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iOn the Contrary-i On Writing and HR

March 1, 2000
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When I was 16 I decided I was going to grow upand be a writer. One weekend, I planted myself in front of my mom’s blackmanual typewriter, adjusted my mood ring, and earnestly started to write adreadful piece about a woman with cancer. Evidently, I thought a serious topicwould make me a more serious writer.

    About three sentences intoit, I realized I was going to need some major help with this writing thing. Istopped typing, drove to a bookstore, and started what has become anever-growing collection of writing manuals. One of the first books I openedcontained this advice from novelist John D. MacDonald:

    “The only way to learn towrite is by writing. There is no other way to do it. Not one other way.”

    I came across this quote inmy desk drawer the other day and realized that MacDonald’s just-do-itphilosophy is valuable not only for writers, but for people in just about anyprofession including human resource management. Reading the latest business bestseller and attending conferences are fine, but the best way to become abrilliant HR practitioner is by diving in and getting wet.

    Contemplating this, Irealized there’s a lot of advice from the world of writing that can be used byHR professionals. You see, HR and writing share many similarities. They bothrequire discipline, sensitivity, word-processing software and a willingness towork outside of the proverbial box. Sure, HR professionals dress better, butwe’re both also plagued by the constant, annoying need to improve our image.

    Over the last 10 yearswriting for Workforce, I’ve learned a lot from HR professionals about how tosucceed in the business world. Today, I’d like to return the favor by sharingfive of the best tips I’ve ever received about how to be more effective in mywork:

  1. Get another point of view.

        Looking at a problem, situation or characterfrom the eyes of someone else often helps writers better understand what needsto happen in their stories. In the same manner, you can use this technique torefine and improve HR initiatives.

        Say your company is having trouble withrecruitment. Instead of taking the managerial point of view—“We need morebodies now!”—take the point of view of potential applicants. Why should theywork for your company? Take the perspective of existing employees. What doesBill in shipping tell his neighbors about working there? Be creative. Take onthe view of inanimate objects. What would your recruitment ads tell you if theycould talk? (“Every Sunday, I’m surrounded by bigger and better ads in thenewspaper. Nobody ever pays attention to me.”)

        It may sound silly, but taking another point ofview can provide insights you’d never consider otherwise. 

  2. Start with a title.

        I have a writer friend who loves to collectpotential book titles. We’ll be in the middle of a conversation and I’ll saysomething like, “He came up with this crackerjack idea.” Before I know it,she’s researching the feasibility of writing a book called “CrackerjackIdeas” about surprise inventions that made their creators a lot of money. Thisperson, who has several books to her credit, intuitively understands that forwriting to sell, it not only has to be focused, but well marketed. A good titlehelps do both.

        The same concept can work for you. If you’rein the process of trying to create a less complicated comp and benefits program,you might consider calling it “Undaunted Compensation.” If you want tocreate an open forum where employees can have their HR questions answered, howabout “Tuesdays with HR?” Sometimes creating the title first can give yourprogram the shape, focus and direction it needs. 

  3. Explore the underside.

        Every good writer knows even the most positivecharacters have a negative side. This is because perfection isn’t real. Itdoes not work in literature, it’s rare in real life, and it’s virtuallyabsent in the business world. Knowing that every good idea has a dark side willhelp you be more critical about your own proposals. What will cause your programto fail? Who will be against you? What backlash could occur? Exploring the darkunderbelly of your ideas will help you create more fail-safe programs.  

  4. Set realistic goals.

        At age 16, I had no business writing a novelabout cancer. An article for the school newspaper on the upcoming dance wouldhave been more realistic. In any profession, including HR, it makes sense tohave a large vision but to start with smaller, more attainable goals. Don’tset out to change your company’s culture overnight. Instead, start with aconflict resolution or team building program. 

  5. Dedicate your work.

        By far the most useful advice I’ve everreceived is to write with a specific reader in mind. Instead of envisioningfaceless “businesspeople” as my audience, I think about my friend Neil whoowns a growing software company, or MaryAnne, the local HR director of anational bank. Knowing who will be reading my work helps me to explore issuesthat matter most to them.

        The same concept applies to HR. As you developcompany initiatives, don’t think in abstract terms about how employees willreact. Think about a specific person you wish to touch with your work. Considerhow Sallie in the mailroom will respond to the new dress code or how yoursecretary will feel about mandatory overtime. By dedicating your work to someoneyou know, your work will not only improve but also have more meaning.

Finally, whenever you find yourself frustratedby internal politics, project failures or an unresponsive audience, remember tokeep on keeping on. Why? Because the only way to get better at your work is bydoing it. There is no other way. Not one other way.

Workforce, March 2000, Vol 79, No 3, pp. 31-34 SubscribeNow!

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