HR Rock Star-Franny O!

Much like the music industry, rock stars are identifiable in different ways. Some have a distinct sound, while others have a certain look. Some (a select few) have a certain charisma. They usually go by a name (first, last, or nick-) that, when mentioned, people say something like, “I know them-they’re awesome.”

So today I have the pleasure of posting my interview with Franny O., who’s well known in the Human Resources field. She’s truly awesome-so let’s get to know her and learn how to be a HR Rock Star.

Let’s start with the basics-tell the readers who you are and what you do, please.

I help privately owned businesses in the $100 million to $750 million range get their HR function off the ground, and then I help them reorganize their other general administrative systems, roles, and processes to better align with where the business owners are trying to go. Generally the companies I work with have reached a plateau or are in a transition that will require something a little different than what got them that far already. I like to work with entrepreneurs or their next generation of leaders directly to help them round out their skill sets without polishing away what made them successful in the first place. I have enormous respect for the owners of small and medium sized businesses – their vision, tenacity, and sweat keep several million Americans employed in jobs that didn’t exist before.

People ask if I’m a consultant and the answer is “No.” I go to work directly for the company, and depending on how much work there is to be done, I might stay two years or I might stay ten. But once everything is built to the level needed and the leadership team is headed in the right direction, I work on an exit plan with the company owner. I do that for their sake as well as my own.

Where did this perspective (of staying at an organization for a certain period of time) come from? How do you determine when it’s time to initiate the exit plan?

Let me be honest, this came from some good coaching and life changes . Besides, I’ve seen a lot of people get stale in a leadership role and to stick around for the paycheck or the perks. There’s a huge opportunity cost for the organization. I think you always have to be on your toes, assessing your value to the organization in a very clear way. Once everything is built and fully aligned/integrated, I’ve found that it’s best if I transition my role to someone who likes to maintain and maybe be more hands-on.

Unlike myself, you seemed to have chosen a career in Human Resources-foolish or fate?


I’ve always known I wanted to help improve people’s experience of and performance in their jobs. I started out as a management trainer, while I was in college. Talk about foolish. People were certainly kind to listen to a 22-year-old sanctimoniously tell them how to to do things she’d read in a book and transferred to a PowerPoint slide. Anyway…I pretty quickly figured out, even with the training that was popular, that it wasn’t effective because it wasn’t tied to a larger system of rewards and cascading organizational goals. So I got more interested in the Organizational Development side of HR. I took night classes in business and then did a weekend Masters in HR/OD at the University of Texas. The OD classes and consulting opportunities I had seemed a little like training – not tied to real life, far more focused on smug theory than on the messy reality of how to make change stick.

I decided to try out HR management work to see if I could make myself useful tying compensation, rewards, culture, and process work back to training and back to hiring/feedback systems to affect big change. That lead to the work I do now. It’s not as employee-facing as most HR jobs, but I still like it. I always strive to balance a larger perspective with adding serious value in a concrete way.

Your sense of humor is apparent, even on your Linkedin profile. How has that helped or hindered your work as a HR practitioner?

I’m sure I do turn some people off. That’s okay. I think it’s important for HR pros not to be too “Stepford”-ish – to show their personality, to let people know they’re human. I don’t make fun of other people (at least in public) and I try to tell on myself as often as possible so that people aren’t intimidated by me. How can we expect others to be vulnerable with us, to take our coaching, if we are seen as cold or super-corporate?

One of the highlights of this year’s SHRM Conference wasn’t the conference, but the tweet-up you co-organized. What was that experience like?

Totally fun. It got started when Jessica Lee of Fistful of Talent said she’d like to get together with some folks from the HR blogosphere. As a lover of all things New Orleans related, I offered to help find a place. But then we started talking about it and decided it would be fun to invite other Twitter participants in HR as well. So we did. Because it was held on the last night of the conference, someone said it felt like a real-time focus group on SHRM09. I agree. I spent most of the time at the actual party yammering to SHRM’s CPO Gary Rubin about every opinion I ever had about SHRM’s magazines and website. He was very gracious about it but I’m not sure he’ll put himself in that position again anytime soon. Thanks for listening, Gary.

You actively use social media, but not to blog. Any particular reason why not?

Surprise – I have a little blog now! There are several “memos” I’ve been meaning to write to various contingencies – once I get some more of them written and posted, we’ll see what happens from there. I’m not promising much; there are other priorities in my life that come first.

