Delivering Happiness (& Fresh Thinking): HR with a Twist at BC HRMA Conference 2012

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By Jason McRobbie

For 70 years, BC HRMA has brought the best of HR to the table. For the past 50 years,   conference has brought the brightest and the best in business – and beyond – directly to the stage. From April 25-27, 2012, BC HRMA celebrated a pair of anniversaries and gathered  together over 1,000 HR professionals, thought leaders and solution suppliers for its 50th Annual BC HRMA Conference and Tradeshow: 70 years of shared purpose and half a century of gathering to reconnect, rethink and find fresh fuel for further results.

From Human Resources to Neuro Resources
Dr. David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, might seem an odd choice of speaker for the 50th Annual BC HRMA Conference and Tradeshow. After all, for all of its challenges, HR really isn’t brain science – or is it?  As it turns out, it most certainly is.

According to the latest in neuroscience leadership, HR has a far larger role to play in “Founding Our Future” than imagined. While neuroscience might not be part of traditional HR curriculum, Dr. Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, moved it onto the mandatory reading list for a full house of HR professionals.

“You might think that you manage people. Really I think you manage brains. Thinking is the work we do today. People are thinking for a living. It’s the brain that’s doing the thinking, so in many ways we need to learn how to maximize thinking if we want to maximize performance,” said Rock. “It’s very relevant for HR, not just to reduce stress and improve overall culture, but to achieve the ultimate goal of HR, which I think is organizational performance.”

“There’s actually a circuit inside the brain called the self and social circuit. Did you know you had a social network in your brain? It’s the reason for Facebook’s success. It’s a big circuit and you love it very much,” said Dr. Rock. “Being goal-focused switches off the circuit for thinking in terms of people. They’re two different circuits.”

Rethinking Strategy: Redefining Leadership
As to this finding’s impact on the workplace? The brains of many leaders are simply hardwired differently – and not all of their traits should HR leaders seek to emulate.

Rock admits, and history has shown, that fear is both a powerful and common motivator – so long as no heavy thinking need be done. However, at a time when creative-thinking and collaborative-innovation are mandated for survival, the C-suite is challenged by the prior paradigms of success.

“Leaders are bad at coaching. Leaders are bad at career conversations. Leaders are bad at innovation. They’re bad at driving change. They’re bad a giving feedback.  All that is the soft, messy stuff, right? It’s the human side of things.”

As explained by Rock, every five seconds our brain’s limbic system poses a simple question with complex results: fight or flight?  As relatively simple substitutes, the carrot and stick have served as mainstay managerial motivators with serviceable results.

“I think there’s a big gap between what we want and the theories, skill and tools that we have. My goal with the neuroleadership field has been to develop an understanding of the biology of leadership tasks,” said Rock. “So what do leaders do and and how can we get better at those leadership tasks by understanding brains?”

Exploiting Chaos: Aligning HR with Primary Purpose
According to Jeremy Gutsche, founder of Trendhunter.com and author of Exploiting Chaos, this is where HR can be most effective, not in terms of strategy, but culture.

Gutsche addressed the HR opportunity most directly with a quote by eminent management theorist Peter Drucker: “It’s not the questions that change, it’s the answers that change.”

Herein, lies the traditional domain and challenge of HR – to create working cultures that bring top talent to the bottom line in times of change.

Focusing HR’s attention on the really important questions is understandably key. Fortunately, the most important question is a matter of critical perspective: “Specifically what are you trying to do?”

“This matters both for the people on your team to be able to answer why they are compelled to be a part of your organization, but also for me as a new employee or a customer. Why should I choose you?” asked Gutsche. “It’s no longer about selling a product. It’s about the experience. The HR departments in successful organizations use this question to align their company and put it on a mission.”

As for the function of HR, Gutsche said, “The answer to that question of what it is you do; that is so different. Your roles are so much more complicated but exciting than they were 10 years ago. HR is becoming the pivotal role for companies trying to take their brands into a new space.”

A Culture of Revolution in Four Not-So-Easy Pieces
The trouble with seeking inspiration in times of chaos, Gutsche explains, is the distraction created by the sheer volume of information available. “A lot of research shows we have become less innovative in our corporate cultures over the last 20 or 30 years. We’ve started obsessing about benchmarking our competitors, but not raw creativity.”

“So how do you recreate, knowing that experience is such an important thing and that HR is that pivotal role that can make your organizations excel and reinvent?” Gutsche asked before answering. “The area where HR has the most control is creating a culture of revolution.”

Fortunately, the framework for Gutsche’s culture of revolution is both benign and beneficial, hinged upon four primary puzzle pieces: perspective, intentional destruction, failure and customer obsession.

“As organizations we seek to preserve the status quo, but in times of chaos and change, we need to tear down those things that made us successful; we need to try things that are much different,” said Gutsche. “Don’t wait to be shocked by change. Think about the role and tone you play in your organization to try and make people more willing to experiment, to push the boundaries and test the limits. As for those standing their ground with the attitude ‘we’re good, we don’t have to try,’ well if that’s true, then complacency will be the architecture of your downfall.”

Avoid the Success Trap: Discover New Hills of Opportunity
As for the inevitability of failure en route for those willing to make the effort? On that point, Gutsche is clear: “Win like you are used to it. Lose like you enjoy it.”

“What happens is you’re on a hill of opportunity and you’ve figured out a pattern for success. This applies to everyone in this room. Because you’re good at what you do at any given time you can tweak your formula and become just a little bit better. You’re going to find the top of your hill no matter what. That’s automatic,” said Gutsche before touching upon the cautionary tale of Smith-Corona.

