While HR has long been considered a backwater by the salty characters from other departments, we all encounter in our daily corporate lives great HR pros who have a way of making people stand up and take notice.
When the non-believers react to great HR, they don’t strike because they find the HR pro in front of them non-credible. They strike because they didn’t expect to be challenged. And that’s the whole point—non-believers love bad HR. They love it because it means they either do what they want as quickly as possible, or inaction and delays get blamed on someone else.
Great HR, on the other hand, is a revenue producer. No, I don’t have the ROI study on that, but I didn’t need the stat sheet to know that Steph Curry was a game-changer or that Carrie Underwood was going to crush “American Idol.” Like great HR pros, Steph and Carrie were just different. They had it.
What is it? That’s what my new book, The 9 Faces of HR, is about. I’ve attempted to define it by dividing the landscape into nine distinct personas, using a nine-box grid that plots an HR pro’s career level against his or her ability to innovate and drive change.
If you love great HR, you’ll appreciate that I determined the ability to innovate by measuring a mix of cognitive skills, assertiveness, rules orientation and detail orientation. Because of this work, I learned that some of you are cops, some are fixers, and some are assassins—but you’re all awesome. Here are real-life stories that illustrate the nine faces of effective HR pros—names were changed to protect the innocent. Which one is you?
Roger looked down at his phone as he left the benefits planning session. As the chief people officer at HeartSpark, Roger had parachuted in with the new leadership team four years ago, put in place by the private equity firm of record. At the time he joined, HeartSpark had 500 employees, but growth in the health care technology sector had been strong, and the company now had 3,500 full-time employees.
Roger was widely known as the architect of the HeartSpark culture, but, just as importantly, he had built a human capital machine, creating a widely recognized recruiting function as well as a world-class platform across the entire HR function. He was especially proud of the equity plan he had designed and tweaked over time as it had created something he called “organization gravity,” which meant industry-leading retention.
Roger looked at the transcript of the voicemail as he walked back to his office. The message was short but sweet—the headhunter was informing him the software company was back with a new offer for the VP of product management role they had approached him with three months ago. The new offer represented a 30 percent increase in base salary and kept him whole in bonus and incentive compensation.
For Roger, moving wasn’t about the money. It was about being flat. Did he really want to sit through another meeting discussing how they could remain cost neutral against rising health care expenses by tweaking co-pays?
As Roger walked to his office, he thought about life in product management for a software company, doing cool things in the compensation space. It seemed fresh and in line with what he wanted for a next step. HeartSpark had been great, as had pure-play HR—but four years was a long time.
As his feet left the ground and he landed in his chair, Roger hit the “call-back” button on the voicemail.
It was time for him to fly.
"I'm SO tired.”
It wasn’t rare for this thought to slip into Jill’s mind. But it was Tuesday, and the thought came earlier this week than most.
Jill was the chief human resource officer at GroceryRunner.com. As a 43-year-old, career-minded HR pro, she had climbed the corporate ladder quickly. The first 20 years of her career were spent at a variety of big-name brands: GE, Chase and, most recently, Amazon. She had built a career as an HR business partner—long on advice and counsel, short on b.s. The business people she had served at all stops trusted her.
But GroceryRunner was different. Jill viewed the grocery shopping service—which had grown to 3,000 employees in five years—as the perfect first stop as a CHRO. Headhunters always called, but when Korn Ferry approached her with this opportunity two years ago, she felt it was ideal. Her five years at Amazon had prepared her well.
Six months after she joined GroceryRunner, Amazon announced its acquisition of Whole Foods. Her former boss at Amazon reached out to her the morning the deal was announced. She almost threw up when she read his text.
Now GroceryRunner was in a fight for its life. They were in year four of their current private equity round, and fear, doubt and uncertainty ruled the day. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the myopic, short-term view of the leadership team.
As she walked down the hallway, Jill looked at the list of projects that her staff was attempting to deliver. She was proud of the team she had built in three years. They were deeply talented, and she had encouraged them to stretch and help her build an HR practice unlike any other.
Of the seven big initiatives they were chasing, Jill counted five that were in trouble—two due to her direct reports failing as they stretched, and three as business leaders claimed they didn’t have time for what they termed “non-essential activities.”
