the-odds that it will be any benefit for the future. The same tends to be true with employee engagement, which is measured in employee satisfaction surveys and various employment metrics, but rarely translated into remedial actions that are agreed and are then actually implemented by line management. I have seen attempts to include employee engagement metrics in management bonuses with minimal success, and have even seen them being totally disregarded when a manager has made his financial goals despite leaving a mound of body bags in his wake.

Author: indo consultores; via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, very few HR professionals are tough enough to be able to change the situation. When faced with limited budget availability, it is a rare HR person who can win additional resources and funding for management development programmes for example, against the field organisations desire for more quota-bearing sales reps, or the engineering teams demand for more software developers for the next generation of products. This remains true despite the fact that the quality of management in any company is what drives nearly all elements of success, and that building the next generation of capable and skilled management for the organisation remains one of the key challenges for most companies today.

In the role of Global Head of HR in my last 3 years of a 40 year career mainly in business management, I came to understand the critical role that HR can and needs to play in a company’s success, but sadly I also came to the conclusion that it is also virtually impossible to actually achieve.



The most feared words in any field organisation, irrespective of industry, number of employees or revenues are “Hello, I’m from Head Office and I am here to help.”

I spent the first twelve years of my working life as a “Techie”, initially as a programmer, systems analyst and then as an I.T. Manager (the term ”Chief Information Officer” had not yet been coined in New Zealand in the early part of the 1970’s as we were still struggling just with data ), and my real titles were “Manager, Systems and Data Services” and also “Executive Officer EDP”.

Author: waelder (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

In 1977 I crossed over from the customer side of the desk to “the dark side” and joined Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) as a salesman and spent the next 25 years in the field in various hi-tech companies in sales and management roles.

In the last three years before my retirement in 2006 I took up my first real head office role as a Global Head of HR.

It was probably the worst career decision that I took in my entire working life despite the fact that I learned a lot, and benefitted even more from doing the job, but I also realised very quickly that someone who has spent most of their working life in the field should not end their career at Head Office.

The situation today for Global companies is that there are so many administrative functions that tend to be centralised at Head Office, with departments like Finance, Treasury, IT, Legal, Marketing, R&D, Engineering, Procurement, M&A to just name a few in the almost endless list, most of them supported these days by Shared Service Centres and Centres of Expertise.

Author: Peter Kaminski; via Wikimedia Commons

Even worse, they seem to be able to justify their perpetual and continued growth even in tough economic times, generally at the expense of the field. One company I worked for, whenever it went through any “downsizing” exercises, always tended to protect the Head Office personnel using European employment laws as the excuse, and focussed headcount cuts in the rest of the world. I could never really understand the rationale that it made good business sense to decrease the number of people who were close to the customers and the markets, and just keep growing the Headquarters staff.

I have found that as companies grow, the HQ staff tend to get further and further removed from the field, the customers and therefore from the reality of what is happening in their markets, and yet at the same time they are the ones who take unto themselves most of the control of the business direction and strategy. I have also found that no matter how many people already sit at the Corporate Headquarters, they can always justify their existence based solely on their own view of how much benefit they bring to the business and how busy they really are.

They may actually really be busy, but I have realised over the last 40 years that many of the roles are “make-work”, very few of them actually deliver much benefit to the business and they tend to not be able to differentiate between busy-ness and busi-ness, having become just another overhead cost for the field to carry.

I have even met some Headquarters people who can spend their entire day handling emails and then go home at the end of the day feeling satisfied that they have achieved much. When not handling emails, people at Head Office can also keep themselves incredibly busy with office politics and intrigues, in working out a myriad of ways to arrange the numbers in the reports that the field are asked to supply on a regular basis, or in constructing barriers to hinder the ability for the field people to do their jobs.

The first problem is that being physically located at the corporate headquarters means that they are close to the bosses, see them on a regular and frequent basis, and have too many opportunities to sell themselves and their importance to the powers that be. The second problem is that they breed like rabbits on a Viagra diet, as the only way that they can measure their importance against their peers, being not based on delivering either revenue, profit or customer satisfaction, is by how many people they have in their slice of the Headquarter hordes.

