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Has HR Come to Mean Human Regulation?: Part Two of an Interview with Former FedEx Managing Director of HR, Bill Catlette

 This week I’ll continue with Part Two of my interview with Bill Catlette, co-author of ‘Rebooting Leadership.’

MFC: Bill, I am wondering about something else; you are a former HR manager/leader, I am merely an "old" HR practitioner, however, I think I have noticed a dramatic shift in the practices of HR departments over the past decade, maybe even a bit longer. To put it bluntly it seems to me that HR has gone from meaning Human Resources to meaning Human Regulation. I know this is not very subtle yet I have heard little positive about HR departments in many organizations I have worked with over the past 23 years. Again, is this just my view or have you noticed this trend as well?

BC: In fairness Mike, I think the road to “Human Regulation” or “Human Remains” as some put it, has a lot more to do with much larger tectonic shifts in our workspace and society in general, than with any failing on the part of HR professionals.

 

As a nation, we find ourselves extremely divided and in deep yogurt on so many fronts, yearning for some success, some fresh air. As former Medtronic chief, Bill George put it; the situation we find ourselves in was caused “not by subprime lending, but subprime leadership.” I am in furious agreement with Mr. George.

 To be sure, the terms of the deal in the workspace have morphed radically over the last decade, to a point where many (most?) managements no longer enjoy the benefit of the doubt of their workers. The terms, “employer” and “job” have lost nearly all relationship to what they meant just twenty years ago. So much so that in the case of the former, British management scholar, Charles Handy suggests that we should give up the name entirely, and refer to ourselves not as employers, but “organizers of work.” Chew on that for a minute or two.

 Things like worker engagement get pretty tricky when most of our workers are, as my son put it, “not married to their jobs, but just dating them.”

 Do HR professionals and pundits share some of the blame? Sure we do. Staring unemployment in the face, some have no doubt become weak-kneed, while others struggle with just what becoming “more strategic” really means. Hint: Earning and keeping a seat at the “big table” does not stem from losing either your head for business or your heart. While many by necessity spend a lot of their workday plastering lipstick on a pig, we mustn’t lose sight of real sunlight at the end of the tunnel, or the courage to quietly but clearly remind the CEO that it is still after all, a pig. If we can’t or won’t do those things, we should find something else to do for a living.

 And, I think that those of us who have been practicing the HR craft for more than 15 years should regularly ask ourselves if we’re truly willing to learn and adapt to new realities. If not, then the Millennial rant about the Boomers who just won’t get out of the way has some merit.

MFC: To be fair, I don’t want to paint the entire profession with the same brush. There are plenty of bright stars in the field; Kris Dunn immediately comes to mind. I follow his blog HR Capitalist and the one he founded and coordinates, Fistful of Talent on a regular basis. What I especially like about Kris is that a) he thinks like a business person, a quality I find missing in many HR professionals. and b) he is an active HR professional, not just a commentator like myself. But why so few Kris Dunn’s, or is this again just data from my limited perspective?

BC: I don’t know if it stems from the cable “news” model where only the negative or outrageous stuff gets covered or what, but too many of the good stories get buried. I would trade just one story about an HR manager who is keeping his/her CEO from looking like a complete bozo on Undercover Boss for the next 1,000 pieces on Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan.

There are a lot of good CEO’s and good leaders, and good HR professionals out there who get neither the attention nor credit they deserve. People like Brian Ennis (ETEX),Christopher Smith (H.J. Baker), Niki Leondakis (Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants), Jim Goodnight (SAS),Dan Cathy (Chick-fil-A), CSM Michele Jones (U.S. Army Reserves, ret.) and on the HR front, Steve Browne (LaRosa’s),Tim Kern (Pfizer), and Susan Merfeld (Pebble Beach Company). There is nothing, repeat, nothing I enjoy more than working with folks like this, and focusing whatever spotlight we might have on them and other deserving leaders.

I try to live by the motto, “Feed the Opportunities… Starve the Problems.” If all of us, me included, could do a little better job of that, our world might be a better place.

MFC: There are two things I do not understand about this, first, CEO’s who allow their HR leadership to not think like business people, you know, risk/reward not just risk avoidance. Second, HR professionals seem to have at best limited interest in what I think may be one of the highest leverage vantage points in any business. HR is involved in everything. They see the smoke before the fire becomes visible. I do not understand why they often seem reluctant to "name" what they are seeing and initiate or at least encourage the difficult conversations to take place. You have worked with many "C" level executives. In your experience what is the prevailing view of the value added by HR from the line executive’s point of view?

BC: Sorry to sound like an attorney (I’m not), but the answer is, it depends… on the CEO or other C-level exec. Some “get it” and some don’t. Many have never had the pleasure of working with a real HR pro who is a business partner in every sense of the word, so it is a hard concept for them to appreciate. In fairness, it is incumbent on us to show them, not the other way around.

 MFC: Bill, if it sounds like I am grinding an ax here on the heads of HR departments I am. I don’t mean for you to give a boost to my bandwagon but this is a big deal for me. Going back 39 years I received a Masters in Labor and Industrial Relations from Michigan State. I worked in the profession for nearly 10 years before moving to OD, I worked on the original ERISA conversions in the 70’s and the whole bit. We always worked like everyone in the organization was counting on us to get things right, not just management. We felt, acted and thought like we needed to represent everyone’s point of view to management, like it was a sacred trust. I am not seeing a lot of that these days so for me I ask these questions from the perspective of someone whose heart is broken by the unfulfilled possibility that HR represents. Have you ever given any thought to writing a book directed strictly at engaging HR professionals in your vision for what an HR function could provide if it were truly focused on engagement?

BC: Stay tuned. We’re not done.

MFC: Thanks Bill, as always the pleasure has been mine and the learning priceless.

 

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