Friday, 1 April 2011

From HR Toddler to Here and Now IV

Following post comes from Christine Livingston, HR professional, coach and writer with seriously strong expertise in people development. Christine is supporting professionals on their way to realize their potential, challenging and inspiring them to achieve a different kind of work relationship. In Christine’s own words:

“I'm on a mission to help you create the kind of relationship with work that's life-giving and meaningful; rather than soul destroying and meaningless”
You can find out more about Christine and her contribution to HR world by looking at her website

Christine can be also followed on twitter @Coblyn  

I am handing pen over to Christine now:

My excitement for my first grown up HR Manager role faded as I got to know my Business Partner.
There I was, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to prove to the world what a difference good HR could make. There he was – let’s call him Bob - all results and bottom-line driven, and not giving a toss about what I had to offer.

These were different times to now. The economy was mushrooming and the company I was working for along with it. We were recruiting like there was no tomorrow. And to Bob, HR meant one thing: bums on seats.

Which was too bad because I could see other things we ought to be paying as much attention to: low morale, high absence and turnover figures, to name just three.

He knew there was pressure in his system, he told me, but it was all caused by vacancies. And if I could just forget the fluff and hire people, all would be well.

This was so not what I’d expected of a generalist HR role.

I so wanted to go to my HR Director and tell her that she’d oversold me the job. On the other hand I was buggered if I was going to let Bob get the better of me.

So, I hung in and hatched a plan.

Delivering “bums on seats”

I don’t know where it came from, but I had the idea that instead of fighting him, I’d more than meet him. If Bob wanted recruitment, recruitment would be what he’d have. The kind that would knock his socks off.

So, I asked to meet with him, to go through in detail what he needed. I then asked for his feedback on how he found HR’s support for his recruitment efforts.

 “It could be faster,” he said. “You guys take too long.

“Also, I get complaints from my people about interviewing people who are obviously unsuitable. That’s a waste of time. You could work harder to make sure unsuitable folks rarely reach us.”

He thought for a moment about what else to say. And then smiled as the ££ signs lit up in his eyes.

“And, of course, it could all cost me less.”

“How much less?” I asked. And he gave me a number. I thought that his ambition would cut the corner on quality and said so. But I committed to making sure the whole thing began to run more cost-effectively.

Getting smarter

Over the next few months, I coached my team on their interviewing skills and we got smarter about some of the tactics we were using in putting candidates forward to managers.

We also got more organised about which agencies we were using for what, struck preferred supplier deals, and got our advertising agency to negotiate harder with newspapers and magazines on the costs for advertising space.

And we got more joined up about how we were communicating our efforts back to the business. Even if sometimes they were reaping no reward. Over the course of about six months, we’d made big inroads into hiring better quality people, more quickly, and for less.

These things alone began to improve the quality of my connection with Bob.

Building trust

In tandem, I’d noticed too, early on that he liked data. Give him a spreadsheet, a sales forecast, or any form of analysis and he’d engage. Talk to him emotionally, and he was gone. So, I started to get very structured about how I gave him any updates.

In particular I had my team create the HR equivalent of the monthly report he had all his business managers do. In mine I put stuff like headcount, approved vacancies, new starters, leavers, recruitment costs, percentage turnover, and exit interview analysis. It may be that all this stuff is par for the course in your management team now, but it certainly wasn’t then.

I began to get invites to his management meetings. At first it was just to update on recruitment, but I made it my job to learn offline as much about Bob’s business as I could, so that I could take part in the general business discussions and not just wait till invited to say something about the current state of vacancies.

It was only when we’d met Bob’s recruitment needs and more, and he was ready to concede that things in his area were still feeling pressurised, that he began to invite a wider conversation. That’s when the monthly reporting, together with analysis my team had been doing from exit interviews, and all the informal feedback I and they had been picking up from the front line started to come into its own.
Leveraging trust

Bob gradually began to listen to me more about other things. I persuaded him, for example, to agree to pilot some development workshops with his managers and team leaders. In practice these were informal group coaching sessions in an off-site meeting room. But the results were good. Many of these people had been promoted long before they were ready, in the heat of a business boom. They lapped up what we had to offer them, saw their own morale boosted, and ploughed this back into their teams. The pilot got great feedback, and Bob was happy to commit a small budget to a wider roll out.

One of our biggest HR issues was reward and the final coup was persuading Bob to make a strategic investment in his payroll. I can still remember the day I sat with him and his senior people as we went through each person in his area with a fine tooth comb, deciding who would get what, and what message each person would be told as they were advised of their new salary.

Delivering change

In the end it took 18 months, but working together, we delivered some great results. Turnover came down from mid 20 percents to 5 percent per year. People were happier and less stressed. The business’s results were outstanding.

But I knew I’d really, really cracked it with him when he invited me to speak to all his managers at one of their sales conferences about strategic HR, and on introducing me said that he considered his area lucky indeed with its HR support.

Who was I really trying to convince?

I’d always thought that the villain in this story was Bob.

But writing this, at the same time as writing Hero Or Failure: You Decide on my own blog, has made me wonder who I was ever really trying to convince – him or me.

See, I’d been able to play around a bit in my more junior HR roles, but in my first position of significant responsibility, I was keen to prove that I was potent. To myself, as much as to anyone else.

And, there are some lessons I learned from the whole thing that have stayed with me till today.

  • First, meet a client where he or she is. Then show that you are value added by exceeding their expectation of you.
  • Second, talk your client’s language. Bob got numbers but turned off to zeal. Sometimes you have to channel your message in ways that allow it to be heard.
  • Third, be patient and wait.

I guess in summary that what I did was allow myself to learn from Bob.

And that last point is, for me, vital in any kind of work that involves working with people. We can think we’re very smart and know the answers. And, of course, we will always have something valuable to add to the equation.

But sometimes we need to get out of our own way, and listen to the person or people we’re working to allow them to teach us how to do that.

Pay enough attention, and they’ll show us the way to success that enables us all to win.


Christine Livingston said...

Thanks for having me write for your blog, Peter. You said it might be therapeutic, and it did indeed give me cause to reflect!

Jen Smith said...

This was a very interesting read Christine. I haven't got a HR background myself but the moral of the story was brilliant. Good on you for being able to meet Bob where he was and transform your working relationship and results. Inspiring!

Kay Phelps said...

Excellent story telling - villains, heroes and even a moral. Well done, Christine - and to your great host, Peter.

Christine Livingston said...

@Jen Thanks for this. It was a tough one, for sure, but it's amazing how challenges are often the biggest prompts for learning,isn't it?

@Kay Glad you enjoyed it, Kay! I think Peter's series idea is inspired!

Archan Mehta said...


This is a fab post. You are a great story-teller. I also appreciate your photo: you have a photogenic personality. Simple and natural, your photo plays to your strengths.

Yes, playing the blame game helps nobody. Instead, you decided to look at the problem from his angle. You became other-oriented.

That's how others will also develop empathy for your point of view. The self-centred approach can create a reaction rather than a response.

Instead, you were proactive and learning-oriented. You won the trust of people in the company that way. They started in believing in your ideas. And you found workable solutions.


Christine Livingston said...

@Archan Thanks for coming across to Peter's site and reading. Lovely to see you here!

The "youngster" in me used to take stuff head on. As I've begun to get older (watch it!) I've been drawn to more Eastern philosophies. I particularly like some of the Tao Te Ching's teachings - that sometimes the best way to get ahead is to fall behind. I didn't really realise at the time I was working with Bob that this is what I was doing. But it's pretty powerful.

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