Editors note: One of the drawbacks of a blog is that you can only communicate in a limited fashion. For example, what the reader can’t see now is my jaw hitting the floor as I read about Franny starting a blog. This was not in the first few drafts of this interview, let me tell you. Congratulations Franny!
I love what you’ve done with yours, though, and I always enjoy the interviews. That was genius – it forces you to make the time to talk with great people and you’re really good at asking the questions we’ve all wanted to ask them. You’re creating community rather than just talking about your own opinions.

Does your current company know about your social media presence? How supportive are they?

I use social media to stay on top of the best and least expensive tools to get my job done, and to help the people at the company I work for get their jobs done. I also use it to stay connected to others in my field, since my job is pretty isolating at times. I try to keep my personal brand fairly separate from my employer’s brand but of course they know about my twitter account and etc. It’s a very small and relationship-focused company, so social media is right up their alley. We’re still working together to think through how we can best use it to attract and engage the best and brightest chemical engineers in the country.

How can HR professionals be better at what they do?

  1. On a very practical level, go to the people who actually deliver the product or service that your company makes money selling. Very humbly ask if you can spend the day learning from them. Make yourself useful all day long. Thank them for putting up with you all day. Do that again several more more times and don’t make the line manager regret helping you learn the business by mucking up his or her world. Go back to that line manager and ask him or her what obstacles they hit upon in getting their jobs done, what they’ve found works to keep things moving over those obstacles. Learn from him or her. Then do the same with the regional manager, and so on all the way up the chain.
  2. On another practical level, get over your fear of P&L statements. They are your BEST friends. Numbers are not scary, they are clues to everything you need to know to make good decisions for your business. Once you’ve mastered the Profit and Loss statements and the financials, creating effective comp studies will be a breeze and you will be able to make a MUCH stronger business case for whatever it is that you’re trying to get done. Some free resources are Personal MBA, the NY Times business pages, and your controller (Well that’s maybe not free, you might have to buy her lunch and humble down a little bit.). MIT and UCBerkely have a nice selection of free online business courses.
  3. Listen and be great with people. That doesn’t mean you have to have your door open all the time, and it certainly doesn’t mean you have to be Sam or Sally Sunshine all the time either. Your job scares the crap out of people, so show them that you’re human. When they’re trying to tell you something important to them, look them in the eye and give them the respect they deserve. Treat what they tell you as sacred, both in terms of keeping their situation as private as possible, and in terms of not being glib.
  4. Don’t take it personally. People will come at you with all kinds of things that have nothing to do with who you perceive yourself to be. Recognize that they’re usually responding to the job, or to the changes you’re making to the company as part of your job, not to you. Don’t look to work to be your #1 community, and don’t expect your coworkers to stop seeing you as your job first, you second. If you’re in HR because you like people, I assume you like to be liked too – don’t let that cloud your judgement and undermine your work. Make sure you maintain a healthy and full community outside of work, and stay in close contact with a mentor you respect who will let you know if you’re not coping properly with the slings and arrows associated with doing your job well.

Last question-Is Houston as awesome as you make it out to be?

Yes! There’s no snob-factor here – you just have to show up and get to work on whatever you care about, and people will take you in. It’s a lot like social networking that way! We live here because of our families and friends, but we’d love it even if we got transferred here or moved here for work. Houston was named by Forbes magazine as the second best big city for jobs. There are lots of family-owned businesses here, more Fortune 500 company headquarters than almost any other city, and a seriously educated and diverse workforce. You just have to love your car time or live near your work. Me? I love my car time and I work from home on the days I just can’t deal with it.

People don’t move here to obsess over their quality of life like they might in San Francisco or Austin, but it’s a fantastic city with a low cost of living, a nice climate, and lots and lots of things to do. In terms of non-work communities and hobbies: I love gardening – Houston’s soil and climate are perfect to grow giant juicy tomatoes ten months out of the year. I also love the visual arts and Houston has an amazing collection of galleries, museums, and open studios – and a welcoming community of artists who actually want to talk to their patrons. I have a toddler daughter and I am very involved here in the local gay and lesbian parent association. There was a study in 2004 that named Houston as one of the cities with the highest population of G/L lead-families, and I suspect the next census, which includes same-sex partner as a category, might put us at the top. But mostly I love that I get to live so close to my parents and siblings, we keep each other honest and have a lot of laughs. Isn’t that the very best life can offer?

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