As Jill entered the conference room for the weekly LT meeting, she braced herself for battle. She knew two of her nine peers would be actively critical. She had already reached out to three neutral parties to ensure their support.
It wasn’t her first rodeo. If she didn’t represent, no one would.
"I really don’t have a clue about what you’re trying to accomplish with this project.”
The conference room always got quiet when Andrea showed her frustration, which wasn’t an infrequent occurrence. Her direct reports had a name for it: collaboration interruptus.
Andrea was the senior vice president of HR at McDonald Inc. She always said the line of business didn’t matter because, as a conglomerate, they were involved in so many things. McDonald was like a venture capital firm in that way, if venture capital firms had 10,000 employees and supported businesses as wide-ranging as health care software and chicken farms.
Andrea missed the days when it was mostly chicken farms. Back then, she didn’t have to listen to kids proposing wild projects that the technology division of McDonald Inc. supposedly needed.
She looked again at the name of the agenda item that she had just heard a 10-minute pitch on:
Project Name: Sourcing Database with AI Functionality
Proposed Budget: $50K
Division Focus: Technology
Requestor: Becky Davis, Talent Acquisition Project Manager
The kids kept getting younger. With an HR team of 72 FTEs, Andrea couldn’t really know everyone, and quality time with non-direct reports had increasingly been limited to project updates and proposals for new initiatives and expenditures.
“I think you probably should focus on the stuff that’s broken, Becky.”
More uncomfortable silence. After five seconds, Becky recovered enough to ask if there was other information she could provide. Andrea waved her off and thanked her for coming in.
Becky looked startled and stunned. Andrea’s director of talent acquisition (and Becky’s boss) stood up to walk her out.
Of the six direct reports remaining, only one was making eye contact with Andrea. It was Monica, the one who had been telling Andrea she needed to change and start modernizing her HR function.
Andrea broke the silence with a remark meant to add levity to the situation.
“You know what was a good project? The time that one guy proposed we do an HR campaign to get employees to stop calling us ‘McDonald’s.’ That was value added!”
Everybody laughed but Monica. Andrea’s CEO hated it when employees called the company “McDonald’s,” for obvious reasons. The $100K internal PR campaign had been greenlit in record time. The CEO loved it, and Andrea loved it when the CEO was happy with HR.
Chloe didn’t think much before she pulled the trigger on the e-mail that would start a small civil war. As a relatively new HR manager for Trifecta Inc., she had been handed the repeat implementation of the new applicant tracking system (ATS), which failed last year and had never been launched.
Chloe liked her day-to-day work as an HR manager, but she loved the project work that Joan, the SVP of HR, sent her way from time to time. The day-to-day got boring, but the turnaround projects Joan provided never failed to entertain Chloe.
In a sea of details, Chloe understood that the reason the implementation had failed was that seven recruiters Trifecta employed refused to play along, and no one really checked them on their unwillingness to change.
Now here was Chloe at 6 a.m. on a Monday, a year after the failed implementation, getting ready to send an e-mail to that recruiting team informing them that the side spreadsheets they used to track candidates had been removed from the server, with the data tracked in those sheets uploaded to the ATS and the sheets being deleted both locally and in the cloud once that data transfer had been verified.
Chloe thought about titling the e-mail, “Burn the Ships,” a shoutout to her useless history major and the famous quote from Hernan Cortes when he arrived in the new world and refused to allow his men the comfort of a Plan B should they fail. She thought the better of that and typed, “ATS Data Transfer,” then wondered if she should send a quick note to Ron, the lead of the recruiting group, to prepare him for the blowback before she sent the broader note to the team.
“Here we go,” Chloe thought, as she pressed the send button on that e-mail with a CC to Ron. Let the confrontations begin.
Jim’s Tuesday was going to hell quickly. Sheila had just left his office after unloading to him for 75 minutes. Jim wondered if Sheila thought he was her therapist or her HR manager.
Life at Motorcom wasn’t bad for Jim. He was in his seventh year with the company, and he had been promoted into the HR manager role two years ago.
