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.