Author: user:SElefant (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

Apart from legal and statutory requirements, Headquarter functions only have one solitary, true role in life which is to support the field functions in their endeavours to sell to and effectively service and support their customers, both existing and new, and to make life as easy as possible for the field organisations to do so.

However, I have met many Head Office people who seemed to be under the impression that even if the field organisation never sold anything at all ever again, the Headquarters would still continue to exist.

Great companies limit their Headquarters to the minimum number of people that is humanly possible, and push functions out to the field and closer to their customers, rather than keeping on adding more people in ever growing campus real estate at the centre. They limit the number of people sitting like spiders at the centre of a web, at the top of complex matrix networks that do little more than just measure what is happening in various different cuts and slices.

Author: Chery (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

You can “count the beans” a hundred different ways, but ultimately the real test of business success is how many beans can you harvest every year and how many beans do you get to keep at the end of the year for the benefit of all your stakeholders.

As said by US aerospace businessman Norman Ralph Augustine “Two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. The other third is covered with auditors from headquarters.”


“The concept of two people living together for 25 years without a serious dispute suggests a lack of spirit only to be admired in sheep.”
A. P. Herbert (1890-1971) English novelist and playwright.

We have been hosting a wedding.

Our nephew and his fiancé decided that they wanted to have their wedding ceremony at our home in France, as well as going through the legal process in New Zealand, so we have had them and both sides of the family with us here for the last week.

As well as hosting the wedding here, I was asked to act as the wedding celebrant, which meant that I had to sit down and think about how I would handle the event and what advice I should give to the newlyweds, as is traditional in most religious wedding ceremonies.

Weddings that I have attended over the years have generally involved the minister, rabbi or priest waxing lyrical about the beauty and sanctity of marriage. Whilst I felt a bit humbled by the prospect of officiating at a wedding ceremony, I did feel that I probably had more experience with the institution of marriage than say a Catholic priest, as I had at least gone beyond the theoretical view.

I found it an interesting exercise to prepare my part of the ceremony, and realised that one of the problems is that after you have been married for quite some time, it is easy to forget how you actually felt at the time that you yourself got married. It is not that your love has diminished, as in marriages that survive the test of time, the love can actually grow as the friendship develops, but the feelings that got you to the altar in the first place tend to dim with the passing years.

George Bernard Shaw summed it up when he wrote “When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.”

Author: User:Daimler pics; via Wikimedia Commons

People still seem to go into marriage with the belief that this merging of two souls, whose love and passion makes Romeo and Juliet look like a couple of pen-pals, will result in a union of bliss, tranquillity and harmony that will be a showcase for mankind. This belief exists despite the fact that we had all, as single people, often seen married couples around us, including our own parents, fairly regularly move from amicable heated disagreements to outright warfare.

However, we all tend to believe that that we will be able to handle marriage differently.

As the current divorce rate in western countries is that roughly one couple gets divorced each year for every two that get married proves that most of us are wrong about being able to handle it differently, despite the fact that we obviously still have some faith in the whole institution of marriage.

I once heard marriage described as a crystal ball that gets another chip in it every time the love gets submerged by anger and hurt, until ultimately all that is left is a worthless lump of glass that has no value.

Author: Eva Kröcher; Free Art License; via Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, I believe that any strong relationship has less to do with the lack of anger and hurt than it has to do with how this gets handled, and what happens afterwards. Passionate people have passionate relationships that can create volatile and sometimes explosive disagreements. It is only in a marriage where one partner is submissive that these can be avoided, as it is unlikely that equals in a relationship will feel the same way and as strongly about every situation every time.

Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007) American author said it better than I ever could “No long-term marriage is made easily, and there have been times when I’ve been so angry or so hurt that I thought my love would never recover. And then, in the midst of near despair, something has happened beneath the surface. A bright little flashing fish of hope has flicked silver fins and the water is bright and suddenly I am returned to a state of love again — till next time. I’ve learned that there will always be a next time, and that I will submerge in darkness and misery, but that I won’t stay submerged. And each time something has been learned under the waters; something has been gained; and a new kind of love has grown. The best I can ask for is that this love, which has been built on countless failures, will continue to grow. I can say no more than that this is mystery, and gift, and that somehow or other, through grace, our failures can be redeemed and blessed.”

