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The Rewards (and Risks) of Bold HR

January 7, 2001
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, The HR Profession, Featured Article
Jim Moore recently decided to“call in rich.” He’s leaving his job as the director of workforce planningand development for Sun Microsystems after six years to serve as an executiveconsultant to the company. Before that he was the VP of training and developmentfor Northern Telecom and the director of executive development for BellSouth.Moore was trained as an engineer, and that’s where our provocativeconversation about the challenges of executive development began. 

How much does yourbackground in engineering help in executive development?
Jim Moore:
There’s absolutelyno relationship between executive development and engineering. In fact,“behavioral science,” I believe, is an oxymoron. I know I’ll offend everypsychologist and psychiatrist in the world, but I fail to see the science inmuch of HR and organizational development. 
Dealing with executives is more aboutgetting some clear notion in your mind about a desired “end” and then usingimagination, intuition, and your ability to put yourself in the shoes of theexecutive to create movement toward that end. This involves thinking about waysto make them change and shaking them up a little bit. So the good news is I knowenough about engineering and executive development to not apply it.
You’ve said that adultlearning principles don’t apply to executives. What do you mean?
Does that mean they’renot adults? Of course, I would never say that. But adult learning theory isanother science that doesn’t fit the real world. Part of it has to do with theinsecurities of an executive. The higher you go, the greater the responsibilityand risk of failure, the more you realize your inadequacies and the more peopleattribute super-human capabilities to you. Most executives don’t want to admitthat they don’t know.
So what can you do?
You have to hit theexecutives over the head at the very beginning of an education program andsomehow cause failure. Get them to realize they don’t know how to do it andconfront them with feedback that says, “You’re not as good as you think youare.” Another problem with executive learning is that most people learnthrough reflection, and executives are the worst reflectors. 
There’s somethingyou lose as you move up the chain - the ability to reflect. You just think,“I’ve got to react quickly and instantaneously to everything,” and to sitthere and ponder something is not a good sign. Whereas I believe that until youreally ponder things and struggle with them, you’ll have trouble learning.
Can you give an example?
An executive says, “Idon’t need to pay attention to that because I’m a great listener,” whenyou know that feedback says they’re the worst listener in the history of thiscompany. Getting confronted with subordinate and peer feedback that comparesthem to their peers is very effective because executives are competitive andthey hate to see low scores. Most never get low scores - everybody’s alwaysawesome. So 360-degree feedback is a way to get their attention. 
On theaccountability side, we’re saying if you want to get serious about managementeffectiveness, you have to measure it and hold people accountable. How will wemeasure it? 
There are several ways: you could hire psychologists to followmanagers around and observe them every day; you could video tape them; you couldinterview subordinates; you could send them to an assessment center and assumethey behave in the assessment center the same way they behave in the shop; oryou could do as we did - design a system to ask the subordinates, who are thecustomers of the manager’s effectiveness, “How well is the manager doing?”
How will this change HR?
I’ve worked atcompanies where I’ve written the speech for the CEO to say, “Our people areour most important asset,” and they’ve said it, but I don’t believe theybelieved it. In fact, I don’t believe they were the most important asset,because the jobs were so standardized that it wasn’t really that hard toreplace the person. 
The difference between what a really outstanding personcontributed and a not-so-outstanding person contributed was relatively small.There wasn’t room in the jobs for individual variance to make that big adifference. Therefore, it was lip service. 
Look at these high-tech companiesthat have these market caps or price-earnings ratios that are so outrageous.How can you justify that? You cannot justify it because of any process theyhave; processes are easily replicated. Markets are easily stolen. It’s justthe intellectual capital that differentiates.
What else can HR learn fromhigh- tech companies?
We believe chaos is a wayof life in a high-tech, high-growth company, and while you might like to getchaos under control and make everything orderly and neat, if you did that, thecompany would die; there wouldn’t be enough innovation or speed. So life atSun is extremely chaotic, as it is in any high-tech company. But there’s a lotof research there, and our own instincts tell us that if you’re going to haveall that chaos, the one thing you should have is a clear and compelling visionand direction. You ought to know where you’re going.
What does it take to, pardonthe expression, be a rising star at Sun?
Those who play it safe atSun die. Playing it safe does not gain you any respect. Now, I think there arecompanies where playing it safe may, but in the high-tech world it is not astrategy that gains you respect. If all you do is couch everything so you neverget found wrong, how do you learn anything?... I like to make strong statements,and if somebody comes back and says, “That’s a bunch of B.S.” and theyexplain why, I’ll say, “I guess you have a point.” But until I make astrong statement and get somebody to challenge it, I don’t learn anything.
How would you rate HR atmaking strong statements?
I would say HR peopleneed to be more bold and courageous than they have been. They need to lead theuse of technology to drive performance systems, instead of being led bytechnology and performance systems. They need more line people working in HR togive them a sense of reality, practicality, and realism in what they do. 
Next,they need to focus. HR people are trying to do too many things and as a result,they’re not doing any of them very well. You’ve got to pick just four orfive things you’re trying to drive and do that really well in abreaking-glass, high-impact way. You ought to get rid of all of the transactionstuff that can be done better, faster, and cheaper somewhere else. 
You’ve gotto really not try to be the employee relations counselor to the world. I thinkthat’s a bottomless pit that you can never have enough resources in becauseeverybody wants to talk to an HR person and it’s just not an investment thathas a high return.
What are the keys to workingsuccessfully with people above you in the chain of command?
There is a comfort zonearound each executive. If you try to do things inside that comfort zone, nothinghappens, nothing changes. And then there’s another zone. If you design someintervention with an executive outside that zone, you become the former directorof executive development or HR. You’ve got to focus in the area between thetwo circles: just outside their comfort zone but not in a place that can causeyou to lose credibility. 
It’s an emotional judgment to play in this game, tosay I’m going to do something here that’s going to be innovative, that’sgoing to make them uncomfortable, that’s going to take them in a directionthat I think they need to go. And then you hope it works.
Any final tips?
I think you only getrespect from top executives when two things happen. One is you push back on themand second is you give them an insight that they say, “Well, that’s prettycool, I’d never thought of that.” The people who get respect are usually theones that push back. You will not hear too many executives in the world singingthe praises of their HR people, and one of the reasons I think is they try to betoo careful.      

Workforce,January 2001, Vol 80, No 1, pp. 70-76 SubscribeNow!

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