The 20 / 80 Rule – Yet Again
I am always mentioning my 20 / 80 rule. I firmly believe that 20% of people, in whatever profession, at whatever level, are actually above average-performers. While this is never a statement regarding their quality as a person, the reality is that 80% of managers and staff are either average performers, at best, or below-average performers. From a business perspective, my focus is always toward those rare people who are either already above-average performers or those few who are determined to join their ranks – they just seem to understand me, and I seem to understand them. From experience I can say that much of their success can be attributed to their having a growth-oriented mindset, being inquisitive and open to new ideas, and their wanting to find ways to get things done properly. Generally speaking, I find them to be honest and respectful, they value the contribution of others, they understand the ‘give and take’ of relationship building, and they rarely make mistakes in their interpersonal interactions.
In this respect, HR personnel, regardless of their specialization, are no different than people in any other profession – 20% are exceptional at what they do. Like most professionals, they too have an initial piece of ‘paper’ (degree, diploma) that helped them to get started in their field, and quite often they have added to their education along the way. But, like everyone else, their paper does not ensure that they will meet performance expectations – it’s what they actually do, and have done, that counts. And although I typically work directly with the CEO, President, and VP levels of my client organizations, on those occasions that I have been involved with HR, the exceptional ones are consistently similar to their more senior management team in that they truly care about achieving real performance results, and their subsequent actions support this commitment. The problem is that 80% of the time too much focus is devoted to looking good rather than actually being good.
While HR may be no different from a 20 / 80 perspective, because they are typically in a higher profile and more expansive role, they are more visible to both internal personnel and to people who are external to their organization. If they are above-average performers their visibility will result in a positive impression. But unfortunately, because the great majority of HR are average performers, or below, those contacts who have high performance expectations will often be disappointed. As a result, they often develop a negative perception of HR which can further translate into a generalized negative stereotype over time (“they’re all the same”). Internal senior management must avoid this stereotypical thinking and at the same time refuse to accept mediocrity in HR performance. Instead, by focusing on attracting, retaining and supporting the work of the very best in this field, they will experience all of the subsequent business benefits of well managed organizational human capital.
A True Business Participant or a Self-Protector?
That said, it is unfortunate that senior management will often view HR as a ‘necessary evil’, not fully understanding the contribution that they are making, or that they potentially can make, to organizational growth and development. Attempts to reduce this impression and to bridge the gap between management’s business thinking and HR’s approach are often feebly attempted when HR tries to define themselves as ‘business partners’, primarily via their position titles. As a business owner, who often performs some HR related services (recruitment, selection, performance enhancement, management / leadership training and development), I find myself miles away from most HR in my thinking. Being a businessman first, I just do not operate in the typical HR manner and, despite their likely protests to the contrary, HR most often are just not business people.
That said, when I do connect with the 20% of HR who are performance-focused business thinkers it seems like a whole new world opens up. In a recent conversation with a VP HR for a global manufacturer, I found that our discussion flowed just as easily as it does with non-HR managers. We found common ground on many items and, rather than being resistant and closed minded, there was a mutual openness to investigating potential opportunity, which I believe to be a strong component of business thinking. I could tell that he really knew his ‘stuff’ (hopefully he felt the same about me), and I could see that his organization had found ‘one of the good ones’ who was making a significant contribution. (It’s amazing how we feel, and what we gain, when we get off email and have real conversations!)
The unfortunate reality is that the 80%, not being on the same business-thinking ‘page’ as their senior managers, will often feel insecure about their role and how their contribution is perceived. (I assume that many of the HR resumes I receive, and my numerous HR connections on LinkedIn, are the result of job insecurity). Too often lapsing into a self-protection mentality they, as a result, will often develop a change-resistant fixed mindset, will rely on tired status-quo HR practices that are easier for them to manage and justify than to change, and will become a ‘closed door gatekeeper’ rather than welcoming opportunity, all of which can cause them to operate in ways that actually inhibits or stagnates business performance. This is the polar opposite to being a true business partner.