Taking all this into consideration, here is the core of what I had to say in the ceremony:

“Someone once said that the key to a successful marriage is to fall in love 1000s of times, all with the same person.

I feel that the most important thing about any marriage is to remember that despite the hardships, the disagreements, the volatility, the ups and downs and the challenges that come with any close relationship, you never forget this love that you feel for each other today.

Marriage is rarely about tranquillity, and great marriages are based less on calm and more on how you handle the tempests together.

Accept each other for what you are, as marriage is not about seeking perfection in each other, but in living in the comfort of one who loves you and one whom you love, because you add joy and meaning to each other’s lives. It is about being thrilled with the image you see of yourself reflected in each other’s eyes.”

I wish them both a life of pleasure, passion and pride in each other.

Author: Ildar Sagdejev; via Wikimedia Commons


The dictionary defines renewable energy as “any naturally occurring, theoretically inexhaustible source of energy, such as biomass, solar, wind, tidal, wave, and hydroelectric powerthat is not derived from fossil or nuclear fuel.”

I was in India last year running some management development programmes at SAP Labs in Bangalore. One group of young managers were incredibly enthusiastic and threw themselves into the programme with passion and high energy, and were thrilled that we were going to have a follow-up session the next morning. When I told them that the only way we could get through the agenda of the next day’s session would be to start at 6.00am, the drop in enthusiasm and energy in the room was immediately visible, as many of them would have to get up at 4.00am to be able to be in the office on time, which meant that they would only get about 4 hours sleep that night. The relief in the room was immediate and visible when I told them that I was just kidding and that we would actually be starting at 9.00am.

Author: Amol.Gaitonde (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

I pointed out to them that if instead of saying that they would have to get up at 4.00am to attend some management training, I had invited them to have breakfast at my hotel with me at 6.00am, and that my special guests would be Aishwarya Rai (Miss World 1994) or Shilpa Shetty (stunning Bollywood star), or even more importantly Sourav Ganguly, India’s most successful cricket captain ever, they would have reacted totally differently.

Author: Aishwarya_rai_1.jpg: lifi crystal; via Wikimedia Commons

Instead of the immediate drop in energy there would have actually been a palpable surge of energy and excitement, and that instead of worrying about only getting 4 hours sleep most of them would have spent the night sitting wide awake in my hotel lobby to make sure that they were at the breakfast on time.

Human energy is a wonderful, renewable and almost limitless resource.

We live in a world beset with energy issues, struggling with our dependence on fossil fuels and our nervousness about nuclear power, yet not moving quickly enough to replace these with sustainable energy sources, resulting in ever climbing energy costs. As a result most companies have implemented major programmes to cut their energy usage based on their commitment to being good citizens and their contribution to “save the planet”, and the simple truth that it makes really good business sense to save money on energy use. For example, I am aware that SAP has a programme to cut their energy costs by 50% by 2015. As a shareholder I heartily approve of this initiative.

Author: Kwerdenker (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

As a frequent traveller, I do however find it a source of amusement that hotels ask you to reuse your towels to help the environment, rather than the fact that they have worked out what it actually costs to wash a towel every day, and it makes seriously good business sense to save money wherever you can. The latter reasoning would actually convince me more to not drop my towels on the floor after use.

I find all these moves to save money on energy use highly laudable, and it’s one of the reasons that I serve on the boards of both Carbon Guerrilla and PE International, both being companies that are focussed on helping their customers to achieve this.

What I don’t understand is that so few companies have programmes to try at the same time to increase the energy outputs of their people, as the returns to the business could be even greater if management understood how to harness this limitless source of energy.

Whilst I do not question its importance I am not talking specifically just about passion in this instance, as I have seen people who can show awe inspiring passion for 2 hours every week while lounging on their sofa in front of their TV to watch their sports team play, but who show very little real energy in their lives.

I am also sure that there are many people who can show passion when talking about their employer, particularly when things are going well and the share price is strong, and that there are a lot of people who work more than the required weekly hours as defined by unions and/or government, but energy is more than about working long hours and having pride in one’s company.

