Going Out on a Limb, Here

Photo courtesy of Emma's Teashop for Old Ladies

Didn’t get to go to the SHRM annual conference in San Diego this year (or any year for that matter), so I took it upon myself to try to read as much as I could about all the conference doings and such.  After my bazillionth blog, it hit me.  A LOT of these fine folks are saying similar things. 

 And I kinda got pissed off.

 You know, I’m going to go out on a limb here and respond to all the Bloggers, Tweeters, SHRMers, etc. that are saying that, for HR to be effective, it must hear from its practitioners in the field – not from the consultants, academics, etc. who have been populating the national, state and local HR and related conferences around the country and probably around the world.  Such as from:

 Tim Sackett from Fistful of Talent, “When I was preparing to go to SHRM and deciding on what sessions to attend – my very first impression was “seems like I’ve been here and done this before”  – my next impression was “why does 90% of presenters have either consultant or speaker as their title?  Where have all the real HR Pros gone?”

 Ben Eubanks from Upstart HR, “Some of the sessions I went to were wonderful, and I took a lot of notes (and even wrote about some, too). Others didn’t turn out so well. I went to two or three sessions where the speaker read off of slides or just didn’t hit the topic the session was supposed to be about. That’s fine, when that happened I just left or started talking to someone in the crowd. I did my best not to waste any time during the event…”

 Another comment from Ben, “One of the most profound statements I’ve ever heard from Eric was this: move up, not out. So many amazing HR pros eventually take off and leave the profession instead of continually climbing to be Directors, VPs, and Chief HR Officers. We need more great people to ascend to those positions instead of leaving them to the people with seniority by default (even if they don’t have the skills or passion to be great at it)…”.

 Michael VanDervort from The Human Race Horses, “My big learning was really just a verification of what is an old discussion – HR needs to reinvent itself, and it is the practitioners who need to make that happen through aggressively transforming the way we think and work…”

 Mark Stelzner from Inflexion Point, “Second, I was sadly disappointed by the attendee reaction to a keynote featuring a panel of HR leaders, including Google, Northrop Grumman, Kaiser Permanente and Deutsche Bank. SHRM’s membership is generally not comprised of the senior-most HR professionals from the world’s largest firms, so when they actually take the time to show up, share best practices and offer advice, you damn well better pay attention. Attendees swarmed from the session, first in 2’s and 3’s and then by the dozens. Are you there to listen to Steve Forbes and Al Gore or should you perhaps learn from those who have theoretically arrived at your career destination? And if you did walk out early, you missed a gem from Deutsche Bank’s Conrad Venter when he predicated that HR will be obsolete in ten years if we stay on our current course…”.

Kathy Rapp from Fistful of Talent, “When people ponder the future of HR or ask, “What’s wrong with HR?!” it’s my belief we don’t have enough HR pros who possess the attitude of “Give ME the ball or I want to win the game.”  If there were, we’d have more HR practitioners teaching at SHRM conferences and sharing their own personal stories of achievement and beating the odds.  We’d have more HR folks who move into top leadership roles in their companies outside of HR vs. those non-HR executives who “land” in HR to finish out their careers.  Frankly, we’d have more students coming out of college wanting a job in HR because of the opportunity to build successful business careers and make a better than average living…”

 And, Charlie Judy from HR Fishbowl, “Much of what I see today seems oriented too much toward developing pansy HR subject matter experts and not focused enough on injecting the HR professional pipeline with people who are Ninjas in navigating workplace complexities, sorting through emotional dynamics, acting with agility, and thinking critically.  Without that stuff, you’re just a commodity; after all, anyone can learn to manage a benefit plan…sorry.  If as a profession we are really committed to making HR more crucial to an organization’s value stream, I think we should see stuff like this in the syllabus…”

 What’s the common thread here, people? 

What I interpret is that HR has to change.  No ands, ifs or buts about it.  And I am totally up and down with that.  But change is NOT going to come from the folks who have been doing the same things year after year after year – the HR generalists and practitioners slogging along, waiting until retirement. 

You know, the ones who run to the conference expo hall for all the free swag. 

The ones who leave when senior HR leaders do participate and try to help start the transformation.

Makes me mad as hell.

Here’s the thing – I have consultant and speaker in my title – and guess what?  I was still am an HR practitioner and OD specialist.  As a consultant I get to go into a lot of different organizations and see what’s happening at the macro and micro levels.  As a speaker, I get to share ideas –in an interesting and engaging way – that hopefully serve to inspire and get people to start thinking and doing things a bit differently. 

That is what a teacher is,  you know.  Someone who is focusing on the future and hopefully opening new minds to new ideas.

So, that is what I take from all these comments.  We don’t just need practitioners to share their thinking; we need new minds, new ideas, and new ways of doing things – no matter where they may be.  And that is going to take some serious shaking up and shaping of up of HR.   It’s time.

That’s why I love reading the comments and blogs – new minds, new thinking, new ways.

Makes me aim to misbehave.



  1. Great post, Heather.

    Why is it that the HR folks who scream the loudest about the transactional plight of HR, “x-nay” the very speakers that provide the base for strategic growth?

    HR Consultants work through a plethora of organizational issues daily, have a deeper understanding of business beyond HR, held accountable for their recommendations, and earn their client’s business every day.

    It makes me want to scream.

  2. I like you. E.

  3. Steve Milton says:

    Great post. I attended the conference and read many of the blogs. About the latter, quite a few complained, quite bitterly, that in his Sunday opening keynote Steve Forbes didn’t speak about HR.

    Actually, Forbes did touch briefly on a number of HR topics — from the growing burden of regulatory compliance to the role of health savings accounts. But his presentation was mostly focused on how to read the economy for signs of growth, and structural obstacles to growth (high tax rates, misguided accounting regs, etc.). It was his focus on macroeconomics that really seemed to anger many of the bloggers.

