HR in a number of songs part 2

Fashion is the second thing HR is all about. Not in clothing but in mind-set.

For the last 30 years, HR has been looking to justify its existence on every possible front. In this search for relevance, HR has bounced from one fashionable idea or practice to another. Every couple of months, there’s a new tool, process, program, strategy or technology backed by an HR guru promising solutions and impact. In this quest for the Holy Grail, HR has been to the moon and back, crying foul whenever the business, armed with data and numbers, dismantled the air castles HR had so diligently built.

Some delusions have continued to live a life on their own. Today, some of the talent management but certainly all of the performance and reward practices fail to deliver on their promise. Their impact on business performance is minimal at best but always questionable and at a disproportionate cost. By November, every HR department will go in hibernation, lasting up to 5 months. HR will waste precious time and attention from both employees and managers to go through the yearly merit and bonus cycles, draining goodwill, motivation, engagement and performance on all levels.

As long as the business fails to integrate all the people practices in the business itself, thereby eliminating HR’ process and program ownership, HR will diligently go through the motions, doing incredible amounts of busy work with disappointing results. In parallel, as long as HR believes the Holy Grail is theirs to find, it will be the victim of fashion. Unintentionally, it will continue to work on a variation of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

There is however no reason to be pessimistic about HR’s future. Never before have so many people taken HR to heart. Never before has the business been so keen to take ownership. Never before has experience been so rich. The only way is up. HR will have to become a full-fledged business function, mastering data driving sustainable initiatives. Outgrowing the flavour of the day mindset, the HR popcorn programs and the tribal HR speak would make a great start.

There’s an incredible amount of songs with the word fashion in their title. Maybe the most fitting to this article is ‘Dedicated follower of fashion’ by the Kinks. You might argue Lady Gaga or David Bowie do a better job at singing the praises of fashion. I leave that entirely up to you.

I wanted to leave you with something more cheerful. One of the first student jobs I had was at a gas station along the highway. Working all week for a Texaco check with the sun beating down my neck. Not everything in the song mimics my history (I was actually working for Shell) but the upbeat atmosphere does. Besides, the video is just heart-warming. The chorus is just the best. Enjoy! You might have to skip a commercial.

Telephone road by Steve Earle


The illusion of the good old days

True, we lie to ourselves. We do it every day. All the time, our innate capacity called selective memory allows us to retain the good and ban the bad. We rewrite the past with every recollection. Our memories travel back to times when we were young, sexy and legacy-free.

Our future was still to be written. That future is now the past.

For some, the past is a prison. Caught in outdated experience, knowledge and diplomas, it proves very hard to cope with the exponential change at work. Efficiency with digitization as brother in arms has enabled machines and robots to replace human labor. Artificial intelligence increasingly replaces the knowledge worker. Nobody escapes, including doctors and engineers. The half-life of most skills has shrunk to a mere 5 years. The cognitive capacities of the human mind in the world of work have been overtaken by the digital revolution.

Luckily, humans are not limited to cognitive capacities. What moves us determines us far more: passion is the key to escape the past and create the future. This source of endless energy not only fuels our failures, which we strive to selectively forget, but also produces our successes, which we selectively magnify. Passion allows us to reinvent ourselves over and over again. It is the essential life-skill.

Yesterday, I admired products of people following their passion. No, it wasn’t an Apple computer. Yes, it was an old motorcycle rebuilt beyond recognition. Yes, it was a unique product of a happy, passionate creator. Yes, it was better than his previous model. Yes, his next model will be even better. And yes, he will not be overtaken by the digital world.



Organisational structures have been around for as long as man can remember. They exist in all shapes and sizes, ruled by processes, systems, norms and eventually values. All have purpose and people in common: without people, purpose can’t be achieved and without purpose, people underperform and leave.

Whether your organisation is a ‘command and control’ hierarchy or a holacracy, it can’t survive without purpose and people rallying behind it. Add the elements of time, money, competition and bureaucracy and you have in a nutshell all the ingredients of our world of work. Any work.

