Everyone’s quoting Steve Jobs these days, so I’ll join the party and share what he allegedly said to a candidate for the VP role at Apple:
“I’ve never met one of you who didn’t suck. I’ve never known an HR person who had anything but a mediocre mentality.”
Unfortunately, many business leaders would agree, even if they wouldn’t express the sentiment in such politically incorrect language. When I have recruited HR leaders, one set of specs my clients have nearly always demanded is, “We don’t want a ‘typical HR person’.” When I’ve asked them to tell me more about this ‘typical HR person,’ they use words and phrases like “bureaucratic,” “internal police,” “rigid” and “clueless about business.” When I ask them what they do want, they give me descriptions like “smart,” “flexible,” “good advisor,” “a person I can trust,” “a person who understands business,” and “someone who realizes that you’ve got to bend the rules, depending on the situation.”
Behind all those words was a very clear message: “We don’t trust HR people.” Since that belief represented a pretty serious obstacle that the successful candidate would have to overcome, I decided to raise the point in the interview process, with the help of Mr. Jobs. I asked each candidate this question: “Imagine you are interviewing for the top HR job at Apple. You have just entered Steve Jobs’ office and the first thing he says to you is, ‘I’ve never met one of you who didn’t suck.’ How would you respond?”
Most of the candidates blew it. They described how they would lecture Steve Jobs on proper interviewing techniques, the legal risks he was creating with such an attitude, and how he needed to take a look at his leadership style. A few even said they would turn around and walk straight out of his office in a huff. They even sounded huffy when they answered the question.
The few candidates who moved forward in the process took a different approach. They would laugh when they heard the question and say, “You know, he’s got a point. There are too many people in HR who think HR is about HR and not about the needs of the business.” They’d also say that they’d tell Steve that they understood where he was coming from and close with, “Let me tell you why I don’t suck.”
The question proved to be so powerful that most clients would skip my detailed analysis of a candidate’s competencies and go straight to the “Steve Jobs Question” to make their decision on who should come in for an interview.
I have to admit that over my career I have met more HR people with “mediocre mentalities” than I would have liked. These are generally people who focus on the rules, policies and compliance aspects of HR rather than the people, the strategy and the culture. A good example of this type was the generalist candidate who answered the boilerplate question, “Why are you in HR?” with the unforgettable line, “I love to control people.” When the interview team recovered from their shock, they asked her to explain what she meant. She told us that she loved the feeling of people being dependent on her to solve their problems. “It’s like I’m the parent and they’re the children,” she explained.
Unfortunately, it’s not only the perceived overemphasis on compliance and control that has given the HR profession a less-than-stellar reputation in some circles. For years, HR has struggled to find its role in business; I can’t think of another profession that had to add the tagline “business partner” to job titles to remind people that they work to support a business and simultaneously advertise that fact to others. Too much HR training is focused on learning rules, regulations and methodologies instead of teaching people how to apply those realities and tools to the real world of business and the constant surprises that real human beings always manage to generate. And yes, some of the problem lies with HR leaders who lack a clear understanding of their role, and appear confused and indecisive to their executive peers.
Still, in the end, I have to disagree with Mr. Jobs’ assessment. I certainly understand how he and other business leaders could have developed such perception, but in this case, perception is not reality. Most of the people I know in HR are people who want to make a difference for their organizations, want to help the people they work with, and consistently demonstrate the ability to learn and adapt to the unexpected. They are curious people with open minds; creative problem-solvers who want to feel that their work has meaning. When guided by leaders who are confident, capable of seeing the big picture and providing a vision, committed to providing value, and able to collaborate with their executive peers as equals, these underrated and under-appreciated HR people can achieve great things.