Unaccountable Self Protection Can Be Disastrous
Further, when senior management leaves HR unaccountable for performance results, it becomes easier for them to become isolated and removed from the real business objectives of the organization. A friend employed in international business development recently said to me; “They seem to be in their own world, building their own secure fiefdoms”. Senior management simply cannot allow this to happen. By hiring and retaining above-average HR in the first place, the likelihood that they will become insecure and isolated is very low. But by also effectively monitoring all aspects of HR influenced performance (hiring, retention, succession availability, managerial and staff performance, overall departmental / business performance etc etc), senior management can evaluate the capability of their HR staff, encourage their performance enhancement or replace the weak with more capable and effective HR people. High performers are never threatened by well-intentioned evaluation, nor are they resistant to positive capability enhancement suggestions that will only help them to perform even better. This is why they become high performers.
Over the years, a number of CEO’s / Presidents have ‘passed’ me on to HR, most of whom (80%) would subsequently tell me that ‘everything is fine, we are already doing that’. (It wasn’t and they weren’t). And later, when a noticeable number of these senior managers sent me THEIR resumes, as they were no longer employed with their organization, I realized that there was a definite pattern. No, they did not specifically lose their jobs because they did not interact with me. But most likely the chain of events was representative of a typical ‘no need to change’ fixed-mindset, in either, or both, senior management and HR, and a lack of performance accountability in others that eventually brought their personal performance under the microscope. This is what happens when you delegate unaccountable authority to the wrong people.
Senior managements’ career health depends on making everyone, including HR, performance accountable.
Surrounding Yourself with the 20% Exceptional HR People Is Critical
Just like all organizational members, your HR can be either an asset or a liability, and you need to consistently evaluate their effectiveness. To determine their value, you will need to ask, and honestly answer, some questions. Is HR actually providing the necessary human capital services that will satisfy organizational objectives? Are they operating as a positive internal coordinator, linking business units and sharing relevant interdepartmental communication that aligns HR activities with managerial business objectives? Or are they frustrating and confusing your managers and staff by not providing real value where it is required? Are they a positive external representative of your organization who effectively communicates your ‘brand’ to potential employees, customers and service partners? Or are they presenting a negative image that alienates, and is unattractive to, the ‘outside world’?
“You can try to create a positive brand all you want,but people will remember how you make them feel – not what you say”.
Further, don’t be fooled by personal brands related to HR titles. As previously mentioned, just because some HR people attempt to gain credibility by being referred to as an HR Business Partner, most are not. Similarly, too many of those who prefer to be called ‘Talent Acquisition Specialists’ do not really understand the performance characteristics that contribute to someone having ‘talent’ (the 20%), and therefore they often struggle to identify people who actually are talented. And be cautious about ‘Senior Recruiters’ who prematurely obtain that title after only a few years of experience because they simply outlasted others who fell by the wayside after one or two years. You should never delegate unaccountable authority to people based on their self-appointed ‘brands’. Always go beyond titles and resumes to evaluate HR’s contribution based on their actual performance – this is what really matters.
Since HR’s performance is so critical to your organizations’ success, you need to focus on hiring and keeping those rare exceptional ones, and to developing those just as rare people who truly have the potential to be exceptional. The performance-supporting characteristics that they need to possess are too numerous to mention here, but a short list could include:
Depending on organizational size and requirements, the presence of a strong internal HR department is essential to your organizational growth and development. It is important that you focus on hiring and retaining exceptional HR people, and that you encourage the presence of a growth-oriented, business mentality at all HR levels, in all HR roles, not only senior level HR personnel. This will ensure both effective internal HR management and a positive external impression that will help to facilitate potential positive business opportunities. When it is more practical to outsource some HR-related functions or projects to specialists, you should be equally careful that you are doing so to exceptional external service providers.
You need to avoid fixed mindset people at all costs. Should a fixed mindset exist in your HR personnel, you need to first determine whether its existence is in response to a fixed mindset in your senior management team or because of your senior management’s failure to provide effective oversight and accountability in HR performance. Allowing a fixed mindset to manifest at either level can often result in a fixed mindset organizational culture, with the evidence being found in subsequent mediocre performance results. As always, the key is to keep your eye on meeting your performance objectives, and your success will be experienced when you utilize those exceptional HR people who are above-average performers.