Thursday, March 16, 2017

The key to HR Relevance: Getting Feedback "Fat Controller style"



If there is one thing not lost on my kids it's that they are never allowed to give me the Fat Controller compliment - at least not publicly. When Thomas the Tank did something praiseworthy, The Fat Controller (his name, not my description) could give the beaming young engine the ultimate compliment which was: "Thomas, you're a really useful engine". Of course I love to know my kids love me. Once, I got that I'm "emotionally available", and a few times that I inspired them to try something at least once. Yet call me pedantic but I don't want to be loved for what I give them, cook for them and certainly not for what I buy them. Occasionally it's great to hear that I'm a good cook and I think my eldest son genuinely does love me (partly) for my schnitzel. But at the risk of sounding like the Elephant Man ("I am not an animal. I am a human being!") - I want our relationship and what we all mean to each other to go beyond any culinary expertise. In other words, I am more than just my schnitzel.

When it comes to work though and for those of us in enabling roles, our seniority on an organisation chart, the salary we command, the resumé capital we may think we have because we've done a swanky course at a swanky institution (dare I say possibly somewhere like Harvard) counts for naught if those who look to us for real value view us as irrelevant, even obstructive or worst of all, a waste of money. 

Now I've seen some extraordinary arrogance in "the line". In some organisations, people are subconsciously categorised as the "hunter gatherers" or the "hangers on" and you guessed it, we're the hangers on. While I may also be an organisational psychologist, I identify strongly with my 'tribe' of HR/OD/change management community members. Indeed many of them are my clients, not just line executives. So this is a conversation about "we", not "you". For us to be seen as valuable, we have to give value and then delight our customers or strategic partners (you choose) by adding value they didn't even anticipate. 

Perhaps once too often line managers have shared with me their acute frustration with "our HR department". Similarly HR has often complained bitterly to me about failure of the line to consult with them early in the change journey and resents the request to don one's cape, pick up one's wand and magic away someone else's mess. You know as well as I the signs and symptoms of an organisation in which HR/OD is losing the battle for relevance. And sadly sometimes, we don't even realise we're at war. Conversely, I get to work with members of the HR/OD fraternity like the Executive - People this morning who are as good as they get. She inspired me to write this post. Of course it helps if you are aided and abetted by your CEO who knows what you can do, gives you space and money to do it and remembers to acknowledge, even celebrate the contribution when it's done but we've got to do something worth acknowledging if we want them to keep knocking on our door and giving us high impact, high value work to do.

So in no particular order these are some of the things I think really count and hopefully I haven't already offended my tribe such that you've all stopped reading: 

1. Make your priority supporting and executing the enabling of strategy by building organisational capability. To do that we need to know what knowledge, skills, aptitudes/attitudes are needed, how much exists and where and how to close the gap. Then we have to fight for the resources to do it. 

2. Develop understanding of the actual business, the products, the competitive context, the impending threats/challenges and the economics of what the business does. Read a book, hire a biz coach, take a CFO to lunch and study the annual reports. Spend time observing and taking notes at the Ops Centre, show wonder and interest in what they do for no reason other than they deserve to see you are interested but tactically it means you acquire an ability to talk the language critical to the foundations of trust and rapport. And don't do it once. Schedule regular "shopfloor" moments as a matter of discipline. Deciding that with your training and preferences, their thing is "so not your thing" or you could never hope to understand it, sounds feeble. Of course knowing when you need to shut up when they're talking to the control tower is essential! And even if you love chocolate, expect to feel a little seedy at the overwhelming smell at the factory after a while. 

3. Understand that what got you the job may be somewhat to very different from what enables you to keep it and flourish in it. We may not get a crack at some of the best HR/OD jobs unless we have amassed good resumé capital by doing some choice professional development but ultimately the line will respect us for what we know and do, more than what we have studied and what we have done elsewhere. I cringed this morning when a client told me his new Clinical Director has only been there five minutes and is busy telling people how everything in the business should be run and all the great successes she's had in the past. They'll put out a contract on her within weeks if she's not careful. And he'd told her on her first day how much change there had been and how fragile the staff were feeling!

4. Develop your consultancy/facilitation skills. There is pure gold in knowing how to ask questions that can discriminate the wheat from the chaff, the white noise distractors from the most salient issues. Are we deft in asking the best question at the right time in the right way? This and the ability to synthesise information and observations to help others make sense of what is going on in their patch and what might be done about it. These are the most powerful ways I have seen for us to add value. It is maladaptive to the extreme if we prematurely sell solutions or get sucked into dependent relationships in which clients expect us to come up with all the answers and/or blame us when things they did don't work. 