“They had invented a thousand different types of typewriters, so at any given time they knew how to tweak their typewriter formula and find the peak of that hill. But because they were good and successful at that, the first time they tried to make a computer, it just didn’t seem as successful. Being good then, can be a trap; it can stop you from discovering the new hills of opportunity.”

Surviving the Twist: Thriving in the Post-Everything Economy
In light of the past four years of economic unrest, it is a lesson many organizations have already learned: some at great cost and others to new profit.

According to Linda Nazareth, economist, author, television broadcaster and expert on demographic and social change, what lies ahead only emphasizes the importance of HR’s role in the coming economy.  Both from the stage and in her newest book, The Twist: Finding Your Way in the Post-Everything Economy, Nazareth brings into sharp focus what we have experienced globally, as well as closer to home and at the heart of our organizations in recent years.

“We’ve gone through a major economic twist. The world slowed down. The world has picked up again, but we’re still paying the bills and dealing with the mentality that we got through this, but we might get hit by it again.  In a way it’s a kind of never-ending recession in the sense that we all have to keep costs down and look for efficiencies for a long time: not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a reality.”

“You might feel like you’ve been through a lot of challenges already, but there are a lot of challenges ahead. Now is the time to plan. Now is the time to think about where you fit in your organization. It is the time to think about where your own life is going. ” said Nazareth.

Given the nature of the second major ‘twist’ already applying tension on the workplace, the diversity of applicable answers can only inspire innovative potential.

Diversity, Disparity and Opportunity
“The next twist we’re going to deal with is the demographic twist. We’ve talked about this for a long time and now it’s happening. We have an aging workforce, aging population, some people coming in, not a lot of people leaving the workforce and a lot of  things changing because the two twists are hitting together,” Nazareth explained. “It’s only going to get more complicated, not necessarily worse, over the next five to 10 years.”

Primary to that complication is the flip side of the aging workforce: the disillusion growing at the opposite end of the spectrum. As Nazareth notes, the trend of youth unemployment is both growing and global.

“It’s a crisis situation for most of Europe. Canada’s not quite as bad as it was in the 80s which is good to see, but this I think is going be the issue of the next 10 years: the loss of opportunity for those in their 20s, for youth, in a lot of the world. The social and economic implications of that are going to be huge and we’re seeing it already. That’s what we’re seeing internationally and part of the bigger picture right now.”

As for any organizations with lingering doubts as to the value of HR versus the bottom line, Nazareth’s forecast was much in keeping with the conference’s theme. Founding Our Future has taken time and timing alike.

“HR’s going to become a more important role within an organization. It may be hard to make that case at first because people look at it and say, ‘Well, here’s a cost centre,’ but an HR department that has creative ideas, that can manage change, that can bring forth options for companies to save money and get more out workers, transition the things that need to be transitioned – is not really a cost centre; they’re a profit centre.”

Most importantly, good HR works anywhere. With the right leader, it can even turn a call center into a happiness hub of legendary profitability.

An HR Success Story: Delivering Happiness
As closing speaker of BC HRMA’s 50th Annual Conference and Tradeshow,  Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh could not have provided a better affirmation of what is truly important for both HR and the bottom line alike. Happiness is everything; failure is healthy.

Hsieh learned the virtues of failure better than most with his first business.

“The whole strategy of hiring friends and then friends of friends worked really well until we got to about 20 people and then we ran into a problem. Basically, we ran out of friends. So, then we had to figure out how to hire people based on interviews and resumes and we were fresh out of college. We learned a lot through trial and error,” said Hsieh. “What we didn’t know any better was to pay attention to company culture. Not everyone we hired for the company was great for the culture and by the time we got to 100 people, I myself dreaded getting out of bed in the morning to go to my own company which was definitely a weird feeling. If I felt that way how must the employees feel and that’s what really led us to sell the company.”

This is why Zappos pays people $4,000 to quit after training and a key qualifier in the interview process is how you treat the driver who picks you up and drops you off; everyone hired spends two weeks of training working the phones and either learns to love it or leaves cheque in hand. Clock punchers, bullies and the self-inflated need not apply; they might, however, learn a thing or two in the process. Either way, everyone goes home happy.

Those who make the cut put happy to work: delivering happiness. Lengthy conversations are encouraged, even during the busy seasons; everyone in the company takes to the phones to handle the volume. At Zappos, the product is strictly secondary to the experience and returns are free for the online retailer.

Culture Core to Enduring Success
Therein lies the key to Zappos’ success. Happiness is core culture and key to the living brand: for customers on both sides of the Zappos equation. It also does serious business.

When Hsieh signed off on his company’s $2 billion dollar sale to Amazon.com, he kept core culture off the table.  While most acquisitions are integrated into the flow of the Amazon culture, Hsieh put happiness up front.

“We told them we would only consider it if Zappos could remain independent, if we could continue to grow our brand, our culture and continue doing business our way,” said Hsieh. What had proven previously profitable has worked wonders since.

Shortly thereafter, his first book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller in June 2010. Hsieh’s message has since transformed into a movement to help people, organizations, and businesses apply the different frameworks of happiness to their lives.

While BC HRMA might not sell shoes, the association’s mission is not far off from Hsieh’s line of thought.

People. Passion. Profit.
For the past three years, those three simple words have helped redefine a complex world for many and served to underline the message of BC HRMA’s Annual Conference and Tradeshow.  In “Founding Our Future”, may they continue to serve us well until we meet again for Conference 2013 in Vancouver, May 1-2, 2013.

Visit BC HRMA’s YouTube channel for more video coverage.

PeopleTalk Summer 2012

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