Until you get to world of jazz. There is no obvious purpose to jazz, nor is there any given organizational framework to produce jazz. Jazz lacks established processes, norms and rules. It is not fulfilling a common human need, there’s little or no money involved, and there’s no competition worthy of the name: everybody plays in everybody’s trio, quartet or quintet. You could argue jazz musicians play to fulfil an inner need or to please or shock the audience. Maybe. Is it art for art’s sake? Is it pure experience? Who knows…I guess every jazz musician has a different drive, let alone values.

Still jazz survives. Not by much bit still. There’s no denying it’s a form of work and it requires some form of organisation to produce this music. Some of you might call it a cult or a religion but I don’t believe jazz musicians are trying to save humanity. There is logic to the madness, more than jazz musicians care to admit.

I believe the world of jazz does one thing exceptionally well. It has downscaled norms, rules, processes and systems to the absolute minimum. There is no room for bureaucracy or conservatism. It has transformed this mind-set into a culture of creativity and innovation, expressed in music. It continues to reinterpret its history without ever repeating the past. It defeats habit by originality. It’s in a constant flux, exploring infinite possibilities with a given set of material, just like today’s organisations do.

Organisations are like homes filled with archaic furniture. Clear some rooms to let creativity in. Jazz has the courage to pursue melodic lines and rhythms that go against the grain of orthodoxy. Organisations have the same capability. If people follow, they have found purpose.

For those of you working in a world without jazz, there’s comfort in the bus stop pictured above. This playful project funded by Awesome Pittsburgh sees a regular bus shelter transformed into Pittsburgh’s Smallest Jazz Club. Located in the city’s cultural district, the immersive bus shelter experience is reinvigorated by a high-quality sound system that plays non-stop music by local non-profit Manchester Craftmen’s Guild Jazz and features images of jazz musicians on the shelter walls.



At the pool in a B&B nipping a local cabernet franc, I listened to a French citizen describe his view of life, France and ultimately Europe. Considering himself an exception as a hard-working entrepreneur, he enumerated all the wrongs of France and then of Europe. None of them worth repeating as you probably heard them all before though I was painfully reminded of one when I tried to buy bread on a Sunday. All the bakeries in the villages I could cycle to were closed. Only to be reminded on Monday that the working week in central France really starts on Tuesday. Anyway, when we debated Europe and its future or demise, his views were straightforward. The EU is failing on all accounts because of its lack of vision, leadership, strategy and execution. In his words, it’s the worst run start-up acting as a mature company: the emphasis is on making the numbers, not taking risks, staying focused on the task at hand with incremental improvement and increased centralization. The EU merely tries to address the financial component while vision, strategy and execution lack. Meanwhile thousands of refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean, Greece is bankrupt, youth unemployment is skyrocketing and Hungary is building a wall. How can anybody in his or her right mind feel good about this?

His disappointment ran deep. He even seemed to be in physical pain when he talked about Europe. He hoped for new courageous leaders, formulating a European vision, addressing youth unemployment through vast projects, getting Greece back on its feet and making Hungary understand it needs to change.

Multiple thoughts ran through my head as he was talking. There’s one I’ll share with you. I could not help but compare corporate organizational cultures with the current political scene: the overall lack of courage, hiding behind a set of numbers, runs through both as a common thread. What bothers me is that in business probably like in politics, the wrong behaviours get rewarded.

In business, the wrong behaviours are those that ensure financial or any other form of success in the short term while giving up on growth and opportunity in the long term. This norm signals to the employees what matters to the company. As a result, the company culture will be risk-averse, stale and driven by fear, crippling the ability to grow and innovate. Non-uniform behaviours like producing a stream of new ideas, questioning current approaches, coming up with original answers and implementing those insights, will be discouraged and unrewarded.

The courage to innovate, to question the status quo, to go after new markets and potentially fail, requires tolerance for conflicting views and a non-hierarchical collaborative working process. What this means for HR is radical. Grooming and rewarding disruption always is.

Courage comes in many forms but it expresses itself always in risk-taking and willingness to experiment. In the words of Thucydides, the bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.

Just like Richard the Lionheart (pictured above) I wish you all the courage to go out and meet what is before you. The secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom is courage. Thucydides again.