    That’s interesting, because the panel of HR chiefs on Tuesday specifically and repeatedly made the point that HR cannot remain a silo, that HR can’t just strategize about HR, and that HR has to learn the lingo and lessons of the business and focus on helping the organization compete more effectively.

    Forbes wasn’t the most dynamic speaker (he was in a neck brace from recent surgery, for one thing). And he didn’t pander to HR (as Gore did, by telling HR people how great they are). But he had some great insights which the angry bloggers managed to dismiss out of hand. Too bad.

    • HR Whisperer says:

      Yes, the bloggers did seem to pan Forbes a bit, didn’t they, and I also found that interesting. I do think we HR folks operate in silo at time – a lot of it has to do with the nature of the job. As I said, it’s time for change; we just need to figure out how. Thanks for your comments!

  4. are you pissed at these “fine folks” for saying the same things or are you pissed because they have to be said at all? to be clear, your quote from my blog didn’t come from the SHRM conference…it came from a post long ago. regardless, i like what you’re saying…i think. i was one of those people complaining about the vendors/consultants at HREvolution (see Trish’s comments). An important distinction, though, is that my complaint was not so much about their presence or their input as it was the balance (or lack thereof) of their presence and input. You mention as much. the other complaint about hearing too much from consultants is that while they may help us think differently or challenge the status quo, much of what’s spewed is often impractical for the average HR practitioner who works in a small department with limited resources. i think consultants sometimes force us to over-engineer things and in the process we lose focus on what we’re really best positioned to do – take care of people. caution, balance, healthy skepticism, and diverse perspective is what this is all about….thanks!

    • HR Whisperer says:

      Great points, Charlie. No, I’m not ticked that people are saying them, I’m ticked because we have to say them. I believe we all have to be a part of the conversation equation, regardless of the role we play. (And, I LOVED your comment about “pansy” HR, when what we need are Ninjas!) I like to think I’m a Ninja, as well as the rest of our fellow bloggers — we’re going to create change, I just know it. Yes, HR folks with limited resources can find some ideas impractical (and so do large HR orgs as well, having been in one of each), but the idea should be to make people think; think differently and then acting on that. Trial and error. It’s all learning and its all good. Thanks for you comments; appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts!

  5. Great points! Those are some of the reasons I long ago gave up on SHRM conferences (along with my membership). The more progressive HR groups I’ve consulted over the years bring in leaders from outside HR to run it – a telling act, I think. As consultants, we have more of an outward-looking orientation – and HR departments as a whole need more of that to freshen them up and get them moving.

    • HR Whisperer says:

      Thanks, Steve. Conferences are tough, especially the big one (national). Too many people without a chance for real dialogue. That’s why I at times prefer the smaller venues, such as HR Florida and others. All that said, we regardless of venue, we need to continue to encourage creative, distruptive thinking among ourselves if we are to move our profession forward. Glad you are a part of the conversation!

  6. Ok, I just about geeked out reading your post. I wanted to stand up and cheer. Literally. Like you, I’m a HR pro working in the trenches every single day. I am also a speaker, writer, and person who consults with other companies about how to make their human resource actions better.

    My frustration came after HRevolution. When so many people criticized us for allowing consultants as facilitators, I whole-heartedly disagreed. I think there needs to be a mix. Besides, most consultants were or still are in HR or recruiting and they bring best practice ideas to you in your organization. Here is a little of what I said to address the naysayers back in May about HRevolution and our facilitators:

    “It takes EACH participant’s actions to make the event what it is. The planning committee pours our hearts and souls into the event. The companies that sponsor individuals to come to the event are instrumental (Whiting Consulting and Nobscot Corporation). The facilitators who work very hard to start interesting and thought provoking conversations. The participants who become actual teachers to the group. Having a mix of HR pros, recruiters, consultants, professors, CEO’s, journalists, marketers, and pundits make it a great learning opportunity.

    You do not need to be a day-to-day HR practitioner to bring value to HRevolution. I learned so much from many people who are not HR practitioners. These ideas will challenge me to continue to go beyond HR and truly be a business partner in my organization. Thanks to all who shared business information on culture, finance, marketing, influence, communications, and technology. You’re helping us find challenge so we can grow.”

    I would love to have more HR practitioners involved, they just are not out there volunteering to do it. I’m glad you’re showing the other side. Thanks.

  7. Solid post!

    You are calling out a stigma that needed to be addressed! I like that 😉

    Keep it up!

  8. Very thought provoking post, Heather. Some reactionary comments:

    I have always felt that those who do consulting work ARE HR practitioners. Never really had any doubt of that, in my mind at least.

    Many days I aspire to be a consultant, for exactly the reason you describe, the chance to see different organizations, different ideas, and different approaches

    When I talk about , “practitioners who need to make that happen through aggressively transforming the way we think and work…”, the above is essentially what I am referring to. Internal HR people need to become more consultative in their approach to new ideas, and to problem solving. We need to be looking outside our four walls for new ideas, and less normative approaches to risk management and policy solutions.

    Thanks for pointing the potential imbalance of our own view. The discourse is excellent, and challenging any norm can only make us better!

    • HR Whisperer says:

      Thanks, Michael – you’re right. We’ve got to challenge the norm, if we’re going to make HR better!

  9. Heather, this post is AMAZING. I completely love it and I completely agree. I’m a little more coarse about it, but the sentiment is the same. Let’s make HR suck less. I am in a department where half of the HR people would be happy never moving forward until the earth disintegrates into a ball of dust and fire (sometime around 2012, probably). The other half tries to make positive forward steps and is hamstrung by the lack of participation by the nonbelievers. It’s going to happen. It WILL happen. And those that don’t move along will be left in the dust.


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