The challenge is … How can a manager build the sort of energetic commitment that most people can exhibit which results in them having no problem getting up at 5.00am for something like a round of golf, but then struggle to get out of bed on a workday ?

How do we create, sustain and build up the same high level of excitement, fun, pleasure, commitmentand feeling of achievement at work that people can find with little effort outside of it ?

I have always believed that the only role of management is to create an environment where people can be unbelievably successful, in whichever way that individuals variably define “success”. However this means that we have to be able to create a work environment that people find as attractive as their leisure alternatives, which means they need to be able to get up on a wet Monday morning in the depths of winter and think “thank goodness the weekend is over and I can now spend 5 days at work”.

I have only 3 criteria that serve as a starting point for this state of nirvana.
– Only do a job you love
– Only work for a boss you can respect
– Only work for a company you can be proud of

The role of management is to ensure that people are able to achieve these, as only then can you have the springboard to develop the passion, engagement and commitment in your people which will then give you a chance to harness the unlimited energy source that exists in humans.


Making the decision that it is time to retire (rather than being pushed screaming out the door) is never an easy one, particularly as I have always believed that it is better to retire too early than to retire too late. However, with today’s economic pressures many sexagenarians are hanging on in full-time employment for as long as they can, hoping that no one notices the creeping memory loss and the growing frequency of visits to the bathroom.

So how do you recognise the signs that should strongly suggest to you that it is time to ride off into the sunset with the handshake and the gold watch ?

If you have encountered more than half of these then you have in all likelihood already stayed too long.

1. Your company does not renew your key-man insurance.

2. You have stopped bothering to update your Linkedin profile and experience.

3. You have started calculating the effort that would be needed to get down to a single digit golf handicap.

4. You have started to take the succession planning process more seriously than you ever have in the past.

5. You got excited when you realised that you could get your senior’s card and ride free on the busses, even if you have not actually been on a bus in over 30 years.

6. You have been trying to convince the IT Department that a “delete all” key is needed for the company email system.

7. A plaque with your name has been added to one of the bathroom stalls which has now also had a magazine rack installed.

8. Your optometrist has suggested that you should consider switching to bifocals.

Author: Anatom5; Source: Icon Archive; via Wikimedia Commons

9. You have begun thinking about whether you would look good with a beard and maybe even a pony-tail or ear stud.

10. You start to think that “Sansabelt” trousers sound really comfortable.

11. You realise that your spouse has stopped worrying about you flirting with young women.

12. People have started to stand up to offer you their seat even in the geriatrician’s rooms.

13. You switch from a car with some “Vroom” to a 4-WD or Volvo for the safety aspects, or even worse to a Clio to make parking easier.

14. You feel that you have so much to tell and to share that you should definitely start a blog.

15. You can’t understand why you accumulated so many different styles of cufflinks.

16. You have set up the perfect home office rather than the sub-standard one provided to you at your place of work.

Author: MarkAHershberger; via Wikimedia Commons

17. You have given away the majority of your ties for a charity auction.

18. You have started to attend more funerals than weddings.

19. When no-one asks you for proof of age when you claim a senior’s discount at an art gallery.

20. When you use up all your leave days due, which have accumulated over the last 40 years.

21. You have tried to convince your boss that you would be more productive if you worked at least one day from home.

22. When you are home, you start doing skype video calls dressed only from the waist up.

23. You have stopped your annual excursion to buy business suits and shirts.

24. You have started to complain about airline service, airport security and that the glamour has gone out of air travel, but the cabin crew all know you by name.

25. You have given up trimming your nose and ear hairs.

The reality is that when it comes to retirement we need look no further than at the world of dogs. Some dogs are bred to lie around the house all day quite content in their indolence, with only an occasional burst of activity to satisfy the needs of either their front or back ends. Some dogs are bred to be working dogs and cannot cope with the idea of doing nothing. Doing nothing frustrates them, makes them cranky and affects their mental state so that they become destructive in the home and start to soil themselves and their environment. It is really important that when you plan your retirement you have a really good understanding of where you fit.

Author: William01; via Wikimedia Commons