5. Manage expectations ruthlessly then over deliver. The same sorts of things external consultants do when they're touting for business - "Just saw this article in BRW and thought you may find it useful, Mary" - can work just as well and happens more easily inside the business as they're more likely to open your email! The worst criticisms I see of HR are the time it took for us to come back to clients desperate to progress something in the business on, say, some complaint or ER issue and felt like they were left for dead because HR is busy dealing with a fire that's already burning and not the smoke our client can see on the horizon. Clients bemoan the fact that they just started getting traction on a difficult people issue and then lost momentum because they couldn't get clarification on a key issue for weeks/months or got two pieces of conflicting advice from different HR personnel that unnerved them, served to paralyse them and made them lose trust and confidence. I know this is so obvious and basic, but do we shoot our proverbial selves in the foot? Is doing the opposite in an intentional way as natural as breathing? 

6. Build relationship credits everywhere you go as strategic influencers par excellence. Firstly because every person regardless of their role deserves to be treated well. But you may need to call in some favours when a mountain needs to be moved. The discretion to help you in an emergency when that parcel absolutely has to get there overnight (remember that ad?) helps you do the extraordinary for clients when they really need it. I sat on a recruitment panel last year and the client told me it would take up to 6 weeks before all the requisite paperwork/contracts would be finalised for the candidates. Would anyone other than internal candidates already there getting paid be likely to wait 6 weeks to know for sure the new job was squared away? 

7. Model the hunger for development we're supposed to care about. Do we have mentors and coaches? Do we engage in 5 hours a week dedicated learning like Bill Gates and Oprah? Do we integrate work and home life well and engage in health-promoting strategies or eat at our desks and curse the salad dressing (or caramel milkshake) that found its way into the keyboard? 

8. Prioritise the work that alleviates pain for the line. Nothing fills them with more dread that the courageous conversation they are being asked to have with the employee who has already lodged multiple grievances, has an open WorkCover claim, cannot have a conversation with their boss without a third party present, is a prodigious note-taker and may decide to tape the meeting discreetly with their mobile phone and an app. If you can provide ethical guidance around policies and procedures, coach to mitigate risk, build confidence, co-design conversational scripts and 'realplay' them and generally have the well-meaning boss's back, they will possibly love you more than members of their own family (appropriately, of course). This brings us full circle because all the bullets I have just listed are all ways to build organisational capability which I've suggested up front should be our ultimate goal. 

9. And finally, let's get our own house in order. No-one is perfect. We can all have bad days and certain styles and personalities may grate on us. But nothing breeds more cynicism than having outsiders see us, the "people people" engaging in infighting, destructive organisational politics, workplace bullying, refusal to collaborate and any behaviour that reflects low emotional intelligence. 

No-one wants to be the bank manager who doesn't want to admit it to anyone at a BBQ on weekends. Just as we know better than anyone that line managers are ultimately the custodians of culture, we, the HR/OD fraternity are responsible for our own reputations. A consistent, integrated and unified approach to be the best we can be, collaborating, adopting a growth mindset, getting important messages straight and talking up our own colleagues will only bring credit to all of us and ensure we get to make the difference that drew us to the profession in the first place. 


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Obamas and why they are the exception that must become the rule


As I contemplated the final weeks of the Obama White House and am now more than a little Trumped out, I can’t help but think about the recently departed power couple as quintessential outliers. Malcolm Gladwell certainly doesn’t need any further publicity from me for one of his books of the same title. And are the Obamas really that exceptional? Yep. It would appear so. They just secured a $78M book deal with Penguin Random House and no-one seems to know or care yet what it's going to be about.

The former First Lady was a graduate cum laude of Princeton, then Harvard Law school where according to David Remnick’s biography it dawned on her she could be “brilliant and black”; having probably suffered from imposter syndrome before that as someone who felt like a “visitor on campus”. Barack Obama, as is well documented, was a graduate of Columbia and Harvard Universities, a civil rights lawyer, quote an elegant writer and an academic before entering politics.

Then there’s more. He was tall, dark-haired and handsome with a baritone voice that would keep a voiceover man employed forever. So he’s got all that unconscious bias jazz going on. And she too, with those brains, that beautiful smile, those arms that she let us see (shock, horror!), that commitment in her own right to causes and campaigns like poverty awareness, healthy lifestyle and childhood obesity... Neither is your average individual and what an X factor when you put them together. What’s not to admire?

And then, being who they were and what they were, they found themselves sitting at the crossroads of history. A black president. Taking up residence in a “house built by slaves”. I was similarly moved when I watched Australia’s first female Prime Minister sworn in (and definitely no voice-over career likely for that voice). In this context, it’s not critical to me that Julia Gillard was voted in by Cabinet and not democratically elected by voters. Don’t even assume I necessarily support her party. It was still history and a step forward from anything I had seen in my 20 years consulting in workplace justice, equal opportunity and anti-discrimination even if some media commented incessantly on her wardrobe. Sigh, still a way to go on that old double standard.

