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Why HR needs to be a “bit more pirate”

Because corporations are growing more powerful.

Because best in class, integrated, end to end, process driven, self-service, HR systems cannot conjure up or harness the true potential of people

Because we are more obsessed with control and standardisation than with real people

Because talent, in its many forms, is infinitely more interesting than HR process

Because if we do not make the case for allowing people to be their individual, unique best, HR becomes the tool the organisation uses to limit people.

And here’s the thing: HR has too often been captured by the corporation and lost touch with its unique role, to stand up for talent.

The result? We are producing sticky gloop that holds people, teams and leaders back.

We are squandering the chance to create disproportionate advantage and value that getting right the people part of a business offers.


At heart what the corporation wants and what talented people need are different.

We will make no progress until we understand this and immerse ourselves in navigating this tension intelligently.

So let’s consider the instincts of a corporation.

The corporation has always been an exercise in delivering short term financial results.

To deliver these results corporations have two approaches. Generate or squeeze.

Generate is epitomised by the dynamic entrepreneurial firm. The corporation builds new assets which grow value.

These are typically idea or product led, fast growing, newer, smaller and with the strong influence of a charismatic founder or founding team that sets the tone.

Squeeze is different. It exploits existing assets, be those natural resources, capital resources, human resources, brands, intellectual property, market power and, of late, peoples’ data. To do this it uses the tools of control, process, and replicability to allocate those resources. This is delivered through top down hierarchies.

These corporates are typically financially led, larger, older and managed by professional managers.

This model of resource exploitation is strongly embedded in the language of business and in the theories of micro economics.

A great example is that people become Human Resources.

Within this model, the instinct for order and control is understandable. It maintains value as corporations get to exploit their advantage over time rather than letting it evaporate into nothingness.

But unchecked this model of exploitation and control sucks the life spirit out of people. It stops talent from expressing its strengths. It stops talented people from being talent.

Now this tension between what the squeeze corporation wants and what talent needs doesn’t have to scare us. It’s not new. It’s not an aberration.

The tension is not a bug, it’s the territory to be navigated, not a zero sum game where there is only one winner, the corporate or the talent.

Talent can’t be treated like the manufacturing process, repeatable and reliable in its methods, where we can accurately measure input and outputs and drive out variance to increase success.

It is when we succumb to the fantasy that we can control and standardise talent, we take out the joy, unpredictability, and human element that we need.

Repeatable methods create uniform outputs only when the process has reliable parameters; and people are simply not reliable enough as a raw material.

The same conversation with two different people can have diametrically opposed outcomes

The same person in a different team can go from a zero to a hero

The same person can have an aspiration on Monday which has changed by Friday

Talent is a living thing, it is either decaying or it is growing. It is not stable.

That is why uniformity kills talent.

And this is a tragedy as we know the outsize value of talent to an organisation both instinctively and through studies. Talent is often a team, not a person, but the difference it makes is large.

This kind of talent, the stuff that gets people excited, that puts the “dent” in the world, is not created by a simple ‘if then’ process

Now some of HR can be broken into’ if this then that’ systems which are predictable and just work.

But what works for delivering HR housekeeping, does not translate into what works for exciting the apathetic, allowing people to get on with being their best and supporting people to deliver great work – a distinction that we ignore or misunderstand at our peril.

The answer

HR, and how they develop talent, must become undomesticated and allow disorder as well as order

Liberating talent means – bridging the contact gap and getting empathy back

Too many talent professionals have too little meaningful contact with real people in their real world – where they actually work.

For many talent professionals “Talent” is now a label – a theoretical or abstract concept. A score in a box, a name on a chart. An obtuse 20 page pdf profile.

The few moments of what passes for real world contact are reduced to putting people in artificial situations, getting them to be interviewed by anonymous experts they don’t know and subjecting them, to pseudo science tests, all to give the label.

When we only see the ‘label’ we dehumanise the whole thing, and reduce people to just another input into a process we call talent. And in so doing, we reduce HR to a process which fails at the most basic hurdle of being human.

But it isn’t real life.

It’s people ripped out of the contexts of their daily work, their teams, their relationships, their jobs. At best it provides us with a distorted version of reality.

No wonder psychobabble and junk science is passed off as insight, it offers false hope of certainty.

No wonder the obvious is passed off as revelation, it offers a quick hit of excitement.

