Simple is Hard

This past week, I was fortunate to return to the speaking circuit for the first time in 2024. Whenever I get to speak to a group of my HR peers, my bucket is instantly filled. I never take it for granted. As soon as the obligatory speaker introduction ends, I can hit the first slide, and time seems to disappear.

I can feel the energy of the room ramp up when I introduce a few of the concepts I wanted to cover during my time. You see, I believe in and have practiced a stripped-down version of HR throughout my career. When I began practicing several decades ago, it wasn’t even called Human Resources it was Personnel. What was interesting was the old name of the field was a more accurate description of how most of the work was done. It was impersonal distant and heavily process-driven.

People are probably reading this and screaming that little has changed. That may be true in pockets or in companies that don’t value HR. I hate to hear that. I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to me after presentations sharing that they are faced with roles that still value the Personnel approach. Interestingly enough, there is this constant push to rename and rebrand the profession yet again. Instead of focusing on doing good work with people, we’re worried about what we’re called as an industry. I really am not concerned with what HR is or isn’t called as long as we try something that works.

Great HR is best when it is simplified. When we strip back the layers of the muck that have been built in over the years we make true progress. We thought our purpose had been to continue to build system upon system, process upon process, and policy upon policy. The more we wrote and implemented, we assured ourselves that our work and relationships with people would go smoothly. We have tricked ourselves into believing that we can have the perfect model with a set number of prescriptive steps to refer to for any situation we face.

There are still speakers, books, blogs, and podcasts that propose this ineffective and archaic belief system. Isn’t it ironic that if we only needed one true system then there wouldn’t be the need for any others? Have you stepped back to consider that?

Simplifying HR is needed because people are complicated. Each individual on this planet is unique. They can’t be, and shouldn’t be, crammed into a box of any sort in order to comply and conform. But, as Martin Scorcese so aptly stated, “Simple is hard.” You think it would be just the opposite. However, creating more and more and more layers of do’s and don’ts (mainly don’ts if we were honest) is easy. Having the discipline to keep things simple and not allow the layer building to occur takes considerably more effort.

The key to understanding here though is this – Keeping HR simple allows you and your employees to thrive. You have to trust me that you unleash more of the inherent talent people want to bring to work if you focus on allowing them to perform. How that looks where you work is up to you.

This is the baseline message of almost every talk I give. I’m out to deconstruct the past in order to build up the profession. Pulling the layers back and eliminating them reveals amazing people who have been there all the time. We just haven’t seen them because we’ve been lulled to sleep doing work building matrixes.

This week find one thing to strip back. Just one. The next week find two to three more and so on. Have faith and know that simplified HR can work for you. Taking these steps will be far more impactful than building the next great initiative. Enable the people you have working at your company to perform. You’ll find when you do this, they will.

Where Are You From ??

I am fortunate to travel to HR events all over the place. When I do that, I also get to do my favorite thing – meet people !! Meeting people has always come naturally to me. I feel comfortable meeting anyone at any time in any place. I know this is rare and I don’t expect others to be nearly as comfortable with this as I am.

When I meet someone though, I try a different approach than most. The first thing I make sure to do, every time, is to slow people down from the inevitable traditional greeting launch. I pause and ask their name – even though they’re most likely wearing a name tag. Then, I make sure to share my name again to keep a steady pace.

Here’s where things veer in a different direction . . .

Most people then open a conversation with, “So, tell me what you do.” or “So, where do you work? I never do this even if the other person I’m meeting starts this way. Now, this took an incredible amount of discipline to break the habit because I have been using this opening barrage just like everyone else.

I do this instead, “Hi, Mary, where are you from?”

People freeze. They weren’t expecting a question that fell outside the normal pattern of human interaction. Once they get their bearings, you see something amazing happen. Their shoulders drop and a smile starts spreading across their face. “Oh, I’m from . . .” and then they warmly share this tidbit about themselves.

The entire tone and tenor of this interaction becomes welcoming, warm, and genuine. People don’t posture or try to justify their role in their organization or the brand they work for. It puts people at ease.