But see here’s the rub. We can say that everyone can try out for the team and mean it. I could call a press conference today and declare my intention to represent Australia at the next Olympics. I can’t tell you in what event yet. I haven’t decided. And as far as I’m aware, there is no legal barrier to entry. (Trying to join the Army Reserve might be a different story).

Equity of access does not mean equity of outcomes. And the former is lip service to the latter.

It was inevitable I would bring this up: unconscious bias. Not because it’s the organisational psychologist’s version of click bait but because conscious and unconscious bias fuel behaviour. Examples? Direct and indirect discrimination respectively.

Direct discrimination is intentional. I take an attribute like race, or age or gender that the law says should be irrelevant and I apply it to deny you an opportunity and hold you back. I know I’m doing it even if I don’t share that fact with you. It’s not called “direct” because I tell you that’s what I’m doing. That’s just risky and idiotic. It’s direct because your attribute/my prejudice are the stimulus and my discrimination against you is my immoral unlawful and direct response. But in the case of indirect discrimination, I might, with all good intent, put a policy in place that appears to be kosher on the surface of it, but it has an exaggerated impact on a minority group.

I have often illustrated this legal precept with the example of the minimum height that used to apply in the police force. Yes, the old fashioned stereotype of the police member was that of a tall burly individual (ok, man) who might intimidate someone out of doing wrong. Clearly no one anticipated the irrelevance of a minimum height when it comes to dealing with the drug ice but that’s for another time. The possibly unintended consequence of a minimum height was that it largely kept women and people of typically smaller stature (e.g. people of Asian origin) out of the police force. Now, without breaching police confidentiality…. You can’t maintain cover as a member of the undercover Asian squad… if you’re not Asian! In other words, when it comes to the access vs. outcomes conversation, our intent is not relevant. In human rights, equal opportunity, even drink driving, we cannot afford to judge people on their intent. Does anyone who drinks then drives intend to maim or kill anyone? We are and should be, judged, on outcomes.

Last year, I facilitated some sessions in equal opportunity for the racing industry ahead of our spring racing carnival that attracts so much overseas attention. Yes, the Melbourne Cup is the “race that stops a nation”. But when will racial origin stop doing that you might ask?

We were ten minutes in when a participant stuck his hand up and without waiting to be acknowledged, hit me with: “If discrimination is illegal (I prefer “unlawful”) how come when we fill out forms, we’re asked if we are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders so we can be eligible for extra money? Why do they get more of a fair go than me, just coz I’m white?”

I would like a dollar for charity for every time I’ve been asked that (type of) question. Let’s unpack that prima facie and iconically Aussie phrase, “fair go”. To me a fair go might start with a life expectancy that equals that of white people in Australia and an infant mortality rate as low as that enjoyed by white Australians. Let’s get that job done, shall we?

The equivalent gender question might be:

“Why can some (unnamed) Women’s Health Clubs cater only to women? Isn’t that discrimination?” And yes it is, but it’s lawful and should be. And so should the right of a health club to cater to men only. It’s not my fault that a few years ago one opened in regional Victoria but went broke.

Another chestnut. “Why can’t I swim at my local pool on a Wednesday afternoon because only Moslem women can swim there?”

No sir, not Moslem women. Any women who won’t swim in a public pool for reasons of modesty if men are present. That may well include Moslem women, orthodox Jewish women, any women who are self-conscious about their jiggly bits and any other women who want to swim on a Wednesday afternoon. The man asking the question can swim at any (other) time or at another pool mid-week. For the woman who can’t do that by virtue of her religious beliefs, a reasonable “accommodation” is made. Like a ramp or accessible toilet for the disabled. And before you scream at me and say religion is not a disability… As reasonable an accommodation as a fold down change table in a McDonald’s bathroom for parents with infants. Big accommodations include spending millions redesigning tram stops so that mobility-impaired travellers can board and alight trams easily and with dignity. Small and relatively insignificant accommodations are baristas providing cardboard carry trays for bulk coffee orders. In civilised decent democracies, we respect. We accommodate. And we ask others to do the same.

So let’s dive back into the pool story (weak pun, I know). Just because those women can now go to the local public pool on a Wednesday doesn’t mean they will qualify for the Olympics. But it does mean that they can swim. Plenty of white, black and Latino Harvard graduates may not get to the White House, but if they’re good enough and it’s what they want, why shouldn’t anyone get to Harvard? Or the White House?