And no wonder the obvious is missed, as that requires contact with the real world and empathy with the outcomes.

To understand your talent requires contact. It’s a contact sport

You can’t identify talent if you don’t know what they do

You can’t judge talent if you can’t define what good is, in their context

You can’t shape talent if you are not in contact with it

You can’t liberate talent if you don’t know where it is

You can’t develop talent if you don’t know what it wants

You can’t talk about potential if you don’t know “potential for what”

Liberating talent means abandoning dogma and other peoples’ best practice

Now of course rules of thumb are useful; but only when based on experience and careful observation in context.

The list of cognitive biases that impact our frames of reference are well known and numerous. We need to be careful to move beyond our opinion to something more robust.

Imported rules, dogma, convention and best practice from elsewhere are less useful. 9 box grids, annual performance reviews, performance reviews are dead…. All useful and right in the right context.

But in HR we are surrounded by them. And most of the rules and practices are there to make control easier, not to help talent grow.

They limit our ability to help talent succeed.

So whatever psychometric vendors and technology vendors might tell us, there is no one way in which talent works. Any vendor offering a one-size-fits-all methodology or diagnostic about talent is kidding themselves – and you – if they think they hold a monopoly on truth

Treating for profit vendors as institutions of un-biased enquiry is a dumb way to learn about the possibilities of talent.

Imposing uniformity through process or inaccurate measures will lead to distorted or random results, not uniformity.

Liberating talent means we need be ruthless in doing what it takes to allow our people to progress and use their talent.

This week needs to be better than last week, next month better than this and next year better again.

This means we need to be ruthless at calling out the obvious.

If the progression roles are blocked, something has to happen.

If career paths have changed, something has to happen.

If people can not get to work because the car park is full, something has to happen.

If managers are poor, IT systems don’t work, if jobs are no longer doable because there is an overload of goo taking up everyone’s’ time, something has to be done.

Liberating talent means we need to make difference and dissent safe in a world where Corporations will always reward conformity.

If developing talent is leaderships most important job, HR has to show up as leaders who are willing to have the tough conversations.

But the rewards of difference and dissent are far less certain

To allow our talent to thrive HR needs to be willing to be the voice of dissent that illuminates the tension between the control of the corporation and the needs of talent. To be more Pirate.

Some business won’t like it, so what. Over time they will decline. And they will be miserable place to work, particularly in HR.

Bureaucracies privilege power over truth.

As companies move out of their early growth stage, they allow themselves to be dominated by bureaucracy, arbitrary targets and administration over creativity and innovation. Strangling variance, diversity and talent – signing in effect, their own death warrant.

But it is a slow death.

Short term, the Corporation generates all the right metrics that investors like. Increased cashflow, increased EBITDA, top line growth. Good profits and bad profits are indistinguishable on a P&L.

This then gives it access to the capital resources to go buy the next business which has the innovation and creativity assets it needs to sustain itself.

But to be sure it is a death, as one day it tips and the degradation of supplier, customer, regulatory and staff goodwill makes it fail.

Liberating talent means being willing to tolerate disorder.

The solution quite obviously lies not in more or different mechanisms of control, but in resisting their stranglehold of uniformity on both minds and ways of working.

HR being willing to stand up and tell the truth of why people are different, is talent’s best hope. HR as the advocate of what talent needs in tension to the drive for uniformity and control that comes from the corporation.

Why HR? Because HR is uniquely positioned in the organisation to be the champion for talent in tension with the bureaucracy of the corporate.

Is this only a job for HR? No, ideally managers and leaders throughout the organisation are balancing this tension day to day. But structurally, HR has to play the role as everyone else has a direct stake in the short term.

The role of HR is to be the Pirate for talent in the knowledge economy era.

And if HR does not take this role what is its relevance?

It can be the dead hand of corporate control, the enforcer.

It can be irrelevant, implementing boring processes and systems that no one takes any notice of and no one believes add any value.

If an organisation is to stay remain vigorous, and adaptable, and a place that talent want to work and can deliver its best then HR needs to stand up and not become buried under the weight of best practice, benchmarks, process and inherited ‘wisdom’.

It’s going to need reclaim its empathy, cast certainty to one side, stop pretending we can professionalise what resists codification, stop taking itself so seriously and be willing to stand up to the corporate tendencies and create the disorder that talent needs.

And that sounds more fun too. ARR!!!

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