Cycling through France last week, my wife and I ended up Monday night on the terrace of a popular local restaurant: the usual French menu with the usual French charm. Small tables, hard wooden chairs, fair prices, good food served with self-confidence, regional wines, busy, crowded, noisy, yet colourful. No surprises. The terrace was full, seating more than twenty people. You could not help but overhearing everybody’s conversation. A British family was praising the curry mussels while a German couple were unsuccessfully perusing the wine list for great Bordeaux. We settled in and started to review our day while glancing over the traditional menu. While debating the comfort of the bicycle saddle and accusing the chairs we sat on of obvious conspiracy, the young couple next to us asked what language we were speaking. Flemish, my wife answered, explaining it was like Dutch but not really Dutch. They politely smiled. Having overheard their previous conversation, I asked what Italian region they were from. Calabria, a region at the toe of the boot, she manifested. You could see both her and him come to life talking about their place of origin. I asked what had brought them to Orléans, seeing they were not regular tourists: work, they shouted. She explained: we own an Italian restaurant in an industrial park just outside the city and are just enjoying our day off.

They continued to explain their schedule, when the restaurant was open, how they still managed to have a well-balanced life, how they liked what they were doing, etc. The conversation went on for a short while. Their dessert and our main course got in the way of a log conversation.

What struck me was how normal they both perceived their move to Orléans to be. They were not just young people with an open mind looking for their next adventure. Nor were they economic refugees. They were responsible young entrepreneurs, evolving in a market they understood very well. When looking to start their business, they not only picked a city in central France but also preferred an industrial area, allowing them to close the restaurant in the evening on weekdays to grant them family time. They fully live and act as Europeans: borderless minds with borderless plans. They could set up shop in every EU country tomorrow and still go home every day. Non-millennials are national by birth, some wanting to be European by choice. The people I met are European by origin, unlimited by their accidental nationality. They understand very well countries are a thing of the past. Their playground is a European nation.

When they finished up their evening at the restaurant, they called for the waiter, thanking and tipping royally for the friendliest hospitality they had received in years. The waiter was surprised but appreciative. I thought I had just met 2 of the most wonderful people in France.

Ulrich’s funeral

Over the past 25 years, Dave Ulrich’s model has been the inspiration and lifeline of the HR function. The transformation from an administrative personnel department into a value-add strategic business asset has been the mantra and the raison-d’être of many HR functions. The illustrious coveted seat at the table has been the catalyst for a radical overhaul on how HR viewed itself. It changed its mission, attitude and transformed its competencies. At least that is what is prophesized by the profession.

Reality is that the seat at the table is still for many HR functions a lofty goal. Scanning through the results of many self-assessed HR functions, you cannot deny the partial if not total failure of many of them. Getting from the day-to-day paper pushing to any form of strategic value-add has proven a very tough objective.

The biggest hurdle is the HR function itself. Many HR professionals do not even embrace the strategic objective as they cannot penetrate or gauge what the requirements or benefits would be. The administrative mindset continues to rule strongly in the HR community and the army of administrators seeks safety in numbers. The purely strategic or value-add positions rarely exceed 20% of the HR workforce.

Is it an illusion that the HR function can transform beyond recognition, just like a caterpillar into a butterfly?

The past few decades have shown very mixed results. One of the consequences of the HR transformation is a dichotomy in the HR-function. Talent Management in its broadest meaning has been trying to accelerate its value-add by embedding itself in the business while the rest of the HR function has continued to sideline itself, buried in processes, policies and programs.

The traditional part of HR has reluctantly but incrementally moved with forced changes, like the introduction of technology or globalization of practices. These conservative administrators however continue to push the status-quo and are at best unintentionally harmless. They clog the business with outdated practices and beliefs and stifle the competitive edge of the company’s human capital. Yesterday’s wisdom for yesterday’s world is sadly how today’s human capital is hired, developed, rewarded and exited.

The value-add component of HR is ready to jump ship. The strategic positioners, the credible activists, the capacity builders or whatever fashionable label today applies, are disappointed and disgruntled. The association with the HR function is strenuous and unreal. The value-adders belong in the business, in innovation or change functions, as practitioners and drivers of progress, applying innovative solutions to continuously changing challenges. They continue to prove their business impact and value in daily interventions, pushing reflection, innovation and change. Their strength lies in diagnosing and fixing dysfunctional roles, people, relationships, structures and processes. They co-create with the business a talented network of associates and promote a culture of initiative, collaboration and success. They constantly focus on people and output.