Motorcom was your typical tier three manufacturing partner for a colossal auto plant in the new south. Margins were thin, and the working environment was aggressive. The workforce (1,500 FTEs) was non-union and mostly blue collar. F-bombs and offsite after-work beers were the norm. That informality was a petri dish for employee relations issues.
Sheila was an accountant at Motorcom. She had joined the company two years ago and was known as a good performer. Two months ago, she had applied for an open accounts payable manager role at the company. Jim was aware that Rick, the director of accounting and finance, had interviewed her for the role.
Apparently, that wasn’t all Rick had done with Sheila.
Sheila had dropped by Jim’s office to formally submit a sexual harassment claim. Her story cut to the chase. Rick had shown a flirting interest in Sheila starting six months ago, and across multiple after-work beer sessions, the interest had grown into a romantic relationship. They’d been sleeping together for four months. Sheila’s boss worked directly for Rick. They had kept the relationship secret.
When Sheila expressed interest in the AP manager role, Rick told her she should apply. She did, and they spent the designated interview time just shooting the s---, according to Sheila. They had agreed that a formal Q&A would feel a little forced.
Rick notified the applicants after his selected external candidate (i.e., not Sheila) had accepted the role. He sent the same e-mail to her that he sent to everyone else.
To say Sheila was upset was an understatement. She was adamant that her situation was something called “quid pro quo” harassment. Jim was fairly certain that if he checked her browsing history, he’d see Google searches that morning on “hostile environment.”
“This is the job,” Jim thought after Sheila left, as he tried, and failed, to slouch in his ergonomic office chair.
"Have you documented that?”
Alesha knew the answer before she asked. Randy never documented anything, but he was always indignant when he couldn’t fire someone on his terms.
Randy was the classic sales leader. He brought home the bacon and thought that meant he could do whatever he wanted. That always made Alesha mad—successful salespeople doing what they pleased while the rest of company had to play by the rules.
Randy had made the mistake of sharing in the leadership team meeting that Lawrence, an account executive who had been with BitDome (a telecom making a pivot to becoming a cloud provider) for six months, was struggling.
Information was power, and Alesha liked the power that rules provided.
“You know there’s a progressive discipline policy and a performance improvement plan for sales at BitDome, right, Randy?” she asked.
Of course he knew. Still, Alesha loved taking charge and addressing managerial renegades in public.
As HR director at a mid-size company with a vacant VP of HR job in the process of being filled, Alesha had been asked to participate in the weekly leadership team meetings. She had attended the sessions for the last two months, and she was gradually becoming more of a participant than an observer.
Randy looked angry for a split second, then calm as he turned to the CEO and answered.
“No question the process and policies are important. I’m just not sure if we can afford to keep a non-performing rep on board with the revenue challenges we have. Of course, that might depend on how deep the sales recruiting pipeline is. Any thoughts on how that looks, Alesha?”
The 180-degree turn hit Alesha like a sucker punch. She had many talents, but running recruiting as an unnamed interim VP of HR wasn’t one of them.
A couple of awkward seconds passed. Phil, the CEO, broke the silence by exhaling loudly, throwing his hands together and asking Alesha to work with Randy, give him what he needs, and then work Lawrence out in the next two to three weeks.
Carol, the VP of marketing, approached Alesha in the hallway after the meeting.
“When it comes to revenue vs. rules, revenue wins every time. Keep your head up.”
"Are you coming or not?”
Saturday nights were for the girls. At least that was the motto in the house Veronica lived in. She had connected with the other two women through volunteer work, and they had stretched to lease a house in the McCormick Row House District in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago.
“Go ahead and go, I’ll catch up later! Got to get one thing out for work,” Veronica shouted back after a 30-second delay.
Saturday night at 9 seemed like a strange time to have to work. But Veronica wasn’t working, she was waiting.
Earlier in the day, Veronica had submitted a final project for her job at Bedazzled Software. She had joined Bedazzled two years ago as a 24-year-old with a goal of becoming a CHRO by the time she was 30. Working for a company focused on the human capital sector seemed to make sense from a learning perspective.
Two years in, she had already been promoted twice and was now an HRBP for the development group. One of the things she loved about working in HR at Bedazzled was the fact that the leaders seemed to really value her work.