We see examples at law and in corporate life of such respect and accommodation for minorities. In some states in the U.S., suburban lawyers are assigned legal aid cases where there is a shortage of legal aid workers. In the U.S. and in Australia, we see graduate programs with quotas for minority groups. The Australian government pays employers incentives to hire people over 55 years of age. Some companies establish Women in Leadership forums and specifically mentor women in how to network because some will be a bit too busy on weekends with family responsibilities to hit the golf course with the other power brokers. Tangible, behavioural respect. Accommodation in action, not just belief. A path to inclusion.

Dare I say it, I’m talking about the opposite of racially segregated schools where in some cases in the U.S., educational outcomes are so low that the schools are unaccredited. If students don’t become literate, how can they break out of the cycle of disadvantage? Or earn a living as a knowledge worker, much less get into law, edit the Harvard Law Review or write a book in the way Obama could about his father? Oh, and be able to afford to take a year off law to write it?

Gladwell’s premise in “Outliers” is that those kids who are serendipitously born just on the cusp of cutoff to be eligible to play in a (younger) year level and end up being up to a year older than most of the others, have “the edge”. Then they get selected for higher level teams justifiably and ironically on merit, get better coaches, play on better pitches, train twice or more a week, enrol in off-season intensives and the gap between them and the others widens and widens until the others can’t compete anymore no matter how much on paper and in spirit we insist everyone can try out for the team.

In Australia, many of us rejoiced when our first indigenous woman was voted into parliament a few months ago. Our federal Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Alastair McEwin is deaf. I admit he may not even see that as a disability and he would not be the first one. But beyond those rarified examples of black presidents, indigenous members of parliament, deaf federal anti-discrimination commissioners and very pregnant female newsreaders, are the millions of people who metaphorically were just that few months younger, didn’t get good coaches, didn’t get to play on good pitches and never got a chance to play on the “A” team, much less represent Australia in the Olympics.

There are other power couples but I’d take the Obamas over Posh and Becks any day. We cannot discount the power of the subliminal message when anyone of minority group status (defined by power not numbers) succeeds in domains where they may not have before.

For me, the Obamas’ unspoken even subliminal contribution is to show a loving, solid, intact family to families in America in which children are being raised in homes without father figures. We know some of the figures relating to black fathers and their invisibility in parenting are patently false, some studies are poorly conceived and reported and they do nothing to acknowledge the fine job being done by many African American fathers in parenting their children, whether living with them or not. We know that with divorce spiraling in both our respective countries, the number of single parent households is increasing in every demographic. This is not a black issue. 

But when the unusual happens, when people break the mould as the Obamas have done by accomplishing what they have, we cannot discount the power of the symbol. Indeed, it can become a motivating force, individually and collectively. His presidential campaign slogan was “Yes we can” which morphs implicitly into another message now which is: “If I can, you can”. But that’s not yet how the world works.

If there was ever a job in the world that required the outlier, the exceptional, then surely President of the Free World is one of them. These are the merit-based attributes I want them to possess. Higher than average intelligence. I want moral courage because it’s true they have to be willing to risk lives to save others. I want leadership credentials and a personal ethos whether we agree with all their views or not. Speed reading ability I’m sure would be very handy. Good in front of a microphone, pretty important. Passion for social media? That can and should be delegated. Ability to make a good decision quickly and also to know when to slow down and think on them a while. I know for the sake of national security sometimes they have to lie. But I don’t want it to be their mental default.

But wait. There's more. I want them to be brave and I need them to cope. But brave doesn’t mean stupid. I am reassured if they have a pronounced startle reflex in the immediate wake of a sudden loud noise because if they don’t they’re most likely to be a psychopath. And I’ve read enough Tom Clancy novels and watched enough Jack Bauer 24 episodes to know about "the Football” and its nuclear codes so I want emotional intelligence; including high tolerance to frustration. And call me pedantic, I demand really really really good impulse control. Apparently we were so close to nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis that staff of Strategic Air Command in Nebraska were allowed a (final) phone call home (without being able to disclose why they were calling). It’s good when cool heads prevail, I’m thinking. Not everyone’s like that.

Pushing for outcomes over access is more than trying to cross the divide between the haves and the have nots. This is about trying to eliminate the gap between those who can and those who can’t; helping us reach our potential. Not to be defined by a lack of opportunity.

We can throw up any number of outliers, of “firsts”, of ground breakers, pioneers, mavericks and inspirational examples to demonstrate to ourselves we are making progress. We don’t have to settle for less. We must strive for more. 

If goodwill were enough, I’d let my mother do my open heart surgery. No offence Mum, but if it is ever required, I’d rather a surgeon selected on merit. But how would that surgeon ever be good enough when you love me so much? What were all those hundreds, no thousands of moments of truth? Those sliding door instances of opportunity, those unconsciously biased opportunities given and denied that enabled that surgeon to acquire their 10,000 hours? There’s Gladwell again! You’d think I was getting commission!