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It's Passion That Makes the Difference

Shari Caudron meets a master sommmelier whose love of wine is intoxicating. She suggests that human resources people might want to find that kind of passion for their work, which is so much more important than a silly upstart Merlot.

May 30, 2003
Related Topics: The HR Profession
Kenneth Frederickson loves Chateau de Maimbray, a wine he describes as thearchetypal Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley in France. It smells, he says,like the flesh of a grapefruit. Not just any grapefruit, mind you. But aruby-red grapefruit left overnight on the kitchen counter. He sticks his noseinto his wineglass, inhales, and looks skyward. "I’m also picking up a bitof pear skin, some minerally chalkiness, and--you’re not going to like this--italso smells a bit like a cat’s litter box."

    Frederickson is talking to a group of 60 adults who have gathered on a hotsummer evening to learn the ins and outs of wine tasting. His comment about thelitter box prompts us, in unison, to thrust our noses inside our own glasses ofChateau de Maimbray. For several seconds the room is quiet save for the sound ofaudible sniffing. "I’m not getting the litter-box thing," shouts a manfrom a table in the back of the room. "Is it used or unused?" We laugh.

    "That’s okaaaay that you don’t get it!" Frederickson bellows. "Whenit comes to wine, there are no wrong impressions. What counts is what youperceive."

    "I smell lemon," announces a woman sitting near Frederickson.

    He compliments her. "You’re very lucky," he says. "Only one person ina hundred can smell acidity in wine."

    Kenneth Frederickson is a master sommelier, which means he knows just aboutall there is to know about wine and has passed several grueling examinations toprove it. In his last exam, he managed to correctly identify six wines in ablind taste test. Naming the wine’s predominant grape was not enough. He alsohad to determine the wine’s age, its country of origin, and the specificregion within that country where the grapes were grown. "Passing it took luckmore than anything," he admits. Worldwide, there are just 102 mastersommeliers. There are 47 in the United States. Frederickson is number 41.

    Kenneth Frederickson can teach human resources professionals a lot, and notjust about the importance of having a corkscrew handy at all times. WhatFrederickson has that more human resources people need is infectious enthusiasm.He has the ability to convince the average gum-chewing American with a mortgagethat wine matters.

Clearly, the practice of human resources is infinitely more important thanwine. Most of the time, anyway.

    Clearly, the practice of human resources is infinitely more important thanwine. Most of the time, anyway. Human resources professionals work to instillharmony, fairness, and understanding in the workplace. They settle disputes.They hire and nurture talent. They safeguard workers. They help companiesachieve profitability by making sure employees can do their best work everysingle day--which is no small task.

    Why is it, then, that many human resources people are so defensive about theprofession? I was talking to one the other day about how her company mightimprove its hiring process. We discussed the value of doing more testing toensure that only people with the highest integrity were hired. Her comment? "Thatwould never fly here."

    Well, duh. Not with that kind of attitude.

    Now, someone like Kenneth Frederickson would have every reason to bedefensive about his chosen career. C’mon. Wine? How important is that tocombating SARS or terrorism or unemployment? Plus, there’s that wholewine-snob image to overcome. But Frederickson is not defensive or concernedabout image at all. He does what he loves, and roomfuls of strangers ride alongwith him.

    What would happen, I wonder, if more people in human resources adopted thesommelier’s mind-set and became wildly enthusiastic about their contributions?If they didn’t go into every meeting with other executives feeling as if theyhad to prove themselves? If they assumed that everyone would understand therationale behind such things as diversity programs, change-managementinitiatives, and equitable-compensation guidelines?

    In a recent Watson Wyatt study, only 48 percent of 12,000 employees surveyedsaid they believed that the human resources departments in their companies wereeffective. I wonder how much that figure would rise if human resourcesprofessionals themselves believed in their power to create change inorganizations.

    Kenneth Frederickson makes non-believers believe in the presence of jalapeñoin their Chardonnay. He makes accountants and truck drivers and salespeoplelearn to use words like austere, buttery, chewy, clean, delicate, dry, fleshy,and firm without any hint of self-consciousness. He makes rational, thinkingpeople learn to understand phrases like "A pretentious little wine that willamuse you despite its lack of breeding."

   If one man can do all that for the world of wine, imagine what a companyfilled with passionate human resources professionals could do for the workplace.Then, imagine what several workplaces filled with passionate human resourcespeople could do for a community. Further imagine what kind of wine you’dchoose to celebrate such an ideal world. And if you have trouble there, I knowsomeone who can help you.

Workforce, June 2003, p. 30 -- Subscribe Now!

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