Veronica knew this project would blow them away. With access to developers, she had rigged up a tool to measure strength of internal networks and knowledge via analysis of e-mail data. Her study had shown what she thought was true: Many young professionals at Bedazzled were relied on in ways that transcended their total years of experience.
Veronica stared at her laptop screen. She had submitted the slides and her report to her boss and the CHRO at 3:00. It was now 9:15. Why hadn’t she heard back?
The last two times she had submitted project work, she had gotten a response from the CHRO (a notorious workaholic) within two hours. Damn.
9:37. She picked up her phone to fire a message off to her boss.
Veronica reminded herself not to text like a Millennial in need of a trophy.
Freddie, 26, was an HR coordinator at Quick Delivery. He had been with the transportation company for two years in the corporate office, working for Carol, the HR manager in charge of serving the technology division. He did what most HR coordinators did, handling the transactions, onboarding and generally all incoming inquiries so Carol could hose down the daily fires caused by employees.
Karen, the CHRO, had done one of her infamous drop-ins and asked his opinion about whether the code competition, a recognition and employee relations tactic of sorts, should be shut down.
“I’m asking you what you think, Freddie,” Karen said. There was an edge in her voice.
There it was. Karen wasn’t going to let go, and Carol was in Croatia on a goodwill trip to one of the company’s offshore tech centers. This was the normal Karen playbook—put more responsibility on the minions than their title would suggest they had, chain of command be dammed. They called her “drive-by Karen.”
“If I was on the debate team, I could take either side. Kill it, or don’t kill it.” The words seemed weak coming out of Freddie’s mouth. He kind of wanted to take them back halfway out, but they were already done.
“Math, Freddie. Make the call based on what you do best.”
There were 40 people in the HR department, and Karen knew Freddie was carrying a stats minor from Davidson College. She had dropped e-mails to him before asking for analysis of things she was working on, always copying Carol. The first time he gave her some analysis, she took 30 minutes to show him how he should package it for the C-level.
“I think the utilization of the program is understated. There are five power users in a division of 500 hoodies. They make it look like 10 percent of the function is active, but it’s not true. For the money we’re spending, we should shut it down.” That felt a bit too direct. Karen smiled at him as she pulled her arm down from his cubicle. Somebody was about to have their pet project killed.
Brenda wasn’t sure how she got here, but she was pretty sure she was in hell. Chuck had just plopped down in a seat at the entrance to her cubicle. She remembered that another employee had pulled the chair out of a makeshift conference room the HR team had established in the file room—and left it by her cube.
Brenda tried to tell her HR manager at JS Gilbert that using the file room for meetings was a bad idea due to security protocol. She was overridden because all the conference rooms had been converted into offices or more cubes. Yes, they worked at a commercial real estate firm.
Chuck had sought Brenda out to inquire about co-pays for a doctor’s visit for his irritable bowel syndrome. She had learned to look back at her screen just enough to get people like him to realize the conversation was probably over without offending them. Soon, Chuck was gone.
Did you know John makes $17 per hour?
Ashley was such a piece of work. Brenda still remembered the new hire orientation they were both a part of seven years ago. Brenda was a new hire in accounts payable, where she still worked. They shared a common love of all things Brad Paisley, and they routinely ate lunch together.
Brenda got random texts from Ashley at least three times per week. They were usually about celebrity gossip but occasionally included tidbits of work rumors. Brenda had learned the hard way that these were fishing expeditions seeking to confirm info via her access to HR data. Brenda decided to deflect in her text back to Ashley.
No. Did you know Chuck is dealing with IBS?
Brenda didn’t think much about sharing Chuck’s personal struggles with IBS because she had heard him telling a table of five about his struggles last week in the break room. There’s only one Chuck, she thought.
LOL. What does he make? Later.
Ashley had successfully been deflected. As Brenda toggled back to e-mail, she checked the human resource management system. John in accounts receivable made $16 an hour.
Brenda had a name for dealing with things like IBS and a friend pumping her for salary info.
She called that “Tuesday.”
Kris Dunn is a partner and CHRO at Kinetix, a national RPO firm for growth companies headquartered in Atlanta, and the author of The 9 Faces of HR (SHRM, 2019), from which this article is adapted.