So here’s a thought: reduce HR to a core team of seasoned human capital practitioners. Focus all your internal HR resources on vital talent work. Create a TTT, a talent tiger team.

For all the rest, find another solution, like partners or service centers. Traditional ‘nice to have’ HR functions do not belong in an HR department striving to unlock and create business value through people actions.

If the EU were a company

It’s hard not to write about Greece these days. Over the past 5 years, Greece has not been out of the news. I will not bore you with another political or economic analysis. As one COO always used to say: we are where we are, so let’s move on.

As a Europhile, I can’t really say I’m happy with how the EU is handling the crisis. As an HR professional, let me make the following comparison:

If the EU were a company, shrinking a division’s revenue with 25% (Greece), accumulating losses while obstinately claiming that the non-working strategy will bring positive results in the long run, I’m convinced the Board of the company would have taken action. Removing the leadership team of the company, including the CEO, would have started sometime in year 2. The board would not have stopped there. The divisional leadership, its structure, processes, strategy and people would have been thoroughly reviewed and corrected. Any plan seeking board approval would need to show growth and perspective, no matter what.

I will leave it to you to draw any political or economic conclusions out of this metaphor.

There is however one important leadership lesson I want to draw your attention on.

Successful turnaround stories in companies all over the world share the implementation of a cultural shift. Failing companies need to address their corporate culture first and foremost. Innovation, a willingness to try different strategies and risk-taking are key elements of any positive cultural shift.

Like Greece, the EU needs a cultural shift. It needs to get the EU citizens to embrace adaptability, dialogue and tolerance as a cultural norm. Opposing viewpoints or country-cultures can no longer be a barrier to collaborative success. We need to stop thinking and acting on a national level, lift our head and start thinking on a European one.

Our leaders today sadly fall short on this front. But, unlike in a company, don’t we get the leaders we deserve? Have we not voted for them?

I hereby attach a cartoon by Ilias Makris I found on published on 10/07/2015


Tomorrow’s HR department will look radically different part 2

In a previous blog, I stated a new paradigm for HR had arrived:

HR’s prime goal in life is to enrich and optimise the network in terms of talent and output.

Let’s start with defining network. Companies today are no longer the sum of their employees, managers, executive committee and board, working with suppliers and customers. They are much more. They are citizens of a global village, competitors in a hyper-connected world, impacting economies and humanity alike. The symbiotic relationship between businesses, digital and daily life is transforming our environment in its broadest sense into a networked future. The traditional dividing lines like countries, industry-sectors, legal frameworks, cultures, languages, time-zones, scale, speed and so many others too numerous to mention, are fading. Companies will succumb and adapt to an interwoven network of opportunity and threat, where a competitor is a partner and vice versa at the same time. The network will set the company’s agenda and strategy, replacing the traditional stakeholders.

This is happening as you read. You might argue this is old news. The world of business has always followed Darwin’s laws and will continue to do so. Adapt, mutate or be extinct. All I’m saying is that the business biosphere is continuously transforming and that fight or flight not really an option is anymore. There’s only fight. There’s nowhere to hide in the global village.

Defining talent in this paradigm has become more complex: talents are masters of networks. Talent turns the network into a competitive advantage for the company and themselves. Today’s global talent is self-conscious and will only work for a company if there is a strong return on investment. Alignment between these 2 objectives is paramount. Loyalty to one company from the employee perspective may equal missing out on reaching one’s full potential. It also threatens to leave the employee condemned to an ever-diminishing market value. Talents however stay loyal to networks. And this is where talent acquisition needs to play.

This vital business function needs to acquire masters of the network who share the company’s objectives, culture and values. This requires an in-depth industry and business knowledge together with professional assessment capabilities. Understanding where and how to find the talent in the network, coupled with assessing current skills and potential is what most professional talent acquisition teams today aspire to do. Together with the hiring manager, potentially the HR business partner and why not a consulting third-party, they form a comprehensive team.

But this is not enough. The real challenge is to become an integral part of the industry talent network in order to pro-actively influence this network and benefit from the network. Not only will the acquisition team need to find the adaptive, innovative, fast-decision making industry leaders with a network of equally talented associates, it will also need to dominate the network. Recruiters will not just hire 1 person for 1 job, but select, groom and grow a rich and multi-layered professional network to continue to recruit from. The war for talent has become a war for the network.

