business team

I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to be a first-hand witness to events that clearly demonstrated how not to do things.

While finishing up my graduate work, I was making a living in the Corporate OD group at a company that was once a major player in the technology field. Although I was somewhere near the bottom of the hierarchy as the trainer of first-line supervisory development programs, I did get to interact with some of the gurus at the top, a few of whom later went to work for Tom Peters and other big names in the field. The point of interaction involved the implementation of a company-wide quality program, a major change initiative (to say the least).

As the change process moved forward, it became clear that a major obstacle stood in the way: The HR Department. They refused to change the performance review system to incorporate the tenets of the new quality program. They rejected the suggestion to review the compensation program to ensure it was aligned with the messages we wanted to embed in the culture. The HR Department even refused to send their people to the mandatory quality training classes, choosing not to participate in the program at all. Nearly every other department in the company had specific plans to incorporate the principles of the new quality program into their internal processes, but the HR Department stubbornly declined to participate.

Why? The truth is was that the HR VP and the OD VP couldn’t stand each other. They spent as much time taking potshots at each other and engaging in political gamesmanship as they did on the work they were hired to do. Combine that with a hands-off CEO who found conflict terribly unpleasant, and you have a sure-fire recipe for organizational dysfunction.

The quality program was implemented with great fanfare, but never really took hold. Without HR’s support, key systems were never changed to support the initiative, creating a whole lot of noise in a communication channel that needed complete clarity. People felt the company was sending out mixed messages, and many started to believe that the company really wasn’t serious about quality. People became cynical and began referring to the quality program as “flavor-of-the-month.”

This experience led me to the firm belief in the value of the complete integration of all human-side functions: HR, OD and Training. All of these functions share the same goal: helping to create a great place to work. All of these functions need to communicate the same philosophy, the same values and the same messages about what the organization is trying to achieve and why. Even more importantly, these functions need to resolve any obvious or underlying conflicts to avoid sending out mixed messages, and the easiest way to do that is to unite the functions under a leader who is fully committed to building common ground and helping people to learn from the different perspectives on the team.

In my three stints as top HR leader, this was always one of my goals, and I ran into the same obstacles every time. Training and OD people often resist being associated with HR because HR has the reputation as The Department of You Can’t Do That! OD people in particular tend not to want to get their hands dirty with such pedestrian issues as compensation and benefits, and some of the more snooty OD people view HR people as “less than” in terms of education and intellect. For their part, HR professionals receive very little real education in change management, organizational development and learning theory, and the education they do receive in these fields is fairly superficial.

So, the first thing you need to do is . . . educate them all! Show the HR people that their initiatives would be much more successful if they approached them as change-and-learning initiatives instead of program roll-outs. Show the OD people that many core messages and values emanate from HR, from the wording of policies to the priorities of the sales compensation program, and those messages must be considered as a factor in any careful analysis of the culture. Show the training people that both HR and OD need their expertise in both direct message delivery and in developing teaching skills that make learning an exciting experience. In other words, you have to convince them that they have much to learn from each other and that collaboration will lead to better outcomes for all.

Once you educate them on the philosophy, the next step is to put them together on a project so they can learn from each other and use those learnings to improve the outcome. Benefits is a great place to demonstrate this because it covers all the bases (and if you don’t think that revamping your health plan in today’s environment constitutes a major change-and-learning initiative, you’re crazy). Benefit design choices are loaded with messages about how the company views its relationship with its employees (OD); the complexity of choices and the shift to consumer-driven health care requires education (training); and the plan must remain competitive with a very dynamic market (HR). Cut OD out of the loop and you could wind up with a benefits plan message that contradicts the messages of your culture change initiative, weakening the effectiveness of both initiatives and creating unnecessary cynicism. Leave out the educational component of benefits and you create a legion of frustrated and confused people who will likely conclude that the company is not telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, thus damaging the trust that is needed to support most HR and OD activities.

You’ll find an equally powerful opportunity in HR policies. Seriously!

At one company, we implemented a massive leadership development program based on a message of personal responsibility. Since you can’t expect people to build personal responsibility unless you allow them to make choices and experience the consequences, we encouraged leaders to manage people by giving them choices rather than imposing solutions. Somewhere in the middle of the initial program roll-out, one of the HR people, who was in the midst of expanding her skill set to include OD and Training, pointed out that our policies were sending a contradictory message. They were telling leaders and employees what they had to do instead of giving them choices.

I was a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t thought of that, but I got over it pretty quickly.

Following her lead and bringing in other members of the team, we went through the 150-page policy manual and stripped out every sentence that denied people choices except where the law required us to deny choices. The policy manual shrunk from 150 to 14 pages (!) and the slimmed-down version passed the requisite attorney review. When we published our modest little volume, it sent a clear message that we were serious about personal responsibility, and both managers and employees responded very favorably. The combination of empowering leaders and employees to resolve their own problems reduced our employee relations workload considerably, and we went four years without a single lawsuit or discrimination charge.

The power of these three functions working together is considerable. Focusing these groups towards the common goal of workplace improvement increases the likelihood that improvement will actually take place. While it’s possible to build collaboration between different departments, my experience tells me you get more through organizational integration. With everyone on the same team, you have a better chance to increase cross-specialty learning, unite people behind a shared vision and create stronger initiatives characterized by clear, consistent messages.

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About Bob Mendonsa

Bob Mendonsa is an experienced, engaging facilitator with over twenty years of experience delivering and designing leadership and organizational development programs at all organizational levels in a wide range of industries. Bob’s body of work also includes significant experience in team building, human resources and assignments as the top HR/OD executive at three different companies.

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