Recently, when I was speaking at the Oklahoma SHRM State Conference, I tried my elusive tactic on people and many replied, “I’m from the City.” Not being from Oklahoma I had no idea where that was. I’d kid, “Well, I’m from a city too.” Then they’d blush and stammer to say, “The City is what we call Oklahoma City.” I learned something new and it was fun to do so.

You see, when we ask people to recite their occupation and company, we truly don’t care. We won’t remember it and it’s a clumsy way to get to know someone. When people talk about where they live, they’re open to sharing so much more about themselves willingly.

One caution in the “where are you from” approach. Don’t downplay your location. If you’re from a smaller town or village, share the name of it and where it is proudly. You may need to explain it’s located near a larger, or more well-known city, but that’s okay. When you say, “Oh, you don’t know where this is . . . , ” – you diminish yourself and the conversation.

I was just in a conversation where a friend said, “Yeah, I get to serve in churches in Jumbo and Roundhead.” I knew exactly where these minuscule burgs were in Ohio. He didn’t have to explain or give me more details. I already had the picture that these were small towns and I loved that he was willing to meet people where they lived.

Next week the SHRM Annual Conference is going to happen in Las Vegas, Nevada. The convention center will be teeming with literally thousands of people and it can quickly become overwhelming. I recommend you relax and use this new tool in your “get to meet you” quiver. Trust me, you’ll start enjoying networking far more than you have in the past.

So, when our paths cross, and they will, ask me where I’m from and I’ll do the same !!

Be Different !!

Have you ever had someone tell you that you’re “different”? ┬áIf you have, I’ll bet you didn’t like it. We don’t want to be seen as being outside the norm. Throughout our lives we do our best to blend in because it’s more comfortable for us, and we feel safer being in groups. It’s not easy to stand away from the pack.

What if you did step away from the crowd? What would happen? Would you have the stamina to stay outside and be different?

The reason I’m asking these questions is that many HR practitioners take the safe path. Trust me, I’m not calling for you to be contrary just for the sake of standing out. However, I am asking you to consider how you practice HR. Doing things traditionally within organizations will allow you to be effective . . . to a point. There are tasks that we need to perform in order to keep structure and parameters in our companies. This aspect of our function should occur naturally and provide a foundation for HR practices, polices and procedures.

be-differentDo you move past the foundation? If you do, then you’re beginning to be “different.” It’s true. What we need to take to heart is that organizations expect us to have a strong base, but they are looking for more. It’s not enough to just make sure that things are in order.

One thing to note is that stepping away from the crowd isn’t negative. It’s not going to cause you to do things that take away from practicing great HR. It should allow you to be the businessperson you were meant to be. We need to come to terms that it is no longer enough to only practice HR. It just isn’t. We can’t continue to think that we’re needed in organizations if we aren’t contributing to the success of the company as a whole.

There are many ways to differentiate yourself. Some things are specific to the type of service/product your company does, but there are three items that can be implemented in every type of company.

Solutions not problems

I received a great piece of advice from an HR executive. He said, “Everyone brings me problems. I need you to bring me solutions.” He was talking about others in HR. His experience was that he could tell if an HR person was strategic or not by how they approached him. If they only brought up problems, he knew they weren’t strategic. We need to bring solutions to organizations. It makes us different.

Span the Levels

People tend to work and interact with people at the level they personally hold. Executives work with fellow executives. Middle management hangs with and collaborates with those in similar roles, and the front line staff stay with their peers. Great HR practitioners don’t see the levels. They move up, down and across with ease. It takes great effort to not get stuck at your level. However, when you do it, it makes you different.

Build Relationships

There is a step that goes past the ideal of making the workplace more human. That’s thankfully becoming the norm, and I’m geeked to see that. The next step is to build relationships. There’s a healthy way to do that across departments. The reason to do this is so that you can understand your employees better and more intentionally. Knowing information about their family, their interests and their hobbies matters. People are longing for acknowledgement and connections in their work. Step out as an HR person to make build their relationships and be different.

The small plaque pictured above is where I plan to stay and I hope it becomes the mantra for you and all of HR. Once you find ways to be different, don’t change. Stay that way.