Let’s take mobile payments for example. Total mobile online retail payments are expected to grow from $75.8 billion to $217.4 billion at a 23 percent compounded annual growth rate between 2014 and 2019, according to Javelin’s Mobile Online Retail Payments Forecast. These numbers are up for debate but what’s certain is that only the companies dominating the mobile payments talent network will potentially capture this market and achieve the predicted growth. Companies with a traditional talent acquisition approach will be outpaced and lose out.


Common sense

Sea view 3

Many summers ago, I was taking the Thalys from Paris to Brussels after a long week on the road. I was in my late thirties and the gentleman sitting across me was exactly twice my age. While I was trying to catch my breath, he introduced himself just by his first name and asked what had brought me to Paris for the week. Ninety minutes later, I had been lectured on what HR was really about and why he felt companies did not need an HR department but just some common sense.

Clearly I had touched a nerve when I was explaining our modern talent management processes. From A to Z, I advocated our superb development interventions, covering the employee life cycle. I explained why training did not equal development, why succession planning was important, why talent reviews were a great practice and how solid our performance management system really was. I was extremely proud to demonstrate that HR was no longer a personnel department but a real business function, contributing to the bottom line. As my listener underwent my story, he grew older by the minute. When I finished my exposé, he murmured that it all sounded very nice but that in the real world, there was no place for academic HR. The organization itself needed to drive business performance by aligning hearts and minds of all involved: employees, managers, and shareholders, even the partners at home. To do this, all you needed was common sense. Trust would follow automatically. Results too.

I protested. How could he not understand that the business world had evolved beyond common sense? That business success depended on the latest and newest HR practices the HR gurus at the time advocated? That integrated Talent management was vital for the company’s success?

He just shrugged and said: I’ve been in business for over 50 years. Today, I employ more than 500 people in different countries. I’ve built and sold businesses. I never had an HR department, nor have I ever thought I needed one. For example, you talk about development and training. You think you need to organize this through an HR function. That’s for me a step too far. Managers and employees know what they need in terms of development and training if they apply common sense. You in HR think you know. The trick is to sponsor all development for 90% and have the employee pay for 10%, also when it’s in-house training or development. This ensures their commitment, whether it’s an MBA study or just a day of leadership training. You also weed out all ineffective training or development at the same time. You see, just apply some common sense. By giving them ownership and accountability, you make them responsible for their own development.

I struggled to respond, saying that in large companies with tight development budgets this method wouldn’t work. He argued that in large companies bureaucracy and management layers got in the way of common sense. He thought large companies should be split up in independent business units of no more than 400 to 500 people, so you did not need unproductive layers of management, who establish command and control processes paralyzing initiatives and clogging up communication. His experience was that companies with more than 3 layers were inefficient. Getting anything done or undone took way too long.

He continued the common sense theme for another 15 minutes. My brain wasn’t taking it in anymore. All I could think about was getting home, dismissing his stories as ‘entrepreneurial management from the past’. Without really thinking about it, I asked him what he would differently if he could do his business life over. I guess that was then a popular HR recruitment interview question, I don’t exactly know why I asked. It took him 30 seconds to answer the following: I would treat my son differently. Then another long pause. You see, he said, my wife raised my son as I was always on the road or working late. I was a weekend dad at best, never home, never really involved. We hardly ever spoke. By the time he was a teenager, I was a total stranger to him. After his university studies, he wanted me to offer him a job in my company as jobs were scarce and he struggled finding one. I refused. I told him he had to go earn his stripes somewhere else. I would never consider hiring him. I would not hand him anything on a silver plate. There is no such thing as birthright I told him. Family are people you party with, never work with. This is just common sense.

He took a deep breath and then said quietly: I haven’t seen him since. This happened 25 years ago. For all I know he runs a successful business and is married with 2 children. And my wife is no longer my wife. She divorced me right after. She hasn’t talked to me in 20 years. I tried retirement 10 years ago. I sold the business and tried to enjoy life. That didn’t really work for me, so I started another business again. It’s really going well and it’s keeping me young. I get to work with talented young professionals, …and then the train stopped.

We had arrived in Brussels. He stood up, left, not once looking back.